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SEO For A Good Cause: Supporting Advocacy & Non-Profit Campaigns

Not every SEO campaign starts and ends with a P&L statement. An increasing number of political campaigns, advocacy groups, and nonprofits are using search engine marketing to achieve their goals.

It’s tempting to apply the same metrics to either kind of campaign: traffic is traffic, and conversions are conversions, after all. But issues-based campaigns often don’t work the same way; they typically target conversions of a different kind—actually changing people’s minds about issues.

That’s hard to quantify and hard to track; you can’t exactly calculate it down to the penny the way you can compute e-commerce success, nor can you count on traffic as a perfect measure of how many minds you are changing.

But here’s the good news: more and more people are going online to make their decisions, and more and more of them are treating #1 search results as the absolute truth.

Who Does Issues-Based SEO Campaigns?

  • Political campaigns. Savvy online campaigning isn’t just for President Obama. Local political campaigns can get lots of mileage from ranking for key terms—or for using strategic Adwords ads to raise awareness. These campaigns often combine online reputation management (controlling what shows up on page one when people search for a candidate’s name) and traditional SEO (finding keywords searched by “swing voters,” and getting content to rank for them).
  • Lobbying organizations. Who controls the results for “high fructose corn syrup“? How about “gun control“? Political advocacy groups are often willing to pay top dollar to rank for politically-charged terms.
  • Charities. Many charities have a mission to spread a particular viewpoint (social, religious, or other) along with their traditional activities. In addition, many charities use online activity to prompt donations, which can help fund their ultimate mission.
  • Other Advocacy Groups. Everyone has an opinion. Some opinions have a budget behind them. Some of the most fruitful issues-based campaigns are run by groups that target particular laws or viewpoints for change.

3 Reasons To Use SEO To Promote Issues

1.  SEO provides unparalleled “message control” for this kind of campaign. Most PR and advertising campaigns try to create an automatic association between two phrases—like “Tax Cuts” and “The Rich,” or “Government Spending” and “Deficits”.

2.  SEO can’t quite match that, but it can do the next best thing: take a term that doesn’t provoke a strong response, and use page-one results to get the same thing.

3.  SEO can nicely complement more traditional techniques like PR and direct mail. If it’s possible to turn a PR hit into a link—and use the link to help control page-one results for a controversial topic—this acts as a force multiplier for other promotional activities. Similarly, it’s possible to A/B test dozens of headlines and calls-to-action on a website—and then use the winner in an expensive direct mail campaign.

How To Run An Issues-Based Campaign

Issues-based SEO campaigns are largely similar to traditional SEO. They’ll start with broad keyword research, followed by on-site edits, and a long period of link-building. The key differences:

Many issues-based campaigns can seriously benefit from a rapid-response kit—a set of links and arguments that can be dropped into any discussion of a hot-button issue. For example, a group like the Peter G. Peterson Foundation might gather a list of compelling links and whitepapers involving deficit reduction, and then share them with journalists and bloggers who mention the topic. A rapid-response kit can also be a great template for blog comments, especially in lower-value venues.

Beyond the organic results, Google Grants can give nonprofits free Adwords ads. Google gives organizations up to $10,000 per month in free Adwords clicks, with one caveat: a maximum cost-per-click of $1. (You can often identify which keywords drive donation-driven traffic to nonprofits—by looking for similar terms with a cost per click hover just above $1 per click.)

The best way to use Google Grants is to find higher-traffic keywords that are slightly related to the issue in question, and build relevant landing pages (for use in organic search as well) that steer users to a more charity-focused topic.

    Why SEOs Should Take On “Issues” Campaigns

    Some SEO agencies are reluctant to take on nonprofit clients. They often don’t have the budget for a large campaign, and many nonprofits are “message-focused” in a way that makes it tough to optimize on-site copy. But taking on clients like this is great for business:

    • It makes a great case study. It’s always nice to say you’ve helped someone sell lawn-care implements, or getting more traffic to a lawyer’s website. It’s somehow a lot nicer to say that your campaign has changed—or even saved—lives.
    • It’s a good way to make good contacts. Many charities have board members who are active in the local business community. There aren’t many times you’ll be able to tell a room full of CEOs all about your marketing chops, but presenting an SEO campaign’s results to a nonprofit’s board could be exactly that.
    • It’s great for morale. Doing good makes people feel good. Working on a nonprofit campaign is a great way to make employees at an agency feel that their work is making a positive difference in the world.
    • You can get a great link. Let’s face it: you know you’re an SEO when you respond to any situation, however inappropriate, with the question “Will this get me a followed link?” Although dot-org sites don’t get an automatic premium from search engines, they do get lots of links. And few nonprofits are averse to adding a link to one of their partners.

    “Issues”-based SEO campaigns will only grow in popularity. More and more people make their decisions based on what they read online, and in a tough economy nonprofits need to be judicious about how the spend their marketing budgets.

    For an SEO professional, working on a campaign like this isn’t just a fun challenge—it’s a way to make a difference in something more important than a sales funnel.


    Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.


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