Emerging Opportunities for Smart Fundraisers to Use Smart Phones

Is that a phone you’ve got in your pocket, or is it the next big thing in fundraising?

by Bryan Miller

I’m pretty sure that when Alexander Graham Bell made the world’s first ever telephone call back in 1876 (apparently calling his assistant with the inspired words “Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you”) he never in his wildest dreams imagined that telephones might evolve into the amazing little device I have in my pocket today.

To be honest, to call my mobile phone ‘a phone’ is a serious understatement of what it can do. Of course I can talk to people on it, just as Bell had envisaged (only without any wires, obviously). But I can also send them a text message or an email, or call them via Skype, or engage with them however I like over the internet through the phone’s web browser. I touch another icon on the screen and the live map shows me where I am and guides me to where I want to be. Another brings up a calculator, or a note pad, or a tube map, or a map of the night sky visible from my specific location, or the latest Formula 1 results, or any number of fun games to pass the time in between using those other applications. I can also listen to music or watch TV programmes on it, as well as taking both still photos and video footage. I can then edit the video on the ‘phone’ too. This little electronic marvel certainly does live up to the term ‘smartphone’ and, to be honest, with everything else on offer, calling someone for a chat is not even near the top of my list.

And I’m not alone in this. Driven largely by the success of the iPhone (which is what is in my pocket, if you hadn’t already guessed), smartphones now account for approaching 20% of handsets here in the UK and research from Nielsen reveals that around one fifth of UK mobile phone users (c10.4 million people) now regularly browse the internet with their ‘phone’.

If you’re after a bigger number, the US smartphone market now comprises over 43 million people. Or, for a truly immense number, an analysis by eMarketer earlier this year predicts that there will actually be more mobile internet users in China than the entire population of the US by the end of this year!

In simple terms this means that in developed consumer markets around the world considerable numbers of potential donors already have smartphones in their pockets, and this number is going to grow fast over the next couple of years. So, now seems like a very good time to think about some of the new fundraising opportunities this evolution in donor engagement technology might offer you.

Of course, you can start by calling people on their mobiles. Traditional telemarketing to mobile phones has been going-on for years now. However, it has often been more problematical than calls to landlines. Because, naturally, people often answer their mobiles while on the move and so may not be in a position, or mood, to discuss donations, provide bank details, etc compared to when called at home.

Then there is SMS or ‘text’ fundraising, where sending a text message to a specific appeal number results in a donation being made via your mobile phone bill. Here in the UK, SMS responses in support of the BBC’s Comic Relief events have raised millions of pounds over recent years. However, despite such high profile success, research from nfpSynergy in 2009 revealed that only a small proportion of the country’s charities had actually tested SMS as a fundraising mechanism. It is hoped that recent reductions in the charges imposed by the mobile networks, together with a growing awareness of how to implement such campaigns, will lead to a considerable growth in this in the future. SMS response options are also increasingly being used by UK charities on their DRTV commercials or outdoor advertising so potential donors indicate their interest via text message, leading to a rapid call back to take a donation. A technique that seems to work well.

However, telemarketing and SMS fundraising were both possible before the days of smartphones. So, how about the new fundraising opportunities on offer now that smartphones offer so much more functionality?

The truth is that the potential opportunities are so diverse that I only have space here to outline a few key areas where I expect to see fundraising applications develop in future. Hopefully, these will whet your appetite sufficiently for you to look into the subject more yourself and look out for specific opportunities as the smartphone market develops.

Let’s start with something I had hoped would take off a couple of years ago, but which has actually turned-out to be something of a slow burner, namely ‘QR Codes’. QR (Quick Response) Codes are perhaps best described as little black ‘maze’ pattern icons that can be printed onto any surface you like, from advertisements to T-shirts. Each pattern acts like a bar code, containing the details of a web address that can be read using the camera in your smartphone. You simply point the camera at the code and it is translated into a web address that takes your mobile browser directly to the advertiser’s website.

No waiting to respond until you get to a computer. No URL to enter using your phone keypad. It’s a direct response fundraiser’s dream! Unfortunately, because the necessary software has not been bundled with many smartphones, adoption of QR Codes has been rather slow. But the good news is that Facebook is apparently planning to offer QR Codes as part of its forthcoming location-based services. If so, then with over 400 million Facebook users out there, QR Codes could well take off very quickly indeed.

Location-based services using smartphones are actually the hottest topic in the mobile marketing world right now. So much so that they are being called ‘this year’s Twitter’. Basically these exploit the fact that increasing numbers of smartphones can identify their precise geographical location at any time, leading to all sorts of great new location-related applications. These began in a fairly basic form, such as letting you know where your favourite coffee shop chain had its nearest outlet. However, they have quickly evolved into far more sophisticated services.

Two of the leading players in this space are currently Foursquare and Gowalla. In both cases, users are awarded points for “checking-in” at specific locations, such as cafes, shops, or other places of interest, using the related application on their smartphones. They also earn badges for frequency or number of check-ins. Check-in locations may be pre-defined, based on specific corporate partnerships, or identified by users themselves. While integration with Facebook and Twitter means you’re always updated with where your online friends are whenever they check-in somewhere. Starting as location-based games, both services now have significant corporate backing and are essentially evolving into location-based social search/brand loyalty programmes. So, expect to hear a lot more about such ‘check-in’ applications in the near future.

For a charitable take on ‘check-in’ applications, take a look at CauseWorld. Described as ‘the first mobile application that lets you do good deeds simply by walking into a store’, CauseWorld users earn ‘karma points’ when they check in at participating stores and these can then be donated to specific causes. In turn, participating non-profits can then exchange points received for cash donated by participating corporates. Big brands already supporting CauseWorld, to the tune of some $1m, include Kraft Foods, Citi, and Proctor and Gamble.

A completely different use of smartphones for fundraising is offered by ‘Square’. This is basically a small (square) device that attaches to your phone via the headphone socket and enables you to take credit card transactions and validate them online, with SMS or email receipts generated automatically. Currently still in beta test in the US, it has already been used by several political campaigners and by the non-profit charity:water to take donations at events. Essentially turning a smartphone into a credit card-friendly electronic collection tin. How great is that!

Now, I’ve really only scratched the surface here of what is possible when you start to tap into the incredibly rich functionality that smartphones offer. But hopefully I’ve shared enough to enthuse you about the new opportunities potentially on offer to fundraisers looking to engage with smartphone wielding donors.

One last thought though. Before you head off to consider super-sophisticated ways to exploit smartphone technology, best start with some basics. A report released by Experian CheetahMail at the end of 2009 revealed that while 25% of people now access their emails via a mobile phone, bad formatting for mobile devices results in almost a third of permission-based emails received in this way being deleted unread. So, if you do nothing else for your smartphone donors, please do make sure that your emails can be read properly on their smart little mobile devices. At least that way, when you do develop cooler smartphone applications you will be able to let them know!

Bryan Miller is a marketing and fundraising strategist with over 20 years experience with a wide range of commercial and non-profit brands across Europe and the US. He has worked as Planning Director at several direct response agencies as well as heading-up the central Strategy and Consumer Insight department at Europe’s largest fundraising charity, Cancer Research UK. In late 2009 he established the consultancy Strategy Refresh and now works with charities worldwide to help them take a fresh approach to their strategic planning. He is a regular writer and conference speaker, particularly with regard to digital communications and fundraising, and author of the popular online fundraising blog givinginadigitalworld.org.

Copyright, The Resource Alliance; posted with permission.