3 Surprising Lessons a Major Nonprofit Learned When It Analyzed Its Advertising

Goodwill found digital outperformed all expectations

Nonprofits rarely have the luxury of big advertising budgets, and it's not often they get a chance to analyze whether their ads are working. But a new study may help shed some light on the kinds of ads that actually help drive donations.

Market research firm Millward Brown and the Ad Council recently set out to study the impact of a PSA campaign for Goodwill. The Ad Council, which relies on donated time and space from media partners, received more than $94 million in donated support for the Goodwill campaign, running from September 2013 to April 2015 and resulting in 363 million pounds of donations.

The research wanted to determine whether changing the nonprofit's mix of TV, digital, print and radio advertising could increase donations, said Ellyn Fisher, svp of public relations and social media at the Ad Council.

With such valuable data, Goodwill could make sure it was focusing on the right kinds of ads in future campaigns.

Here are three surprising lessons that came out of the study: 

1. Digital only made up 5 percent of the media, but drove 49 percent of donations

Looking at Goodwill's donations generated by the ad campaign—which was created by Saatchi & Saatchi pro bono—Millward Brown's model showed that 49 percent, or roughly 177 million pounds, came as a direct result of digital advertising, even though digital only made up 5 percent of the media donated for the campaign.

Local TV ads (or spot TV), which made up 69 percent of donated media, accounted for 121 million pounds (33 percent) of donations, while radio (11 percent of donations) and print (7 percent) brought in significantly less.

2. TV is still vital because of its scale

Fisher said the results clearly indicate that digital advertising had a larger-than-expected impact on donations, and that the national reach and targeting capabilities available online are most likely why. (In fact, if it were a traditional advertising campaign for a brand, the ROI of digital would have been more than 10 times that of any other media type.) 

According to Millward Brown's analysis, the Ad Council can increase donations to Goodwill by as much as 12 percent by upping its digital media support while keeping its levels of donated TV support relatively high.

"We wanted to balance the strong performance of digital with the overall scale provided by more traditional media types," Fisher said. "As a result, we still wanted to ensure TV had a strong level of support … while allowing digital to be increased."

3. The best media mix is a balanced one 

Ultimately, the Ad Council had to find what Fisher called the "ideal balance" between the reach and targeting of digital and the scale of the more traditional media types.

Once they figured out the pounds of donations coming from each type of media, Millward Brown helped the Ad Council figure how to optimize its media mix. The graphic on the right shows two ways it could boost donations—by 7 percent and 12 percent, respectively—according to the analysis.

"The intention behind the [enhanced and optimized mixes] was to help determine where we should be making asks of our media partners in order to further increase the impact of the campaign," Fisher said.

However, she cautioned that the study was specific to one ad campaign and not necessarily a road map for all nonprofits to follow. Still, it's a strategy the Ad Council, for its part, plans to use, and Fisher said there are potential lessons other nonprofits can take away from the work.

"With the evolution of social and digital media, there has never been a more exciting time for social causes," she said. "However, its important to do the research to identify the best opportunities to reach your audiences and achieve your goals."

Kim Zimmer, CMO and svp of global development at Goodwill Industries International, lauded the Ad Council for "[providing] a national platform for Goodwill to reach more people and achieve greater impact."

Here's one of the TV spots from the campaign:

Read more about how creativity and tech are fueling today's nonprofits in Adweek's Cause Marketing Report.