Take My Money, Please

There’s an interesting post by Columbus, Ohio based patron Heather Brown that chronicles her recent experiences donating to arts organizations via their respective websites. The opening narrative describes a frustrating experience where an attempt to make a small, single donation was stymied by a host of hurdles in the online giving process.

The shopping cart process will make or break conversion.

The impetus for her charitable venture was a moving concert experience, but everything from required registration, through process dead ends that require the user to call the organization’s respective office during business hours prevented a successful giving experience.

Normally, these hurdles would have caused her to walk away but she pressed on too see if her experience with this one site was unusual. What she discovered was most groups don’t make it very easy to donate online and if it were any other situation, she would have given up.

The process Heather described is called conversion, or how often a site visitor performs a desired action; such as buying tickets, engaging in a social share, or making a donation.

Within the orchestra field, something like online donation conversion is influenced by a few key points that more often than not, are misunderstood.

Your Website And Payment Gateways Are Not (Necessarily) The Same Thing

To really understand donation conversion, it is crucial to recognize that although users enter the donation process via your website, the actual journey and completion take place elsewhere.

The latter stage of the process is handled by a payment gateway, which is often integrated into an organization’s online box office process. For example, box office providers such as Ticketmaster and Tessitura design the processes which influence a donor’s online giving experience and in many instances, the actual web designers are completely removed from the process.

This isn’t a bad thing, and in some cases it can be very good, but there’s value in comprehending the distinction.

Case in point, Heather mentions being required to register an account in order to make a donation. This is a point in the process dictated by the box office provider, it adds additional steps to the process along with multiple page loads and every step decreases conversion rates. So in this regard, less is definitely more.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]”We were wrong about the first-time shoppers. They did mind registering. They resented having to register when they encountered the page.” – Jared M. Spool from The $300 Million Button.[/quote]

Back on 11/16/2009, I published an article about this very issue and referenced a study from that time by James M. Spool titled The $300 Million Button which discovered that online retailers lost sales by requiring customers to register before making a purchase. Instead, simply adding a single button at the end of the credit card and related info capture process asking the user if s/he wished to create an account for future use increased overall sales.

The Other Woman

Although nonprofit performing arts organizations have been comparatively slow to pick up on these mainstream best practices, I can say that as an arts organization focused web provider, who is not a box office provider but does offer basic e-commerce functionality, I am seeing more and more users inquire about implementing a donation process outside of the one supplied by their box office provider.

Even though they know that it usually means they will have some sort of ancillary payment gateway fees and they will have to likely need to manually enter the donor’s info into their CRM database, many still find it worthwhile because they know the current payment process is a conversion killer for small donations.

Admittedly, it feels a bit like being the other woman but in the end, I’m decidedly not after any box office provider’s business. If that’s what I wanted to do, I would have done it already but I want my clients to be happy with their box office providers because it makes my job easier; at the same time, I want my clients to be happy with their overall online presence so if that means setting up a simple two screen process so a patron can make a donation in less than two minutes, that’s what I’ll do. The real kick in the pants here is it is actually pretty easy to set up.

In the meantime, give Heather’s post a read; she promises additional installments so it will be interesting to see what else she observed in her online donation travels. Spoiler alert: she loathes Ticketmons…err…master.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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7 thoughts on “Take My Money, Please”

  1. There’s at least a couple of issues at play here: (1) not all orchestras (and arts orgs in general) have the resources to make their online giving experiences as seamless and enjoyable as, say, the bigger public radio stations; and (2) not all organizational leadership is even aware there’s a problem. The latter is arguably more troublesome, especially if leadership is not actively involved (or at least actively delegating someone else to be involved) in thinking about how the site user-experience affects conversion potential. In particular funneling donation transactions through an outside box office provider gives the impression that the org doesn’t care about the donor or, as the author of the blog post suggests, “must not need my money.”

    I cite public radio because there’s a radio piece about Minnesota Public Radio’s successful recurring giving program.


    • Those are excellent points, thank you for making them. That’s precisely what I was getting at when describing the difference between the web design and the box office provider. In some cases, the user organization has no choice in how the donation process unfolds.

      At the same time, it doesn’t mean they can’t use an alternative solution as the one I described. But recognition is the first step in all of this; if the people who make the decisions don’t see and/or recognize the problem, you can’t expect much to be done.

      If they do see the problem they can:
      1) push the box office provider for an improved process (or begin looking for a replacement provider).
      2) Seek an alternative solution that works alongside, but separate, from the box office shopping cart process.

      • I would add that the Columbus Symphony may be an unfair and inaccurate target of criticism (directly or indirectly). Going through the initial steps of the online giving process, it appears as though the operation is entirely managed by CAPA, not the Symphony. Other cultural umbrellas (Pittsburgh’s Cultural Trust/District for one) offer a similar range of “shared services” to organizations with limited resources, but they seem to give each individual organization more control over online giving functionalities.

    • That takes place during the 2013 Orchestra Website Reviews in the fall. They incorporate a rigid set of evaluation criteria and include 70+ professional orchestras in the US and Canada.

      The real sticking point for many in this field is the required user registration problem. Currently, there’s a strong, old-school mindset that the checkout process must include a registration requirement at the point of initiation.

      I can say from first hand experience that debates on the pro/con merits are very heated and as of now, many providers still favor the required approach. Fortunately, there’s a new ground swell of push back from organization users who see greater value in reducing capture fields and allowing unregistered user checkouts.

      So for now, any group that provides the latter in a process that doesn’t involve more than two page loads in the checkout process (three if they are small enough budget to rely on systems such as PayPal Standard) and no required registration is a reliable standard.

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