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Data-Driven Marketing: A Modern Business Approach to Data

January 28, 2021

The rise in data-driven marketing is unmistakably visible in recent years. 

Its importance across all industries, including the social sector (nonprofits and education institutions), is evident as well. These industries have tapped into this trend to better connect with their constituents. Before we get any further, let’s discuss data-driven marketing at a deeper level. 

What is data-driven marketing? 

At its most basic level, data-driven marketing is taking a data first approach to drive all aspects of marketing: strategy, execution, optimization. The approach requires philosophical alignment and a work system that enables marketers with on-demand data, i.e. dashboards and frameworks for using data to drive decisions.  

By grounding strategy in customer analytics, data-driven marketers gain valuable insights into predictive customer behaviors, insights, and trends. The result is personalized communications and hyper-targeted marketing. Also known as greater in market impact or happy customers.  

In recent years, companies across all industries – including for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations of all sizes – have seen the benefit in prioritizing digital transformation and implementing data-driven decision making. This sea change has provided digitally-minded companies the ability to impact every level of their business – from reliably forecasting fundraising, to tracking product success, and optimizing marketing and communications efforts. 

For the social sector in particular, using digital tools to capitalize on data-driven marketing is essential for connecting effectively with constituents and prospective donors. Even before the pandemic hit, organizations were seeing the return on their digital investments and improving all aspects of their operations with a digital-first mindset.

In a year in which the demand for nonprofit programs and services is skyrocketing, organizations that have a digital foundation in place and a data-driven culture already established are well equipped to not only succeed during the pandemic, but thrive in the years to come.  

Building resilience through data-driven marketing 

In the recently released Nonprofit Trends Report, 867 nonprofits from six countries were surveyed about a range of topics aimed at better understanding the issues facing the social sector. 

The third edition of the yearly report shines light on the degree to which technology impacts an organization’s success metrics. The report assesses digital impact through the lens of digital maturity, defined as an organization’s ability to leverage data to inform decision-making, reach new audiences, personalize communications, and forecast fundraising.

In simpler terms: how are organizations that utilize data-driven marketing faring during the pandemic?

The results shouldn’t be surprising. The report reveals a strong correlation between organizations with high digital maturity and those with the most innovative and confident responses to the pandemic. Organizations that rely on a strong digital infrastructure and are savvy, data-driven decision makers are not only more effective at pivoting their operations at the onset of the crisis, they are also more likely to have won grant increases, and more positive about the future.

In an increasingly digital world, it’s more important than ever to have the modern digital tools necessary to be efficient, predictive, and strategic. It’s no wonder that high digital maturity nonprofits reported exceeding their goals at higher rates over the last six months than medium and low digital maturity nonprofits.

The report shows a clear parallel between digital maturity and performance in four important areas: program delivery, marketing and communications, overall mission, and fundraising/revenue. 

Organizations that are considered high digital maturity fared between three and nine percent better than medium digital maturity organizations. When compared to low digital maturity organizations, high digital maturity organizations fared between nine and 25 percent better.

In the midst of a global pandemic that has been devastating for so many sectors, especially the social sector, having the right tools to optimize program delivery, marketing and communications, and fundraising is more essential than ever. 

digital maturity

Meeting goals during unprecedented periods of change is one thing. Exceeding them is something entirely different, and the Nonprofit Trends Report is a stark reminder that having the technology necessary to navigate crises is imperative. High digital maturity nonprofits were better able to understand their environment, have fewer fears and more confidence about what lies ahead, and even strengthen relationships with donors, supporters, and constituents.

Because these nonprofits had the digital tools that enable strong data-driven marketing, they were confident in their ability to not only reach their audience effectively, but engage with them via a personalized communications strategy. These leading organizations were 1.4x more likely to be confident in their ability to engage with their supporters through digital channels (56% of high digital maturity nonprofits vs. 39% of nonprofits overall). 

nonprofits digital maturity

The education sector also benefits from a data-driven approach to connecting institutions. As the global pandemic drags on, it’s increasingly important for institutions to understand the needs of their communities and to keep their students, faculty and staff connected.

The Global Education Higher Education Research Snapshot provides insight into how students and faculty are coping with distance learning and an untraditional college experience this year.

College students today have grown up with the internet and social media at their fingertips. They’re no strangers to a digital world and living much of their lives behind a screen.

It stands to reason that even in the midst of a global pandemic – and during a time when many campuses, classrooms, and residence halls sit empty – there’s a higher percentage of students who report feeling more connected to advisories (31%), faculty members (32%), and other students (34%) than those who report feeling less connected (21%, 20%, and 25% respectively).

connected while apart

The research for the Snapshot was based on 2,200 responses (1,125 students and 1,075 staff) across 10 countries representing the United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands, France, Spain, Australia, and Nordic countries.

Finding opportunities to stay virtually connected to friends, family, and community is invaluable in 2020. And that isn’t unique to higher ed; it’s true for just about everyone this year. But institutions that understood that need from the beginning and delivered that for their students and faculty are undoubtedly faring far better with their key stakeholders than those that didn’t. 

Thirty percent of students said that online communities were the top resource made available to them by their institution during the pandemic. The benefits extend well beyond connecting with peers and professors. 

Twenty-eight percent said these virtual communities gave them a sense of belonging, and 25% reported that access to these communities support their wellbeing. Students without this lifeline to a virtual community during the pandemic were missing out on a social connector that makes an isolating time that much more difficult. Eighteen percent of students said they wish they had online communities to connect with other students.

In addition to social connectedness, another key finding from the report was around widening trust gaps between students and the institutions they attend. Transparent decision making was top of mind for students, with 30% citing that as the top answer for how their university could’ve improved its pandemic response. In fact, 25% of students who transferred to another institution cited their university’s response to the crisis as the number one factor.

How could these institutions have better understood what their students needed and taken proactive steps towards better communication, more transparency, and facilitating a thriving online university community? There are surely a number of contributing factors for institutions to consider at the onset of the pandemic, but having the digital tools and a culture of data-driven marketing to lean on would certainly have provided much-needed insight for institutions that didn’t fare well in the survey.

These insights reveal what nonprofits like buildOn, and higher education institutions like the University of St. Thomas – both highlighted below – already know: digital tools paired with data-driven marketing are the cornerstone of any thriving organization in 2020 and beyond.

How buildOn engages supporters and raises more funds with a data-first approach 

Nonprofit organization, buildOn, is dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service and education. 

The $20 million nonprofit has youth service programs stateside, in addition to a number of projects globally where they build schools in developing countries. With such comprehensive programs, their mission depends on engaged supporters. They’ve found a winning formula for finding, cultivating, and connecting those supporters through a highly personalized communications strategy that’s driven by data and analytics.

Though it’s easy to see the success of their data-driven strategy now that they’ve implemented Salesforce as their do-it-all customer relationship management (CRM) solution, it wasn’t always this way. Like many organizations, buildOn has a history of spreadsheets, Excel files, and stacks of physical documents that are anything but data-driven. 

When Eric Dayton, buildOn’s Director of Data, initiated the nonprofit’s digital transformation, he overhauled a series of deeply-entrenched manual processes, which he calls “shadow systems”, that his team had become all too reliant on. 

He recognized that familiar “it might not make sense, but this is the way we’ve always done it” approach that not only minimizes opportunities for growth, but also impedes progress towards a comprehensive approach to data management.

For an organization of buildOn’s size, they quickly outgrew the Excel docs and Google Sheets that checked off the box of simply getting baseline data up the chain to managers, but then couldn’t be effectively utilized beyond that point. Multiply that inefficiency by every department in the organization, and you quickly run into a situation where disparate data spreadsheets are floating around with no way to bring it together into one comprehensive view.

“In an organization of our size, we’re simply not going to be able to represent all our donors well in a spreadsheet. We’ll end up missing out on converting so many people that have potential,” Dayton explained.

The problems with manual processes go beyond ineffective systems and data silos. Unstructured data, like account strategies, qualification notes, and conversations with customers are often isolated in random documents, notebooks, chat threads, and email chains. When this essential information is left outside of a CRM, structured data tends to follow, undermining what should be the single source of truth.

Girl sitting at desk making art

During the pandemic, buildOn is strengthening programs to engage U.S. students in impactful community service.

buildOn’s digital transformation, which includes its transition to Salesforce, solved these problems. Having one CRM tool that made it easy for teams to track and report on that data all in one place was necessary, but the culture shift to data-driven marketing was a critical byproduct that fundamentally changed how the organization operates.

Changing these systems that have been grandfathered in over the years also means transforming the organizational culture they reflect. With such entrenched processes, a wholesale change like this can’t be expected to come overnight. “Taking down these different documents one by one and getting people aligned has been a journey,” Dayton says. “And have we solved it all? No.”

Regardless, buildOn’s new culture is centered around a data-driven approach that provides the team the ability to forecast fundraising efforts, personalize communications, and make decisions that are grounded in insights and analytics. The result is a transformation of both buildOn’s business processes and data culture, which makes it easier for development associates and project teams to keep their work – and their data – inside Salesforce.

The real value of having accurate data in documents and spreadsheets is not just in the time it saves on admin tasks. Having a single source of truth and an organization-wide culture of data integrity yields insights and discussion around fundraising and stakeholders, which ultimately leads to maximum impact and greater mission success.

University of St. Thomas keeps students connected with a data-driven approach 

As COVID-19 spread across the country resulting in nationwide closures this spring, the University of St. Thomas recognized early on that keeping their students informed and connected would be vital in the months ahead. The University’s leadership team wasted no time in getting to work on developing a system that would make advising, scheduling, and campus-wide communications easier – both during periods of remote learning and after campus was reopened.

The Global Higher Education Research Snapshot revealed that 75% of students said they’d like to receive pandemic-related communications on at least a weekly basis from their institution – something that the University staff had a plan to deliver on early in the pandemic.

In mid-March of 2020, as it became clear that this wouldn’t be a short-term shut down, school leadership developed a comprehensive pandemic response plan that included regular personalized communications aimed at keeping students in the loop and offering plenty of resources for support during such an uncertain time.

A key component of their robust communications strategy was an automated text messaging system. Over a three-month period from March 16 to June 15, 2020, the school sent more than 4,400 SMS text messages to students that were intended to engage students, foster a sense of community, and reinforce the University’s commitment to their well-being. Throughout the shutdown, as well as once campus opened back up, St. Thomas continued to lean on their texting platform to keep in regular contact with students. 

The University leveraged a Mercury SMS integration through Salesforce’s AppExchange, which ensured that all student responses were organized and appropriately logged through Salesforce in the student’s corresponding contact record. This end-to-end solution gave staff an understanding of exactly where conversations stood with each student and allowed for the allocation of further resources and support for certain students as needed.

Aside from the school’s innovative texting strategy to keep their campus community connected, University leadership still had to solve for on-campus safety once students returned to in-person learning. For this, they turned to Marketing Cloud to develop a custom campaign that would track student pledges to the school’s “Common Good Commitment,” which was centered around the importance of following COVID safety protocols. 

Not only did St. Thomas’ custom Marketing Cloud solution track student commitments, it ensured completion of each student’s form. From there, data was sent directly to Salesforce where automated reminders were sent to students who had yet to complete and sign the commitment.

Transparent student communications and safety pledges are important, but what happens when a student or faculty member inevitably tests positive for COVID-19? The team at University of St. Thomas had a plan for that, too. Being proactive about controlling the spread of the virus on campus through an innovative contact tracing system was a critical piece to the puzzle. 

One that Ryan Blake, University of St. Thomas’ CRM Director, said was a top priority – even if the solution to make it happen wasn’t immediately obvious at the outset. “The holistic well-being of students was top of mind as St. Thomas reopened. Being proactive in our efforts to control COVID-19 on campus meant that we needed a strong contact tracing process. While Salesforce was not a part of the initial conversation, it became the solution,” Blake said.

Blake’s team got to work on developing an integrated contact tracing application through Salesforce that hinged on frequent email and SMS communications with students and faculty. In just four days, the application was deployed with 29 contact tracers leading the efforts on the newly-designed platform. 

The contact tracing team sent daily text messages to all students – those who were isolating and those who were quarantining – to check in, as well as to understand what resources were needed. The team sent students everything from mental health services to financial aid information.

It was the university’s existing digital infrastructure that enabled them to quickly and effectively pivot their efforts in order to offer a wide range of support to their students throughout the pandemic. 

“When COVID hit, because we had some level of digital maturity, we were able to leverage and extend our existing tools to accomplish new tasks and goals on the Salesforce platform. Our time to innovate was significantly less because we already had the tools in our environment,” Blake shared.  

The team at the University of St. Thomas relied on data-driven communications tactics to understand their students’ needs and share relevant resources to support them. This data-driven approach – and the school’s powerful digital toolkit – not only enables them to support their students through a challenging period, but is also critical to retention and building student trust at a time when higher education enrollment is down across the country.

How you can get started with data-driven marketing

If the use case from buildOn, the incredible story from the University of St. Thomas, and the compelling findings from the Nonprofit Trends Report and the Global Higher Education Snapshot have convinced you to take the next (or first) step towards implementing data-driven marketing in your organization, you’re in luck. Here are three suggestions for getting started:

Create a unified view of your data 

Whether through Salesforce or another digital tool, getting rid of the kinds of disparate data silos that plagued buildOn for years is the first step to a data-driven culture. By investing now in tools that will provide your team with invaluable customer insights, your return on that investment will pay dividends down the road. 

Use that data to inform personalized communications 

This is where your return on investment is realized. In an increasingly digital and on-demand world, your customers or supporters expect that same experience from your company that they get from their Netflix account that just knows what they’ll want to watch next.

When your customers or constituents feel seen, heard, and understood because of a stellar customer or supporter journey, it’s because you’ve taken the time to see, hear, and understand them. The result is a personalized journey from beginning to end, that often translates to a newly-acquired supporter or customer.  

Hone in on channel-specific data 

The University of St. Thomas ran this play to perfection. By having an excellent understanding of their student body, they knew that SMS text messages would be more effective than phone calls.

To get the insights and information needed from their students in order to execute an effective contact tracing campaign, they met their students where they were: their smartphone screens. The result was a remarkably well planned, implemented, and executed campaign that made students feel connected and cared for, while keeping the larger campus community safe.

Closing thoughts 

Navigating change – especially that which we’ve seen in 2020 – is hard enough on its own. And one thing we can be sure of following this crisis is that change, growth, and evolution will be exponential in the years to come. 

Investing in the necessary digital tools now will prepare your organization for the growth that’s required as we step beyond the “new normal”.  Leaning into data-driven marketing doesn’t just set your company or organization up for long-term success; it lays the foundation for a data-driven company culture that will be built to thrive in the years ahead. 

Data-Driven Marketing: A Modern Business Approach to Data Data-driven marketing is a customized marketing and communications strategy that’s based on customer or constituent information, habits, and tendencies. Learn how nonprofits, education institutions, and companies alike can build a digital infrastructure and a strong data-driven company culture. Investing in these tools now will result in a thriving organization as we move into the “new normal”.
Jon Fee Jon Fee is the SVP of Marketing at

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