Three Strategies for Successful Telemarketing

Date Published
David Olson

Let’s Get Truthful About Phonathons

It’s 6:52 pm on a Wednesday night. You’ve been home for all of 15 minutes, and you just sat down for dinner with your family. Your cell phone starts buzzing, and you wonder, Who could be calling me now?

The number on the caller ID looks vaguely familiar, but it’s clearly not linked to any of your contacts. You notice that the inbound call is coming from the same city and state as your alma mater. Then it hits you…My school is calling for money again. So, you silence the phone and carry on with your dinner.

Sound familiar?

If you’re anything like me, you know it’s a student caller from your alma mater on the other end. They want to know if I’ll interrupt my dinner or NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt to write the university a check.

We all know this is true without even answering the phone because it’s happened so many times before.

A quick word or warning! What you’re about to read next is a true confession.

If my alma mater pops up on my caller ID, I don’t answer. Why? Because they’re only calling for one of two things: a cash gift now, or a pledge now to pay later. Also true is the fact that I worked at this university for 10 years as a fundraiser. Now here’s the shocker. For several years, I managed the student call center for the office of annual giving. Yes. I was Dr. Evil — the one who orchestrated those evening calls every fall and spring.

Honestly, I don’t like dodging calls from the university that I love. The university whose logo appears on stuff that I own. The university I wanted — with every ounce of my high school being — to attend. And the university where I spent some of the best years of my life raising my three children.

If this is how I feel, as a fundraiser nonetheless, then why would I want to impose this same scenario upon the constituents who matter most to me?

The answer is easy.

First and foremost, phonathons are proven revenue-driven fundraising strategies that contribute positive cash flow to an organization’s operating budget. I’ve never conducted a telemarketing campaign that didn’t raise a lot more than it cost. Last year, some of the country’s top-tier universities took in $500,000 to over $1 million from these phone calls. It’s such a big business that many universities have outsourced the management of onsite call centers to large fundraising firms that specialize in phonathon fundraising. Most of these firms will provide the training, management, and HR services for the student solicitors while the university provides the physical space and the talking points.

Secondly, phonathons help boost alumni participation rates. If you’ve received one of these calls, then you’ve likely noticed that the university will take any contribution, no matter how small. That’s because groups such as U.S. News & World Report look at the percentage of undergraduates who donate, no matter the amount, when finalizing their annual rankings of the best universities.

3 Proven Ways to Get Better Results

I’m not suggesting by any means that you consider ditching your existing phone solicitations. But, I am suggesting that you think outside of the box when it comes to using the telephone numbers that are stored in your data base. Here are some simple strategies that you may want to consider while you’re planning your next telemarketing campaign:

1. Give your audience an opt out.

One of the most successful phonathons I’ve ever conducted came about because of a postcard that simply said, “Your Phone Is Going to Ring!” Besides the usual details about when and why we were calling, we provided them with a way to opt out — “To make sure you don’t get called, simply make your gift today by going online or calling our office.”

We started that phonathon with over 38% of our goal in hand thanks to all of the “early-bird” donors who responded to the direct mail piece because they did not want to be disturbed.

2. Consider a third-party peer-to-peer texting platform.

I recently used our text messaging solution with a higher ed client, focusing our efforts solely on the graduates of the last decade.

The results were wildly successful. We achieved a better than 25% conversion rate using this texting platform compared with a 1% conversion rate using only phone calls.

3. Leave a voice message without making the phone ring.

This one is my favorite. Did you ever notice you have a new voicemail, but you don’t recall the phone ringing? With Ringless Voice Messaging (RVM) you can deliver thousands of voicemails in 20 minutes or less without making a single phone ring.

RVM is a rapidly growing strategy among our higher ed clients. Your 30 second voicemail is the ideal media channel to use as a follow-up to your next direct mail appeal.

A typical RVM message will include the name of who is calling, why they are calling, and a clearly defined, easy-to-execute call to action with a specific deadline.

Here’s a good example of a 35 second RVM message:
Hi, this is John Smith, Vice President for Advancement at XYZ University. We are about to kick off our bicentennial year and I hope you’ll be a part of it. I’m calling to follow up on my letter about a special donation to celebrate our 200th. If you’ve already made a gift, thank you. Everyone who makes a gift or a pledge by September 30th will be recognized as part of XYZ’s bicentennial campaign. You can give by mail, by phone, or online at You can also text the word DONATE to 99999 and receive a secure link to our donation page. If I can be helpful in any way, just let me know. Thank you!

It’s important to know your audience.

For the record, I give to my alma mater. I just don’t like phone solicitations.

Remember our opening scenario? Now, just think about how recent college graduates — who, on average, have about $33,000 in student loan debt and may still live at home — feel about being hit up for more money.

Lastly, do you remember the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry cunningly dealt with a telemarketer?

“Oh, gee, I can’t talk right now; why don’t you give me your home number, and I’ll call you back later … Oh, I guess you don’t want people to call you at home? Well, now you know how I feel.”

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