3 Case Studies of Donor (and Consumer) Segmentation in Action

Hypothesis formed? Check.
Data collected? Check.
Tests in the field? Check.
Hypothesis modified, confirmed, or debunked? Check.
Insight achieved? Check.

Now what?

In my last few posts, I talked about how the collection of varied data can provide insight into your donors’ interests, desires, and personal triggers and how you can use that information to better personalize messages. You can read more about that process—what I like to call the “scientific method for annual giving donor analysis”—here.

To bring these concepts out of the abstract, in this post I’ll showcase real-world examples of institutions (nonprofit and for-profit) that are using donor (or consumer) archetypes to drive strategy and messaging in an efficient, scalable way.

Case Study #1: Mobil Gas

The Five Types of Gasoline Buyers

First published in the Wall Street Journal, this case study from Mobil (now ExxonMobil) is now one of the most famous examples of market segmentation. Mobil hoped to better understand their customers and the available market for new business in order to craft targeted advertising messages and project their potential earnings across the consumer base.

Through extensive consumer research, they were able to develop five archetypes describing the major types of gasoline buyers:

Road Warriors

Generally higher income, middle-aged men who drive 25K to 50K miles per year. They typically buy premium gas with a credit card and often purchase drinks or food at the attached convenience stores. Sometimes use car washes.

True Blues

Usually men and women with moderate to high incomes who are loyal to a brand and sometimes even to a particular station. They frequently buy premium gas and pay in cash.

Generation F3

F3 = Fuel, food, fast. Upwardly mobile men and women, half of group is under 25 years old or younger. Constantly on the go, drive a lot, and snack heavily from convenience store offerings.


Usually housewives who shuttle their children around during the day and use whatever gasoline station is based in town or along their route of travel.

Price Shoppers

Generally not brand loyal, rarely buy premium line. Generally on a tight budget and purchasing decisions are made based on price.

Mobil also determined the market share occupied by each consumer archetype:


Thanks to this critical information, Mobil switched gears and began to focus resources on those archetypes with the greatest potential to become repeat customers (such as Generation F3). There was no use wasting valuable marketing energy on the Homebodies and Price Shoppers, as these groups were the least likely to be swayed by brand appeal.

This archetypal approach allowed Mobil to redirect their marketing strategy away from the Price Shoppers, ultimately helping them gain greater market share.

Case Study #2: University of California, San Diego

Deep Dive Into Alumni Relations Programming

This strategy dovetails beautifully into the nonprofit and higher education arenas. Just as Mobil cannot hope to know each of its customers individually, fundraisers cannot hope to know each donor or prospective donor personally. But if we analyze and understand the general groups that exist in our community, we can appropriately gear our programming and outreach to their needs and desires.

The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) did just that.*

UCSD has always provided a diverse slate of programming for alumni. However, the alumni relations staff realized that the same people tended to take advantage of their alumni events and benefits, while large groups of the population remained unengaged.

Using the same methods as Mobil, UCSD was able to divide their alumni base into the following archetypal categories:


First-year-out undergraduate degree holders (recent grads). At least half have yet to land a “career job” and some are considering graduate school. Tech savvy, multi-taskers, typically single, living with roommates or back home, feeling overwhelmed and unsure of next life steps.

True Tritons

Loyal alumni and university friends who are proud of their association with the university. They value higher education and innovation; particularly value the UCSD experience; and actively give time, talent, and treasure.

“Is It Something We Said”

Lapsed donors/volunteers; disconnected, disenchanted, passive members of the community. Active at one time, so perhaps recoverable. Gone but not lost.


26 years of age and up, hold advanced degrees, intellectually curious, and interested in academic innovation.

Ladder Climbers

24 to 45 years old, hold undergraduate degree from UCSD, and live in major metro centers around the U.S. They are ready for a middle or senior management position, tech savvy, highly connected to networks online and elsewhere, and interested in access to influential people in their industry. Self-promoters, work long hours, might engage if they feel it is worth their while.

Via UCSD.edu

From these groups, UCSD was not only able to identify underserved parts of their community and develop new programs and benefits to engage them, but they were also able to identify the over served parts of the community. This helped them avoid one of the most common pitfalls in constituent engagement: catering programming towards the most vocal, loyal audience (in their case, the True Tritons).

UCSD instead focused their efforts on the folks who were on the fence. If engaged and cultivated correctly, these groups had the potential to become loyal supporters just like the True Tritons. UCSD then assessed the characteristics of these archetypes to prioritize which warranted more energy—an especially important exercise when resources are scarce and you need to make tough choices about how to allocate them.

*This case study was presented at a CASE conference by Armin Afsahi, former Associate Vice Chancellor for Advancement at UCSD.

Case Study #3: Point Park University

Starting from Scratch

Both Mobil and UCSD have the luxury of large constituent/consumer bases, well-staffed teams, and lots of great data for creating their archetype structures.

But what about smaller institutions that don’t have great data or the resources necessary to conduct a full-scale study of the alumni population?

Point Park University is a small, liberal arts university in Pittsburgh, PA, with an alumni population of approximately 27,000. Our development program is only 10 years old and employs 11 total staff members for alumni relations, annual and major giving, and advancement services. Our data has lots of holes, and our staff is pulled in a million directions every day.

We can’t do a huge, overarching study of our donor population all at once. But we can start small and take steps toward our ultimate goal.


For the first phase of the project, we conducted strategic segment testing on all of our FY ’16 appeals in order to gather essential information about what motivates our donors to give and which donor groups are most loyal. The data we collected has led to our next step, which involves focus groups and small-scale surveys.

We hope to have our first draft of donor archetypes compiled by spring 2017—and we fully expect that those categories will fluctuate as we learn more about our donors through consistent outreach and engagement.

It’s a never-ending process. But by taking a more strategic approach to segmentation and cultivation, you will open up opportunities to engage larger populations without exponentially increasing the resources needed or the time and energy spent.

Greta Daniels is the director of annual giving at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA, and formerly served as director of alumni relations for Sewickley Academy, a PK-12 independent school in Western PA. Greta is fascinated with how cultural consumer trends and big data can drive authentic and sustainable growth in the nonprofit arena. Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about annual giving trends and women’s cycling initiatives or to see her latest kitchen adventure.

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