Following our recent insights on data visualisation and trustee engagement, this month’s newsletter picks up on one of the sector’s hottest – and probably most disputed – topics: supporter segmentation. Most organisations, from social enterprises to charities and educational institutions, rely on supporter networks: be it for funding, volunteering or promoting the organisation’s interests. While the need for supporter engagement is clear and obvious, how we should engage is less well understood and often perceived as complex. What do supporters expect? What are their interests? What impacts their loyalty to our organisation?
We have spoken to Ken Catandella, Senior Executive Director for the Columbia Alumni Association and University Relations in the Office of Alumni and Development at Columbia University, to find answers to these questions.

Increasing use of internet and social media have had a tremendous impact on supporter engagement. As Ken Catandella said, social media platforms have truly “localised the globe”. The speed at which videos or Memes are shared across continents and time-zones is remarkable and brings events that happen far away directly into every person’s home. In addition to improving global inter-connectedness, the internet has changed the way we communication. Twenty years ago, for example, a university would reach out to alumni with a formal letter once or maybe twice a year. Today, the same university can email thousands of alumni all over the world at the click of the mouse, at a fraction of the cost. Today, every organisation has the potential for global reach.

However, the challenge facing any organisation is that everybody wants to communicate and engage with the same people. You have to be truly relevant to attract attention, and only a combination of good segmentation and interactive technologies can achieve superior results in this area.

Supporter segmentation is the process of grouping supporters (e.g., stakeholders, alumni, donors) into discrete categories that share similar needs or characteristics, which are relevant to strategic decisions and actions. By classifying supporters into segments with specific demographics, demands or needs, organisations can gain a greater understanding of each group and strive to serve them better.

In particular, it helps organisations to:

  • Design programmes that fulfil many different types of supporters’ expectations
  • Tailor communications to target clusters of similar supporters
  • Identify ways to strengthen supporter relationship management and engagement, for specific types of supporters
  • Determine the value of the potential donors segment
  • Assess the success of existing programmes.

If the benefits of a good segmentation are obvious, not many organisations have been able to successfully understand their supporters and define the right segments. This lack of understanding has been mostly due to the prevalence of assuming and the absence of listening. Often organisations make crude assumptions about how supporters would like to be engaged with, based on simple demographics and socio-economic factors. In today’s world, Smart segmentations are based on the profound understanding of the interests and preferences of donors.

Facing the challenge of how to stay relevant to their alumni, Columbia University developed a unique segmentation a few years ago that accounts for the supporters’ current phase in life, their behaviour with regards to the university (measured through the proxy of social media engagement), and level of prior volunteering for the university. This three dimensional model allows the institution to engage with their supporters based on their individual interests and through their preferred communication channels.

The key strength of their approach was identifying the information they needed and combining factual data about alumni profiles, behaviours and engagement style.

Below is a recommended approach to start your smart segmentation journey:

  • Define relevant characteristics of supporters. For example,
    • Demographics (age, gender, income level, ethnicity, etc.)
    • Geography
    • Needs and desires
    • Level of involvement with the organisation
  • Group supporters into meaningful and measurable segments based on their characteristics. Each supporter should fit distinctly into one segment
  • Identify relevant differences among the segments using key measures or outcomes (e.g. attendance to events, repeat donations)
  • Prioritise certain segments based on their needs and on the organisation’s objectives and activities
  • Invest resources in tailoring programmes and activities to match the needs of the highest-priority segments

Without a doubt, finding the right segmentation strategy is challenging. It requires time and effort. However, if you want to stay relevant to your supporters, you will need to make these investments.