Merchandise is an invaluable tool for political and nonprofit campaigns. Not only does well-designed, high-quality merch help with fundraising, but it turns your supporters — people who align with your values — into promoters who advertise your cause by (literally) wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
But merchandise can be difficult to source and sell. It’s a lot of logistics to handle. And when your campaign is about making positive change, you want to be sure your merch strategy aligns with your core values. If you’re having second thoughts about opening a store — you aren’t alone. Without eCommerce experience, it’s a daunting task. On top of that, you aren’t a traditional retailer. Your goal is not to sell items and make a profit. Your goal is to sell items and make a difference. But with the right foundation and a solid web store, you can elevate your campaign and supercharge your fundraising efforts.
From executing a marketing plan to organizing the financial side, each foundational pillar is vital to providing a flawless experience for your constituents and achieving the results you want from your web store.
3 Reasons To Build a Campaign Web Store
For political and nonprofit campaigns, a web store is eCommerce in name only. Technically you don’t even really sell anything. Rather, you deliver free merch in exchange for donations. So why is a web store such an important part of your strategy?
- Fuel your fundraising. A web store is about more than allowing your audience to show their support through a sticker, button, t-shirt, or tote bag. It’s a powerful way to incentivize them to give. Simply put, a web store is another tool to get you closer to your fundraising goals.
- Expand your advertising reach. Web stores are a way to expand your advertising reach. Every t-shirt sold equals additional awareness, not only for the buyer, but for everyone the buyer encounters while wearing that t-shirt or sporting that tote bag at the farmers’ market. In short, campaign merchandise is an awareness multiplier. And if you have the right merch in your web store, you can see how that in and of itself could turn a casual supporter into an advocate.
- Burnish your campaign’s image. Having a store can positively impact the image and legitimacy of your political or nonprofit campaign. Many customers and constituents see an online store as proof that your campaign has resources and a built-in audience of supporters. We would never recommend building a store for the sole purpose of appearing larger in scale than you currently are, but it certainly doesn’t hurt your cause!
Resourcing Needs for a Successful Campaign Merchandise eCommerce Store
Staffing is a key factor to consider before opening a web store for campaign merch. You need people who can manage the finances, promote the store, ideate products and designs, and — if you don’t have an eCommerce development partner — manage the back-end of the store itself.
For nonprofit campaigns, staffing resources tend to be more stable. Whether large or small, nonprofits often have dedicated staff for marketing and communications. They may even have a designer or two. Anyone in these positions can help run a web store, especially if you also work with a development partner with a proven track record.
Political campaigns are a different beast. They are inherently temporary due to the election cycle, which means they might not have a consistent, robust staff capable of managing the foundational responsibilities of running a web store. That adds a layer of complexity, but nothing is impossible. Grassroots organizations can make just as big of an impact with creative solutions. For example, working with partners that offer print-on-demand (POD) manufacturing capabilities minimizes overheard while efficiently fulfilling constituent orders.
Achieve Success even with a Small Audience
Staff to manage inventory is one major factor to consider, but next is the actual buyers of your merchandise. A small audience can be a big hurdle to overcome. And while an eCommerce store can certainly attract new buyers to learn more about your mission (especially if your designs are on point), a web store is not a sustainable, standalone audience growth tactic.
If retailing is a high priority, a development partner can work with you to find the best solution to stand up a top-notch merch shop that won’t leave you drowning in unsold inventory.
Pre-orders can also be your friend. Rather than selling items through a web store, collecting pre-orders for one-time bulk purchases is a great way to minimize overhead and buy only what you need while still raising money and getting your campaign brand out there. A small, well-curated store is another way to test the waters by starting small and building out your inventory as demand increases.
5 Tips for Political and Nonprofit eCommerce Excellence
To get the most out of your eCommerce efforts, you’ll need some foundational elements in place. From staffing to branding to merchandise sourcing, all these factors help your store become a pillar for your campaign.
- Define your purpose
For nonprofit and political organizations like yours, it’s not about consumers. It’s about constituents. And that adds a layer of complexity to every retail effort. Your goals aren’t based on quarterly profit margins and units sold. Instead, they’ll be centered around funds and awareness raised.
Knowing your purpose is the first step to getting started with your web store. Your merchandising decisions will all be based on whether you aim to gain awareness by getting your merchandise into the hands of supporters or raise as much money as possible to propel your cause forward.
- Be sure your core functions are in place
Whether you manage your web store in-house or rely on a trusted partner, you’ll need to ensure you have a few core functions in place.
First, accounting is crucial. With funds coming in, you need finances to be handled by a professional. For political campaigns, you’ll need to understand specific considerations like FEC reporting. Internal accounting expertise is critical to running a store that is above-board in terms of your taxes and other financial or reporting requirements.
Next, you need a marketing and communications team to promote your web store. You can’t just build a store and expect buyers to roll in. There’s a lot of strategy and effort behind the most successful web stores, and you need a marketing mind to pull it off. Standing up a new store requires careful planning and promotion.
- Leverage your strong brand
A strong brand is the backbone of your campaign — and it’s equally critical to the success of your store. A strong brand equals an engaged audience, and provides a framework for the marketing and promotional plans that will support your sales. Of course, you can build awareness with marketing and communications, but only with a strong brand can you create a base of genuinely engaged constituents excited to participate in your campaign via merchandise.
- Support your brand with strong design
Some nonprofit and political brands can get away with merch design that’s little more than a logo — and that’s enough for it to fly off the digital shelves. However, not every brand is going to be instantly recognizable. Some campaigns build that kind of brand affinity over time. Others hit the right message at the right time and gain incredible engagement and brand recognition almost immediately.
If you don’t have that kind of brand goodwill from the jump, fear not. A solid design will help to ensure your store’s success. Topical designs, meme-based merchandise, and designs specifically crafted to appeal to your target audience are most likely to hit the mark.
- Prioritize ethical merch that aligns with your mission
Last but certainly not least, you’ll need to consider how to approach merchandising so your products are in alignment with your values. For example, the commitment to purchasing ethical, U.S.A, and union-made merch speaks volumes about a campaign. Not only does a decision like that translate to higher quality products, but the merch becomes part of the message.
A constituent base that aligns with your politics or cause will want to know they are not only supporting you, but supporting ethical and sustainable manufacturing. Don’t let quick and cheap solutions derail your campaigns. A union bug (a tiny emblem signifying an item is union-made) adds the authenticity and credibility your web store needs to succeed.
Do you Need a Development Partner?
Working with a development partner alleviates much of the strain running a web store can place on your staff.
For one, an agency will handle the development of your web store — no technical skills required from you or your team.
Next, they’ll handle production, sourcing, and fulfillment, taking the complexity out of finding high-quality, union-made, ethical merchandise and shipping it out. Plus, a partner can buy and ship at scale, giving you access to otherwise unattainable pricing.
Lastly, your campaign has higher priorities than handling customer service requests. A partner can field requests and manage customer communications, so they have a seamless experience with your store without draining your internal resources.
We aren’t saying you can’t open a web store without a partner. But if your staff is already at maximum capacity, a partner is a way to open a store without adding unnecessary pressure.
Web Stores Take Work — but It’s Worth It
A web store is not the field of dreams. You can build one, but that doesn’t mean people will come looking for your merchandise.
We sometimes liken building a campaign web store to adopting a dog. Dogs are great — but they don’t remain cute puppies forever. They take work, attention, and management as they mature and evolve. A web store can be an exciting new venture but also a big commitment. But, when you do it right, with a strong foundation in place (like teaching your dog sit, stay, and roll over), it’s just as rewarding.