6 things nonprofits can learn from e-commerce checkout pages (and apply to their Donation Pages)

Working to optimize web content with nonprofit organizations, I’m regularly asked to help improve donation page conversion rates. Clients usually want to know … What are the best practices? Do you have case studies on what converts well? Even though nonprofits do a lot more testing than in years past, published research on what “works” to lift donation page conversion rates is still fairly hard to find. That said, there’s plenty that charities can learn from optimization efforts on e-commerce checkout pages when it comes to improving the user experience for donors. Image1_C+B_Checkout_1_smallThere are a large number of commercial marketers who test everything—in order to maximize conversion on their websites. These companies (and the experts they hire) have identified common “conversion killers” on checkout pages via live testing and usability research. As a fundraiser, the key question you’re going to have while reading this is… How do I get more people through my online giving process to complete a donation? Let’s take a look at 6 tactics commercial marketers have identified from extensive testing on their checkout pages that improve conversion. These techniques are all easy to apply on web donation pages. (Insights described here are adapted from research conducted by the Baymard Institute). #1: Remove seemingly unnecessary steps Oftentimes, staff with no training in web usability gets involved in decisions about what to include on a donation page. For example, your development director may want to collect a lot of information about online donors during the giving process to put to use at a later time. The result is often “form field creep,” i.e. you get greedy and ask for too much information up front. Unnecessary steps and questions lengthen the giving process and irritate a portion of your potential donors, causing them to abandon the page without giving and lowering conversion. Below are examples of unnecessary steps I see required on many donation pages (along with the reason each can harm conversion):
  • Telephone number. People fear marketing calls, so it’s a deal breaker for some if their phone number is required.
  • Program designation. This assumes the donor is already familiar enough with your programs to easily make a choice, which isn’t true. The question unintentionally introduces difficulty into the giving process—and encourages the visitor to leave the page to figure out which program to select.
  • How did you hear about us? It requires the donor to stop and think (something you absolutely want to avoid on a donation page). Your aim is to make the process ridiculously easy and painless.
  • Comments. The user has no idea what you’re fishing for, but people feel compelled to enter something into a blank field—and may get hung up trying to figure out what to enter.
  • Tribute/honor gift fields displayed by default. At first glance few will notice that these fields are optional (because web users skim pages, they don’t read every word). As a result, lots of fields create the perception of a longer form and a more difficult process.
  • CAPTCHA puzzle. These are pure pain for the web user. Even thinking, breathing humans stumble when attempting to decipher those distorted number and letter combinations. If spam is a major problem on your website, find a skilled developer who can help you implement a solution that does not require your donors to perform difficult tasks. This article describes five front and back-end alternatives to CAPTCHA.
  • Multiple email list opt-ins. They require the donor to expend cognitive energy in studying and choosing between offers (another type of difficulty), and distract from the priority conversion goal of the page—giving.
Is your organization guilty of asking for too much? If any of the items above are included on your donation pages, stop and ask yourself if the information is valuable enough to sacrifice donations in order to get it. #2: Ask for name and billing address first, payment information last When arranging fields on a form, always put the easy stuff first. Based on Robert Cialdini’s behavioral psychology research and the six principles of influence, the principle of commitment and consistency means people are more likely to finish something once they’ve gotten started. For example, it’s much harder to abandon a book when you’ve already read 90% of it than when you’ve only read a few pages. Similarly, people are more likely to complete a form after they’re more than half-way through it—because they get invested in the activity. As such, it’s best to put the easy steps first, i.e. those that encounter little psychological resistance like name and address fields. Anxiety and fear are at their peak when donors enter sensitive information like their credit card number—so it’s best to put payment fields at the end, where they’re less likely to disrupt a donor’s progress. #3: Don’t ask for the same information twice Web users are very good at remembering if they’ve been asked to enter the same information multiple times—and get irritated when they must work harder than they feel they should. Because this happens most often on multi-step forms, it’s well worth examining your conversion funnel to eliminate any instances where you ask the donor to enter the same information more than once (e.g. gift amount, email address, contact/billing fields). Instead of creating extra work for the donor, auto-populate their initial entry in subsequent steps requiring that same piece of data. With respect to mobile, this can be especially frustrating given the difficulty most have filling out forms on small screens. On a mobile device the UX can be greatly enhanced by changing the order in which information is collected. Consider asking mobile users for their zip code prior to their street address, so that fields like city, state and country can auto-populate based on the zip code, thereby eliminating the need for users to make those entries. Image2_Mobile form_zip code first Keep in mind that if you decide to automate—it’s best to allow the user the option to override the output data, since there’s the chance that their zip code may not yield the correct information in all cases. #4: Avoid in-line form field labels Web designers (and some marketers) love in line labels because they make forms look so clean and polished. Image3_in-line FF exampleHowever, when form field labels appear inside the field itself they cause a lot of usability problems. This is because instructions disappear as soon as the user begins typing in the field. If the donor gets distracted for any reason (or merely loses their train of thought) they cannot recover the instructions without deleting their entry entirely and clicking outside of the field. The Baymard Institute has found that in-line labels contribute to a lot of form validation errors because even after the form is submitted the in-line labels still don’t get restored to help the user understand how to fix a problem. If error guidance is not highly targeted and specific, users get frustrated and typically abandon the transaction process right there. #5: Make entry errors easy to fix It’s incredibly frustrating when making a purchase or donation online to submit form and trigger a validation error with little or no guidance on how to fix it. We’ve all seen opaque (or even hostile) error messages displayed at the top of a form that give us no idea what exactly we did wrong: Image4_Bad_form error messagesThe unfortunate donor who receives this type of message is now thinking… Uggh, what did I do wrong? Good error language is both courteous and precise about which field is cause a problem—and requires a correction. Below are three best practices when designing error messages:
  1. Be nice. Avoid negative and critical words like “problem” or “failed.” No one wants to be scolded for making an error.
  2. Be helpful—and clear. Provide specific guidance to the user on how to resolve the problem, e.g. This entry cannot contain dashes or spaces. And always use plain language—not “developer speak.” This language is a form of customer service, so be sure that someone with good communication skills is in charge of writing it!
  3. Place the error message in close proximity to the field that triggered it, not at the top of the page. Encapsulation of the problem field in red can help it stand out better:
Image5_Field label error_encapsulation And while it’s not mandatory, you should consider offering phone support for especially high value conversions (like monthly giving) to ensure that problems can be remedied by human intervention as a last resort. #6: Make the page look secure Many web users are acutely concerned about the risk of credit card theft online. Because most web users have little familiarity with “https”, simply having a secure page is not enough to alleviate their concerns. While donor anxiety about page security cannot be eliminated entirely, you can lessen its impact with targeted and timely reassurances. The best remedy is a visible indication that your site is secure, i.e. a recognized security seal located in close proximity to anxiety-producing steps (payment information fields). Security seals have far less benefit if they’re not easily noticed by web users while they’re completing payment fields. Besides locating the seal near to where donors enter sensitive information, encapsulation of payment fields (i.e. boxing them off with a distinct background color) is another technique that visually reinforces to the donor that their information will be secure: Image6_encapsulate_payment fields Finally, there’s some evidence that widely recognized seals like Norton-VeriSign, McFee, and TRUSTe appear to confer a greater benefit than lesser known providers. Brand awareness likely increases web users’ trust in these particular seals. Image7_Trust_seals_consumer confidence Conclusion These six techniques test-driven on e-commerce checkout pages are well worth trying to improve conversions on your web donation pages. How you apply them will depend in part on your current practice—as well as how flexible and customizable your donation forms are. Regardless of which techniques you use, remember that optimizing donation pages (or any other web page) for conversion is not a “one-off” exercise, it’s an ongoing process of testing, learning and application. Web conventions, user expectations, and visitor needs are constantly evolving, and your important landing pages need to be, too.
photo-thumbnail-dawnDawn Stoner is Mal Warwick | Donordigital’s Director of Analytics & Testing and works with clients to help them increase online revenues with web usability best practices and landing page testing. Dawn speaks regularly about testing and optimization at industry conferences and publishes papers highlighting what’s working and not working with our testing clients.

Nepal Earthquakes Spur Humanitarian and Fundraising Response

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Photo Credit: International Medical Corps

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, and 7.3-magnitude earthquake that followed on May 12, have rocked the country to its foundation and spurred a strong humanitarian and fundraising response from across the world.  Over 8,000 people have died and more than 17,000 have been injured in the quakes, as families and officials struggle to house and feed a traumatized population. Two Mal Warwick | Donordigital clients sprang into action to raise money from their supporters to fund urgent humanitarian relief efforts.   AmeriCares and International Medical Corps sent out email appeals and social media updates to their supporters. Speed of communications requesting donations is critical as a means to engage potential supporters, particularly during a time of high media coverage of unfolding events. AmeriCares is supporting international medical teams on the ground in Nepal helping earthquake survivors. The teams include a special surgical group from India performing more complex surgeries on badly injured survivors. International Medical Corps deployed staff and resources as quickly as possible to support relief efforts and is operating Mobile Medical Units (MMUs) in remote areas near the epicenter and has expanded to reach the hardest-hit communities, often only accessible by helicopter.  

Making the most of your year-end fundraising campaigns

AMC_YE2013-Lbox3-Calendar_FINALIt’s September, and the Year-End season still seems a long way away. Even if you aren’t quite ready to start your holiday shopping for family and friends, you should start planning your organization’s Year-End fundraising strategy today.  Nearly 30% of ALL charitable giving occurs during the last month of the year, and most of that comes within the last few days of December. So make sure you are primed and prepared to make the most of it! Many clients ask us “when is the best time to send our Year-End fundraising appeals in the mail and online? Is October too early? Is December too late?” The short answer is that there is no cut-and-dry timetable—but it seems that organizations are starting to send their Year-End appeals earlier and earlier. Just recently, one of my colleagues received what appeared to be a holiday fundraising appeal in her mail, complete with pictures of Santa Claus and snowflakes on the outer envelope. August is probably too early for your Year-End fundraising to hit households. Once you’ve looked at your organization-wide mailing schedule for the last 2-3 months of the year and decided on the best timing for your Year-End appeal and follow-up (yes, we recommend a follow-up!), then think about the fundraising goals you want to accomplish during this Year-End season and how you will achieve them. Are you aiming to increase your income by a certain percentage over last year? Or is it more important to increase the average gift or upgrade a specific number of donors? Likely it’s a combination! Once you know your goals, you will need to think of tactics that will help you reach them – such as incorporating a matching gift offer or including a premium. Next, take a look at the testing you’ve conducted throughout the year in the mail and online. Any test that successfully boosted your response rate or your average gift is probably worth rolling out in Year-End to maximize your response. Like many organizations, your main goal is probably to get as much money as possible in the door before December 31. In that case, skip the hard press for monthly sustainer sign-ups and focus on one-time gifts.  But, if recruiting new sustainers is a top priority for your organization right now and you don’t mind sacrificing some Year-End revenue for the sake of long-term income, then sustainer recruitment promotions on your website could be some of your best tools at Year-End. Your Year-End appeals are a great opportunity to upgrade your current donors to higher levels of giving, since many are generous during the season of giving. Think about which donor segments you can target for upgrade asks to your mid-level giving group. Add an aspirational gift amount on the reply ask string. Or, consider offering a back-end premium for donors when they increase their commitment to your organization. Don’t let your Year-End mailing get out the door without careful consideration for a coordinated online fundraising strategy. Your fundraising emails can mirror the message in your direct mail piece to create a cohesive campaign. For online donors who were also sent a direct mail piece, it’s a good idea to add a message at the top of the email with a note saying “we wanted to follow-up with you” or “did you get our appeal in the mail.”  Put special consideration into how you select your email audience so you can target donors with email addresses on file that recently got your appeal in the mail. For your website, there are some very simple and effective ways to drive more visitors to your donation page. Adding a Lightbox to your homepage for the month of December is a proven technique to raise money online at Year-End. On December 31 and the days leading up to it, consider redirecting all your homepage traffic to your donation page so that any visitor to the website automatically lands on your donation page. This tactic may seem a bit extreme, but if your leadership is serious about raising as much money as possible during the last days of the calendar year, then it’s worth trying, if even for just one day. A lot of our clients ask us these days about #GivingTuesday, and whether or not it’s worth participating in as part of a Year-End strategy. 2014 will mark the third annual #GivingTuesday online event to raise awareness about charitable giving through social media and online sources. While still a young program, the money raised on #GivingTuesday has steadily increased year-over-year. Compared with your other Year-End efforts, #GivingTuesday likely won’t generate nearly as much income as your direct mail or emails. But if you don’t want to leave any stone unturned, you should consider participating.  Make sure you assemble a strong group of volunteers who will be dedicated to spreading the word about your cause on #GivingTuesday. For further reading, I recommend: Sabrina Sutton Naylor is an Account Manager for Mal Warwick | Donordigital and is based in Washington, DC. She manages mail fundraising projects for Ocean Conservancy, and International Medical Corps.