Marketing Can Save More Lives in Blood Drives
Research

Marketing Can Save More Lives in Blood Drives
Nonprofits need data analytics to be more efficient, research shows

Under the threat of powerful Hurricanes Florence and Michael, East Coasters planned for the worst.

They scrambled for resources, boarded up buildings and homes, filled sandbag, stocked supplies, and, ultimately, many had to evacuate.

Meanwhile, one quiet drumbeat steadily tapped along.

The call to action for blood donations, if successful among the noise, would save lives.

Video: Research in ActionMarketing Can Save More Lives in Blood Drives

“The need for blood comes quickly and furiously,” says Alexander Sigua, who works in marketing and public relations for Vitalant, a blood service provider. “We immediately hit different forms of marketing, such as email marketing, social media, our website, telephone recruitment center, along with many others.”

But blood banks often struggle with tight marketing budgets, dynamically changing costs and inefficient strategies for measuring their marketing impact. And little research has been done to effectively help blood banks manage their operations and outreach to meet the spikes and troughs in demand.

“The issue for marketing managers at blood banks is not so much donations—it’s important—but what they really care about is to have donors who come regularly and respond to calls to action.”

RESPONDING TO CALAMITY

For these community-based, not-for-profit organizations, the marketing approach often runs counter to the for-profit world.

When disasters hit or tragedy strikes and there is a sudden shortage in donations, blood banks must spend heavily to attract more donors as fast as possible to save more lives. If too successful though, their return on marketing investment plummets and much of the blood spoils.

“Because blood is a perishable good, you cannot just maximize donations,” says Associate Professor of Marketing Olivier Rubel. “If you are storing a lot of blood, you’re going to have to get rid of part of it.”

Blood banks often struggle with tight marketing budgets, dynamically changing costs and inefficient strategies for measuring their marketing impact.

As populations age, long-term demand for blood rises and blood banks’ marketing spend has to compensate—but only to stay within a target window. Marketing a medical lifeline without the aim of making a profit can feel like a quixotic objective. What’s more, no formal blood marketplace exists—with no standard value for a pint of blood—and each hospital purchases blood for its own unique needs, which change every day.

Only recently has this niche area been the topic of business research. Rubel joined with fellow Associate Professor of Marketing Ashwin Aravindakshan and Oliver Rutz of the University of Washington on a study published in Marketing Science that offers a dynamic model to help blood bank marketing managers understand how blood donations can be managed via online paid, owned and earned media. Their model applies to nonprofits of similar type.

THE VALUE OF A DONOR

A pint of blood is free to give, costly to collect, test and distribute, and often expensive to buy.

According to Rubel’s research, the average cost per pint for blood banks is between $200 and $300.  A single car accident victim can require as many as 100 pints of blood. With about 15 million pints of blood donated each year in the North America, the annual market value for blood in the U.S. and Canada tops $4.5 billion. Yet no one blood bank is dominant and many smaller organizations serve their communities.

In the U.S., the role of collecting blood usually comes down to nonprofits operating on budgets of less than $100,000.

Beyond the value of blood, what is often more consequential for these organizations is the value of an individual donor. Only about 37 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood, and less than 10 percent do annually. But one pint of blood can save up to three lives.

“The issue for marketing managers at blood banks is not so much donations — it’s important — but what they really care about is to have donors who come regularly and respond to calls to action,” says Rubel. “This predictability allows them to better manage the inventory of blood resources.”

“Think of it as your car dashboard. You have your gas, speed and so on—that’s one thing, but then you have to drive it. The dashboard gives you the measurements and the driving is the action.”

LIFE-SAVING CAMPUS COMPETITION

As UC Davis students nap in hammocks under the autumn canopy or claim a study space on the cool grasses of the campus Quad, a half dozen 50-foot buses perch in wait under the shade of the trees.

The coolers are ready, the diesel generators are growling and the custom advertising emblazoned on the Vitalant blood mobiles reads: “Yes, we do save lives.”

Marketing a medical lifeline without the aim of making a profit can feel like a quixotic objective.

Each October and November the Vitalant blood mobile buses visit UC Davis and California State University, Sacramento, for the annual Causeway Classic Blood Drive. Student volunteers lead the marketing effort, taking to Facebook, local event calendars and printed fliers to encourage their campus community to donate. Over the last decade, the Causeway Classic has collected more than 3,000 donations.

“Everyone comes together in the name of saving lives, while hosting a friendly competition to see who can garner the most donations,” says Sigua. “It’s the perfect example of the community partnerships that Vitalant maintains.”

This is also a chance for the organization to test its rebranding campaign. Until recently, Vitalant was known as Blood Systems with 10 separate brands, a research institute and a laboratory. After a consolidation and rebranding in September, Vitalant now “brings together the benefits of a cohesive centralized support structure,” according to its news release. This should also provide a more analytical view of the marketing behavior involved with its 1.8 million annual donations.

In other such blood drives, Rubel has observed that too much critical data slips through the cracks.

BLOOD DRIVES NEED DASHBOARDS

“Ultimately, when you have to make decisions, in terms of managing marketing budgets,” Rubel says, “you need to have a sense of ‘if I invest one dollar in making phone calls or radio advertising, how many more blood donors am I going to get?’”

He encourages a more scientific approach. If blood banks can measure the impacts of specific marketing actions on donations and quantify those effects, he says, then marketers can use that information to maximize the potential of the various outreach tools already at hand. In recent years, digital tools for capturing these analytics have become much more prevalent, affordable and accessible to all skill levels.

Rubel says the data should also include organization-wide variables like costs for collection, distribution and wasted blood. More efficiently predicting and managing blood coming into the blood bank in this way would apply in-house resources more effectively while reducing costs for labor, marketing and logistics.

“Think of it as your car dashboard,” he says. “You have your gas, speed and so on — that’s one thing, but then you have to drive it. The dashboard gives you the measurements and the driving is the action.”

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Download the full study, “Managing Blood Donations with Marketing,” by Ashwin Aravindakshan, Olivier Rubel, Oliver Rutz, published in Marketing Science.