Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

LoveMplsParks.org

Screen shot of home page of the website LoveMplsParks.orgOver the past few years, I have been looking for more opportunities to use design for good, incorporating personal interests into my career with self-initiated (versus client-initiated) projects.

As a Minneapolis resident for more than 25 years, I’ve come to appreciate our parks as one of the primary reasons my family calls this city home. My interest in Minneapolis Parks is deep, varied, and long lasting. Among other things, I’ve biked, walked, rowed, coached, played, eaten, and proposed marriage in our city’s parks.

For several years I served on my Minneapolis neighborhood association’s board of directors. It was during this time – as a liaison to park board commissioners and staff – that I came to understand the perilous financial condition of our park system, and began contemplating ways to address that.

Icon for the website LoveMplsParks.orgLoveMplsParks.org was created to help engage citizens as park advocates, increase the use and recognition of park amenities, and give park visitors an opportunity to display their support.

50% of all profits will be donated to the Minneapolis Parks to help maintain and preserve our park system.

I invite you to share this with friends who, like me, love Minneapolis parks. You can also follow LoveMplsParks on Twitter and Facebook.

 

image of Lake of the Isles t-shirt in olive green, Minneapolis, MNimage of Lake Harriet t-shirt in royal blueimage of orange Loring Park t-shirt, Minneapolis, MN

Future Forecast

Photo of old man in turban whose face is glowing in the light of a crystal ballEvery year, it seems, Christmas decorations appear in stores earlier and earlier. As back-to-school sales fade from memory, jack-o-lanterns and witches hang on twinkling artificial trees in the seasonal section of your friendly neighborhood big-box retailer.

In that tradition, I’m skipping right past Thanksgiving and looking to the new year – and the year after that.

People are fascinated with the future. Most want an estimate of a specific future outome at a specific time. When will I meet my true love? Who will win the big game? Will this be a good investment? Lucrative industries sell predictions to eager buyers.

Forecasts, on the other hand, tend to focus on process, patterns, and potential outcomes. They are more useful for developing strategies in a dynamic environment – one that offers a range of outcomes and responses. For example, it may not matter much if it’s 83 or 79 degrees over next weekend’s beach vacation, but it will be good to know if you’re going to need an umbrella and some backup plans.

I’ve observed the early stages of a few trends in nonprofit marketing and design. Each involves multiple behaviors and tactics that together begin to coalesce into underlying themes. None are particularly widespread now – or effectively implemented. I believe all of them will be used increasingly by successful organizations going forward.

Over the next four months, I will delve more deeply into each of the following topics:

Building Capacity
There is never-ending pressure to be more productive at work. And yet complex problems require people to think and solve problems more creatively than ever. There is an inherent conflict between these truths. Limited by time, money, and imagination, organizations will need to learn how to build capacity – both to scale up successful products and services and to do more with less.

Perpetual Beta Mode
We are all works in progress. Somewhere along the way, however, businesses evolved to a much more rigid way of working, with a goal of getting to the “finished” product as soon as possible. While there are benefits to having deadlines and targets, eliminating experiments and a tinkering mindset sacrifices big ideas on the altar of risk aversion. Future leaders will recognize that perfection is overrated.

Data Visualization
We may be in the age of Big Data, but it is rarely used in ways that bring clarity to complex issues. People aren’t rational. They make decisions and process information based on a jumble of experiences, instinct, and emotion – backfilling decisions with data because it sounds better. Those who can give numbers context, and connect them to a compelling story, will prove to be very valuable.

Designing Experiences
Organizations that are determined to help and delight their audiences will grow faster than those that do not. Designers will spend less time making artifacts – logos, publications, websites – and more time applying creative thinking to the ways that customers interact with an organization and the world around them. British designer Patrick Cox put it best, “Companies don’t need advertising, they need to be designed better.”

As we turn the page to 2015 and beyond, I hope these forecasts help generate ideas and strategies for a better-designed future … which I’ll be working on just as soon as the leftover turkey is gone.

What trends do you see emerging?

Overcoming Fear

vintage commic book illustration, woman dramatically screaming "AAAA!"Terrorists. Security breaches. Zombies. Our media, entertainment, and political figures fixate on imminent perils to captivate audiences. Fear may be a great motivator, but unfortunately it tends to make us feel powerless rather than proficient.

Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy. We live in a time of unmatched abundance and technological wizardry that dwarfs the wildest imagination. We have decoded the human genome, developed new cleaner energy, and made advances in human rights. We carry hand-held computers that can map every location we visit, play every song we’ve ever heard, and show cat videos on an endless loop. We land a spacecraft on Mars and people yawn.

We should feel empowered by our triumphs against long odds and all manner of dangerous obstacles. One would think we’d be more optimistic about outcomes based on our successful track record. Why aren’t we brimming with confidence?

The missing ingredient
Some people just have that “it” factor. In the boardroom, on the big screen, or on our bookshelves, we gravitate to confidence. It may show itself in different ways. Confident people can be funny, smart, or kind, but they are all driven by a passionate belief in what they are doing. They seem fearless – willing to go, say, and do what others are too timid to try.

When developing an organization’s brand, we often talk in terms of brand personality. I guarantee that not one successful brand is aiming for mousy, ambivalent, or feeble.

A lack of confidence is one of the biggest shortcomings in nonprofit marketing and communications. Most work is cautious – competent not compelling – because few are willing to passionately say or demonstrate how amazing their organization really is.

The fear of making a mistake – the fear of standing out – is a real problem in an undifferentiated marketplace. Throw in myriad personal quirks and office politics and it’s evident there are obstacles to confidently crafting stories that connect with the hearts and minds of your audience.

Leading the engagement
Confidence can’t be faked. False bravado or arrogance make timidity look like a desirable character trait in comparison. But it can be earned through practice that reveals your passions and expertise.

Here are a few of the ingredients necessary to taking charge of an assignment, or better yet, being asked to lead the way.

Know your shit.
Confidence comes from experience – a depth of knowledge gained through studying and applying what you believe to be important and true. This choice is better than that one. It comes from taking calculated risks and recognizing that the world didn’t come to an end.

Be a generous guide.
When you seek services – a restaurant, a hotel, an auto mechanic, an accountant – you want to feel like you’re in good hands. Understanding the context of an assignment – using situational and emotional intelligence – enables leaders to develop empathy for others. This, in turn, builds trust.

Survey your options.
What is the worst-case scenario? The most confident people are able to reduce the risks of the unknown by believing – even if it’s not readily apparent – that they will find an acceptable fallback position if the first plan fails.

Narrow your target.
Confident leaders excel at sifting through ten pages of information and distilling it into one, taking five bullet points and cutting it to three. That ability to focus applies to your target audience as well. Defining and prioritizing project goals is key to making better and more decisive choices.

Ask for what you want!
Whether you’re communicating with colleagues or your target audience, it’s surprising how often the “call to action” is overlooked or buried under the weight of competing priorities (see above). Nobody succeeds alone. If you care about and believe in your offer, you’re doing the audience a favor by making your expectations clear.

Attitude adjustment
Confidence is essential for changing the conversations around what we see, hear, feel and know to be true. Good designers and writers see a project’s potential, and tell powerful stories that inspire action. Mediocre marketing and design has none of that.

The most valuable thing a designer provides is not the creative product – a website, a logo, a publication. The most valuable thing a designer provides clients and colleagues is the confidence to move forward.

Related content:
Confidence Makes Great Marketing
Do It Anyway

Favorite Links – October 2014

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Always an eclectic mix of stuff – here are some recent favorites:

Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables
A campaign to change opinions about less-than-perfect-looking produce.

Why the Ice Bucket Challenge is Bad for You
The ALS campaign may be a great way to raise money, but it is a horrible reason to donate it.

How to Stand in Front of a Room Full of People and Tell a Stellar Story
Good tips for making better presentations.

Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain
Training ourselves to take regular breaks reaps rewards when we get back to work.

A Touch of Darkness

darknessI have an inherited sweet tooth. As a child, it was the rare week when my mom didn’t whip up a batch of homemade cookies for our school lunches. My grandma, who loved her ice cream, always said she started planning meals with dessert and worked backward from there.

Recently, I stumbled across “the best recipe for chocolate chip cookies” so, naturally, I had to try them. Like any cookie connoisseur knows, the right ingredients make all the difference. In addition to recommending the use of dark chocolate chips, this recipe adds just a touch of sea salt to the top of the cookies before sliding them into the oven. Mmmmm!

Good stories, like good cookies, require just the right touch of savory to balance the sweet. In more literary terms, no one gives a rat’s ass about a story without conflict.

Candy coated
Just about any PowerPoint presentation, press release, or research report, is greeted with stifled yawns, apathy, or even worse, cynicism.

No one believes in a story with a linear trajectory devoid of trouble. In this relentlessly rosy world, where increasing revenues are a given, and all your products and services are considered world-class, your audience might experience a sugar high if the message wasn’t so severely dull and pointless. To pretend otherwise is to live in a fairytale world of rainbows and unicorns.

The most memorable stories recognize that personal struggles, and hard-won victories, are universal. Exposing the obstacles along the way mines your audience’s shared sense of pain and increases appreciation for authentic accomplishments.

Finding drama
Deep down, human beings have a profound need to understand things on a personal level. Emotional experiences are clearly the most memorable.

“But my [life, company, organization, product, service] just isn’t that exciting.”

That statement is the adult equivalent of the child’s summertime bleating, “I’m bored.” When you frame your story as a struggle against a series of pesky antagonists, your audience will become invested in the outcome, and you become the hero. Without them, you’ll be ignored.

Antagonists come in many guises – time, money, deadlines, another person or organization, societal norms, the weather – virtually any opposing force or obstacle. Living life brings conflict every day. To ignore it or gloss it over is to miss the opportunity.

The best storytellers, artists, and organizations find ways to include both darkness and light in their work. As frenetic and original as Robin Williams was as a comedian, it was in his dramatic roles – Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Insomnia – that we saw the true breadth of his talent.

The work of the best-loved children’s authors is rife with all manner of unspeakable atrocities on the way to those happy endings. If the fans of Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl, et al, can handle the dark side – hell, embrace it – then your audience can, too.

Honesty and persuasion
In some corners of the nonprofit world, and often in academia, there is a profound mistrust of those who aim to shape perceptions. Derogatory terms like spin doctor or snake oil salesman may be tossed around as a way of discounting emotion and elevating rational thinking.

“Branding is dishonest. We can’t be advertised like a tube of toothpaste.”

A common mistake when presenting an organization’s selling points is to believe that we can sway an audience solely with facts. No equation compels people to act or change behavior. The human mind is terrible at processing mathematical data.

The gravelly-voiced singer-songwriter Tom Waits once observed: “We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; Quantity is being confused with abundance, and wealth with happiness.”

We see what we want to see, we hear what we want to hear, and fit the data to match. We’re storytellers!

The most honest thing you can do is to use all that messy drama, the intractable struggle against antagonists big and small, to persuade people to listen and to care about your story. To tell compelling stories is to understand the difference between measuring things and paying attention.

From Idea to Impact

Ideas To ImpactPicture an incandescent light bulb. Place it floating over a human head and most people will immediately understand what you’re trying to communicate – the birth of an idea. Good ideas are celebrated in our culture – as well they should be – yet in business settings there is a fundamental misunderstanding of where they come from, how they are developed, and what makes them valuable.

Design for show
A growing trend over the past few years – the “uninvited redesign” of famous brands – adds to the confusion, spurred on by media outlets covering creative exercises (A Hyper Cool Rebranding for American Airlines) as if they were successfully implemented assignments.

It’s undeniably fun for designers to work without the pesky weight of a real client or creative brief, but mocking up a nice logo or a beautiful website takes only a few hours. Implementing a design strategy across a large organization requires an ability to marshal resources, coordinate people, and adapt and refine ideas over and over again. That is significantly more difficult.

Getting out of our own way
Ed Catmull, in his recent book, Creativity, Inc., wrote about Pixar’s efforts to increase the chances that good ideas make it to the finish line:

We start from the presumption that our people are talented and want to contribute. We accept that, without meaning to, our company is stifling that talent in myriad unseen ways. Finally, we try to identify those impediments and fix them.

Without an ongoing effort to push creativity toward implementation, all the imagination in the world is about as useful as a bald man’s comb. Here are a few ways to make your ideas more valuable.

Permission
Let’s start with the 800-pound gorilla – the one thing that keeps most individuals and the organizations they work for from generating and implementing good ideas. It’s not allowed.

Now, it’s rarely spelled out so explicitly, but conditions exist – fear of failure, censorship, heirarchy, budget and time constraints – that discourage candid conversations in the workplace. And let’s not pretend that those obstacles are all imposed by someone else. We are usually our own worst critics, far more debilitated by embarassment or lack of confidence than by any organizational chart.

We can’t learn from our mistakes if every effort is made to avoid them. We need to give ourselves permission to take risks – to make mistakes. In order to do so, we must construct an environment in which our fragile ideas are nurtured and given room to grow. Johnny Appleseed would have quit a failure had he spent his days wandering across parking lots.

Persistence
Some prefer to imagine creativity jolts to life like a bolt of lightning, a convenient fairy tale perpetuated by stories of Mozart composing fully formed symphonies in his head, or Jackson Pollock flinging paint into manic masterpieces overnight.

Despite the myths, creative work is never a single burst of inspiration. It is the product of a lengthy process that requires an ability to remain focused through multiple revisions – to negotiate an uncertain path around ever-present obstacles. Creative work is as much about logistics as art, as much about fixing things as creating them.

Thomas Edison, working diligently on one of his many inventions, succinctly summed up his iterative process, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Perfection
Designers like to be in control. In elementary school, I played saxophone in the school band. One day, some high school students brought an assortment of instruments to our music class, offering them up as a sort of musical petting zoo – try one or try them all. The only one I attempted? The saxophone.

I never became an accomplished musician, though I would have been better had I been willing to take more chances. Coaching my son’s youth basketball team, all of the drills we use are intended to encourage our players to practice at a speed that makes them just a little uncomfortable. Breakthroughs come from bold ideas tried first as short experiments or at a small scale, getting outside one’s comfort zone and learning quickly.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to wait for things to be perfect before sharing them with others. If you personally identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged or critiqued. This instinct discourages sharing – and improving – unfinished ideas. By regularly collaborating with other smart, creative people, excellence is an attainable goal. Perfection is not.

Persuasion
Even the best new ideas are rarely welcomed with open arms. Inevitably, those who are threatened by them will offer fierce resistance. Developing an ability to win friends and influence people – through marketing, charm, arm-twisting, or logic – is a common strategy for getting ideas approved.

Even better is a system in which participants provide feedback that elevates the discussion (and the end result) without being prescriptive. When working with young designers, I never say, “Make that bigger” or “Change that color.” Instead, I ask questions like “Have you considered … ?” or “I’m curious about this choice …”

An environment in which candor and analysis is both sought and welcomed is incredibly valuable. Without it, creativity is stifled. Ideas are persuaded to become great when they are challenged and tested.

Running the gauntlet
It’s no wonder that so many designers and organizations have difficulty shepherding good ideas from conception to completion. And with so many opposing forces – many of our own making – it’s understandable why people are tempted to take the path of least resistance.

Coming up with ideas is easy. Implementation is hard. Because the world is teeming with urgent problems, we need to adopt better habits, design better systems, and develop better processes so that more of the flickering light bulbs over our heads turn into impactful, megawatt solutions.

Related Content:
Why We Need to Rebrand the Word Failure

Favorite Links – July 2014

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Lots of good stuff recently – here are some favorites:

Help Leaders Be Less Useless at Strategy
Harvard Business Review

How to Develop a Brand Guide for Your Non-Profit Organization
The Fundraising Resource Group

Shortcuts for Better, Faster Design Research
Fast Company Design

Bill Watterson, Michelangelo, and the Importance of Play
M. Landers Blog

Make it Clear

Opaque eyeglassesIncreasingly, with each generation, people twist words beyond recognition to avoid discomfort or inconvenient truths.

The U.S. military uses “enhanced interrogation techniques” on prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, not torture. Some politicians want us to believe that their wealthy benefactors are not greedy tax dodgers, but “job creators.” And if a professional athlete tells a reporter his protracted contract negotiations are “not about the money,” you can be quite certain that it’s all about the money.

Because of the constant misdirection, we bristle at bureacracy, complain about complexity, and object to obfuscation. If we find out – or even suspect – a government official or corporate titan has been hiding something from us, we are outraged. We demand an investigation. We expect answers.

Publicly, we encourage authenticity, admire honesty, and celebrate “straight shooters” – mean what you say and say what you mean – but do we model the behavior we hold in such high esteem?

If “incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession,” as Kingman Brewster, Jr., the former president of Yale, once said, then the behavior of some of our marketing and communications colleagues might best be described as “very professional.”

Glossary of terms
Yesterday morning as I was eating breakfast and reading the newspaper, I laughed out loud. Curious, my wife asked what was so funny. I shared with her a short profile in the business section in which there was an astonishing volume of jargon.

As a public service, I will attempt to provide translation for the dizzying array of terms used in the story:

Behavorial marketing agency = advertising agency
Visual design = design
Customer experience design = web design
User experience architect = web designer
Content strategy = thinking about which words and images to use on a website
Business intelligence = research
Empowered consumers = the people we are trying to sell things to
Business-to-person (B2P) = the relationship between a business and its customers
Forge connections = get people to click on things
Engage consumers = get people to click on things
Offline experiences = the real world (sans electronic gadgets)

Conjuring clarity out of chaos
While I understand that part of advertising a product or service is putting it in the most favorable light, taking such extraordinary effort to distract and dazzle seems to betray a lack of confidence that thinking, writing, and designing have value without fancier titles.

I believe effective designers and writers communicate better by focusing on clarity and simplicity – distilling things to their essence rather than constructing obstacles to decipher. In other words, we get rid of the bullshit and make your organization, products, or services easier to understand.

Transparency provides people the confidence to take action. As a profession, we should be less concerned with coining opaque jargon, and more concerned with creating effective communication.

Related content:
Euphemisms – A comedic rant by George Carlin
Truthiness – The Word by Stephen Colbert

Bigshots vs. Slingshots

David vs GoliathNo matter what anyone tells you, size matters. It’s a daunting challenge to compete against organizations with more people, more locations, deeper pockets, and a lengthy and successful track record.

Being recognized as a “big name” is a tremendous advantage, and the most valuable benefit of that familiarity is trust: “I’ve heard of them. They must be doing something right.” Whether searching for deals online, comparing products on your supermarket shelves, or listening to your teenager’s excuse for getting home late, nearly every choice we make, every action we take, is processed through a “trust filter.”

Blunt instruments
Big companies operate at a dazzling scale. McDonalds spends $1 billion annually on advertising. There are only two countries on the planet where Coca-Cola doesn’t sell its drinks – Cuba and North Korea (due to U.S. trade restrictions). If Walmart was a country, its annual revenue would make it the 25th largest economy in the world.

The big brands’ ability to broadcast – in the broadest sense of the word – means they can flood the market with every possible means of communication. They don’t need to worry too much about “building awareness.” In fact, they really don’t need to know who their customers are, what they prefer, or where they live. By virtue of sheer size, these giants’ customers are everywhere and include nearly everyone.

A common mistake of smaller organizations is to misunderstand their place in the market, pursuing tactics (“We need billboards.”) or strategies (“Let’s get more people to mention us on social media.”) similar to the big guys – competing in an arena that they just can’t win. It’s like a battle between a cigarette lighter and a flamethrower. You’re toast.

The wedge
When trying to split a slab of granite into smaller pieces, a stone mason uses the sharp end of a chisel. When trying to solve a complicated case, a detective will ask increasingly pointed questions. Working toward precision with the blunt end of a tool is like using a sledgehammer to swat a housefly – your attempts may succeed, but not without great difficulty and unintended consequences.

In order to make an impact, an organization needs to use the narrowest end of the wedge – a well-defined brand promise – to gain leverage. Rather than attempting to be all things to all people, maximum leverage comes from a razor-sharp focus – knowing who you are, what you do, and who your audience is.

The one advantage you have over a bigger competitor is an ability to focus on a segment of the market that they cannot possibly serve as well as you – to serve a group of people in ways that larger competitors can’t match. So, instead of spreading a few seeds in a vast parking lot and hoping something sprouts, smart organizations choose to concentrate efforts on only the most well-suited plots of land.

Every single large company was small at one time. What often gets lost when marveling at large-scale operations is that the biggest brands deliver on a well-defined brand promise better than anyone else – every day – again and again and again.

Being small is no sin. Being small and undefined is a recipe for mediocrity.

Promises, promises
What promises do you make to your customers? What promises can you keep? It’s not enough to nod to your competitors and say, “We can do that, too.” It’s not enough to claim location as a competitive advantage. To move people to action and inspire loyalty, a brand promise:

  • Must convey a compelling benefit.
  • Must be believable and defendable.
  • Must be kept every single time.

With its everyday low prices, Walmart promises you will save money and live better. Coca-Cola promises to inspire moments of fun, optimism, and refreshment. McDonalds promises to deliver quality, service, cleanliness, and value.

It doesn’t matter if you order a Big Mac, a Happy Meal, or a Shamrock Shake. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Portland, Oregon, or Portland, Maine. People choose McDonalds because it consistently delivers on its brand promise better than its competitors.

From a distance, big brands may seem to have insurmountable advantages by virtue of their size. Looking closer, you’ll see that their most remarkable advantage is the million little ways that they keep promises for each customer they serve. As it turns out, it’s not the size of the organization that matters, it’s the quantity and consistency of the promises kept.

Related content:
Not Busy, Focused

Favorite Links – May 2014

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Help Me, Please: User Testing, Customer Service, and Treating People Nicely
Interactions

The Most Underrated Skill for Creatives? Empathy
99U by Behance

Facebook’s Dwindling Reach: Stop Whining, Think Differently
Shelly Kramer

Achieving Transformative Scale
Stanford Social Innovation Review