For years we have found it more difficult to attract foundations, media attention and new members through our efforts. However, our usage continues to increase, by 20% this election cycle alone. We’ve tried every method that has been thought of to work our way out of a tightening financial belt. Here is a brief accounting of efforts:
1. We hired a prominent Washington PR firm to help us re-attract media attention resulting in only a few local Vote Smart stories.
2. We hired a foundation consultant who proved unsuccessful at attracting foundation interest.
3. We continue to test mailings to random samplings of other organizations’ members. These once-profitable mailings once cost us only 19 cents a letter. But now, due to increased costs for printing and postage they cost us 63 cents a letter.
4. We traveled 11,000 miles (before Covid-19) criss-crossing the nation reaching out at universities, community organizations and media to argue the
importance of insuring every citizen with easy access to abundant, accurate factual information about those seeking public office. It raised funds from those in attendance but went no further.
5. Our in-house efforts on social media have only produced a handful of new members. Recent efforts to make our posts more provocative have added few new followers and no measurable increase in contributions. We currently have about 31,000 followers. That is only up about 3% from the first of this year.
6. We hired a social media consultant and spent $20,000 for social media test ad buys. This effort has tested a dozen or more varied postings, none have successfully raised contributions. However, it is important to point out that these postings have attracted new users at a cost as low as $0.04 each, which is very low cost compared to any other option or with any other effort our consultant was aware of.
7. We have produced four commercials and three PSAs at a cost of $20,000 in the hopes of creating provocative ads that would go viral. They did not. We hired PSN, a company that distributes PSAs with a reputation for getting the PSAs played, including Nielsen ratings (our proof of where and when they played). Although these PSAs have played over 30,000 times on over 400 stations nationwide we have no evidence that it has resulted in new contributions.
8. One area of financial success has been our API. The API enables other companies/organizations to use our data on their websites. Our API effort has been used over the past four years by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, US Vote Foundation, Everytown for Gun Safety, The Federal Voting Assistance Program, NBC, National Journal, Marijuana Policy Project, FiveThirtyEight and dozens of small individual researchers. These relationships have raised over $300,000 in added revenue.
9. The only other area of financial success has been in our members’ willingness to increase the amount of their contributions. Although our general membership continues to lose more supporters (due to our aging membership) than it gains in new members, the percentage of revenue from givers has increased dramatically.
The bottom line is this: Our plan had been to find some successful results in these varied tests and then, given the unique election we were in, spend our available resources to take advantage of those successes during the opportunity. But partisanship and hate so filled the air, reason all but vanished. Although such an expenditure might have tripled our data’s usage, which had already attracted almost 14,000,000 users, it would not translate into added member contributions.
WE HAD TWO OPTIONS:
1. We spend most of our available funds largely on social media advertising because the cost of reaching individuals is so low. This could increase voter’s use of our factual data by up to 300% or roughly another 35 million people, but would also likely break us financially, as new users do not tend to contribute to anything other than partisan politics in this new environment.
2. We lock things down: end our self-promotional efforts like social media, commercials, PSAs, prospecting mailings, and discontinue all media contracts for social media and PSA work. We sustain our Membership Department to serve members and our efforts to promote the use of our API (basically selling our data to large users willing to pay for it in bulk). We then focus all of our resources on maintaining and enriching our databases in the hopes that its value will one day become self-evident and thus self-funding. This would enable us to continue to serve at least through the 2022 elections and possibly 2024 on current resources and membership.
Our Executive Committee unanimously agreed on choice #2. In effect, we will batten down the hatches and cease nearly all those self-promotional efforts that do not help raise revenue. Vote Smart’s focus after this election will be on growing the richness of our data and even easier ways for citizens to access that data. Our hope is that the value of our work will become self-evident, and in the end, sell itself.
— Vote Smart’s Board