The Soi Dog Foundation has seen regular donor numbers skyrocket from an innovative online campaign using social media, e-mail and banner ad re-marketing, Liz Henderson discovers.

It’s accepted among fundraisers that social media isn’t a great place to find new donors, and you can’t recruit volumes of regular givers online. Those beliefs have been debunked by a small Thailand-based charity, the Soi Dog Foundation.

Since last October, an innovative, ongoing three-step campaign has raised immediate revenue of over $1.6 million (and counting) for the charity and signed on a host of regular givers through Facebook, to help end the dog meat trade. “Regular givers, the last time I counted, the number was 3,140,” says Leonard Coyne, chairman of Soi Dog’s Advisory Board. “They have been coming in at 25 or 30 a day.”

The platform for growth

The impetus for the Soi Dog campaign came in late 2014. Although eating dogs and stealing pets was illegal in Thailand, the charity felt tougher governance and greater community involvement were needed.

“Soi Dog has an extremely ambitious strategy,” says Coyne, a digital marketer based in Australia who volunteered to help with fundraising in 2010 after being a Soi Dog donor for several years. “It’s to expand throughout South East Asia and eradicate rabies from the region by 2020 – the ultimate objective being that there are no more homeless dogs and the dog meat trade is ended.”

For several years Coyne had run Facebook and e-mail campaigns, successfully recruiting activists and donors – cash and regular – for Soi Dog. “For these small not-for-profits based in developing countries, that is about your only option,” he says. “You don’t have much of a local base to fundraise with. It is digital or die.”

Ironically, being a small organisation with no overseas affiliates made it easier for Soi Dog – which has registered as a charity in Australia, Holland, America, France and the UK, as well as in Thailand – to fundraise internationally online.

By 2012 the organisation was raising around $400,000 a year (annual income today is 15 times higher). In 2013, Soi Dog enlisted Judi Dench, Ricky Gervais and three Downton Abbey actors, who featured in a video (https://savedogs.soidog.org/) that along with gaining media coverage and an online buzz, helped drive signatures on a petition to stop Thailand’s dog meat trade.

Creating a campaign that would win, and win and win

These successes won the approval of Soi Dog’s board to invest in a larger-scale, more targeted digital campaign to recruit regular givers. Soi Dog called on Pareto Fundraising to help, building on a professional partnership that started after the consultancy’s co-founder and director Sean Triner – like Coyne – had donated to Soi Dog.

Three steps were decided on to move people to pledge a monthly gift. “It was going to be multi-channel engagement – and by that I mean e-mail, social media and digital banner ad re-targeting – transitioning people from activism through a cash phase to becoming a regular financial supporter,” Coyne explains. A unique selling proposition (USP) was devised for each stage, showing what action would accomplish. Then powerful creative was designed to support each USP. “The dog meat trade is a unique and a highly emotive area,” points out Coyne. “Soi Dog is actually on the ground doing something, achieving headway, and that comes through in our collateral. It’s authentic.”

Delivery of communications was automated, with multiple triggers. Defining these was complex. “Soi Dog has a number of regular giving products,” says James Herlihy, digital strategist at Pareto Fundraising, “so if someone had signed the petition and was already giving to another product, what journey were they on? Or if they were already a cash donor, what then? So we tossed all those questions around then refined them into business rules.”

Another key consideration was how to optimise the online advertising results and budget. To achieve optimal return on investment, metrics are still being regularly analysed – looking at things like audience saturation, if creative is fatiguing, and the demographic/psychographic characteristics of people who are converting – and the campaign is adjusted accordingly.

What worked

1. Continually reinvesting in the campaign helped snowball results: Unlike “linear” direct mail, with digital “you can be measuring your results every six hours if you want, to figure out what is working and where your dollar is really coming from,” notes Coyne, “and then you can spend more in those areas where you’re winning.”

2. Shifting activists to cash donors with a tied ask: Pareto Fundraising’s Herlihy believes a key to success was asking petition signers to buy a billboard to inform Thai communities of the problem. This gave signers the instant reward of feeling they had done something concrete on the ground – at a small enough price point ($25) to not discourage action.

Over 32,000 new cash and regular donors

Of over $1.67 million received in cash donations so far, $500,000 came in the first five weeks. Not only has the campaign raised lots of money – it has achieved its goal of practically stopping the dog meat trade. Thousands of billboards have been paid for and erected on streets in northern Thailand. Meanwhile public pressure has pushed the Thai government to rush through the country’s first ever Animal Welfare Bill.

Petition signatures had topped 1.4 million by May 1, towards an ever-revised target of 1.75 million. Over 96,000 were from Australia and 18,600 were from New Zealand – 32% of whom chose to leave their phone numbers on the petition landing page and 60% opted in to receive e-mails (overall there were over 680,000 new e-mail subscribers).

The automated e-mail journey converted another 3,547 to regular giving. Overall cost per acquisition was less than $100 per donor.

Meanwhile prompt telephone follow-up by Pareto Phone to Australians and New Zealanders who had given their phone number achieved a response rate of around 10% to acquire 1,236 new regular givers.

In total, Soi Dog has gained over 32,000 new donors and the influx has brought its total number of regular givers to over 13,985 making an average donation of $24.99 a month to treat, feed, shelter and nurse the thousands of rescued dogs back to health.

What is up next?

To build on the amazing engagement and support won by the campaign – and save as many dogs as possible – the organisation is now planning to implement a best-practice donor care program with help from Pareto Fundraising. “Prior to the campaign, Soi Dog was already overdue for taking a more strategic approach to donor lifetime value,” says Coyne. “It is now a necessity.”

Tackling the challenges

1. Staying on top of the technical stuff:Coyne says, “Soi Dog occasionally made mistakes like stopping an e-mail queue or triggering it when we shouldn’t. We also found coding errors during our pre-launch testing.” Coding errors are no surprise in web development and Coyne recommends organisations “really run through this stuff and test thoroughly: you really have to do through usage scenarios prior to taking the site live.”

2. Adjusting to Facebook changes: At one point, “Facebook decided to fundamentally change a lot of elements of how their advertising environment worked, which had adverse effects on what we’d done in prior months,” Coyne reveals. “The changes we made ended up getting even higher returns on investment but we were talking about massive midstream re-architecting of the advertising strategy.”

3. Trying to tame the Facebook beast: “Running an effective Facebook advertising campaign has a complexity level of 25 with 10 being highest!” says Coyne. “That is great because that is why you can get an exceptional return on investment but it is a heck of a learning curve.”

Not becoming a victim of success: With such a wide-scale response, “The challenge of simply doing the administrative processing of donations received was daunting,” says Coyne. “This was addressed via allocating additional resource to the task at hand and briefly postponing less urgent matters. Fortunately Soi Dog had by coincidence recently hired a few additional staff before the start of campaign.”

Caption: Women in traditional dress stand in front of billboards in Thai and Laos alerting people to the dog meat trade:

Soi Dog Billboard
Caption: To not reinvent the wheel, this existing Soi Dog petition was used as the campaign’s first step:

Soi Dog Petition - Save Dogs

Caption: A high-performing animated banner ad from the campaign.

Soi Dog Animated Banner Ad

Liz Henderson is editor of Fundraising & Philanthropy Magazine.

All dollar amounts in this article are in Australian dollars and figures are accurate at May 1

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