Until last year, Convio was a little-known technology start-up that adapted the CRM model to help nonprofit organizations build relationships with constituents using the internet and e-mail.
Then, Dean for America (DFA) hired the Austin, TX company to help raise money electronically for Howard Dean's Presidential campaign and call supporters to action.
"When you see a potentially life-altering event for your company, you need to get on it - and get on it in a big way," says Susan Tull, then Convio's corporate communications director.
Before the Dean campaign presented its golden opportunity, 5-year-old Convio had focused its own PR efforts on the nonprofit organizations that make up its client base. Specifically, the company sought media placements and speaking platforms to reach that narrow audience.
The success of DFA's online fundraising efforts became obvious early last year to those on the inside. "He raised $18 million, $100 at a time," says Convio CEO Gene Austin. "That's what nonprofits want to do."
Convio champed at the bit to publicize its services, but DFA didn't want to give away its secrets too soon and rightfully wanted to be the first to tell its story. Presidential candidates must disclose their fundraising activities quarterly, however, and DFA announced its success in early July. The campaign didn't allow Convio to begin pitching its own angles for several days. But Tull, then a PR department of one, saw a chance to expand Convio's audience to include business, technology, political, and mainstream media.
The first step was beefing up Convio's media list. Tull hired Houston boutique Pennino & Partners to help identify and pitch national print and broadcast reporters in the targeted sectors.
The team used subsequent financial releases as opportunities to issue press releases and pitch feature stories, Tull says. Angles included publicizing how the internet democratizes politics by giving small donors a venue for participation.
The story wasn't too difficult to sell. "[Dean] had an internet operation that was the envy of the political world," notes Business Week reporter Stephen Baker, who included Convio in a story about the campaign. "In very short order, [Convio's PR team] got me an interview with the CEO. In my line, that is the best thing a PR person can do."
Convio also used its technology to its own advantage. For example, after posting a white paper to its registration-access website about how nonprofits can use internet fundraising, PR staff could tell which reporters viewed it and then quickly follow up with them.
"I've never had the coverage in a six-month span that we had with Howard Dean," notes Austin, who came to Convio last summer after serving in executive positions at BMC Software, Dell, and CareerBuilder.com. "The sales impact was probably about $1 million."
New clients include Farm Aid, and that organization's development director, Wendy Matusovich, says media coverage last year helped position Convio as a legitimate partner.
The DFA campaign generated 52 stories in the second half of last year, more than doubling the press that Convio garnered in the first half. Even though Dean ran out of gas early this year, media interest in Convio continues. According to Tull, the experience opened new doors with reporters.
So far in 2004, Convio also has confirmed twice as many speaking engagements for its executives than they participated in all of last year.
As Convio's DFA-related campaign wound down, the company ended its relationship with Pennino and expanded its internal PR staff by hiring Whitney Otstott as corporate communications manager.
"We are still very focused on promoting client results," Tull explains.
PR team: Convio VP of corporate communications Susan Tull (Austin, TX) with help from Pennino & Partners (Houston)
Campaign: "Lessons nonprofits can learn from the Dean for America campaign"
Time frame: Second half of 2003
Budget: External PR spending less than $16,000