Nonprofits: A/B Testing in Digital Marketing

We know that digital marketing best practices for nonprofits can be even more complicated to implement than their for-profit counterparts. The standards evolve every year. It takes tremendous resources to understand the changes. Not to mention, you also need support from the larger organization to make any necessary changes. Plus, find space in the budget for any new channels. For many, it’s more practical to stick with what’s always been done in your digital marketing so you can move on to the rest of your growing to-do list. 

But, the stakes are too high now. Nonprofits that ignore the changes in donor expectations risk their digital marketing efforts failing altogether. Your growth will be stunted, and worse, your beneficiaries won’t get the aid they need. 

There is good news. Most of the digital marketing best practices for nonprofits are driven by donor data. One of the easiest ways to collect donor data and learn to identify trends that make your marketing materials more effective is through a comprehensive A/B testing program. If you don’t know where to start, start here. 

What Is A/B Testing? 

Simply put, A/B testing is an experiment with two variables. In digital marketing, the test (and the variables) will tell you something about donor preferences. For example, let’s say that you are $1,000 behind your monthly fundraising goal. You have one week to make up the difference in order to stay on track, so you plan to call 200 people. To half of the group, you talk about how successful you’ve been throughout the year. You offer compelling stats, milestone dates and other important facts. Then, you ask them to keep the momentum going towards your next milestone and give $10. 

The second half of the group gets a different phone call. You talk to them about one beneficiary. You tell your donors about the last letter you received from them, how they talked about an easier, fuller life because of the impact your donors made. Then, you ask your donors to keep the momentum going for people like this beneficiary and give $10. 

At the end of the week, compare the results. How much money was raised when your team offered compelling numbers vs. the amount raised when your team talked about the people who are affected by your work? 

That’s an A/B test. The ask was the same, the audience was the same, the time of the phone calls were the same. The only difference was how you framed the question. From that difference, you can better understand what is more motivating to your donor base. So, next time you’re running a digital marketing campaign, you can lead with the winning theme to increase generosity. 

Why Should Your Nonprofit Use A/B Testing?

Perhaps, you already know what A/B testing is. You use it sometimes, but aren’t consistent or you don’t always have time to be thoughtful about your variables. You’re not alone. Many organizations test email subject lines, and that’s the extent of it. We’re here to tell you, that is not enough. Without A/B testing, you are putting your donor relationships (and fundraising opportunities) at risk. 

Digital marketing for nonprofits, and specifically A/B testing, isn’t just about effective fundraising — although that is important. It’s also about using every channel you have to learn from and respond to your donors to grow your organization holistically. 

Remember, your donors are constantly changing. Your organization is changing. The context is new every time you engage with them. To be the most efficient in everything from digital marketing to doing more good in the world, you’ve got to listen to what your donors are telling you. A/B testing gives you daily opportunities to listen to, connect with and cater to your donors. It’s more than a digital marketing best practice — it’s a best practice for making real impact in the world. 

A/B Testing Examples

A/B testing is also more than subject lines or photos. You can create comprehensive, meaningful testing strategies to elevate everything from your email, print and even face-to-face engagements. Here are some examples you can easily incorporate right now. 


The type of messaging you deliver to your donors will offer the most comprehensive understanding of what resonates most with your donors. In digital marketing, messaging refers to the driver behind what you’re saying. For example, “90% of your network is already donating” leverages your donors’ need to feel included to inspire generosity. And something like “12 children go hungry every minute” uses donors’ compassion. 

Testing different messaging, especially during different stages of the donor journey, will teach you so much about what your donors respond to, how they relate to your organization and how they connect to your community at large. Of all the available digital marketing tactics, A/B tests of different messaging will give your organization the most meaningful data to respond to. 

Try testing  messaging around urgency, relationships, values and accomplishments for all of your donor segments. Try different messaging on people who haven’t yet given to your organization but are subscribed to your newsletter to see what motivates them to make their first act of generosity the fastest. You can also consider tests around messaging to lapsed donors to understand what brings them back into your organization. 

A variety of tests will give you more comprehensive information and a smarter strategy for your digital marketing efforts moving forward. 

Email Marketing

Email marketing for nonprofits is the best place to start with A/B testing because it gives you immediate feedback and clear data. The potential for learning and responding to your donor’s behavior is huge. 

You can try testing the basics first, to understand the best way to get in front of your donors. Try testing: 

  • Send Time: Are you donors engaged in the morning or at night? 
  • Sender: Do donors want to receive emails from one person or your organization?
  • Personalization: Do your donors want to see their name in the subject line? 

Once you understand the preference of your audience segments for these high-level tests. Dig a little deeper to test: 

  • Focus: Do donors want all the information at once or quick notes more frequently?
  • Multimedia: Do donors respond to text only or do they want photos and videos? 
  • Layout: Do your donors want content first or your generosity request first? 
  • Content: What are the topics that get the biggest reaction? 

Of course, there are more ways to test your email marketing. The point is to always test something every time you send an email to your donor base. 

Digital Advertising

Digital advertising, like email marketing, provides information at a granular level that can teach you a lot about your donors, and give you plenty of opportunities to respond in a meaningful way to their behavior. 

If you’ve never run a/b testing in your digital ads, here are the basics to cover first. 

  • Creative: Do donors want to see beneficiaries or your team at work? Would they prefer video or photos? 
  • Calls-to-Action: Do your donors click more on Donate or Learn More? What else might motivate them to click? 
  • Length: Do quick headlines work better than long stories on your ads? 

With that information, go for more nuanced information. Test: 

  • Language: Do donors respond to “you” language or do they prefer third-person language? 
  • Focus: Are donors motivated to act when they are put at the center of the change being made or do they respond better when the cause is the focus?
  • Channel: What kind of donors respond best to each channel? Do older donors click through on social advertising more than search engine results pages? Or is that how younger donors behave?

Keep an eye on both clicks and conversions as you test different digital ads. You want to make sure that you’re responding correctly to the audience that takes meaningful action, whether that means subscribing to your newsletter, volunteering or giving money. 

Giving Pages

Giving pages are the final barrier before a person gives to your nonprofit. Because of their critical position in your donor journey, you should constantly test and optimize them. Train your team to tune into what your donors behavior is telling you. Every element on the donation page should encourage generosity based on that donor’s specific motivations. It should be personal, engaging and simple for them to use. 

If you want to understand your donors’ preferences on giving pages, here are some tests you could run: 

  • Content: Do donors want one last chance to learn about your mission or do they just want a form to fill out? 
  • Layout: Where is your donation form located on your page? Where do donors want it to be?
  • Form Fields: How many fields to fill out is too many on your donation form? More importantly, would people rather only give their name and payment info? Or do they like adding personal information about why they care? 

More advanced tests for your donation pages might include: 

  • Requests: Do donors prefer to pick a single donation amount or do they like you to give them a few options? Do they give more if they can add their own amount in without any prompting? 
  • Share Buttons: Do donors promote your cause to their social networks if given the opportunity? What content do they share most often? 
  • Personalization: Do donors give more if you add personal elements to the page, like last give date or total giving? Or do they give more if the content is focused on the beneficiaries? 

Your team can get creative about the ways you test and the metrics you track. That’s part of the fun of being a digital marketer! Just remember that each test you set up should tell you something you didn’t know about your donors and should illuminate a meaningful next step for your organization to connect with them in a more meaningful way next time. 

What you should do now

Below are three ways we can help you begin your journey to building more personalized fundraising with responsive technology.

See the Virtuous platform in action.  Schedule a call with our team for personalized answers and expert advice on transforming your nonprofit with donor management software.

Download our free Responsive Maturity Model and learn the 5 steps to more personalized donor experiences.

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