May/June 2006

How can search engine marketing help our nonprofit organization get the word out about our mission?

by Gaea Connary, Internet Marketing Manager, Convio and David Crooke, Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Convio

Search engine marketing, or SEM, involves posting advertisements in search engine paid listings based on selected keyword phrases to drive visitors to a Web site. SEM also is referred to as pay-per-click, or PPC, advertising, because ad buyers pay only when a visitor actually clicks on their ad.

SEM may seem like a complex, expensive element of a nonprofit marketer's toolkit. But nonprofit professionals who are willing to spend a little time and money can reap great rewards through SEM campaigns.

The top SEM advertising programs are Google Adwords, Yahoo! Search Marketing and MSN adCenter. These vendors offer browser-based management tools that allow ad buyers to access and edit their campaigns at any time. For search engine visitors, ads usually appear to the right of the search engine results.

The importance of an SEM program

SEM is a form of advertising that nonprofits can use to capture new donors and other constituents, and to generate awareness of their organization and its mission. Compared with most types of advertising, SEM is fast, inexpensive and can have a strong return on investment. Entry costs are low, and ongoing expenses can be easily monitored and controlled. An organization simply needs to set a daily budget and a maximum amount to spend per click on the ad. One of the great advantages of this type of Internet advertising is that ad buyers will start seeing results almost immediately.

Consider this simple example: A Google AdWords account only costs $5 to activate. If a nonprofit marketer's ad gets 20 clicks in a day, at $0.30 a click, he has spent only $11. But if one of those clicks turns into a $20 donation, then he has generated more than 80 percent return on investment in just one day.

While SEM costs are on the rise, it is unlikely that nonprofit organizations will be competing against large companies with equally large marketing budgets when bidding on keywords. For nonprofit organizations that need financial assistance for their SEM campaigns, Google offers "Google Grants," an in-kind advertising program specifically for nonprofit organizations. (For more information, visit http://www.google.com/grants/.)

Creating an SEM campaign

While SEM campaigns can become somewhat complicated, nonprofits can get a basic campaign started with relatively little effort. Here are five basic steps for building an SEM campaign.

  1. Select keywords. Brainstorm the keywords and keyword phrases that a search engine visitor likely would use to describe what your organization provides. Also include plurals, variations (for example, "nonprofit" and "non-profit") and common misspellings. Avoid general, single-word keywords — you will get better qualified clicks on your ads and lower costs if you select specific phrases. There is no magic number for how many keywords to use, but you may want to limit your list to around 25 to get started while keeping costs in check.

  2. Categorize keywords. Group similarly-themed keywords into categories. This will make it easier for you to write ads that are targeted to each category as well as manage specific budgeting for that category.

  3. Write ads. SEM allows a minimal amount of space in which to convey a message — as little as 85 characters — so choose your words carefully. An effective tactic is to repeat your most important keywords within the title and body of the ad. This will help boost the relevance of the ad to the searcher, and it may help the ad move up the rankings in some paid listings. Consider what you want the searcher to do after they read the ad, and include that call to action in the ad copy.

  4. Create landing pages. The best way to measure SEM campaign success is to create unique landing pages for your SEM ad categories. This allows you to isolate the SEM traffic metrics and make incremental changes to the landing page for testing without affecting the rest of your Web site. Use the landing page to encourage constituents to sign up for your newsletter, register to volunteer or make an online donation, or to inform them about your organization. Make sure ad copy and the associated keyword phrase tie to your landing page copy.

  5. Pick a daily budget and keyword bid amounts. You will be setting a bid amount for each of your keywords or ad groups, as well as a daily maximum budget you are willing to spend. You may want to start small, for example $20 a day maximum, to get a sense of what longer term expenses might be. Your daily budget controls the frequency of your ad display and your bid amount controls what place your ad will rank in the list of ads.

Measure and test for continuous improvement

Google, Yahoo and MSN all offer comprehensive reports for SEM campaigns. As you monitor your campaign, here are some metrics to watch:

  1. Cost per click. If you want to move higher in the listings, you may need to increase your bids, but do not forget to consider how this will affect your daily budget. Also remember that with SEM, you pay per click, not per donation, so be sure to keep an eye on both when measuring return on investment.

  2. Daily budget. If you are constantly and quickly spending your daily budget, consider lowering your bids or removing poor-performing keywords or ad groups. If you simply lower your daily budget, you will decrease the frequency of appearance of all of your ads.

  3. Click-thru rate. This is the portion of viewers that clicks on your ad when they see it. If this number is very low — around 0.25 percent — you may be targeting the wrong keywords or you may need to re-write your ad copy.

  4. Cost per conversion. "Conversions" are the portion of site visitors that take a call-to-action you have targeted for your SEM campaign. If your cost per conversion is higher than the revenue you generate from the conversion (i.e., if the cost of acquiring a donor is higher than the donation amount they made), you may want to test changes to your landing page or lowering your click bids. You may decide, though, that you want to drive non-monetary actions such as email newsletter sign-ups. In that case, you should determine the long-term value of a sign-up to your organization and determine the cost per conversion you are willing to pay based on that value.

If you are dissatisfied with your SEM results, you can modify any of the campaign elements. Changes will take effect almost immediately, and you can start seeing results from your changes in just a few days.

For more information about SEM programs

For further reading

  • Search Engine Watch — Provides tips and information about searching the Web, analysis of the search engine industry and help to site owners trying to improve their ability to be found in search engines.
  • Inside Adwords — Google's AdWords blog, contains tips on getting the most from AdWords, links to articles you might find interesting and more.
  • PPC Advertising articles from Self SEO.


How can search engine marketing help our nonprofit organization get the word out about our mission? | Convio