Environmental NGOs and Online Marketing


Monday, November 5th, 2012

:: Case Studies, Web Trends

One of the things I do here at Upaknee is to track trends in email marketing and social media. For that reason, I am subscribed to various e-newsletters, published by organizations ranging from major corporations, through small businesses, to local charities. And I am always astounded by the quality and creactivity of email newsletters I receive from environmental non-for-profits. For some reason I am always prompted to read them in full – whether it is the design or the content.

One of such organizations is LEAF, a Toronto-based environmental organization. I signed up to their emails because I love trees (yes I do). But I was pleasantly surprised at their social media and email marketing efforts. And so I invited Matt Higginson, the person who takes care of LEAF’s communications, for a beer where I asked him about his job: 

What is LEAF and what’s your role in the organization?

LEAF (Local Enhancement & Appreciation of Forests) is an environmental non-for-profit that works on urban forest issues. It was established in 1996, and started off with residential tree planting on a pretty small scale. After a few years we started to organize educational activities. Now LEAF takes care of the entire picture: planting, stewardship, awareness and education.

I’m the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at LEAF, and I’ve been with the organization for 3 years. Before I arrived there wasn’t a marketing team, so much as a single person handling marketing and communications. And before her, there wasn’t anyone dedicated to that area. For a long time it was a really small operation, but then there was a period of this explosive growth. Because we’re focusing on the urban forest I feel that right now is good time for us. People are starting to recognize it and see the value. There’s more conversation and dialogue about creating more green space and how we interact in an urban environment. A lot of this is how our cities have grown, but also developments in the digital spaces we connect through.

How important is online marketing to your organization, compared to traditional methods of marketing?

Matt Higginson

When I started, we were just carving out what marketing meant for the organization. There was the traditional– – press releases, interviews, and general media relations. But, we wanted to build our audience, keep them engaged and not just keep preaching to the converted. And that’s how we came to digital communications. We wanted to tap into wider communities and find people who would not otherwise be familiar with the issues we wanted to promote.

LEAF has always been great at face to face interactions. But something got lost when we’d try to distil it in a one page release. It wasn’t the same language or tone. We weren’t reaching people the way I knew we could. Social media allowed us to tell our stories in a more full way.

Digital communications need to work together as a blend with the traditional counterpart. It needs to become a part of the planning strategy very early on. You don’t just necessarily do something for your Communications rarely works in isolation. So you want to coordinate across every point of contact.

It’s not just what media we use, but what kind of impact we want to have.

I’d agree with the notion that communications hasn’t changed all that much in the past 50 or 100 years. It’s still just about building relationships. What has changed are the tools, the speed. But that doesn’t change the fundamental need to have compelling content. You need to know your audience, what will move them and how to use this when you’re telling your stories.

As a small not-for-profit, we’ve always been limited in our capacity for big marketing campaigns. I would much rather spend money on a social media campaign that will connect directly with someone, and having support staff to do that, than buying thousands of dollars’ worth of ad space. I feel more comfortable seeing the impact on a one-to-one level than I do putting an ad out there and hoping the right people see it.

Obviously it starts with good work. If that isn’t happening, no one cares to hear it. With that in mind, I work to garner support by sharing the story with our online community. If I have the money I’ll buy an ad, if I have luck, we’ll land the interview. And then I’ll go back to social media and share the results – I will follow up and not let a story, or project or campaign die. You never know where people are going to respond. It is always important to have the personal connection. I like to use open channels so I can gage the reaction we’re getting. A blended effort is key. But the right blend is very much dependent on the organization – and its goals.

Are people becoming more accustomed to social media? Do you see an increase in the use of social media among your target group?

The big thing is that now we are able to reach an audience that we would never expect to reach a few years ago. We had this idea in mind about who is interested in urban forest, and we have drawn this portrait of who our ideal audience was, without ever looking out or even asking who it could be. We did this once, a few years ago – and now with the tools at my disposal, I can see we were actually kind of off.

I’ve been really surprised at some of the conversations that we’ve had, and not just in terms of the local community, but also on a larger scale. For example, I have a really good relationship with New Jersey Trees which does amazing things combining rehabilitation programs and tree planting. That’s community building. It inspires me, and I’ve been sharing that with our network, so our audience knows that important work is being done. Will mere awareness help? Maybe not, but knowing that they aren’t alone – us knowing that we’re not alone – makes facing the larger issues that much more bearable.

If we can inspire someone else to help us, or to take on a problem that we can’t get to – and it’s something that helps our mission, then that’s a huge win.

How effective is email marketing for your organization?

When I started I was doing bulk emailing with regular webmail. There was no formatting, there was no way of tracking, we had no idea what our reach was, or if people were opening it or not. We just sent it out and hoped for the best. Newer email marketing platforms let me stress about effectiveness less. If my ED asks me, I can answer exactly where our money is going, and know where we can be more effective.

With the changes we made, we started hearing how beautiful our mailing was, which was nice but we also began to hear how excited people were about events, course or tours that they would have missed before. They had gotten used to opening the email, glancing absent-minded over the text, and that would be it. A story is only as good as how you tell it.

Having a tool where we can actually see how many people have opened an email, how engaged the audience is, is amazing because you can then really segment, and figure out what content works best for certain groups.

As an environmental NGO, how often do you send those emails?

We have four ways through which we contact our audience. We have the main list, to which we send a bi-monthly newsletter. We didn’t want to inundate and saturate our audience too much by sending out too much information. We wanted to space it out a little bit.

Then we have our client newsletter which goes out about twice a year, which offers resources to our residential planting clients. We also have our urban forest stewardship network, for groups and communities from all around Ontario. Then we have the EAB ambassadors campaign, which is a particular campaign that we’ve launched over the past few years because of the major issue that we’re dealing with within the Toronto urban forest, and all across Northern America, and we’re trying to engage people to be active ambassadors to fight that particular issue.

Not everyone is going to get all four of those, but people can opt-in to whichever one they want to get. And we’re trying to make sure that we’re not sending out the same content to any of these lists.

Last question: what’s your open rate?

It ranges between 24%-26%, which is pretty good for the non-for-profit industry.

Thank you very much for your time, and I wish you all the best with your organizational work!

Thank you.

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