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Nonprofit SEM: Leveraging search to expand your community

5 min read
Jul 17, 2023

If people are looking for your organization on the internet, can they find it?

I don’t mean “Can they Google your organization’s name and find your website?” Nope, I’m talking about the people who don’t even know they’re looking for you, yet.

The people who are searching for things like “homelessness services in Minneapolis,” or “summer camp programs for teens with disabilities,” or “free art classes for seniors.”

Your organization is the answer to the question! But will they find you? With a nonprofit SEM strategy, you can help them find what they’re looking for — you!

What is SEM?

SEM is an acronym for Search Engine Marketing, the practice of marketing via search engines. When people use the term SEM they’re usually talking about paid ads, but technically, it’s an umbrella term for all search engine marketing. 

A quick search glossary

I’m convinced that one of the reasons marketers get intimidated by search is the sheer number of acronyms involved.

All these jumbled letters make it feel more complicated than it is — I even think some people may be trying to make it more complicated than it is.

Here are a few terms you’ll encounter as you explore SEM:

  • PPC — Pay Per Click: Also known as “Paid Search” or “Paid Ads.” Organizations bid to appear in search results, and pay every time someone clicks on their ad. When you Google something and there are results at the top of the list of results marked “Ad,” PPC is at play.
  • SERP — Search Engine Results Page: The page of results that you get in response to your search engine question (known as a query).
  • SEO — Search Engine Optimization: The practice of making websites more friendly to search engines, in hopes of ranking higher on search. Also known as “organic search.”

Why should nonprofits care about paid ads?

If you put up a billboard next to the highway, lots of people would see it — interested people, people who couldn’t care less, and people who already know about you, plus all the people who go by without really looking.

The only reason it’s good that lots of people see it is because it’s not targeted — you have to get in front of a lot of eyes in order to find the small percentage of interested people. 

PPC is like a magical billboard that can only be seen by people who were already likely to be interested in what you do. Instead of aiming at “everyone” in hopes of connecting with a small group, you zero in on the most promising prospects.

It helps people find you, but it also helps you find your people. This makes PPC an important tool for growing your community, whether that’s people who need your services, new donors, or new volunteers. 

Paid ads have the advantage of appearing on a SERP before everything else. While reaching the top ranking results organically can be challenging, paid advertising can put your name right at the top of the list. 

How SEM works

SEM revolves around keywords. First, you’ll identify the keywords, or keyword phrases, that would help people find your nonprofit.

Keyword research can be extensive, but as a general rule, you’ll want to focus on long-tail keywords that are more specific and so less competitive and popular.

For example, if you choose the keyword phrase “youth art programs,” you could be competing against all the other youth art programs in the country, in theory. Terms like, “youth sculpture programs,” “kids watercolor classes near me,” or “youth art programs Sacramento County” will be less in demand and so cheaper and easier to win with. 

The competition factor matters, because of how ad auctions work for PPC advertising. For instance, in Google Ads, you’ll choose your keywords, then enter a bid for how much you’ll pay per click.

Google analyzes the bid, the keywords, the quality of the ad and landing page, and more to determine the winning bid to display. More specific keywords are easier to win at auction, simply because there isn’t as much competition.

Keywords are important for organic search, too. Search engines prioritize websites that match search terms and demonstrate that they’re offering what searchers are looking for. Weaving your keywords into your website can help it rank higher in search. 

To start collecting keywords:

  • Think about what your community members would search for.
  • Search for organizations like yours and check out the “related searches” suggestions.

Is SEM expensive for nonprofits and associations?

Like any marketing activity, you can spend as much as you’re willing to on SEM. However, for nonprofits there are three little words that make a big budget difference: Google Ad Grant

Google offers up to $10,000 a month in search advertising to qualifying nonprofits. This is a tremendous value, especially if you want to experiment with SEM without running much financial risk.

Microsoft’s Ads for Social Impact Grant offers a smaller budget, and is currently paused, but is worth keeping tabs on, too. 

Top 3 priorities as you approach SEM

As you start to develop your SEM strategy, keep the following in mind:

3. SEM is part of a bigger whole

The best use of SEM is as part of your bigger, omnichannel marketing strategy. Display advertising, social media advertising, email, direct mail, and in-person communications all work together to create one cohesive experience for your donors, participants, and volunteers. 

For example, if your paid search ad takes people to a landing page where they can make a donation, follow up with an email or text message to thank them. Use that website behavior (clicking on your ad, making the gift) to target future communications to them across channels. 

2. Content matters

Relevance is a big part of successful SEM efforts. If your ad gets clicks, but doesn’t deliver what it promises, you’ll soon find your bids aren’t winning. If your website is crammed with keywords, but isn’t useful, it won’t climb the rankings on a SERP. 

Make sure the content you’re offering searchers is clear, helpful, and engaging. Meet readers' needs and demonstrate to search engines that your ads and pages are relevant and good. 

3. Keep experimenting 

SEM is not a “set it and forget it” strategy. As time goes on, you’ll need to try new keywords, adjust to meet new goals, and see how your strategy is working. It will be a constant work in progress. 

As you plan your campaigns, from fundraising to membership drives, consider how you can incorporate SEM.

Should you try running search ads during National Volunteer Month? Serve display ads to people who entered relevant search terms to grow your services in a new area? Try it out!

It’s about expanding your community

SEM for nonprofits isn’t about selling more widgets. It’s about expanding your community.

Ultimately, SEM can help you reach the people who would be supporting you or using your services, if only they knew they could. While keywords and costs per click may seem dry and technical, they have real, meaningful impact in the hands of nonprofits and associations.

 

About the author:

Megan Donahue is a communications consultant, writer, and nonprofit nerd. She's the host of Love & Robots and fascinated by the intersection of nonprofits and technology.











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