Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Mythbusters

Close up photo of pen book on field of leaves. We All Have Stories to Tell. http://favim.com/image/263830/From the earliest days of civilization, human beings have told stories to explain the unexplainable. The desire to make complex things simpler and more understandable has produced an abundance of myths, aphorisms, and rules of thumb that remain cultural touchstones to this day. For example:

  • Bats are blind.
  • Don’t go in the pool after you eat.
  • You need a college degree to get a good job.

The enduring appeal of tales like these owes as much to the familiar comfort they bring as to any kernels of truth they may contain.

Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Stories explain how things work, how we make and justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we create our identities, and how we understand our place in the world. – Dr. Pamela Rutledge

Critical mass
With WiFi and mobile networks reaching ever more broadly, the ability to share knowledge and shape opinions has never been easier. With such accessible broadcast platforms, I’ve noticed a growing number of self-appointed “thought leaders” make it a habit to point out – often quite eloquently and convincingly – the many ways that prevailing wisdom is misguided.

However, unlike the curious band of misfits on the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters – an entertaining mash-up of pop culture and science experiments – many writers are long on sweeping opinions and woefully short when it comes to offering alternatives to the myths they’re busting.

It’s one thing to observe and document a problem and quite another to create a new solution. Or, as I once heard a director observe – critics are to motion pictures as ornithologists are to birds.

Learning to fly
Having the ability to discern good from bad – or true from false – is only the beginning when there is the need to replace a familiar story with something better. Moving people and organizations to action – achieving behavior change and positive outcomes – requires more than exposing dusty myths to the light of day.

Humans simply aren’t moved to action by ‘data dumps,’ dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion. The best way to emotionally connect other people to our agenda begins with “Once upon a time…” – Peter Guber

People need stories. To transcend the current state of things, we need to be myth builders, not myth busters.

Spinning yarns
If we treat marketing and communications as a concerted effort to engage people around a compelling narrative – if, like TED.com, we really have “ideas worth spreading” – we may need to rethink how and with whom we work. Some key threads to consider:

  • Stay curious. The most certain path to understanding and reaching an audience is to vigilantly resist thinking you know more about them than you really do. Just remember that the child who repeatedly asks “Why?” – tiresome though it may be – is learning a lot more than you are. Make no assumptions and ask lots of questions.
  • Collaborate. As a way to multiply our curiosity and skills, we need to get used to the idea of expanding our personal networks. The problems that desperately need solutions require stories and audiences on a far greater scale. We must combine forces, bringing new voices and ideas to the table, to increase our effectiveness.
  • Make small bets. Start thinking of your office as a laboratory where experiments are ongoing. Reaching the big milestone is a misguided mindset. Use prototypes or pilot projects to fail early, fail fast, and learn faster.
  • Take the long view. Next year matters more than next week. This is not a recipe for procrastinating, but an acknowledgment that coordinating complex systems is an effort that bears fruit over time. The best way to rally people to your cause – to share stories on an epic scale – is to keep the big picture clearly in sight.

Creating value
Revealing the truth is undeniably a form of storytelling. We all benefit by living with our eyes wide open. But if we want people to listen to our stories, to care, and to act, we can’t simply point out that the emperor has no clothes, we must also provide a new wardrobe. Because, as Ira Glass noted, great stories happen to those who can tell them.

– Dan Woychick

Related content:
Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon
Social Proof, or Why We Pick Crowded Restaurants Over Empty Ones

Are You in the Mood?

I like watching home renovation shows – it beats doing renovation projects myself! The culminating moment of this television genre occurs when the designer reveals the makeover to the appreciative homeowners. Ta-da! Remarkably, no one ever hates it … or maybe they just edit that out in post-production.

Every designer has experienced that sound – an unmistakable, albeit brief, silence that signals a presentation is about to go horribly wrong. Weeks of work will be discarded. An entirely new direction will be requested.

From the client’s perspective, that very same moment is when a bit of trust is eroded: Wasn’t she listening when we spent all that time discussing this project? Why doesn’t he understand what I need? Did I hire the wrong designer?

A cure for the big reveal
Truthfully, many designers feed off the adrenaline rush of presenting their many awesome ideas – conjured out of thin air – to an appreciative audience. Clients are complicit in this process, often preferring to bypass information gathering and get right to the mockups with assurances that “I’ll know it when I see it.” Except when they don’t.

We’ve found one of the best ways to eliminate that awkward presentation moment – and improve designer/client collaboration – is to include a mood board in the creative process.

The mood board foreshadows our vision of the overall look and feel of a brand campaign, publication, or other large marketing communications initiative. It encourages conversation that allows us to acquire insights, uncover stylistic pet peeves, and confirm or adjust strategic points of emphasis. This intervention, early in the process, represents a small investment with an extraordinarily high rate of return. Think of it as rapid visual prototyping that makes the design of all subsequent materials more efficient and predictable.

Most importantly, a mood board bridges the gap between the thinking (strategy) and the doing (tactics).

First things first
Before we begin playing with pencils or pixels, each project must be grounded in a sound communications strategy. We begin by reviewing all existing research, marketing plans, resources, and other relevant background materials.

In a series of conversations, we aim to familiarize ourselves with the project’s stakeholders, challenges, and opportunities. Our goal is to form recommendations based on identifying the gaps between current and desired audience perceptions and behaviors.

At the completion of this phase, we summarize the project in a creative brief. This document outlines the project goals, the findings of our initial meetings and discussions, and establishes both a blueprint for design development and criteria for measuring the project’s success going forward.

Making ideas visible
Initially, clients may have difficulty wrapping their heads around the idea of a mood board: “Exactly what are we looking at here?” The mood board isn’t intended to look like an ad or a website or a two-page magazine spread.

As we begin the conversation, first we set the context by reviewing the agreed upon communications strategy. The mood board is a visual reflection of that strategy and uses color, typography, imagery, key themes or messages, and other graphic elements to signal the tone and creative direction for the project. This allows our discussion to focus more revealingly on the big picture – does it feel right – rather than fixate on specific tactics or minor details.

The reason mood board presentations are so productive is that the designer and client are reviewing an unfinished product. There’s room for interpretation. This early peek allows time to incorporate feedback and, along with the creative brief, provides a tangible touchstone for evaluating everything that follows.

A natural progression
Life may be full of surprises, but if I’ve done my job well, a presentation of a full-blown campaign should be greeted with comments like “Of course!” or “You nailed it.” I prefer to find drama on television, not in boardrooms.

By using mood boards, you can help your clients see what you’re thinking, enable them to participate in the creative process, and produce more effective design. That should put everyone in a good mood!

Think Like a Human

Rodin’s The ThinkerFor decades, empires have been built on a simple and consistent business model: We’ll sell you what you want, as long as you also get a bunch of other stuff that you don’t want.

Newspapers will deliver the news, as long as you don’t mind the ads. Cable TV providers offer your favorite shows wrapped in a package of obscure channels featuring llama-shearing marathons and dozens of tips for organizing your sock drawer. You’ve got to sit through the opening act before the featured band takes the stage. And, I’d be willing to wager, there were a few courses required to get your bachelor’s degree that have proven to be only marginally relevant to your subsequent career.

The missing link
A similar approach is often seen in website design. Organizations routinely put feature stories in a visually prominent place on the home page while more utilitarian functions and links are pushed to the margins. While it’s possible that audience research indicated a strong interest in these types of stories, it’s more likely that the organization has a keen interest in promoting them.

In my experience with usability testing, site visitors consistently show little to no interest in website feature content. It just gets in the way of finding the information or completing the task they came to the site for in the first place. Who’s serving whom?

Product designers can become enamored with new bells and whistles while sacrificing ease of use. Architects can create spaces that don’t adequately consider environmental impact or human behavior patterns. Governments create forms and procedures that are needlessly complex.

What do all of these things have in common? They all overlook – or undervalue – the experience of the end user: human beings.

The golden rule
Imagine if marketing and design excelled at treating others as we’d like to be treated. Imagine if your marketing, in fact, your entire organization, was guided by design thinking. Design thinking has emerged in recent years as a trendy package of processes geared to solving complex problems through creativity and innovation. Combining empathy, analysis, insights, and rapid prototyping, design thinking encourages multidisciplinary teams to keep the end user firmly at the core of any proposed solutions.

This is where theory and practice sometimes diverge.

Considering the end user, or customer, as a means of developing perceptive and effective solutions is not particularly new or mysterious – no matter what you call it. As the design thinking process is embraced by more people, it seems there is a lot more thinking than doing. For example, I’m not convinced that brainstorming generates more creative solutions (research shows the opposite may be true), or that the design process will always benefit from putting lots of people in a room with a pile of Post-It® notes.

Getting to know you
I do believe in developing empathy for an audience through research, and would propose a more accurate name for this type of problem-solving process is human-centered design. It’s not primarily about the thinking. It’s not about profits. It’s not a secret shortcut to innovation. It’s about delivering a product, service, or experience that fills a real human need.

That all sounds great, you’re thinking, but how does that work in the real world? I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist and I don’t even own a white lab coat. No worries.

Like anything, human-centered design benefits from regular practice. Acquiring the tools, techniques, and experience require nothing more than time, a keen interest in the human race, and an abiding desire to solve problems.

Turning ideas into action
Diverge + ConvergeThere’s no shortage of good ideas. A human-centered design process uses divergent thinking to create many choices, helping  uncover new opportunities and generate more actionable ideas faster. The most critical skill, however, is developing an ability to evaluate those ideas, to converge on a choice and move forward. To do so, weigh your options against the following criteria:

  • Desirability: Throughout the process, listen to and understand what people need and want.
  • Feasibility: What is possible within your organization? Acknowledge the barriers, but optimism rules. Don’t shortchange yourself by aiming too low.
  • Viability: Great ideas are like currency, but money matters. Solutions need to be scaled to available resources.

The best ideas live where these three criteria overlap.

As consumers, we’ve come to expect that we can get exactly what we want when we want it, and there’s little reason to accept anything less. Consequently, marketing strategies that rely on bait-and-switch tactics or bundling desirable with less desirable services will become more difficult to sustain.

Human-centered design offers a better way to deliver services, products, and experiences that satisfy real needs, providing a new thing to think about – how to deal with all those happy customers.

Related content:
Human Centered Design Toolkit

Shifting Sands

 

Paradise BeachAt this time tomorrow, I’ll be strolling on a Caribbean beach with sand gently squishing between my toes. Meanwhile, as on most days, tens of thousands of nonprofit marketing and communications professionals will squirm uncomfortably as the sand shifts beneath their feet, wondering: How are we supposed to thrive in a perpetual state of transition?

As the old saying goes, the only one who likes change is a baby with a dirty diaper. Human beings are creatures of habit who tend to bristle when told they can’t do something – like order a super-mega-ton soda – and howl when a favorite social network changes the look of its interface. We tend to be more willing to accept change if we’re calling the shots … except when we don’t know which call to make.

Fumbling through nirvana
Navigating our magical WiFi world in our smart cars with our smart phones sure has a way of making us feel dumber than ever.

When trying to reach a target audience, the multitude of media choices is matched only by the limits of our personal bandwidth. The difficulty in determining what device or behavior will be the next lasting standard can cause indecision.

Quickly adopt the latest buzzworthy tactic (QR codes anyone?) and you risk jumping on the wrong bandwagon, wasting precious resources for middling results. Bury your head in denial and you risk irrelevance in the modern world. As Roger Martin noted in the Harvard Business Review:

By far the easiest thing to do is to see the future as so unpredictable and uncertain that you should keep all your options open and avoid choice-making entirely. The irony, of course, is that not choosing is every bit as much a choice, and every bit as impactful, as choosing to choose.

Psychologists have long identified pattern recognition as essential to human intelligence. What’s needed now, more than ever, is for recognition that “business as usual” is a pattern that doesn’t exist – the status quo is forever changing.

To make more intelligent choices, I believe we need to work on the following:

Ambiguity is the new black.
Have you ever noticed that people are rarely able to predict what will make them happy? This phenomenon is defined by author Tal Ben-Shahar as the “arrival fallacy” – the belief that you’ll be happy when you arrive at a certain destination: “Once I buy this dress … Once I get this job … Once I’m married …” Whether it makes us happy or not, we still need to make decisions. In order to make better ones, we need to develop and hone our ability to quickly and comfortably move between stages of relative certainty.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
If we, indeed, learn from our mistakes, we sure try hard not to make any. Given two choices, virtually everyone would pick the “sure thing” over rolling the dice. We want to make a choice, and then not have to make it again – at least not for a good long while. We like knowing more than we like learning.

We need to embrace and practice a more iterative, non-linear method of solving problems. Don’t get paralyzed aiming for perfection. Rather, make many little mistakes quickly. As Thomas Edison said: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Building resilience
In both personal and professional environments, we need to improve our capacity to absorb ongoing transitions while still performing effectively. A more resilient system embraces diversity of thought and experience to avoid an “echo chamber” effect. As in farming, monocultures may be efficient, but can cause more harm than good long-term.

Additionally, we can’t wait for the quarterly report or the performance review to recalibrate our efforts. The tighter the feedback, the closer it comes to happening in real time, the better we will adapt to the rapid pace of change.

Process not product
One of the things that’s become increasingly clear, one of the things that hasn’t changed, is that a project’s structure is far more important than whether or not the final deliverable is a website or a magazine or a branding campaign. Process matters.

Developing the skills to adeptly navigate our rapidly changing marketing landscape can help you turn quicksand into a day at the beach.

Print in a Digital Age

Since the widespread adoption and evolution of the internet, the vast majority of non-profit organizations have been scrambling to keep up. This extends to marketing and communications offices, with budgets under pressure, trying to adapt print conventions to the online world – or trying to eliminate print altogether.

Channel surfing
Whether holding a TV remote, a mouse, a smartphone, or a magazine in hand, customers have a glut of options for consuming information and entertainment. And marketers, often with no idea which channel will be most attractive, hedge their bets and churn out content – everywhere.

Thirty years ago, the investment firm EF Hutton used a long-running ad campaign to tout the value of its advice: When EF Hutton talks, people listen.

 

Nowadays, if EF Hutton was talking, it would be competing with every other bank, broker, and insurance company to be heard. Everyone is talking – including customers – at the same time. It’s much more difficult to listen than it used to be.

Nevertheless, every project, no matter the goal, should start with listening to gain a deep understanding and appreciation for the audience it serves. For your communications to be successful, you must be able to answer your audience’s two fundamental questions:

  • Why should I spend my time with you?
  • What can I get from this [magazine, brochure, website, app] that I can’t get anywhere else?

Old school thinking
While nonprofits may be hampered by a lack of resources, just as debilitating they often remain true to outdated models of gathering and presenting information. Subsequently, many projects suffer from:

  • Poor design
  • A lack of dynamic content
  • Poorly-defined audience and purpose
  • Ineffective storytelling
  • Not embracing the social nature of the web
  • Remaining stuck in the 20th Century

After defining the audience, one must then ask: What is the purpose of this project? It should:

  • Connect with audiences through storytelling, delivery and presentation
  • Shape perceptions of the brand by reinforcing key messages
  • Support organizational goals

To remain relevant you need to take calculated risks, look at things with a fresh eye, absorb and adapt ideas from unexpected sources and, above all, challenge the assumptions of the assignment.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.  – Shunryu Suzuki

Peaceful coexistence
Marketing has become like the gluttonous diner at the all-you-can-eat buffet: I’ll have one of everything! The never-ending churn of producing content on every channel is self-defeating. We’ve got to know our audience well enough to make smarter choices.

Going forward, we need to acknowledge that digital media and print each have strengths, and should be considered and developed concurrently and selectively – not sequentially. When it comes to telling stories:

  • Print can’t compete with digital media for timeliness.
  • Digital media can be social, easily shared and searched.
  • Each relies on design to aid in navigation, legibility and narrative pacing.
  • Print is a less ephemeral artifact – more curated, collectible and savored.

We believe that print remains a vital communications channel worth doing well for two reasons:

  • Some people – myself included – still find print the most pleasurable means of reading for information and entertainment.
  • Print has a lasting visibility and presence – on coffee, bedside, and waiting room tables – that online platforms can’t match.

Working on print and digital content simultaneously and cohesively may be a more fluid process (e.g., developing design concepts from rough drafts or outlines) and can be more work – with the need for video, still photography and web development – but we believe it is the future of nonprofit marketing.

Raising Expectations

One ordinary morning, a memo appears in your in-box.

We are embarking on an organization-wide, resource allocation review. Each department is required to provide benchmarks to evaluate the value and effectiveness of its work.

In other words, please justify your existence.

This is a conversation that I’ve been hearing a lot lately. It’s not an unreasonable request. Marketing departments should not be immune from scrutiny, or excused from providing evidence that their work is effective. However, as a colleague in higher ed noted when faced with this assignment: We can track the typical things – media coverage or Google analytics – but most of the indicators that we’re making good use of our financial resources are tied to other offices, like Advancement or Admissions.

Separation anxiety
There seems to be a common misperception among both for-profit and non-profit leaders that departments function independently of one another – that marketing’s impact, for example, can be separated from an organization’s overall goals.

Other than putting together a birthday card for an office colleague, isn’t the success of any marketing assignment inextricably linked to others’ goals? If the advancement office doesn’t raise enough money, then fundraising communications weren’t successful enough. If enrollment targets were missed, then admissions marketing must be improved.

I understand that anxious executives want reassurance and a way to mitigate risks – marketing is a mysterious line item in the annual budget. Unfortunately, it’s also often viewed as an add-on – more style than substance – and subsequently expected to show return on investment without the advantage of being considered an essential organizational function.

Roll up your sleeves
Imagine driving down the road when suddenly your car starts making a funny noise. Next, smoke starts billowing from under the hood. In a panic, you pull in to the nearest repair shop. You tell the mechanic, “I’m kind of in a hurry and I don’t have much money. Can you fix this?” The mechanic walks slowly around your vehicle, deep in thought. Finally, he fills a bucket, grabs a sponge, and washes your car. Did he solve your problem, or just make it look better?

Too often marketing offices are being asked to make the engine run better – to help an organization solve a problem or reach a goal – without ever having the opportunity to look under the hood.

Let me be clear: It’s not management’s fault that marketing is misunderstood. It’s ours. Until we can make a compelling case – using both objective and subjective measures of value and effectiveness – marketing will continue to encounter the resistance of low expectations.

State your case
Marketers are in the business of telling stories, but we don’t write fiction. Successful marketing is reliant on thorough inquiry, diligent training and practice, collaboration, and coordination of resources. None of that happens in a vacuum.

If you’re going to have an ROI discussion, do it within the context of organizational, not departmental, goals. Whether you’re trying to convince people to choose your service, attract donations, or inspire volunteers, the planning, strategy, and measurement take on a different tenor when each element of the enterprise is considered interdependent.

Before the lights dim, before the conductor raises the baton, a discordant blend of strings, percussion, and woodwind instruments squeaks and groans from the orchestra stage. It is only when the musicians begin playing in unison that we can appreciate their talents. That’s what marketing can do. If it’s not in alignment – and deeply involved – with an organization at its core, few measures carry meaning or insight.

What to measure
There’s a lengthy history of valuing scientific, left-brain thinking over the more intuitive right hemisphere of the brain. Increasingly, complex problems require the flexibility to integrate both ways of thinking.

Rather than counting web “hits” or desperately seeking more “likes” on Facebook, here’s one measure that should be tracked:

How much time and money is spent learning about your audience(s) – internal and external – so that whatever marketing materials are produced can be as targeted and relevant as possible?

As those numbers increase, so will the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

How do you demonstrate a return on investment?

Doing Better By Doing Less

The phrase “less is more” is often associated with the famed Modern architect, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, who believed that simplicity and clarity are necessary for good design. One thing we can say with absolute clarity is that today’s nonprofit marketing professionals are expected to communicate with more people in more ways across more channels than ever before.

Last month, I wrote that a comprehensive content strategy is necessary to prioritize the ongoing requests for your time – the antidote, if you will, for the epidemic of reactive, tactics-based decision making that is threatening our sanity and effectiveness.

Rather than grasping at straws or acting arbitrarily, a content strategy helps plan for the creation and publication of all your marketing communications by answering questions such as:

  • Who is responsible for creating the content?
  • Which content gets published where? Why?
  • Does the content reinforce our key messages?

In order to answer those questions, you must know your business and marketing objectives, understand your audience’s needs and expectations, and be able to prioritize accordingly. While this may make things more difficult initially, it should simplify your life in the long run.

Here are a few examples of nonprofit organizations that found more success by doing less.

New delivery methods
Pamela Fogg is the design director at Middlebury College. Last fall, she and her marketing team were charged with facilitating more contact with prospective students throughout the admissions cycle. They were also looking to improve yield – the conversion of applicants to enrolled students.

Image of Middlebury College e-blastMore printing and mailing was not an option. In fact, the marketing team decided to eliminate the granddaddy of student recruitment, the viewbook. In its place, they developed a series of e-blasts, sent to prospective students about every six weeks. Featuring a seasonal campus banner image and three stories that were being produced for the website regardless, the e-blasts also included helpful admissions links and links to the college’s social networking sites.

“By sending these out, we felt we were engaging our students more throughout the admissions process,” said Fogg. The proof is in the numbers. “Our applications were the highest ever.”

To help with yield, the college set up a site for admitted students that featured five new videos. “The videos were created to showcase our DNA … strengths that were featured in our last viewbook. Those are pretty much the same themes that guide the editorial content we share in all of the e-blasts.”

When admitted students visit campus, the videos play in a loop in the admissions office. Additionally, the college launched Murmur, a collection of personal audio stories. Visitors can use their mobile phones to hear short stories at marked locations all over campus. Results? The college saw a whopping 25% increase in yield.

The entire effort was part of a cohesive communications strategy characterized by frequent, consistent, and relevant content, with smart distribution that leveraged existing assets. “Everything we do gets repurposed, and those videos proved to be valuable fundraising tools as well,” added Fogg.

The changes also had a powerful effect on the bottom line. “The financial downturn was one reason not to spend over $100K on the viewbook, but we also had a better web presence than in previous years. We wouldn’t have done one without the other,” Fogg explained. “We essentially went from four print pieces to one small piece in under two years, resulting in less printing costs, less mailing costs, and less staff time.”

Changing a communications culture
Cammie Croft has been a pioneer in bringing government communications into the 21st century. Originally a member of the Obama administration’s new media team that revamped the WhiteHouse.gov site, Croft recently became director of new media and citizen engagement for the Department of Energy (DOE). Think you’ve got a challenging work environment? Try tackling outdated technology, antiquated rules, layers of bureaucracy, and serious security concerns.

The Energy Department is expected to support cutting-edge research, advance clean energy, and reduce the dangers of nuclear and environmental disasters, but that was far from evident on the old Energy.gov website. Croft’s team needed to rethink how a massive, decentralized department would create, publish, and coordinate its content.

Image of Energy.gov websiteBefore moving a single pixel on the Energy.gov site, several months were spent challenging assumptions, building relationships, and setting up systems and processes to handle the new workflow. The DOE team was able to save money by consolidating several outdated websites onto the same Drupal platform used by the White House. Croft established a centralized publishing team to promote the department’s activities and goals and engage its audiences. Team members specialized by subject area rather than media channel to create greater staff versatility.

Research identified two primary audiences. Unlike most existing governmental sites, the DOE wanted to reach ordinary Americans directly. Additionally, the site needed to continue serving niche audiences – specialists involved in energy policy.

The content strategy outlined what types of content would reside on the new site, where it would be located, and how to provide the context that would make it accessible for the general public. “We want to help people understand why energy matters, and what impact it is having,” said Croft in a recent interview. “The key is localizing the data and making it easily available.”

Incremental improvements
With one thing habitually leading to another, websites always seem to become more complex over time. Because website design and production tends to be iterative in nature, with readily-available analytics and usability testing, they are also prime beneficiaries of a well-planned content strategy. In other words, you don’t need to start from scratch – or tackle an entire site – to benefit.

Image of SUNY Oswego admissions landing pageAfter finding success with a simplified landing page in support of an admissions marketing effort, the State University of New York (SUNY) Oswego decided to tweak its new admissions home page. The amount of copy was reduced dramatically, based on analytics that showed contextual links were largely ineffective, and the design focused on a short video and a handful of key links. According to Tim Nekritz, director of web communications, the change represents “the continuing evolution in how we handle web content.”

Chas Grundy, while working as Notre Dame’s director of interactive marketing, helped the IT department streamline its website. With over 4,500 pages, the department couldn’t manage the amount of content they had, which led to inaccurate, outdated and redundant information. “Over several months, we used analytics, user testing, and other research to cut content down to under 1,000 pages,” said Grundy. “In shrinking the website, they reduced the number of people needed to maintain it.”

Similarly, after a merger of two departments at Ithaca College, a comprehensive audit and the resulting content strategy helped reduce the number of pages on its Financial Aid site to 1/3 the previous amount. Besides reducing ongoing maintenance, the better-organized, more intuitive site slashed the volume of phone calls from frustrated families and students.

Simplify, simplify
By doing too much, it is difficult to do anything very well. Adopting a content strategy represents an opportunity to focus your messages, reduce your workload, and increase your effectiveness.

How have you simplified your marketing communications? I’d love to hear more examples.

The Bleeding Edge

There’s been an explosion at the factory on the edge of town. At the regional hospital, emergency room personnel maintain radio contact with the paramedics en route, bracing for the arrival of a half dozen injured workers. Successful medical treatment is reliant on ER staff correctly identifying and attending to the highest priorities first. This is what’s known as triage.

Every day competing priorities explode on the desks of non-profit marketers, yet it’s the rare organization that has the knowledge and discipline to focus attention on its most effective communications efforts. Instead, most professionals scramble from one thing to the next, unable to confidently make decisive choices or commit the time necessary to do each job well.

How did we get here?
As they say, the first step to getting healthy is acknowledging the problem. Not a single person I’ve ever met disputes the current state of affairs, nor asserts that this is the preferred way of doing business, yet nothing changes. In fact, it seems to be getting worse. So, what’s the next step?

If we can’t get beyond acknowledgement, then maybe we can attempt to understand the forces conspiring against behavior change. I’ve observed frequent variations on the following themes:

  • Everyone else is doing it. It’s one of the oldest excuses in the book – the argument that we’re only mimicking behavior seen elsewhere – but it didn’t impress your mom, and it’s not a good enough reason to do things today.
  • It’s the latest thing. Ooh, shiny! Whether it’s a fascination with new technologies, attention deficit disorder, or boredom with the same old tactics, the allure of the next new thing is undeniable. Getting results, however, can usually be attributed to spot-on strategy, not a trendy tool.
  • We don’t know what works. It’s difficult to isolate the effects of one thing on an integrated marketing effort, but far too many decisions are made without any information – or any plan to measure the results of our efforts.
  • We don’t know what our audience prefers or expects. At first glance, what they want is everything … for free. We act as if everyone is anxiously waiting for our up-to-the-minute news, opinions, and flash mob videos. What would happen if people had to opt in instead of opt out of your content delivery? Don’t forget to ask.
  • Fear. Advertisers and the media are highly skilled at amplifying feelings of inadequacy – your breath stinks, your life is boring, and no one will ever love you. Did you hear 16 universities have great new Google+ brand pages?!? Take a deep breath, treat reports of your imminent demise with skepticism, and chart your own course.

Adopt or adapt
It’s often difficult to accept our limitations, it’s so … limiting. The ability to make a clear-eyed assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses is an incredible advantage when it comes to focusing time and energy.

A start-up company doesn’t begin by operating on a global scale. A novice hiker doesn’t attempt to tackle Mount Everest. And a single musician, no matter how talented, can’t match a symphony orchestra’s depth of sound. Each, on its own, is capable of great things, but it would be foolish to suggest they are capable of the same things as someone with greater resources and expertise.

Can non-profit organizations, notoriously understaffed and underfunded, afford to be early adopters in marketing communications? Does it make sense to rush to produce the next great smartphone app, dive headfirst into multiple social networks, or add new distribution channels when ongoing commitments are barely getting produced? Something’s gotta give.

There’s no shame in staking out a more deliberate strategy of agile adaptation. Let others be trailblazers in technology – or marketing communications – and aim to be a smarter second (or third) to market. It’s a model that’s worked pretty well for Apple Computer, among others.

Making better choices
Intensive training and hours of practice helps emergency room doctors and nurses make dozens of rapid-fire decisions on the spot. More significantly, these medical professionals have a crystal clear filter through which to weigh their options – which patient outcomes will most benefit from immediate attention.

For marketing communications, that filter is a comprehensive content strategy. Content includes all the text, graphics, video, and audio you produce. Content strategy, as defined by Brain Traffic’s Kristina Halvorson, is “the practice of planning for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” Without a clear strategy, every decision is made piecemeal, without consideration for how it supports business objectives and meets your customers’ goals.

In order to begin planning, and then executing, your content strategy, you need:

  • Analysis of existing content. Who creates it, where does it go, who maintains it, and what goals is it intended to address? Understanding your current situation is the key to designing a better way.
  • A plan to measure results. If you’re going to fail, you need to fail quickly and learn from the experience. Making the same mistakes over and over again is an expensive way to do business.
  • Audience insights. Numbers won’t tell you everything. There’s no substitute for listening to the people your organization is attempting to serve – through web usability testing, surveys, focus groups, phone interviews or casual conversations.

You also need good writers and designers, disciplined thinkers, and leaders who help colleagues understand and stay true to the organization’s marketing communication goals. But you already have that, right?

A glimmer of hope
The current non-profit communications model leaves many professionals feeling like a hamster on a wheel. By cultivating a more contemplative, less reactive way of doing business, handling the onslaught of requests for your time and attention can become less arbitrary. Just remember to polish your diplomatic skills before telling a co-worker their project is not a high priority!

There’s a lot to be said for knowing your audience, knowing their expectations, and knowing what you’re capable of producing well. Next month, I’ll look at a few examples of organizations that actually improved their effectiveness by doing less – or at least doing things differently – thanks to the guidance of a clear content strategy.

Until then, please share your examples here.

Related content:
The Terrifying Truth of New Technology
Make Sure You Measure Up
Confessions of a Twitter-Phobe

A humorous look at project prioritization:

Dilbert Comic - pointy-haired boss outlining next year's "areas of focus"

How Did We Do That?

Following up on this summer’s one-question survey of non-profit marketers – What is the single biggest problem you face today? – we recently flipped the question upside down and asked:

When you’ve been successful, what went right?

Our first finding? Significantly fewer people responded to this survey – about 20% as many as the first one! I know that everyone who received the survey has experienced marketing success, so why are success stories harder to come by? Digging for meaning, I wondered:

  • Are painful lessons simply more memorable?
  • Are we predisposed to obsess over and seek solutions for our problems?
  • Does this problem-solving focus blind us to opportunities for success?

Elements of success
It’s safe to say that when we feel successful, it’s because our actions have reshaped a difficult, or less-than-optimal circumstance. We rarely celebrate business-as-usual – hooray for maintenance! We want people to do something.

When it comes to accomplishing a task, we’re of two minds. There’s the part of the assignment that appeals to the rational side of our brain, and the part that appeals to our instinctive or emotional side. The examples of successful marketing cited by our survey respondents touched on both. Common themes included:

Clear direction and planning
There are very few projects that can be handled alone. The more complex the project, the more people involved, the more important it is to clarify individual roles and communication goals. The rational mind likes nothing better than a clear-cut objective, plan and process. People attribute much of their success to being well-prepared.

One potential pitfall to this mindset is “paralysis by analysis” – if you look long enough and hard enough you never leap at all! To counteract this, define the specific initial steps to take, identify the desired outcome (paint a captivating picture of what success looks like), and then get out of the way. It’s foolish and counter-productive to attempt to plan every last detail.

Ample motivation
Have you ever made a big decision using nothing but logic? Face it, when there’s a battle between our hearts and heads, heads lose. Provide too much information and eyes glaze over, but connect to our emotional nature – pain, pleasure, passion – and we respond with feeling.

Whether it’s getting team members on board or provoking an enthusiastic response from your target audience, developing trust and empathy are keys to generating action. One respondent noted a significant increase in her department’s marketing success closely followed a period of relationship building with an internal client. Another said her greatest successes involved “nailing the message so that our target audience takes action.” I guarantee those successful messages touched an emotional chord.

Does your audience have an emotional stake in the outcome?

Supportive environment
Marketing success isn’t easy or inevitable, and virtually impossible without the visible support of an organization’s leaders, but we can improve our chances by making it easier for our target audience (internal or external) to behave as we’d like.

Consider any satisfying experience, especially one that is usually a hassle or even dreaded. It’s as if all hurdles and headaches have magically disappeared. Except it’s not magic. It’s an obsessive attention to making an experience easier (consider Amazon’s one-click ordering or Southwest Airlines’ no baggage fee policy).

When things don’t go as planned, instead of assuming “they’re all idiots” consider the situation. What barriers can you remove? It’s likely you’ll find ways to support the needs of your audience by paving the way to the behavior you seek.

Accentuate the positive
When we focus all of our energy on solving problems – putting out fires – it’s easy to lose sight of what’s working. Eliminating problems, counter-intuitively, may not be as beneficial as finding ways to replicate the successes you’ve already enjoyed.

Ask yourself: What are we doing right and how can we do more of it? Identify situations where the project goal was met and the desired behavior change is happening (e.g., an increase in website visits, a successful event). Celebrate those successes – they’re hard-earned and rare – and share stories with your colleagues. Then, apply the lessons learned to your next assignment.

We seem to know a lot more about what went wrong, than what went right. In your organization, how much time is spent analyzing what IS working?

Related content:
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Herding Cats

As the sun rises on the western frontier, a quiet but confident manager directs his charges through rugged terrain. The days lead to weeks, the seasons come and go, and our hero concludes another successful campaign – only to begin anew the next morning. Meanwhile, back at the office, the hairballs are piling up, the litter box needs cleaning, and Princess has shredded the drapes again.

Anyone who has worked in the non-profit realm can confirm the difficulty in getting everyone on the same page, much less moving in the same direction. In fact, research shows fewer than 1 in 7 employees can state their company’s strategic goals. Cathleen Benko, the report’s author, notes, “If you can’t articulate the strategy, you can’t make smart decisions about which projects to take on.”

Furthermore, in another study, less than half of respondents say they understand the steps their organizations are taking to reach new goals. Is it any wonder no one knows what the marketing department is up to?

Continuing education
Despite the likelihood of inadequate budgets and overworked staff, perhaps the most underappreciated deficit in non-profit marketing is the amount of time available for internal communications.

Is there a gap between how you see yourself and how others see you and the projects you’re leading? Everyone has war stories about egregious violations of logo standards and eleventh-hour requests that defy the laws of physics. In fact, the time spent putting out those fires is one of the reasons it’s difficult to be seen as more than an order taker.

There is no quick fix presentation to win over internal audiences. It’s an ongoing process, better performed in small groups, or one by one. But be sure to start at the top. Without visible endorsement at the executive level, your efforts face a nearly insurmountable challenge. Everyone needs to understand that marketing is a priority.

Just as you shape compelling messages that elicit responses from external audiences, you must educate colleagues about what you do, how you do it, and why it’s valuable. In the presentation below, we counseled one of our clients to apply many of the same branding principles used for the organization to shape internal perceptions of the marketing department.

Provide structure
Defining the process by which projects get produced is a key to establishing your expertise and authority. Build trust in your leadership by assuring colleagues, “When we’ve been successful, this is how we’ve done it, and this is how we’ll do it for you.”

A piecemeal approach to marketing is never effective long term. It signals to others that there is no plan, no method to your madness – anything goes! Most often, people are asking or expecting you to be a tactician: “I need an invitation for my fundraising event by next Friday.”

Taking your time at the beginning – as carpenters say: measure twice, cut once – is important to diagnosing the root cause of the marketing problem. Some may even squawk about all the questions you’re asking. To them you might reply: “In medicine, to prescribe without diagnosing is considered malpractice. In marketing, it shouldn’t be common practice.”

Giving structure to your work helps guide expectations and timelines, and leads to more consistent outcomes. Broadly, it should look something like this:

  1. Project assessment – diagnose the problem
  2. Strategic recommendations – prescribe a plan
  3. Tactical execution – create the work
  4. Project review – refine as necessary
  5. Creative extension – roll out related material

Tacticians treat symptoms. That invitation will make your colleague feel better, but will it treat the cause of their problem? Strategy is not about what you will create, but how you will meet specific goals. Your most valuable deliverable is not the invitation, but the confidence to move forward.

Focus feedback
One of my favorite articles on project management is named “The $50,000 Comma.” Citing the creation of an annual report as an example, several different scenarios illustrate that when you make a change has a bigger effect on your project’s completion date and budget than what you change. In other words, include the right people at the right time.

If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.
– Charles Kettering

It’s important to gather broad input early, but grow increasingly specific about what type of feedback you seek as the project moves along. Never ask open-ended questions: “Do you like this? Let me know what you think.” Instead, frame your request for approval: “We agreed on XYZ (strategy and goals). Here’s how this project addresses those issues. Have we succeeded?” This approach leaves far less room for people to express opinions on tactical choices – color, photos, font size – and focuses their attention on more relevant concerns.

Tame the beast
Cats are generally warm and friendly, but can be unpredictable and difficult to control. Human beings aren’t that much different. By following the practices described above, it is my hope that you and your “herd” can build a productive and mutually beneficial relationship. Happy trails!

Related content:

Close the Gap Between Projects and Strategy

Time For A Project Pre-Mortem?

Make Meetings Work: Fight the PowerPoint