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How to create a small business marketing strategy with integrity: Lessons from Charles Best and DonorsChoose

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Step back to the year 1884. The United States received the Statue of Liberty as a gift, but it needed a pedestal built and funds had run dry. That’s when Joseph Pulitzer did something extraordinary. He wrote an article in his New York World newspaper pleading with Americans to donate their own money to the project. And in just 6 months, the American people had sent in $100,000 — with a majority of donations equaling $1 or less.

Pulitzer was on to something big. He believed in the collective power of people and knew that if he could appeal to their good nature, they would respond. Though this wasn’t the first historic example of the everyday man coming together to raise funds, it was a giant step toward what would become known today as crowdfunding.

Flash forward to the late 1990s. Charles Best, a history teacher in The Bronx, found himself between a rock and a hard place. In order to provide his students with basic school supplies, books and other learning materials, he was using money from his own pocket. And he wasn’t alone. Thousands of educators across the country were doing the same thing. But Charles had something in common with Joseph Pulitzer: He believed there were people out there who would see the need and feel compelled to help out. He was right, too.

In 2000, Charles launched DonorsChoose, an online marketplace that bridged the gap between teachers and donors to fulfill classroom projects and needs. This created a new, equitable way to help schools in low-income areas and enrich the lives of students who were often overlooked. Now, DonorsChoose is responsible for facilitating over $1.4 billion in donations for over 88,000 schools nationwide.

Turns out, Charles and the early DonorsChoose volunteers were essentially on the front line of something bigger than they could imagine: the dawn of digital crowdfunding.

Forbes reports the crowdfunding market is predicted to grow by nearly $200 billion, with a compound annual growth rate of over 15% by the year 2025.

So how did a grassroots idea grow into such an impactful non-profit, and what lessons can a small business owner learn from Charles when it comes to marketing in today’s world? Charles was gracious enough to sit down with us at The Entrepreneur’s Studio and share his story. Let’s take a look at the incredible insights learned during his time on the podcast.

Charles Best looks off camera a smiles while adjusting over-the-ear headphones.

From grassroots marketing tactics to social media marketing strategies

DonorsChoose came to be in an exciting time for the digital world. Back in 2000, the internet was fairly new, search engines weren’t as powerful (the first Google search took place only two years earlier) and social media was nowhere near today’s standards. So what could Charles do to get the word out about this incredible new platform? He started with the easiest approach that still works today: He offered food to teachers at his school, and in return, they had to visit DonorsChoose and post their own projects online. That day, 11 projects were added to the site. The only people who knew about it were the teachers, his students and those closest to him. So Charles's own aunt funded the first project, and he ended up funding the remaining 10 himself.

But word was spreading fast, and a few hundred projects were added to the site quickly. That’s when he faced his first major challenge — how to reach new people willing to fund these projects.

He and his students began handwriting letters sent to 2,000 people across the country asking them to be a classroom hero for just $10. The response was overwhelming, coming in at $30,000 in total donations from the letter campaign alone.

“There was not a techy silver bullet, digital solution to jumpstarting the marketplace. We went with food bribery and handwriting letters to get teachers and donors onto the site.”

- Charles Best

Key Takeaway icon

Key takeaway for entrepreneurs

Even though there are plenty of digitally savvy ways to get your brand in front of potential customers today with innovative marketing campaigns and social media prowess, the lesson still applies to all small business owners looking to reach their target audience:

Getting the word out doesn’t have to take up all of your marketing budget, but it needs to be special.

Cold-calling in the age of digital marketing

Charles also spent countless hours getting in touch with reporters and news outlets in an effort to attract press coverage — eventually resulting in features in Newsweek and The New York Times, as well as earning DonorsChoose a spot on Oprah’s Favorite Things list in 2010.

Adding free press coverage initiatives to your marketing plan is still a great way to make new customers aware of your brand and boost website traffic. Sending emails out to news organizations, other companies within your vertical and more can feel like a long shot, especially if your small business marketing plan is already robust. But with the emphasis on SEO (search engine optimization) and rankings as driving factors for your online presence, being a backlink on a well-known outlet or brand’s site could be your golden ticket. And it’s virtually free.

Putting your product out there

Another innovative way to get your product or service in front of people is by engaging in product placement. Product placement has traditionally taken place in the realm of film and television. Meaning brands paid producers to include shots of their products in a scene of a film or TV show. Picture, for example, a handsome lead actor taking a swig of a beer with a clearly visible brand label.

Product placement can also be more subtle. The clothing that actors wear on screen may not advertise their brand overtly, but can drive demand for particular items, or entire fashion trends.

Want proof? Just add the word “fashion” to a Google search about the hit TV drama series “Succession” and you’ll have no doubt about the show’s ability to shake up the world of fashion.

While landing placement in a TV series may not be realistic for every small business brand, there are other avenues worth exploring. For example, small business brands are successfully getting social media marketing “placement” via influencers.

Influencers on social media channels like Instagram act as spokespeople for brands on their own well-established social platforms. They build their following by creating “content” in the form of product reviews, modeling shoots and other eye-catching promotional activities. Some do it in exchange for free products which can be highly effective since many viewers and social media lovers experience advertising fatigue and tend to pay less attention to brands that feel out of place. Just as Charles discovered with DonorsChoose’s early marketing initiatives, being authentic and organic with your marketing strategies is often more important than having a big budget.

An female influencer stands in a closet and holds up a belt on on hand and a small makeup bag in the other while smiling in front of a camera on a tripod.

Intentional branding and marketing strategies

Many entrepreneurs agree that it’s important to hit the ground running and get your product in front of people as quickly as possible, but Charles believes there’s a catch. It’s just as important to choose your branding intentionally. After all, not many businesses succeed when faced with a major rebrand. Rebranding late in the game can lead to hemorrhaging finances, which is bad for brands of any size, but could be a death sentence for small, local businesses.

So how do you go about infusing intentional branding in your marketing strategies? Keep in mind how your customers feel about you. For a philanthropic non-profit like DonorsChoose, the draw is clear — people helping people. For retail and restaurant, it can be a little trickier. No worries. Here are some ways you can engage customers, grow your brand awareness and create goodwill in an intentional way:

  • Use digital word of mouth (DWOM) to boost your social media presence

  • Offer discounts via email marketing (i.e: welcome discounts, repeat purchase coupon codes, birthday gifts and other email lists tailored to interests)

  • Capture customer feedback through surveys, product quizzes

  • Create a customer loyalty program

  • Team up with other brands that share your mission and values

  • Enlist some social media influencers who fit your demographic and can appeal to your target market by overlapping potential customers

These are just a few things you can add to your digital marketing plan to get started, and we’ll dig into some of them a little deeper soon.

Key Takeaway icon

Key takeaway for entrepreneurs

When it comes to intentional branding and marketing efforts, it really is the thought that counts.

Solving problems with content marketing

Retention is another possible roadblock for niche marketplaces. Most people will give to a cause one or more times before losing interest. According to Charles, only one in five donors participate for a second year. Countless retailers and restaurateurs are faced with a similar customer retention issue.

How do you combat that? You get a little more personal.

Get to the heart of it

With a variety of projects to choose from, DonorsChoose is uniquely designed to allow donors to pick a cause that aligns with their values, passion or other interests. This is a major advantage when it comes to creating quality content that inspires people and compels them to interact with the brand. To do that, you need to really get to know your customer base, see the need, then fill that need. Of course, you can always go the geographic route, but Charles mentioned how it’s more likely that a donor would fund a project tied to his or her hometown over the location nearest the IP.

We mentioned a few ways to engage potential customers earlier, but it’s important to get more familiar with those points so you can use them to boost retention and your bottom line.

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Customer feedback

If you give your customer base a place to speak up, they will. Asking about their opinions, expectations and experiences through forms, surveys and forums can give you a better understanding of what they’re looking for. It also creates a groundswell where other people can learn more about real-life experiences and make more informed decisions. A well-informed customer is more likely to commit to bigger purchases. We go more into detail about managing your online reputation and reviews here, if you’re interested in learning more.

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Employee participation

It’s no secret that retail data and analytics can help streamline your business. The challenge lies in gathering that treasure trove of information. A simple way to do just that is by empowering your employees or staff to ask customers about their experiences and expectations and providing opportunities for employees to share those insights with you.

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Automation at its best

Hearing directly from customers is a great idea, but it’s not always easy to conduct in-person chats — especially when there’s a rush. And what about shopping or ordering online? That’s where a robust POS solution comes in. With the right tools, you can capture customer insights and demographics seamlessly and better target customers after their initial purchase.

A close up of hands tapping on a cell phone while next to an open laptop.

A case for a cause marketing tactics

Another way entrepreneurs and small business owners can get customers more engaged is by tugging at their heartstrings and aligning with something that Charles calls a person’s “philanthropic micro-passion.” This is where cause marketing can really shine.

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Studies show 81% of American prefer to support a brand that stands up for social issues.

As a non-profit, DonorsChoose has philanthropy built into its model. So, how do brands leverage that same idea to increase cash flow?

Here are 7 successful cause marketing techniques from varying brands that can apply to small businesses:

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“Proud supporter” status

Giving a gift or donation of goods and services to a non-profit organization

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Donating proceeds

A portion or 100% of sales go to a selected charity

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A buy-one, give-one option for particular goods or services

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Dual incentives

Reward customers by offering donation matching

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Employee volunteering

Partner with an organization and give employees incentives for participating

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Co-branded events

Sponsor a drive or rally where customers can make a pledge

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Customer choice

Provide a list of participating organizations and let them decide where their money goes

Key Takeaway icon

Key takeaway for entrepreneurs

It’s important to find the cause that suits your business best by finding your own “why” and building awareness around it.

Building on your successes with the right marketing tools

An important factor in the success of DonorsChoose comes from its culture. There’s a strong focus on being a value-driven company. Strategic marketing strategies, from who to partner with, all the way to who they hire to be on their team, comes down to whether or not they’re aligned with the company mission. Keep in mind that success doesn’t come from one person. It’s a conglomeration of all the other people who helped get you there. And asking for help is ok.

Working hand in hand

In fact, creating partnerships with other organizations and brands can be huge for your brand awareness, growth and financial success. Research shows that brand partnerships have really taken off in recent years.

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54% of companies report brand partnerships drive over 20% of their total revenue.

Let’s look at the surprising partnership between DonorsChoose and Crate and Barrel as an example of how combining ideas helped extend their reach and benefited both companies.

It started with a simple pitch and a cleverly ghost-written cover letter. They essentially gave Crate and Barrel customers a $25 gift card to spend on the DonorsChoose classroom project of their choice. They went for it. Crate and Barrel even did testing to see if the gift card resulted in an uptick in purchase intent. It was a resounding yes. Now, DonorsChoose has over 200 brand partnerships.

Key Takeaway icon

Key takeaway for entrepreneurs

Partnerships aren’t just for brand recognition, they can also help empower your customers to contribute and create reciprocity.

We’re with you every step of the way

We hope you’ve learned some valuable lessons on this journey with us. For more actionable tips on how to grow your brand and bottom line, subscribe to The Entrepreneur’s Studio. There you can explore more episodes, or go straight to our two-part conversation with Charles here and here.

If you’re interested in more insights on leveling up your marketing strategy, you can also unlock our amazing Unstuck course. We developed this innovative training resource with The Entrepreneur’s Studio as part of our commitment to helping small businesses thrive.

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