Nathaniel Ward

Hey there! I’m an online marketer and fundraiser living in Washington, D.C.

I love understanding why people make decisions—why they say yes to an offer or unsubscribe from an email or make a purchase.

I’m fascinated by psychology and how technology and experimentation can help us understand people better. This helps us marketers communicate better with each person we reach.

These are the subjects of my frequent talks on online marketing and optimization, including at the Marketing Sherpa Optimization Summit, the Nonprofit Innovation and Optimization Summit, the Bridge Conference, and the Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Conference.

Most of the time, I can be found at the Leadership Institute, where I oversee online fundraising and drive marketing optimization.

P.S. Opinions expressed on this site are my own.

I don’t have comments enabled, so here’s how you can get in touch: Send me a tweet. Or find me on LinkedIn.

Recent scribblings

When data analysis goes wrong

Writing in Wired, Gary Smith explains the dangers of mindless data mining:

The Feynman trap—ransacking data for patterns without any preconceived idea of what one is looking for—is the Achilles heel of studies based on data mining. Finding something unusual or surprising after it has already occurred is neither unusual nor surprising. Patterns are sure to be found, and are likely to be misleading, absurd, or worse.

This approach can generate spurious correlations—patterns that are true but meaningless. More Smith:

In 2011, Google created an artificial intelligence program called Google Flu that used search queries to predict flu outbreaks. Google’s data-mining program looked at 50 million search queries and identified the 45 that were the most closely correlated with the incidence of flu. It’s yet another example of the data-mining trap: A valid study would specify the keywords in advance. After issuing its report, Google Flu overestimated the number of flu cases for 100 of the next 108 weeks, by an average of nearly 100 percent. Google Flu no longer makes flu predictions.

A better approach to data analysis, one that will return the most useful insights, starts with questions to answer and hypotheses to validate.

By Nathaniel Ward on


Fundraising short-termism

The nonprofits and political movements that endure are those that build meaningful relationships with their donors.

Yet the temptation remains to make decisions that are effective in the short run but catastrophic over time—to sacrifice long-term success for victory today.

This is particularly true in politics. For political campaigns, what counts is winning the election; considering a future beyond Election Day is just a distraction. This can lead political fundraisers to eschew meaningful relationships with donors in favor of gimmicks, misleading language, and constant shrill appeals for money.

The Washington Post profiles one firm, Mothership Strategies, that takes this approach:

The company’s profits are built on exaggerating fears, some fellow Democrats say, and could erode trust among small donors needed to help 2020 presidential contenders compete with Trump’s loyal base of contributors — and beyond…

The company’s three millennial founders are unapologetic about their tactics — so much so that one employee’s bio on the company’s website touts she has “mastered the ALL CAPS SUBJECT LINE.”

These shortsighted tactics, a bipartisan affliction, are justified as being effective. Indeed, this approach may work quite well in the short run, drawing eye-popping returns that exceed anything from a more durable approach.

Over the long haul, though, treating your donors poorly erodes trust. Donors will catch on eventually that the sky isn’t always falling. They will tire of the one-way relationship, disengage, and stop giving.

By Nathaniel Ward on


Nick Marcelli parodies campaign technology reporters

Nick Marcelli has already written the post-election digital strategy article you’ll read seven times next week:

Over a dozen operatives interviewed for this story say [Campaign] has been quietly building a digital and data operation which may rival Obama’s vaunted machine. “This is the best digital operation in history.” Said one operative familiar with [Candidate]’s digital operation.

The closing paragraph nails it.

By Nathaniel Ward on


Don’t blindly follow design trends

Kevin Marks has a surprisingly quantitative take about why the web is getting harder to read:

There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.

Typography may not seem like a crucial design element, but it is.

The key takeaway: blindly following design trends can make it harder for people to read your stuff. That’s especially important for fundraisers, who often deal with older audiences.

Fortunately, you don’t need to adopt a design because it’s trendy. You can experiment to find out if that design better achieves your goals than what you’re using now.

By Nathaniel Ward on


How to focus

How do you remain focused and productive in a world full of distractions? Here’s how I do it:

  • Use a task management system like the Getting Things Done framework. Getting your to-do list out of your head and into a list or an app like Todoist can help you declutter your mind and prioritize what’s important.

  • Take notes about everything. Jotting down a few ideas during or after every meeting will help you focused, organize your thoughts, and keep track of important information. Using an app like Apple’s Notes or Evernote will make your notes searchable in the future.

  • Turn off device notifications. All of them, on all devices. I only allow notifications for texts, phone calls, and calendar reminders, and then only on my phone. Very little is so important that it requires a chirp or a buzz or a visual alert when you’re in the zone.

  • Dedicate time to your priorities. If something is important, even something that’s not “work” like exercise, devote time specifically to its completion. Use your calendar to reserve the time so people don’t schedule you. And when you’re working, use a timer like Tadam to help maintain focus.

  • Start projects early. Start working on a project immediately upon receiving it, while it’s top of mind. Your initial inspiration, even if it’s just notes jotted down, will serve you well when you’re under the gun.

  • Turn down unnecessary meetings. Other people don’t control your time. You do. If you have something to do that’s more important than attending the meeting, politely decline.

What do you do to focus?

By Nathaniel Ward on