How analytics drive donations

It felt like printing money. Put £1 in this machine and get £11 back. That’s how generous the British public’s response was to our ads on Google and Bing during the recent Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.

In the first week in October, I went to work with the Disasters Emergency Committee to help them launch their Emergency Appeal for people fleeing Myanmar. This was my third appeal with the DEC, after Yemen in December 2016 and East Africa in March 2017, but it was the first time I was working alongside their fundraising and marketing team in person at their London office.

DEC office during Emergency Appeal for people fleeing Myanmar

DEC employees at work during the Emergency Appeal for people fleeing Myanmar in October 2017.

Who are the DEC?

The Disasters Emergency Committee brings together 13 leading UK aid agencies, including Oxfam, the British Red Cross and Islamic Relief, to respond to major international disasters. The DEC are also supported by major national broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Sky News, and together they raise money at times of humanitarian crisis in poorer countries. They first came to my attention during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami when the British public donated an unprecedented £392 million, including £10 million in a single 24-hour period.

What was the appeal about?

In September 2017, hundreds of thousands of people fled violence in Rakhine state, Myanmar, with the majority seeking refuge in Bangladesh. More than 500,000 people, mostly Rohingya women and children, are in urgent need of shelter, medical care, water and food as they arrive exhausted and traumatised in overflowing camps and settlements in Bangladesh. The DEC’s aim is to raise more funds so that their member charities can immediately respond to the growing needs of the half a million people who have fled into Bangladesh with nothing, as well as help the overstretched communities hosting them.

What did DEC ask Torchbox to do?

Nazia Hassan, the DEC’s marketing manager, asked Torchbox to run their paid search ads, implement tracking for their digital marketing activity and build an analytics dashboard to report on their key performance indicators. We wanted to attribute donation revenue to various digital channels including PPC, organic search, email, partners, social media, display ads and remarketing so that they could adjust their campaign strategy to focus their resources on what is working best.

What did we do to make that happen?

DEC gave us a few days’ notice that they could be launching an appeal for this crisis. This gave me a shiver of adrenaline as we rushed to get everything ready on time. We also had to clear my workload because, as we knew from past experience, the early days of an appeal are all-consuming. My colleague, Phil, helped take this load off my mind, allowing me to focus my time and energy on the appeal without any other distractions.

We spent the week before the appeal reviewing AdWords keyword data since 2008, but particularly focusing on the past two appeals. We used search term reports to build a list of keywords and structured them into branded and generic campaigns with granular, keyword-themed ad groups. We expanded our keyword research with AdWords Keyword Planner, Google Trends and Moz Keyword Explorer to anticipate what users would be searching for about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

We also worked with Matthew Warnock-Parkes, DEC’s digital transformation manager, to refine the URL tagging spreadsheet we had developed over the previous two appeals. We wanted to establish stricter rules about how links should be tagged to identify social media, email, partner referrals and display traffic, and to differentiate between display prospecting and retargeting ads. This involved customizing the default channel grouping definitions in Google Analytics to ensure traffic would be sorted into the correct bucket.

I kept the following diary during the first four days of the appeal:

Day 1: Tuesday 3 October 2017

I felt ready to get stuck in when I arrived at the DEC on Tuesday morning. The fundraising, marketing and communications team assembled in the underground meeting rooms and set aside a desk for me. It had the feel of a nuclear command bunker with no windows, no natural light and no fresh air. They also built a TV studio for their daily live broadcasts on Facebook, complete with lights and video production team.

DEC Facebook Live studio

DEC’s TV studio for their Facebook Live broadcasts.

I beavered away, writing ad copy and helping out where I could: giving advice about how to tag URLs that would be sent out to DEC’s commercial partners and joining a call with JAA Media about their display ads and retargeting campaigns. It was also my job to add any new tracking pixels via Google Tag Manager, which I did a couple of times throughout the week for display advertising networks. We were also able to reuse the tags we set up and tested during the two previous appeals.

In the late afternoon, Saleh Saeed, the DEC’s impressive chief executive, called an all-team meeting. After days of debate with their member charities and broadcast partners (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky News), the DEC had finally decided on a name for the appeal: the DEC Emergency Appeal for people fleeing Myanmar. The wording was carefully chosen after consultation with DEC’s member charities. The people fleeing Myanmar wouldn’t be officially recognized as refugees until they were registered by UNHCR, and that could take months. It’s a very sensitive, politically tense situation in Myanmar. DEC’s mission is not to take sides in conflicts but to focus on how best to bring help to the people in need – whoever they are and whatever they are called.

We also learned about the little girl who would be the face of the appeal. Knowing that an appeal for the crisis was likely, the DEC had commissioned their own photographer and videographer to visit the vast temporary settlements in Bangladesh two weeks earlier to provide visual assets and stories to use during the appeal. Director of communications, Nicola Peckett, introduced the hero image that would be used on most of the publicity materials:

Hero image for DEC Emergency Appeal for people fleeing Myanmar

Photo credit: Turjoy Chowdhury / Disasters Emergency Committee.

This is Sameera, aged 7, and her 7-month-old brother Omar. Their parents described how, after fleeing Myanmar where their house was burnt down and neighbours killed, they are living in difficult conditions in a makeshift shelter. Both children are suffering from cold and fever. The family urgently need food, money and medical attention.

The DEC took great care to gain the family’s consent to use this picture and tell their story. We know their real names, but they have been changed to protect their identity.

Saleh spoke very movingly. He said that, during the appeal, if we were ever unsure about what to do, we should look at the hero image, look into Sameera’s eyes, and do what’s best for her.

After the meeting, and mindful of the sensitive brief, we revised our ad copy to use the agreed wording. Donation channels were open for testing, but we held off making the ads live until later that night when I was back at my hotel.

Day 2: Wednesday 4 October 2017

Overnight, donations started to come in. But when I arrived at the DEC in the morning, Nazia’s boss, Adil Husseini, director of fundraising and marketing, was concerned that our ads were not appearing at the top of the search results. I explained that this was likely to be because of the compromises we made over the sensitive wording in the ad copy. Adil spoke to Saleh, the chief executive, and things were resolved very quickly. With Saleh looking over my shoulder at the data, I described how AdWords rewards relevant ads (with ad text that reflects the keywords users are searching for) with higher rankings and a lower cost per click. He immediately got it and gave us permission to optimize the ad copy in the normal way to ensure best performance. I wonder if he was thinking about the little girl, Sameera, as he made this decision. Earlier that morning, I had set her image as my desktop background to remind me why we were doing all of this.

I was impressed how quickly Adil and Saleh moved. They understood the issue, trusted my expertise, and decided to empower me to optimize the ads. By lunchtime, the new ads were live. And when we saw the data the next day, we knew we’d made the right decision:

Safe vs optimized ad copy

Average ad position improved from 2.7 to 1.3 when we optimized the ad copy.

At 17:57, the BBC broadcast their Rohingya Crisis Appeal, presented by Michael Palin, before the 6 o’clock news. We gathered to watch the video projected on a big screen. Nazia and I watched the traffic spike in the Google Analytics real-time report. From the base rate of 100 users on site, website traffic peaked at around 4,300 users during the broadcast. ITV also launched their appeal video with Riz Ahmed that evening, but there was some confusion about the air time, so we watched it on-demand. We were all relieved the appeal had finally started, but both broadcasts brought us back to the reality of the human suffering on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

As we returned to our desks, Saleh checked in with people, showing a genuine interest in the work they were doing and helping to keep spirits high after a long and stressful day.

I returned to my hotel, mind buzzing about the remarketing campaigns we’d be launching the next day and unable to sleep in the dry, air-conditioned room that was also underground.

Day 3: Thursday 5 October 2017

Hump day. When I arrived at the office later the next morning, morale was low. Donations weren’t coming in as fast as everyone had hoped. The success of the Yemen and East Africa appeals in the previous 10 months had heightened expectations. Ideally, we would have launched a few weeks earlier when Myanmar was in the news. Now we were competing against Theresa May’s cough at the Conservative party conference.

The lack of fresh air and daylight in our underground room was starting to get to everyone. But we kept working and celebrated the small victories, such as the £250,000 raised by a single email from, one of DEC’s partners. Or the £2,000 donation (plus £500 Gift Aid) we spotted a few hours after we launched an AdWords remarketing campaign targeting people who had visited the DEC website but hadn’t donated.

£2,000 donation plus Gift Aid from remarketing ad

Finding beauty in the details: a £2,000 donation plus Gift Aid from a single remarketing ad.

At the team meeting that afternoon, Monica Blagescu, director of programmes and accountability, shared a fact about the scale of the migration from Rakhine state in Myanmar across the border to Bangladesh: imagine a population the size of Liverpool leaving their homes en masse and walking hundreds of miles to seek refuge in another country. That image has stayed with me.

Day 4: Friday 6 October 2017

On my final day at the DEC, our pep returned. The fundraising and marketing team were getting on with it. DEC ads were starting to appear in national newspapers, on buses and across the web. And Facebook allowed us to test their new donation button.

We realized that we couldn’t compare it to earlier appeals because every appeal is different. We just had to make the best of this one.

We had a team meeting and started to come up with some more ideas: partnering with the Ramblers because people have fled Myanmar on foot; dreaming up a potential corporate partnership with Fitbit (makers of step-counting devices).

As I was leaving the office, the BBC website posted some of the DEC’s stunning drone footage of the Balukhali refugee camp on the Bangladesh border.

Week 2 of the appeal

The intense period of joint activity continued the following week. I was back at the Torchbox office in Charlbury. We continued to refine and optimize the AdWords campaigns and develop the analytics dashboard in Google Data Studio, keeping in regular contact with Nazia and the team on Slack.

We spotted that a surprising number of donations were coming from Bing organic search. So we dug into the demographic data and discovered that our Bing audience was much older than Google users; and they gave more generously. Bing users perfectly fit DEC’s key demographic. We hypothesized that many people over 55 use Internet Explorer on Windows machines and don’t change the default search engine from Bing.

I suggested to Nazia that we should try a tactic we discussed after the East Africa appeal and run a copy of our AdWords campaigns on Bing. Nazia quickly authorized some extra budget to test and learn. With the help of my colleague, Amina, I set up a couple of Bing Ads campaigns and launched them later that day. It soon became clear we were on to something. Although the volume was much lower than AdWords, the return on investment was fantastic: nearly 2.5 times better than AdWords.

The ongoing appeal

The two-week period of joint activity is now over and things at work have returned to normal. But the appeal will continue for another 4 months.

When the AdWords budget was used up, we adapted the campaigns and transferred them to DEC’s Google Ad Grants account. So far this has raised an additional £150,000 in donations without costing the DEC a penny in ad spend.

We’re currently focusing on a small campaign to thank people for donating to the past three DEC appeals for Yemen, East Africa and people fleeing Myanmar.

What difference did our work make?

Our work on this appeal is the culmination of two years of partnership with the DEC, helping them improve their Google Analytics setup to give them more reliable and actionable data. We value these long-term relationships with our clients because we’re able to understand how they operate and help them find the marginal gains to make them more efficient and better at what they do online. By the end of my week working at the DEC, I felt part of the team, not just a hired hand.

I feel like our work is making a real difference. Paid search is the top source of online revenue, raising over £1.3m to date – that’s a third of the total raised online. Our ads on Google and Bing generate over £10 in profit for every £1 we spend, with particularly strong returns from Bing. The analytics dashboard we built in Google Data Studio makes it easier than ever before to monitor the revenue each digital channel is generating and helps Nazia, the marketing manager, make data-driven decisions about where to invest her budget.

Being able to use my skills and experience to increase ROI and provide valuable insights for organizations like the DEC is part of why I love working for Torchbox. I enjoy geeking out on data and crafting campaigns that help to make the world a better place, one click at a time.

If you’re thinking you’d like this sort of help for your organization, please contact [email protected] to find out how we can make it happen.

Finally, if you’d like to donate to the DEC Emergency Appeal for people fleeing Myanmar it would make my day, and Sameera’s.