What does your parent group have in common with huge corporations like Apple and Amazon? On the face of it, maybe not much. But there’s a lot a parent group can learn from these and other retail pros that could help boost fundraising profits. Whether your group wants to revive a sagging fundraiser or keep a profitable one going, it can take cues from successful sellers to effectively promote a product, reach potential customers, and provide top-notch customer service.

Know Your Selling Point

Parent groups have one major advantage over big business: your cause. You have a built-in audience that shares your goal—helping the school and students succeed. The number one thing you can do to build your fundraiser is to communicate how it will help achieve that goal. Above all, make sure that your promotion highlights the reason your group is trying to raise money. Instead of focusing your communications on the dollar amount, talk about how the proceeds will be used. For example, say you’re halfway to a new playground rather than halfway to raising your goal of $10,000.

Beyond communicating your cause, there are lots of ways to enhance a product fundraiser. Think about how some of the successful approaches used by big companies might apply to your fundraiser. For example, whatever product you choose for your fundraiser, it helps to have something special that you can focus on to really sell it: a selling point. Before the fundraising sale begins, think about how to quickly convey to customers what makes your products different and desirable. You might look to classic TV advertisements for inspiration.

For example, some companies have been successful in marketing their products as hardy and reliable. Remember those old commercials for Maytag, which mourned that “Maytag washers and dryers are built to last. That makes the Maytag repairman the loneliest guy in town”? American Tourister spots subjected its luggage to abuse by a “gorilla” to demonstrate the luggage’s toughness. Timex watches could “take a licking and keep on ticking” as they were tortured by water skiers, dolphins, and jackhammers in a memorable series of ads.

For a school fundraiser, maybe you want to sell candles that last extra long or high-quality wrapping paper that won’t tear. To emphasize that latter point, you might take photos or shoot a short video of kids trying unsuccessfully to sneak a peek at wrapped Christmas gifts. You could post these photos around school or link the video from the school website.

Parent groups may find that selling a new or unusual product captures parents’ attention, much like the iPhone and New Coke got people talking when they were introduced. For PTOs, it might be a new “green” product like soy-blend candles or an item not typically offered by school groups, such as first-aid kits, cutlery, beef jerky, dried lentils, or sunglasses.

In contrast, maybe it’s your product’s traditional appeal that you want to exploit, in the same way that a company like Ford relies on a long history of cars people love. “Traditional products continue to dominate sales,” says Jon Krueger, executive director of the Atlanta-based Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers. “They have a solid track record, and these are the types of products that supporters associate with school fundraising. They have a brand equity that’s built up over the years.”

If your fundraising sale lasts just a few weeks, you can play up the limited availability of products to increase customer interest. Many people look forward to the annual Girl Scout cookie sale, and there is a national fan base for McDonald’s McRib sandwich, which appears each year for a short period of time. If you do only one fundraiser a year for only two weeks, customers might be more willing to support it.

Generate Buzz

Once you’ve chosen your product, build excitement before and during the sale. In the business world, the publicity and promotion aspect of a product launch is critical. It can be critical for fundraisers, too.

One way to do this is through a contest, which appeals to people’s competitive natures and creates a sense of energy and urgency. Vitaminwater spurred interest in its flavored drinks when it used Facebook to get customers to vote on which drink it should release next. In that vein, the Rincon Middle School PTO in Escondido, Calif., held a contest to design a T-shirt featuring the school’s bulldog mascot, then sold the shirts as a fundraiser. A different sort of contest might be to have students vote on their favorite pizza toppings, culminating in a pizza party with those toppings at the end of a successful pizza sale fundraiser.

Another technique is to be funny or mysterious. A trailer for the horror movie Paranormal Activity 3 showed little of the actual movie. Instead it showed terrified audience members reacting to scenes from the movie. The trailer was funny and aroused curiosity. A parent group might try something similar with photos showing kids smiling as they chew something yummy as a teaser leading to a pie sale. Or use a series of email flyers to promote a children’s book sale. You might use clip art featuring characters from well-known children’s books, each one trying to find the location of the sale, for instance.

It helps if you can let potential customers see others using and enjoying the product. This works well for designers who clothe celebrities at the Academy Awards. “Almost all companies try to develop word of mouth,” says Joe Spencer, a professor of marketing at Anderson University in South Carolina. “One way is to go to the influencers; these are the people in social groups whom others look to for leadership and for decisions about what to buy.” That technique worked well at Ronald Reagan Elementary in Bakersfield, Calif., where reusable tote bags carried by parent club officers caught the interest of others.

Customers also like to try the product. Grocery stores and food clubs frequently offer shoppers free tastes of new recipes in the hope that they’ll want to purchase the ingredients to make those meals at home. Amazon lets people sample books and music before buying. That’s why some parent groups go to school events to pass out cookies made from the cookie dough they’re selling or offer sample fundraiser pretzels as the snack at a PTO meeting.

If there’s a current commercial or YouTube video that’s popular, you might create a parody of it to get people talking. For example, remember the old “tastes great/less filling” debate for Miller Lite? Imagine a similar kind of debate, perhaps conducted over the intercom during morning announcements, with a science teacher and an art teacher debating the value of the compact fluorescent light bulbs the PTO is selling. “They help the environment,” the science teacher might argue. “They’re pretty,” the art teacher might insist.

Or get a celebrity to endorse your product, like Michael Jordan for Nike or William Shatner for Priceline. You could take a photo of the principal eating the pasta you’re selling, the school mascot hanging one of your fundraising wreaths on the school’s front door, or your town’s mayor reading one of the magazines you’re offering.

Put Customers First

Fundraising success over time depends on repeat customers, so treat your customers well. Remember the business adage: The customer is number one.

In a timely manner, thank your customers and celebrate the success of the fundraiser. Just like McDonald’s used to keep updating the number of hamburgers sold, you want to tell those who have supported your fundraiser the difference that their purchases have made. For example, the PTA at Grandview Elementary in Rapid City, S.D., used its newsletter to list the purchases afforded by the group’s cookie dough fundraiser last year. These purchases included calculator/stopwatches to time 1st and 2nd grade readers, 3rd grade book boxes, balance balls, and a document camera.

This kind of information is crucial, especially since the main reason that people spend money on a school fundraiser is to support a worthy cause,

according to a 2011 consumer survey by AFRDS. “It’s critical to make sure that a thank-you is the last step, and in many ways it’s as important as the other steps,” says Krueger. “Say thanks to parent supporters. This could be coffee and doughnuts or you could use social media. Then, afterward, communicate if you reached your goal and the results. It’s important to get them on board with the next program.”

Be realistic when managing parents’ expecta-tions, and don’t overpromise, especially when it comes to product delivery dates. In fact, some suggest the tactic of underpromising and overdelivering, which some companies have used to their advantage. Take Amazon as an example. The online retailer will tell you the book you ordered will arrive within five days but then gets it to you in less than half the time. You want to leave customers pleasantly surprised, so err on the side of a longer delivery time than expected.

And go out of your way to make the customer experience better than expected. At Central El-ementary in Riverside, Ill., PTO copresident Amy Jacksic brings gift-wrap orders to the homes of those who can’t make it to school or to her house for pickup. “We have a lot of working families,” she says. “When we send out communications about pickup, we always offer an alternative. I’m happy to drop the orders off.”

If there are problems, think of ways to appease the parent to show you are truly sorry for their inconvenience. That might be a discount, taken out of your profits. It might be a coupon good for something free at the school, such as an upcoming spaghetti supper. If you don’t make things better than right, you risk losing that customer forever. “More and more people are recognizing that brand loyalty is built not only on quality goods and service but also on going the extra mile,” says Paul Kurnit, a professor of marketing at Pace University in New York City.

He cites as an example a delayed JetBlue flight he recently took. The gate attendant communicated how long the delay would be and ordered pizza for all the waiting customers. Then she asked if anyone had jokes to tell, and passengers voted on whose jokes were best, with winners receiving $25 JetBlue

vouchers. “It was the most delightful two-hour problem I ever had,” Kurnit says. “It made me a brand ambassador.”

Recovering From an Unsuccessful Fundraiser

Was last year’s fundraiser a bust? Do you need to win back disgruntled customers who complained that the merchandise was shoddy or whose orders arrived late? If so, you might want to address those problems directly in this year’s fundraising promotion. That’s how Domino’s dealt with negative criticism of its pizza. In a TV commercial, customer complaints were read, such as “Domino’s pizza crust, to me, is like cardboard” and “The sauce tastes like ketchup.” Then the company explained how they have completed redesigned their trademark product to make it better.

If you’ve changed your fundraising company as a result of problems, let everyone know that. Don’t shy away from stating the specific problems and how they will be solved this time around. Maybe you have a guaranteed delivery date now. Perhaps you’ve inspected the products yourselves to assure their quality. Maybe online orders are now an option or shipping is free. Assure your customers that you heard their complaints and have addressed every one. This kind of responsiveness can make a difference in regaining customers’ confidence.