How Data Fuels Feeding America

It takes more than great marketing to increase awareness of the issue of hunger

By Michael J. McDermott

Courtesy of Feeding America

Feeding America, the 2019 recipient of the ANA Nonprofit Federation's Nonprofit Organization of the Year Award, is focused on helping the 37 million people — including 11 million children — who struggle with hunger in the United States. It is the nation's largest network of food banks, serving every community across the country and leading the way in hunger research.

To achieve its goals as a nonprofit organization, it relies on many of the same marketing strategies and tools that for-profit enterprises use, especially data, but with some notable differences.

"Awareness is something that is always a challenge," says Cathy Davis, chief marketing and communications officer at Feeding America. "The [nature of the] competition is different, too. You are not competing for sales of a product, but rather for dollars to make a positive impact in the community."

Davis acknowledges that it can be difficult to get individuals to care about millions of people struggling with hunger. "But if we can get enough people to care about someone in need — their neighbor, friend, classmate, etc. — then together we can have a huge impact," she says. Her primary challenge in achieving that goal is "to develop a marketing campaign that helps people understand the issue, and data is a part of every decision we make in those efforts."

In some ways, being a marketer at a nonprofit is not all that different from being one at a for-profit organization, says Elizabeth Nielsen, SVP of digital and direct marketing at Feeding America. "It's critical to understand your audience and what motivates them," she notes. "Then you must leverage those audience attributes to develop persuasive, creative marketing messages, so certainly those same principles apply."

However, while marketers in the for-profit sector are looking to drive purchase decisions for products or services, nonprofits like Feeding America are trying to persuade individuals to make charitable donations in exchange for the good feeling that comes from giving back and supporting a cause they care about. "In some ways it's similar, but in other ways it can be a little different," Nielsen says. "And sometimes it's harder, because the value exchange is a bit ephemeral."

Feeding America works with a variety of partners in its efforts to make hunger in America unacceptable, including its network of food banks, policymakers, donors, corporations, and the general public. When it comes to marketing, however, individual donors are its primary target.

"Our marketing efforts are focused on the charitable-giving public, and our goal is to drive awareness of the issue of hunger in America, to mobilize people to support our cause," Nielsen says. "The end result we're after is persuading people to become donors to the organization."

Building awareness of the issue of hunger is an important goal, but it's not enough. Feeding America's marketing needs to spark empathy for those struggling with hunger in the people it targets, particularly new supporters. Audience research and storytelling are its critical tools.

"Telling the story of an individual and her family can be much more impactful than speaking about the millions of people who are struggling with hunger," Nielsen says. "Making sure our marketing campaigns deliver on building that emotional connection with a potential supporter is critical."

In the United States, 72 billion pounds of food ends up in landfills and incinerators each year. Feeding America works with farmers, manufacturers, and restaurants to rescue food before it gets to the landfill and puts it into the hands of people in need. Feeding America/YouTube

With a 20-year career in digital and direct marketing, Nielsen thinks this is "a pretty cool time" to be a marketer. "Certainly, marrying that direct and digital experience to upper‑funnel brand marketing is exciting," she says. "Data is part of every decision we're making with our marketing effort, and we need to match effective and insightful creative with that data."

Nielsen's team focuses on making sure marketing campaigns and assets are built around great qualitative and quantitative data derived from audience insights and specific to the objectives of each campaign or asset designed to meet the organization's goals. Then it tracks performance against the relevant metrics. If the objective is awareness, for example, it may look at reach and impressions. If the objective is engagement through social or email, it might focus on clicks. When conversion is the objective, lead generation, number of donors, and/or revenue may be tracked.

Measurement is not an end unto itself, though, and using data to drive continuous improvement is a primary marketing strategy for Feeding America's marketing team. "KPIs on campaigns or marketing initiatives are one thing," Nielsen says. "But we also rely on data for our strategizing and annual planning processes."

Using industry benchmarks or program data as a baseline, Nielsen sits down with her team to decide where they have the most opportunity for improvement in the coming year. They focus on finding ways to move the program forward and to become more efficient and effective in reaching their goals for generating revenue and increasing awareness around the issue of hunger.


Using Data to Drive Conversion

Against the backdrop of increased channel proliferation and marketing fragmentation, for example, the team prioritizes improving performance of its web-based marketing assets. They realized that visitors who go directly to the donation form had high conversion to becoming donors (a proxy for the sales conversion process on an e-commerce site). The conversion rate for visitors accessing the donation form was "very strong," Nielsen reports, "but we realized an area where we had a big opportunity for improvement was in getting more people to the form." Nielsen and her team wanted to drive more potential donors from Feeding America's content pages to its donation form.

Feeding America leverages data and aspects of its constituent journey (akin to the buyer's journey in the B2C or B2B space) to increase traffic to the donor form page. Additionally, it surveyed some marketing research and discovered that consumers expected a web page to load in two seconds or less.

"We had some room for improvement with our download time, so we executed a test to understand what changing to a faster technology platform might do for us," Nielsen says. That data enabled her team to build a business case that the improvements generated by changing the platform would pay for itself within a year and begin generating positive ROI.

The payoff exceeded expectations. "Not only did the site speed increase and donor conversion improve, we also saw significant improvement in our organic search results and in the quality scores from the domain authority for our website," she says. "Cultivating the right creative insights and overlaying the right creative assets are also important, of course, but leveraging technology and data really helped us drive improved conversion metrics."


Brand Tracking for Strategic Insights

Data plays an important role in higher-level strategic marketing at Feeding America, as well. "We regularly monitor how charitable givers perceive Feeding America with a traditional brand-tracking study," Davis says. In addition to measuring aided and unaided awareness, it tracks people's intent to support the organization through actions such as donating, advocating, volunteering, or participating. It looks at brand characteristics such as emotional connection with the mission, innovativeness, trust in the organization, and perception that donations are a good investment. It also measures "passion for hunger" and other metrics around the issue.

Ultimately, marketing is accountable for delivering charitable-giving revenue to Feeding America, and hundreds of thousands of donors contribute to it every year. "Meeting that revenue goal within the allocated expenses is my No. 1 priority," Nielsen says. "That said, the intent-to-support metric is really key to us. It gives us a lens into the future — not just telling us what people have done, but providing insight into those individuals who are interested in supporting the organization and, more importantly, supporting the cause. Just as it is for a for-profit brand, it's really important that we understand our audience's perception of us and where we're doing well, where we need to improve."

A local library provides children and teenagers like Emily, depicted here, with healthy snacks through Feeding America. Feeding America/YouTube

To be sure, nonprofit marketers face many of the same day-to-day challenges as their counterparts in the for-profit sector. Keeping pace with technology and the need for more investment in marketing resources are two big ones.

"The fragmentation of the marketing landscape, the emergence of new platforms and technologies, AI, ML, keeping track of which media units are working and which aren't, changing cost models — all these things impact nonprofits just like they impact for-profits," Nielsen says.

One challenge specific to the nonprofit sector is "cause fatigue." With so many worthwhile causes to support — environment, health, education, to name a few — it becomes more difficult to capture and maintain the attention of future supporters. Feeding America is looking to data for an answer here as well.

"Targeting the right audiences is one tool for meeting that challenge," Nielsen says. "We have to establish that impactful and emotional connection through good creative messaging. Then we have to stay relevant and connect our organization and our issue to the cultural moments that are out there. That way, when the media cycle does turn our way, we'll be ready to connect to the conversation in a way that makes sense and is impactful, related, and authentic to our mission."



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