Sanky Blog

Online Fundraising: Helpful Tips on Search Engine Advertising

December 2nd, 2008

By Harry Lynch & Paul Habig

“If you build it, they will come” may be a fitting slogan for the Taj Mahal or a new Yankee Stadium. But if you’re hoping to get a flood of visitors (a.k.a. prospective donors) to your brand new website, and jumpstart your online fundraising program, you’ve got some work to do. Have you thought of buying search engine ads?

In our October 20 article on search engine optimization (SEO), we discussed the various techniques and strategies for getting your website listed prominently – and for free – on Google, Yahoo and other major search engines. But if you’re chomping at the bit to leverage the tremendous power of search engines right now and don’t want to wait a few months for your SEO efforts to yield results, then you might want to consider pay-per-click advertising—also known as search engine marketing (SEM).

This online marketing technique involves placing a bid with a search engine company on keywords that relate to your mission or cause (i.e., mission specific keywords). All you need to do is create a very short ad with the goal of enticing surfers to click on it so they are brought to your website. If you bid enough money for your keywords of choice, your ad will appear on the top or upper right hand corner of a search engine webpage in the “sponsored links” section. The ad will appear when a web user opens Yahoo or Google and searches using words related to your organization’s listed keywords.

This seemingly simple advertising method has made Yahoo a household name and Google a multi-billion dollar enterprise. If you’ve already tried it, you probably know how easy it is to get started. And with productive keywords and phrases often up for grabs for bids of as little as 30 to 50 cents per click, a comprehensive SEM campaign test can be launched for just a few thousand dollars. But what you also may have learned the hard way is that it’s easy to spend a lot of money fast—with little or no results to show for your efforts.

Here are just a few tips that can help to dramatically improve the impact of your search engine investment:

Consider bidding on phrases rather than single words. After all, single words associated with your organization—whether they be “art,” “cancer,” “homelessness,” “children,” etc. – are likely to be wildly expensive (due to competition) and too broad to be used by quality web traffic that is really interested in your organization. On the other hand, phrases such as “breast cancer research,” “homelessness in Ohio,” and “helping children Missouri” – are likely to be much more affordable and bring you more targeted visitors.

Transparency with your ad copy works best. If you’re using search engine marketing for online fundraising, create an ad that is transparent and clearly states the “ask.” Ads that are too clever or that deceive the user will depress conversion rates and drive down the return on the dollar. Be sure to include the keyword or phrase in your ad, if you can.

Create a special webpage for your ad. If the link imbedded in your ad takes your visitors to your homepage or generic donation form, chances are that you’re not doing everything you can to “close the deal.” In most cases, it pays to create a special “landing page” that reinforces the original keyword or phrase the user was searching for. Try designing a unique webpage with custom graphics that tie into the ad, and limit the number of links on the page. The most productive fundraising landing pages only link to the donation form.

Test, test, test! Unlike most other direct marketing methods, search engine advertising allows for quick changes with real-time results. If your ad isn’t performing well, try tweaking the wording, bidding on different keywords, and changing your bid prices. For better or worse, you’ll know your results almost instantly – and can make further adjustments as necessary.

Remember that Google isn’t the only game in town. While Google now handles a significant majority of Internet searches, Yahoo (and to a much lesser degree MSN and still handle a high volume of searches and offer their own “pay-per-click” ad networks. While you won’t see nearly the volume you will on Google, Yahoo in particular is a good supplement (and in some cases alternative) to a Google campaign. Using Yahoo, some organizations experience a lower cost-per-click, higher “click” rates and better donor response for less money.

Switch gears before you give up. Some nonprofits are indeed able to cost-effectively acquire brand new donors via the Internet through the purchase of search engine ads. If your own success has been limited, consider switching gears and exploring a campaign to build your email list instead of trying to acquire donors upfront. Particularly if your e-newsletter is of general interest, and the “offer” in your ad is for a “free e-newsletter,” your response rate is likely to improve dramatically and you will bring on subscriber/prospects who can be cultivated over time.

Apply for a Google Grant. If you’re a 501(c)(3) and your budget and resources are limited, a good way to get started is to apply for a Google Grant for free keyword advertising. While there are some limitations to what the grant will bring to you, tapping into a Google Grant is infinitely better than doing nothing. To learn more about Google Grants, go to

Making efficient use of search engine ads can bring you closer to your goal for website traffic—without breaking the bank.

Harry Lynch is the CEO of Sanky Communications, and Paul Habig is the director of internet services for SankyNet, both based in New York City.