My guest today has been in the search and online marketing industry for decades. Through this time, he founded multiple companies – some of them making it big, and some failing. As every resilient entrepreneur knows, not every venture will succeed, and in fact it’s the failures that make you stronger, much more so than the successes.
Kevin Lee co-founded Didit, a leading digital-first marketing firm in 1996. He’s also the founder of GivingForward.org, a cause marketing nonprofit focused on generating revenue for other nonprofits. Previously to Giving Forward, Kevin founded We-Care, a cause marketing platform that generated over $8 million for nonprofits, and became the inspiration for Amazon Smile (which has generated $350 million in donations). Kevin is also the CEO of the eMarketing Association. In addition, Kevin invents marketing technology solutions for Didit clients, has written four books, spoken at more than 500 events, and published 700+ articles on marketing.
In this episode, Kevin shares his origin story that got him so early into the Internet scene, and the pivotal moment of his life that caused the biggest leap forward in his career. He also talks about the biggest obstacle in his life and business and how he overcame it. In addition, Kevin shares how he started his nonprofit venture, Giving Forward, and some tips for building and running a successful nonprofit.
Without any further ado, on with the show!
In This Episode
- [00:18] – Stephan’s guest is Kevin Lee, a resilient entrepreneur who co-founded leading digital-first marketing, Didit and for-a-cause marketing nonprofit, GivingForward.org.
- [02:08] – Kevin describes his journey in digital marketing as a thinker and strategist prior to founding Didit. He also discusses how he got started with paid search early on.
- [05:40] – There are two kinds of people: those who believe everything is random and those who believe nothing is random. As a stoic, Kevin discusses the numerous pivotal moments he experienced when starting up Didit and how he overcame the challenges he faced.
- [09:22] – Stephan talks about change and the power of the divine spark within us that has the intensity to create worlds.
- [13:49] – We must learn to navigate life’s bumpy roads because it will not always be smooth sailing. Kevin mentions his career’s biggest drop on the roller coaster.
- [15:19] – Stephan asks Kevin about karma and its application in marketing.
- [17:59] – Stephan and Kevin exchange their thoughts on intuition and the importance of paying attention to it whenever it appears, prompting Stephan to share the three components of intuition.
- [25:05] – What would be a better use of my capital? This is one of Kevin’s questions that allowed the creation of We-Care. He also explains how he launched and ran We-Care until he had to give up and shut it down.
- [31:31] – Kevin teaches the value of looking at the big picture after shutting down We-Care. He commends Amazon Smile’s strategy of changing consumers’ shopping behavior.
- [34:13] – Stephan asks Kevin to talk about Giving Forward and why he chose a 501(c)(3) organization despite the time-consuming paperwork and compliances.
- [43:30] – Kevin compares Sweeps For A Cause, philanthropic sweepstakes that is a part of Giving Forward, to Charitybuzz and Omaze.
- [48:30] – Kevin discusses the key to increasing the rate of donations for nonprofit organizations.
- [50:54] – Kevin shares their plan for establishing an auction clone.
- [51:55] – Support Kevin Lee in his mission and connect with him through LinkedIn or email him at [email protected]. For his podcasts, check the eMarketing Association’s website.
Kevin, it’s so great to have you on the show.
Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Let us start from the beginning here. You have been in this game forever since the SEO industry was in its infancy. You have also been in paid search since the beginning. How did you get into paid and organic? What is your origin story here?
It is interesting. Even before founding Didit, I was doing digital marketing in CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL, as well as creating floppy disk-based presentations in Macromedia Director and CD-ROM-based presentations. I was not the coder or the designer; I was the thinker and the strategist behind those types of things.
Didit was essentially like a spin-off of the original agency I co-founded in ’94 called Interact Multimedia, which no longer exists. We realized that organic SEO was going to be big. We did not realize how big; we really did not. We were looking at a platform called Submit It! and how we can improve it.
Was it? Okay, yeah. In any case, we thought, how can we improve upon Submit It!. We thought having an ongoing monitoring feedback loop where you could not just know whether you submitted or not but get automated reports and resubmission if your domain fell out of the search engines, which at the time, in those early search engines, like Lycos, Excite, InfoSeek, et cetera was beneficial. It was not unusual because things would fall out of the database on purpose or by accident, so we had an automated resubmission process.Obstacles can become your motivation to circumnavigate life. Click To Tweet
That was the early beginning of the Didit Detective, which was the tool you could use to find out if you were there and then the service to resubmit.
We also were early in paid search. We got into paid search because before there were any rules about black hat SEO, we were a little bit black hat. We were helping clients create doorway pages. Highly relevant ones, not irrelevant ones, but we were helping clients create doorway pages. In some cases, we would host the doorway pages and charge them on a CPC basis.
A guy from goto.com called us up and said, “Hey, do you want to buy some clicks from us? We are starting a search engine.” We said yes and started building in-house tools long before we had released any of those tools to the public.
Our clients said, “Hey, how are you managing that you’re buying tens of thousands of keywords and then reselling the clicks to us?” We said, “We built some technology to do that.” They said, “Well, why don’t you release the technology?” So, we did. That was the beginning of all the various iterations of Didit’s paid search tools. It was quite the journey for us to go from organic.
Sometimes we would be leading the charge on new things. Other times, we would look at what works well and try to do it slightly better.
Once it became for Bolton to do doorway pages, we stopped. But there was a period when there were no rules because nobody had written any yet. This is pre-Google. We continued to evolve with the industry over time. Sometimes we would be leading the charge on new things. Other times, we would just look at what works well and try to do it slightly better.
That’s cool. What pivotal moment or the synchronistic thing caused the biggest leap forward for you and your career in those early days? There must have been some sort of chance occurrence that was not a chance. Nothing is random. My experience is nothing random.
There are two camps of people: people who believe that everything is random and those who believe that nothing is random. Then I subscribed to that latter philosophy that nothing is random. So what was that synchronistic event that leaped you forward in your business, career, or life?
I think there has been a ton when we have had to pivot Didit many times over the years. The foundation event for Didit was just the fact that we came up with the idea of Didit at the agency I co-founded with a client, who ended up becoming my business partner for 26 years. So that was one of the synchronistic events; that was the catalyst.
Over the years, there were a lot of them. Some of them were not fun events at all. There were situations where Didit had to fight a frivolous lawsuit, which I cannot talk about, but you could look it up where somebody sued us because they did not like our bidding algorithm going in there and compressing big gaps was reducing their profit. That ended up resulting in a rough patch that we must work our way through.
I’m a stoic, philosophically. The Obstacle Is the Way is a book by Ryan Holiday that I subscribed to, in which sometimes the obstacle becomes the motivation to think through how to circumnavigate that obstacle. Certainly, I have had no shortages over the years that I have had to work my way around.
Yeah. I just looked up the definition of stoicism. It is the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.
That is one of them. It is also a philosophy. But yes, that is the more standard usage of the word.
If the obstacle is the way and you can see that this hardship is for your highest good, is that how you see it? There is a point; there is a purpose. There is a higher purpose to things like getting sued by some behemoth or if you have ever had a divorce or anything that you had to go through and seeing at the other end that, “Oh, wow, that was a huge gift!” My wife, Orion, likes to say that everything is a gift, but sometimes the bow is on the bottom.
Yeah. I think part of it is that, philosophically, when one looks at something in hindsight, the other common colloquialism is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That is an adjunct to the idea that the obstacle is the way. I am not big on comparing myself to people who perhaps felt—you might look at them from the outside and say, oh, well, their success just fell into their laps. It may, or it may not have. That is not relevant.
If you continue to be purpose-driven as an individual and a businessperson, you will always find a way around obstacles.
The relevant thing is that if you continue to be purpose-driven as an individual and a businessperson, you will always find a way around obstacles. Are you necessarily always saving the world when you build something that allows marketers to generate twice the ROI from a clickstream? That is not really saving the world. It is selling more cornflakes. But whatever it is, there is a little bit of a mission-driven mentality that you are doing good in some way or helping people in some way.
That is where stoicism fits in because if you are service-driven and ascribe to the stoicism philosophy, I can only control my reaction to what goes on around me; I can’t control what other people are doing. That is, I think, important for an entrepreneur because you will get into a lot of situations where you just can’t control the broader ecosystem. You just have to figure out how to continue to execute your vision.
Yeah. Was it Gandhi who said, “Be the change you want to see in the world?”
I believe so.
Yeah. We can’t change others. Yes, that is true. But we also have much more influence over the world, like global events, than we give ourselves credit for. We are way more powerful than we give ourselves credit for. We have the power within us. The power that lives within us creates worlds.
That divine spark is inside of us. We are immensely powerful. One thing I have learned through my studies over the last year or so in the metaphysical arena is that this multiverse of parallel universes is happening, an infinite number of them. We get to pilot one, and that is our universe.
We are observers if you are familiar with quantum physics. I know this is a little off-topic from marketing, we will get back into marketing, but my understanding is that we are the pilot of the universe that we are observing, that we are in. That means that we can change ourselves and thus, change the field, the quantum field, the infinite possibilities.
We shape through our observation like the double-slit experiment in quantum physics. Light is both a wave and a particle. But once you observe the light, it only turns into a particle. It no longer is a wave of potentialities. If you are curious, just google that double-slit experiment. It is pretty fascinating.
By observing, we collapse the multitude of possibilities in the multiverse into what happens in our universe. You can have a positive outlook on things like world events, conflicts between countries, whatever pandemics are happening, et cetera. You can influence the outcome of that. Whether World War III happens or not, it’s up to you. You might think, well, how the heck does that happen?
It’s based on the idea that the more benevolent you are, the more synchronicities you receive– more benevolence, more synchronicities; more benevolence, more synchronicities, and so forth. You don’t just get the upgrade. You’re piloting the plane here, that is the universe, and you get upgraded to business class because you’re extra benevolent. You’re super proactive and restricting your reactivity, so you get an upgrade. The entire plane gets the upgrade too.
If World War III is going to happen, it will no longer happen because you’re super benevolent. I got off on this tangent because you’re talking about, well, there are a lot of things that you can’t control. I think there is a lot more than we think is possible for us to influence all the way through to the fact of World War III; happening or not happening is up to us. I don’t know what your thoughts are on that. It is pretty out there.
One’s positivity and benevolence have a viral ripple effect.
I think that one’s positivity and benevolence have a viral ripple effect. Stoicism is more about not going home to cry in your soup if something bad happens, right? Continue to move forward because you can’t control the things around you.
Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.
Yeah, that is another way to look at it. Absolutely. As entrepreneurs, regardless of which of the philosophies you ascribe to, that element is key because it will not be smooth sailing the whole way along. Figuring out how to best deal with the bumps in the road or the dips in the roller coaster is pretty cake.
Yeah. What has been the biggest dip on your roller coaster on this wild journey, not just the 26 years, but you have been in business for longer than that because you were involved in a previous agency?
Yeah. At the previous agency, the outcome of that relationship was not positive for me. It ended up being more positive after some litigation, unfortunately. It ended up just not being a happy parting of the ways. That was difficult.
There are also challenges that get thrown in front of businesses along the way, whether it was the litigation that did not have to go through, there was a platform that we built in partnership with a very large organization under Didit where they chose to ignore a contract and steal it.
Then there are ones where if you just look at it through the right lens, you can be joyous in the outcome, which would be my team. I have built We-Care, a cause marketing cart shopping platform, generating $8.3 million for nonprofits, and then having Amazon get inspired by our A/B split test to launch Smile.
Obviously, that may not have impacted me positively. But the fact that they are so big at this point, I can’t argue with the positive karma of that happening. It’s just the lens that you look at it through sometimes, which allows you to, in hindsight, realize, wow, that did not feel so good at the time. But when I look at it through this lens, it is a net positive.
Yeah. I believe you earned lots of brownie points in the heavens for that. What is karma to you? How does that apply in marketing?
The marketing business and businesses, in general, love to use a lot of adversarial languages. Adversarial language is out of war. They will use adversarial language as it relates to sports in marketing. There is a lot of that baked-in language about winning, but you don’t necessarily have to win. Somebody else doesn’t necessarily have to always lose for you to win.
I think that applying best practices to marketing can sometimes result in some fun scenarios because if you think about SEO and co-creation of content, that is a win-win from the time you make a deal with that other party to co-create that content. You are both winning right out of the gate; applying that kind of positive karma-based methodology to SEO, digital PR, and PR results in a better outcome for everybody.
There is a lot of that baked-in language about winning, but you don’t necessarily have to win.
I had a house on the beach in Fire Island, a resort off of Long Island. It was time to sell it, and I thought, oh, it is such a wonderful house. It is architecturally digest level quality. I would love to get it some press since I will be selling it, but nobody is going to write just about that house. I must think about how to create a positive story that lots of people could benefit from.
When I pitched to the editor of the Mansion section of the Wall Street Journal, I pitched her on how Fire Island was going through a renaissance, and some of the old beach shacks were being invested in. Some really beautiful new houses were being created. She says, “Oh, Fire Island is getting fancy.” I said, “Okay, I guess you can look at it that way.”
She loved the idea, and so she sent out the photographer. We took pictures of ourselves in our house. The house became the featured image for the article. They ended up interviewing dozens of other homeowners out there as well in writing this featured article in the Mansion section of the Wall Street Journal.
I was not the only one to benefit. I think property value has increased due to that article across the entire Fire Island community. Sure, I got a nice piece out of it. Philosophically, if you approach it from this, what is the wonderful story, what is the story that helps everybody, you can benefit from that, but you will not benefit alone. It is a rising tide theory.
Give and then get. Do not try and get, get, get all the time.
Yeah, I like that. That resonates with me. The reason we are doing this interview right now is that I listened to my intuition. I get these out-of-the-blue ideas and nudges to interview people, to reach out to old friends, colleagues, and acquaintances I have not spoken to in years, sometimes even decades. It is amazing what happens from this. Sometimes it is completely out of the blue, somebody I had never even heard of.
One of the past guests was a copywriter. I had never heard her name before. I heard the name in my sleep. Like, okay, that is a clear message. It is just something that is coming from my subconscious versus something that is coming in from intuition. I knew that was coming in through intuition, so I interviewed her.
Anyway, this is kind of an out-there thing. I’m just curious about your thoughts on intuition and how you might utilize that in your daily role as a marketing firm, owner, founder, and someone helping many other companies in their marketing.
Intuition reconciles with your idea that you are the pilot of your multiverse.
I think intuition may just be a way of describing a variety of things. It could be something divine. It could be thought processes in the subconscious that bubble up to the conscious. It also, to some extent, reconciles with your idea that you are the pilot of your multiverse. How does intuition fit in if I pilot my ship through my version of the multiverse?
It is fascinating. I think intuition can result in creativity in many ways. Within the advertising and marketing community, often, if you talk about the creatives, those are the people. The art directors, the creative directors, et cetera, the designers, in some cases, the people who will score the music for your commercial or whatever, those are the creatives. But creativity bubbles to the surface in many ways, particularly strategically.
Again, I think that’s where intuition can become a valuable tool for marketers. If they leave themselves open to those things that may bubble to the surface in a dream, while they are taking a shower, or while driving down the street, and if they remember to write it down in the same way that you should write down the dream when you wake up, or you should run out of the shower or try to write it in the fog on the wall, so you do not forget it, those kinds of intuitive leaps that your brain takes.
Again, regardless of what you think about the higher powers, it doesn’t matter. It’s intuition. It is a positive thing that bubbles to the surface of your brain. You need to be open to giving it a second thought to evaluate; was it something I should act on, or should I just forget about it? A whole bunch of people forget about it and should have paid attention.
Yeah, for sure. Going against your intuition is not advised. It usually leads to pain. Maybe not suffering if you are a stoic, but I think it would lead to pain. I learned recently last year a definition for intuition that was quite useful.
It has three components to it. (1) Intuition comes unexpectedly, so just out of the blue. (2) It’s emotionally charged: neutral. It is not intuition if you are getting anxious about it; you are all excited, like, “Oh, I should buy Bitcoin, I should sell Bitcoin,” and you are anxious or nervous about it; that is not intuition. (3) It just stays put. It does not jump from the next thought to the next. The next thing you know, you are thinking about, oh, I got to pick up milk from the store on the way home. It just stays there. That is the definition of intuition or an intuitive hit that you might get. What do you think?
The more we learn about our client’s business, the more likely we will have that little flash of intuition.
Absolutely. I think what’s interesting, as it relates to those of us in marketing who help other marketers as opposed to purely marketing on our behalf, is that the more we learn about our client’s business, the more likely we are to have that little flash of intuition. Just looking at a client’s business at the surface and not delving in, you close yourself to that intuitive flash of strategy or something you feel you should share with them.
It might be wrong, obviously. Especially if you have bad data, you don’t understand everything about their business yet because you are new to it. But, I think part of that process of you being that fresh set of eyes that looks at a client’s business and then starts to have little intuitions pop up about this might be an interesting idea, let me think about that, or let me dig a little deeper here, that ends up being where some of the bigger wins show up.
That is an interesting thought. If I could counter with another idea, what if it is, the more we care about the client? We could come in not knowing anything about their business model, but we really care about their success and their impact on the world through their company. The intuition is on full tilt. You don’t necessarily need to know all the ins and outs of their business. But I do think that when you learn about a business more, that does tend to help you to care more about that business.
I will go with you. I like yours better because obviously, owning the domain name, We-Care, I have to go with the caring philosophy.
Awesome. That’s a good segue. Let us talk about this nonprofit, kind of charitable help-the-world sort of angle that is not common enough in entrepreneurship. I would like to see more of it. It has been a thread throughout your life. How did that come about? How is it showing up for you now with your latest venture, Giving Forward?
Thank you. It was interesting because once I started to become successful enough to consider writing checks to nonprofits, I thought, okay, well, how big can these checks be? I told myself, well, they can be moderately big, but they will never be huge. I would prefer to have my impact be huge if possible.
What is a better use of my capital? Is it for me to just write the check often, not knowing even where it will go because obviously, I cannot follow those dollar bills through that nonprofit that I’ve chosen or a basket of nonprofits? Or should I try to do what I love doing, which is inventing? Being a marketing mad scientist, where do I put my marketing mad scientist hat on and try to figure out how to make a greater impact that way than I can by writing checks directly?
There was a platform that pre-existed We-Care called iGive. They were not as fully geeked out from a technological perspective. I am like, I think I could build a digital shopping mall. Then I thought my first go-at-it with We-Care was that we built a partially transparent proxy server that could sit in between any LAN and the internet. Then, dynamically, throw up splash pages anytime anyone within the LAN was about to navigate to any website with an affiliate program and ask them to affirmatively opt-in whether they wanted to take their affiliate commission and have it go to their cause.
After building the MVP, I was never able to convince any LAN owner to install it because I failed to consider the fact that it was like, wait a minute, one more piece of technology and equipment to monitor and fix that could break my entire system? No way.You are more powerful than you give yourself credit for. The power that lives within you has the ability to create worlds. Click To Tweet
I went to universities and said, “You don’t understand this. You have 100,000 students here. You can generate significant revenue. You can endow a chair.” They were like, “Yeah, but the provosts, presidents, and development VPs can never convince IT to put a partially transparent proxy server in place between their LAN and the internet.” So, I was like, “I guess that will not work.” That was when I pivoted to going after the individual and getting the individual to install the We-Care Reminder browser plugin.
Again, I felt like I could do more as a marketing mad scientist for the social impact than I could individually write checks. So after Amazon went their way with Smile and I had to shut We-Care down, I continued to obsess about cause marketing and how cause marketing might be deployed in different ways than cause marketing-powered ecommerce.
Just to interrupt for a second, you presented your platform and your idea to Amazon, and they are like, “Whoa, we really like this. We are going to run on our own. Thank you, bye-bye.” Something like that happened?
They were partners. We used the Amazon Associates Program. They had been about 40% of the revenue we were collecting and then splitting 50/50 between ourselves and the nonprofits that our members had selected individually when they installed the We-Care Reminder plugin.
We got a call from the The Amazon team, and they said, “Listen, the associates’ program was never really meant to be used this way, but what you are doing is sort of cool. Why don’t you do an A/B split test and prove to us that people’s behavior changes? We were not sure that people’s behavior did change because we had never done the A/B split test before.”
We dynamically rewrote the browser plugin to split our billions of members. Half of the people saw the We-Care Reminder message when they got to Amazon. The other half only saw it when they got to other sites, but not to Amazon because we were suppressing that and becoming the control group. Then we looked at the data, which showed a double-digit lift in conversion rate and a double-digit lift in shopping cart size.
I felt like I could do more as a marketing mad scientist for the social impact than I could individually write checks.
We presented the data. In the interim, while we were doing the test, we had our biggest nonprofit partners like Save the Children, ASPCA, and some others write letters to Amazon saying, “We love We-Care. We love what We-Care’s doing. Can you please allow them to continue?” We were a little worried, to be perfectly honest when we were given this challenge because we did not know what the data was going to say.
The data came out good. Positive with regards to lifting. People’s behavior did change. We think that their being able to pick their favorite nonprofit cause had a lot to do with it. Particularly at the category level, people tend to have categories of causes that they really love. They may be indifferent between causes within that category, but they typically have a strong category of interest.
Animals tend to rank number one when you look at them systematically. Houses of worship are number two, and children are number three. There are lots of other subcategories. But in any case, you know that the data was good. Amazon chose their partner to build Smile themselves.
There was a little lull when we were shut down in Amazon. We continued to try to see if we could make it work with the remainder of the ecommerce ecosystem. But because we did all the marketing to get the installation of the plugin, it made it difficult for the numbers to work. At the same time, Chrome was changing the Chrome plugin infrastructure. We constantly had to go in and completely rewrite our browser plugins.
It was just too much of a headwind. It reached the point where we couldn’t pay back the installation cost because we were giving half of the revenue to the nonprofits. We just did not have as much leverage to continue operations. So eventually, we wound We-Care down.
Yeah. You had to let everybody go and shut down the company. Was that a nonprofit or was that a for-profit company?
That was a for-profit that started unprofitable, became profitable and became unprofitable after Amazon Smile.
Rug pulled from under you.
Yeah. Again, I have to look at the bigger picture there. I have to look at what Amazon has been able to do, putting their muscle behind it. They have been able to do amazing things. They went down to half a percent as to what goes to the nonprofit cause. That was still considerably above the lift that we demonstrated.
People tend to have categories of causes that they love.
It was brilliant when you think about it because they chose to create the Amazon Smile Foundation as a nonprofit and fund it entirely of the people who were happily selecting a nonprofit as the grantee from the money to leave the Amazon Smile Foundation to go to the individual nonprofits.
Most corporate philanthropy is arbitrary. The customers still fund it. Do not think that we did not pay as consumers for every corporation’s corporate philanthropy. We did, but it was an arbitrary decision that was made at a board level to spin off the Ford Foundation, the J&J Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, or whatever it is. The new ones, all these new companies also are forming their foundations.
Their boards are deciding what to do with the money by democratizing it and using their foundation like a donor-advised fund. It was brilliant because they funded the foundation with nearly 100% or probably in excess of 100% of incremental sales. These people raised their hands and said, I want to be an AmazonSmile member, and here is the nonprofit I would like to support.
They will support any nonprofit in the IRS database, all the way down to the little local league. So you can go ahead and put that into Smile. They improved upon it when they were inspired by it. Kudos to them. Creating and having the foundation funded by incremental sales was quite brilliant. The more people that join Smile, the changes in consumers’ shopping behavior completely fund the foundation.
Amazon gets the PR credit of millions of dollars, but, in reality, it was the consumers’ behavior change that funded it. It always is the consumers’ buying behavior that creates the foundation monies in any corporate foundation. But in this case, it is just more democratized.
You provided that spark for Amazon to go down this path with your idea and with the research, the A/B split test that showed the viability of this.
Yeah. As I said, I do not have access to any internal documents to say definitively, but it’s highly coincidental if it was not an inspiration.
Yeah, that’s cool. Now you have a 501(c)(3). Giving Forward is 501(c)(3) status. Why go down that route? There is a lot of paperwork involved and compliance that adds to the headache. What is the benefit?
It was again back to The Obstacle Is the Way with that. I was hoping to resuscitate We-Care. The next cause marketing-powered idea that I had caused marketing-powered content. I looked at the budgets that Didit was spending for clients. I am sure it is similar for all your clients and their paid media budgets.
They tend to go to Google, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, et cetera. The commonality of all those companies is that they get the content for free and their eyeballs for free. Low to zero audience development costs, which a publisher would typically have, and they have very low content costs, maybe zero. Sometimes they call the content. Sometimes you and I create it for them and then help promote it.
I said, “If I could build a platform where the content was free, and the eyeballs were free, I could afford to give half of the ad revenue to nonprofits. I could let the content creator pick a nonprofit and the content consumer pick a nonprofit. It could be medium but ad-supported. Then the consumer of the content and the creator of the content could both pick.”
I had my team MVP me a platform for that, but I did not know if it would work or not, so I decided to go out shopping for publishing assets that might be available. The first ones available while we were still working on the MVP, were Gothamist and DNAinfo, as well as Chicagoist, LAist, and SFist, which were shut down by Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who had been funding this hyperlocal news platform. Gothamist was the biggest.
The New York City office of journalists unionized, so he went from losing a lot of money to losing a lot of money. Even as a billionaire, he ran out of patience and said, listen, I cannot make this work. You guys were the final straw. You are unionized. Now I am losing money. So, he showed up, I think, the next week and shut the whole thing down and sent everybody home.
I was like, oh, hyperlocal news. How would I apply this cause marketing-powered content business to hyperlocal news? I knew it would bond it a little bit, and I said, “I guess the local council people, the local football coaches, the lawyers that are active in the community, the clergy, they could all create content. It could be community-powered journalism.” So I was like, “I should try to buy this.”
I reached out to Joe Ricketts directly and through his foundation’s director. He had a foundation as well, which teaches, I believe, kids in Africa to read. I reached out to both and said, “I have this sort of philanthropic idea. I would love to use Gothamist and DNAinfo to do it since you shut it down. Is it for sale?”
I was the only bidder on the asset until the last day. Then I was told by the investment bank that I needed to double my bid to stay in the running. It was barely worth what I was bidding, and I was like, what, doubling it? Absolutely not. I’m out. It ended up that a major philanthropist, I believe it was Bloomberg, gave WNYC, the nonprofit radio station in New York City, a million dollars to buy it.Focus on how your consumers interact with you. Their buying behavior can predict cash flow in any type of business setting. Click To Tweet
That was a pretty good outcome because they already had a footprint in the community. That gave them a website in addition to the WNYC website to put content. The editor of Gothamist, who had been laid off along with the rest, ended up running the relaunch of Gothamist under WNYC. They gave the other ists—Chicagoist, LAist, and SFist—to the nonprofit radio stations in those towns. Again, positive outcome.
Three weeks later, I noticed there was a Kickstarter, Save gawker.com. I was like, oh, I thought Univision bought Gawker, but it ended up that Univision just bought all the other Gawker domains except for gawker.com. It was considered too toxic, and they had told the bankruptcy court not to do anything with it for two years as part of their deal to buy all the other domains.
It was coming up for auction. Elizabeth Spiers and James Del, two folks who used to work at Gawker, were running a Kickstarter to try to raise a half-million dollars to buy it. I threw my $100 into Kickstarter and watched it. It started to plateau, around $80,000 or something like that. It became clear it was not going to kick over to half a million, which was an arbitrary number anyway.
Unknown whether that was going to be sufficient to win the bankruptcy auction, I called the plan administrator and asked whether I could get the Google Analytics and the Google Search Console logins. I want to look at this thing. From an SEO perspective, as you might imagine, I think it had about 12.6 million inbound links if I remember correctly, and good ones, too, not crappy ones.
I was like, I do not know if those will count in the future because you can never tell when Google will wipe the slate clean, but it is Gawker. The idea of Gawker for good was a fun phoenix rising from the ashes story, so I put a bid in. It ended up that most of the other potential bidders had been scared away when Peter Thiel, the week before the auction, had announced to the press that if anybody bought it and did not destroy the archives, he was going to sue them out of existence a second time.Intuition can result in creativity in many ways. Click To Tweet
The judge in the bankruptcy trustee did not particularly like that. They told me, listen, we are not going to count this first auction because that was tortious interference. We will run a second auction after we convince Peter Thiel to rescind his threat, which he did rescind his threat, and they ran a second auction. Then some people with a lot more money showed up for the second one, not a lot. Bryan Goldberg from Boston Media Group wanted it, so I didn’t fight him for it.
Long story short, I did not get cake over those domains. I went out. There were three other domains I tried to buy. I could not get any of the deals done, and I was like, I have no idea if this is going to work. Then a friend of mine said, well, why don’t you just start a nonprofit? Stop trying to whip your checkbook out to try to solve the problem. Why don’t you start from a dead standstill? I said, well, that is the whole point.
I do not know if it is going to work or not. I wanted to have at least half a million uniques a month as my testbed to see if it worked. Eventually, I just said, okay, I will have to just go ahead and start the nonprofit. I started Giving Forward. We were working on the tech, updating it to work without third-party cookies. While we were working on it, the pandemic hit.
I changed my thinking about what our launch domain would be. Originally, it was going to be like medium. Then I was inspired by what John Krasinski was doing with Some Good News. He had this YouTube channel where he would have some fun content, but then he would usually jump on and do a Zoom interview with a fellow actor he knew.
Obviously, I think for the launch episode, he did Steve Carell, who he worked with at The Office. They, of course, already had chemistry, so you knew it would be good. If I could get 20, 50, 100, or 200 celebrities to create the content and tag it with a cause, that would be great, but that doesn’t fit the medium model; this is a much more video-centric model. But the CPMs on video ads are much higher, so it is superior.
We decided to launch with goodbuzz.org. I had some folks I knew on the board of the Miss America Organization, and I thought, well, they have a foundation. They give out millions of dollars in scholarships every year. They have a 501(c)(6) that runs the event, and they’ve got the 501(c)(3) that does the scholarships. So I said they would be great partners.
They have some juice from the brand. It ended up that they had a difficult time during the pandemic. We did not get as much content created as we wanted for the launch, but that was our launch idea. Then we also tested cause marketing-powered events based on the idea that once an event goes virtual, you no longer have capacity constraints.
We built a ticketing platform like Eventbrite, where you get to pick a nonprofit when you register for the event, again democratizing the whole idea. Our tests went well with a sponsor. I realized the events are much more work, like five times more than anticipated.
We put the events platform on the back burner and then concentrated on Sweeps for A Cause while continuing to iterate on Good Buzz. Sweeps For A Cause is our clone of Omaze and Prizeo but run by a nonprofit benefiting all the other nonprofits, and that’s life now. It’s been quite an adventure on the Giving Forward side to get where we are. It’s not cash-positive yet as a nonprofit, but we know we will get there.
What does that mean, Sweeps For a Cause? Sweepstakes for a cause? How is that different or similar to Charitybuzz or Omaze?
Charitybuzz is an auction. Obviously, in an auction, only one person wins. The same company that runs Charitybuzz also runs Prizeo, a similar clone to Omaze. The concept behind Prizeo and Omaze is that everybody is a little bit selfish and a little bit giving. If you can push both of those emotional buttons at the same time, you are more likely to get a person to pull out their credit card.
There is an elasticity of response depending on how big the thing is that the person has a chance of winning.
Omaze demonstrated it, and so did Prizeo. When you push both buttons, you will get a greater response anywhere from double to 5X conversion rate on donation pages with the sweepstakes. Obviously, there is an elasticity of response depending on how big the thing is that the person has a chance of winning.
Omaze went in that direction. Omaze said, “All right, let’s go big. Let’s do houses, let’s do Porsche 911s, let’s do BMWs and Bentleys.” Obviously, for many people, that is what it’s going to take to get them off the fence. Prizeo was more of a platform for nonprofits to use, so the nonprofits had to bring the prize themselves.
Prizeo ends up being primarily experiential. Some nonprofit and a celebrity will team up and do something special that you can enter for a chance to win. Perhaps the conversion rate is a little bit lower on that because I do get to meet this celebrity. That is valuable to me, but the common theme there is the lift in response, the lift in conversion rate.
We said, well, we looked at the net to the nonprofit for Omaze, and we said, well, by the time they buy the Porsches, the houses, and everything, there is just not that much money left for the nonprofits. That gets distributed through a DAF. CAF America, I think, is the DAF, a donor-advised fund that they used to distribute the funds to the nonprofits. Again, it works, and it works great. The venture capitalists that gave them, I think, $127 million agreed that it works great. It was a win-win for everybody.
I just thought that as a nonprofit, we could put a little twist on the model and get prizes donated by merchants after the launch because we just recently launched, so it’s just our cash at the moment or my cash at the moment. Four thousand for the winner and then $1000 for their chosen nonprofit cause.
I have already had conversations with brands, retailers, manufacturers, and travel companies, who said that once you get your traffic levels up, it will be easier for us to justify this. Just get your traffic up to 100,000 a month, something along those lines. I can easily get it to be rubber-stamped. Right now, you have no traffic, so it would be harder for us to sell it internally.Stop comparing yourself to others. Instead, turn your focus inward and start being better at what matters: being YOU. Click To Tweet
That is going to be the idea. We just spun up the sweepstakes with donated prizes as a prize provider. We take care of all the administration, et cetera. For the bigger stuff, we can even co-reg with the merchant so that they get definitive marketing benefits. We can put learning videos in the user stream, so the user gets extra entries for watching videos and learning about the product or the service, et cetera.
We can deliver all this marketing benefit in a philanthropic way and take some sponsorship money from the prize donors as well, but also use this landing page where you have that giving and getting, potentially, a chance to win to increase conversion rates dramatically. We’re getting a bunch of PSA ad inventory from the programmatic ad ecosystem because we will use any nonprofit as the beneficiary.
We are cause agnostic. If we talk to a publisher and the publisher says, well, our CEOs on the board of Autism Speaks, we would love to help them. I will say we will probably get double or triple the conversion rate to donations if we want all landing pages instead of theirs because there is the selfish element. People want to win $4000.
The idea that we can change the dynamics and KPIs to create a win-win situation for everybody—the nonprofits, ourselves, and at least one happy winner on the consumer side—will be super fun.
I’m also really excited about potentially getting influencers involved, letting them package up our $4000 cash sweepstakes. If the winner wins and wants to have lunch with the influencer, they can choose to use the cash that way. It will be interesting to see where it goes. But, again, I’m a bit of a bulldog in trying to continue to be an agile developer and agile marketer and try things until I figure out what works.
Yeah, MVP, minimum viable product.
Yeah, awesome. If you could get every nonprofit in the world to change their donation page in some way that would get a much greater rate of donations, what would that be? Would it be to have prizes available for people who make donations, a sweepstakes kind of deal for every single nonprofit looking to get donations? What would it be?
There are different levers for different people regarding what excites them about donating. There have also been the tchotchkes and swag that have worked for many nonprofits like you hit a particular level of donation and get a tote bag. Some people will be more motivated by a tote bag than by buying a sweepstake.
Different emotional triggers will drive various segments of the audience.
The real key is to understand that for any nonprofit, there are different segments of your audience. Different emotional triggers will drive different segments of the audience. For the portion of your audience, that might be a little bit more exciting if they can win something. That’s great.
If you can deliver some kind of special experience as a nonprofit because you know a VIP or a celebrity, what is different between our platform and Prizeo because you can lease Prizeo’s platform to do it, is we don’t only bring our organic traffic to the mix.
Stephan, if you are a small local nonprofit, happens to know a VIP, and can get a lunch donated as a prize, we can run that across the broader ecosystem and let the consumers pick the cause they want. Just leave that cause as a default. What happens then is the people are mostly interested in the price; they just leave the default. Eighty percent of the money goes to that nonprofit or 90% because we will give an extra 10% to the nonprofit if they facilitate a prize.
What that extra 10% means is if the person comes in on your nonprofit but then changes their mind to the ASPCA, we still give the 10% to the nonprofit that brought in the price. It is a cooperative, collaborative environment. Again, that VIP lunch or Zoom conversation with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, how well will that do? It is going to depend on the VIP.
The Rock, I think, has 56 million Facebook followers. Even with a bad EdgeRank, that is going to reach some people. We hope that the word gets out to the influencers, VIPs, and celebrities that they can pick any cause they want. They can just use our platform, and we’ll figure out how to orchestrate it into something that makes everybody happy.
That’s really cool. If a nonprofit founder or marketing person is listening, try and get somebody like Mark Cuban to donate lunch and then talk to Kevin.
Absolutely. We are planning to build an auction clone as well eventually. Eventually, I want Mark Cuban to donate two lunches, and we will auction one off and sweep off the other because we want the hedge fund manager to pay $94,000 to have lunch with Mark. We want the barista at Starbucks to say, “Oh, I cannot afford that auction price, but I love Mark Cuban. I want to win lunch with him, but I will put $20 in to support the cause.” There are a lot of ways you can slice the donation cat.
That’s such a great idea. You are such an innovator and inventor. It’s really cool. Awesome. We are out of time. If our listeners or viewers are interested in helping you with your mission of making an impact with Giving Forward, or they want to learn from you, you got your four books. You have many articles, and I’m sure you have some video-based content they could also learn from; where should they go?
The easiest way to reach me is on LinkedIn, but you can also email me at [email protected].
Awesome. What is the best place to go for them to consume your books, articles, and all that?
Those are spread out, but emarketingassociation.com, which I also own, is a great way for them to see podcasts, including one with you.
Awesome. All right. That was fun and, I think, at least I hope, also inspiring because we can make such a profound ripple effect. Even if we are just doing marketing services for our clients, we can do something profound. I love what you are up to in the world, so keep it up.
Listeners, get out there and do something amazing. We will catch you in the next episode. In the meantime, have a great week.
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Your Checklist of Actions to Take
Stop comparing myself to others. Instead, turn my focus inward and start being better at what matters: being ME.
Control my reaction to what goes on around me. Always remember that I can’t control circumstances and situations that arise in my life. Don’t allow emotions to influence me to do or say things I will later regret.
Workaround the obstacles that come my way. Hard times stimulate growth in a way that good times don’t. Overcoming obstacles and learning from these struggles lay a solid foundation for success in later life.
Always apply the best practices in marketing in my business. Marketing is essential to any good business. It will help me reach and connect with my target audience and will ultimately grow my business in the long run.
Practice the Principle of Reciprocity in my business. The Principle of Reciprocity should be built on trust by offering incentives to my customers and providing customer service and complaint resolution policies that inspire that trust.
Pay attention and listen to my intuition. This will help me avoid unhealthy relationships and situations.
Understand the different segments of my audience for a nonprofit cause. Different emotional triggers will drive various segments of my audience.
Look at the bigger picture when doing a nonprofit cause. Having a big-picture perspective can help me prioritize effectively, set better goals and improve time management. In addition, by developing a complete perspective of a situation, I can make decisions that drive long-term results, which can help me advance my cause.
Visit eMarketing Association’s website to access Kevin’s podcast, articles, video-based content, and books.
About Kevin Lee
Kevin Lee Co-Founded Didit a leading digital-first marketing firm in 1996. He also founded GivingForward.org a cause marketing nonprofit with a focus on generating revenues for other nonprofits. Previously to Giving Forward, Kevin founded We-Care a cause marketing platform which generated over $8 million for nonprofits, becoming the “inspiration” for Amazon SMILE ($350 million in donations). Kevin is also the CEO of the eMarketing Association. Kevin invents marketing technology solutions for Didit clients and has written 4 books, spoken at more than 500 events, and published 700+ articles on marketing. Kevin received his MBA from Yale and lives in Scarsdale NY.