Great Nonprofit Storytelling

Photo by Eli Francis.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of great storytelling in nonprofit work. If you want to engage readers, donors and advocates, being able to tell a clear and concise narrative about the work your organization does and why is a requirement.

Whether it’s speaking with or writing to this audience, you should constantly be developing and refining the stories about your organization’s history, vision, campaigns, principles and motivations.

Your stories should be succinct. There’s no need to go into every detail about your organization or vision. When talking about your organization’s history, a quick overview is fine and, if speaking, should take less than two minutes.

Your stories should be about people. If you want to connect with someone else, your stories must focus on real people who are either doing the work or are affected by your work. Don’t focus on programatic details. Focus on the motivations of the people involved in your organization.

Your stories should describe a problem and a solution. Why did your founder create your organization? What motivated them to take an idea and turn it into a real-life campaign? Think of any brand and their founders, stuck in their parents’ garage building something out of the belief that their idea will change the world probably comes to mind.

Your stories should have feeling and emotion. A lot of our work deals with injustice in the world. That makes us angry, sad, frustrated and, ultimately, motivated to take action. We don’t do this work for the money. We do this because there is a wrong in the world and we want justice. If you want to motivate someone to support your organization, you must appeal to their heart.

If someone asks me why I work at Next City, this is what I say:

It’s not unusual for someone like me to say that they love Jane Jacobs. I was greatly influenced by her thoughts on the urban economy. She said that cities, when they’re at their best, are able to transform poor people into middle-class people.

That is my vision for cities. I want our word’s cities to provide opportunities for everyone who lives in them. Our communities should diverse, healthy, safe, beautiful and accessible. I believe strongly in the right to the city.

Unfortunately the world’s cities have a long way to go. Instead of creating a middle-class, some seek to lure it from the suburbs. Instead of providing the best public education available, some seek to destroy it. Instead of ending racism, some build on it through gentrification.

But there’s something that gives me great hope for the future of cities. Everyday we write about people who are changing where they live for the better. These are people who are making cities engines of the middle-class. By us writing about their work, I get to see how they inspire others.

One of our readers recently told me that because of our reporting, her business decided to start hiring formerly incarcerated workers. There are countless other people like her who tell us similar stories. This is what motivates me to keep our work and organization going. This is why I believe that someday we will achieve Jane’s vision.

We Should Have This Too

An apartment complex in San Marcos, Tex., one of many fast-growing communities hit hard by flooding. Credit Stephen Ramirez,
An apartment complex in San Marcos, Tex., one of many fast-growing communities hit hard by flooding. Credit Stephen Ramirez,

One of the great joys of working at Next City is when I see in the comments or on social media someone inspired by our journalism. The best way this happens is when someone says, “We should have this in my town” or “This is happening here too.”

Our feature this week is about San Marcos, Texas — a town I hadn’t even heard of — and how it’s being overrun by the university there. Housing for the booming student population has been at least relied on the private market. This has led to the increase in rent-by-the-room housing in the city.

I expected this article to be popular, but had no idea how popular it turned out to be. Thousands of people have shared it on Facebook, and it’s gone viral by our standards. In going through their comments I expected some backlash in defense of the school. But almost every comment I read either agreed or said that the same thing is happening in their small city with a big university.

It’s been an exciting few days watching all the traffic and comments come in. I couldn’t be more proud of the editors and writers I get to work with everyday.

Normal Landing Page Conversion Rates

As the audience engagement manager for Next City, one of my main jobs is building our database. For a news organization with as much traffic as sees, the database, while by no means small, could be a lot bigger. So over the past year, I’ve focused on building better landing pages to help convert readers into newsletter subscribers and donors.

ABC. Always be converting. (Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross)
ABC. Always be converting. (Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross)
I’m not sure where I heard this, but in my various jobs for nonprofits, I’ve always tried to convert people “up the ladder” — from someone who never heard of your organization, to reader (or follower), to email newsletter subscriber, to donor, to advocate for your work. The best way to convert people online is through landing pages. These are pages in a website that have one job, like converting newsletter signups, giving away free downloads or selling a product. At Next City, I’ve focused on three: newsletter signups, free ebook downloads, and membership donations.

Along with our art director and developer, we came up with designs and functionality that works really, really well for us. In fact, as I just learned, they do shockingly well. The main reason, I think, we’re so successful on landing pages is that our editors deliver high quality journalism that our audience trusts. That trust makes it easy for people to take the next step up the ladder. In terms of the first step on the conversion ladder, we’re doing really well. Once you’re aware of us and read our reporting regularly, you know what we can deliver.

Landing Page Conversion Rates
According to this video by Moz, landing page conversion rates are much lower than I thought. None are above 5% according to Moz.

These are not a one-to-one comparisons to my world, since they focus on for-profits, but they’re close. They say email signup pages (newsletters) convert 3-5% of the time, free app (free ebooks in our case) is 4-5%, and business to consumer (donations in our case) is 1.5-2%. Now these aren’t set numbers for everyone, but they’re still much lower than I expected. Next City is brining in 10 times the conversion rate on these pages.

After you build trust in your brand or nonprofit, you have to build landing pages that work. I will discuss what we’ve done to be successful in my next post. In the meantime, know that if you can get 5% conversion on a landing page, you’re doing pretty well. If you’ve ever thought that no one is signing up on your newsletter page, you might just need to focus on driving traffic to site and compare your numbers with what Moz says is about normal.