Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

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.

Simplicity Will Disrupt Your Business

Last summer, my siblings and I established a family endowment in honor of our parents. Tom and Mary Woychick were lifetime volunteers, philanthropists of time more than money, who supported a wide variety of causes in addition to their church – from homelessness to veterans, at-risk youth to education. With this fund, we plan to provide financial support to continue their work.

Have you ever tried to give money away? It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. In the process of vetting organizations to evaluate our options and establish parameters for giving and recognition of the gifts, we experienced a surprising range of responses.

Some organizations engaged us immediately, expressing gratitude for our consideration and outlining options for our gift. After contacting one nonprofit, I was passed off to three different people, each of whom failed to respond to emails or phone calls in a timely manner. One small, shoestring operation has been so overwhelmed with day-to-day commitments, that they have yet to suggest a suitable place to invest our pledged gift. And one organization – my Dad’s alma mater – never responded at all.

Complexity is not the enemy
Whether it’s Moore’s Law or Murphy’s Law, the world’s evolution seems to conspire against simplicity. As organizations grow, and employees come and go, it is difficult to establish and maintain clear processes for handling things … like in-bound inquiries, for example. But organizations, technology, and problems are not becoming less complex, so what can be done?

The real enemy is confusion. Anyone who has tried to navigate a television remote with too many buttons and too-small type, pored over an invoice from a health care provider, or attempted to speak with a real person at a credit card company can attest to the need for simpler solutions to complex problems.

Simple solutions don’t accomplish less. In fact, because they eliminate processes or remove barriers that prevent a superior customer experience, simplicity allows people to do more. Simple solutions, essentially, hide all the complex things that are going on behind the scenes so that less is required of the customer. They make it look easy.

Seeing like a customer
Most people are capable of recognizing a handful, if not dozens, of things – large and small – that should be improved within their organization. When one of these projects finally attracts resources to address the problem, the next trick is separating our own needs from those of our customers.

Recently the Minnesota Department for Revenue redesigned its website, which is good, because the site needed an overhaul. Unfortunately, based on personal experience making the monthly payroll tax deposit, everything from logging in to navigation has become more convoluted. Why would they do that? I can only assume the website works better for them – on the back end. It’s apparent they didn’t consider their users first.

It’s been said that the devil’s in the details, when truthfully it’s the human-centered details that matter. Developing more acute empathy for our customers is the key to designing better experiences for them. As Aaron Levie wrote for Fast Company, “It’s all about reducing choices and unnecessary steps, narrowing clutter, and adding a touch of class to boot.”

The bottom line is that simplicity inspires trust, which ranks among the most important of marketing objectives.

It’s not easy
Simplicity isn’t simple. If it was, there would be more of it, and it wouldn’t be disrupting sleepy little product categories or entire industries. Here are a few ways to start building a bias toward simpler solutions and a more customer-centered organization:

  • Examine your brand position. What promise are you making to your customers? A strong brand position not only brings focus to marketing strategy and tactics, it should act as a filter for decision making up and down the organization. When in doubt, which course of action best supports that promise?
  • Know what business you’re in. Southwest Airlines has become one of the most profitable airlines in the world, even though they do almost everything “wrong” – no seat assignments, no meals, flying to less-popular airports. Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s longtime leader, once said, “I tell my employees that we’re in the service business, and it’s incidental that we fly airplanes.”
  • Consider the entire process from start to finish. Everyone wants ROI these days, but marketing can’t be isolated from the rest of an organization’s operations and produce a long-term impact. It’s the equivalent of being asked to fix a car’s transmission and then being handed a bucket and a sponge. True simplicity – and marketing success – permeates an organization. It’s not just an add-on.
  • Ruthlessly edit. Practice saying “no” to additional features, processes, or services that dilute your focus. Reductive thinking – what can be removed, organized, or hidden – leads to improved customer experiences. George Bernard Shaw, in correspondence with a friend, once wrote, “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” Take the time.

We live in a time of unprecedented turbulence, but one thing hasn’t changed – simplicity remains a tremendous advantage. What barriers are preventing your organization from being a disruptive force in the market?

Related content:
The Simplicity Thesis
Simplicity Isn’t Simple
Designing for the Obvious

Mind the Gap

Politely but firmly, as any traveler boarding trains in London’s Underground can attest, an insistent female voice reminds passengers to pay attention to their surroundings. Unfortunately, there is no similarly effective system for urging those who work in non-profit organizations to “mind the gap” between the current and desired state of things.

Every night we ask our two boys to set the table as my wife or I prepare dinner. After the older boy asks “What are we having?” and the younger one distracts himself with the dog, almost invariably the conversation goes something like this: Is the table set? Yes. Everyone has forks? Yep. Did you set out cups? Uh-huh. Looking from the kitchen into the dining room, it appears both boys have cups but neither parent is so fortunate. Were you planning on giving your mom or me a cup? Oh! I didn’t know you wanted one.

Whether it’s due to existing organizational systems and culture, our education, or our job description, too often we find ourselves overmatched by the problems we’re asked to address. Hampered by a fixed-view, linear mindset, there is a gap between the problems we face and the skills we bring to bear in solving them – almost a planned obliviousness.

A dynamic environment
Few things exist in isolation. Sick people need doctors. Cars need fuel. And a flower needs sun, soil, water, bees, and an environment free of feet to stomp on it or tires to run it over. In all endeavors multiple factors affect one another, yet our response in the face of complexity has been to evolve into a collection of specialists where one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. As the Epicurean Dealmaker observed:

As the body of scientific and technical knowledge swells exponentially, scientists and engineers by definition simply must become narrowly focused specialists. You cannot be effective as a scientist or engineer nowadays if your knowledge spans too broad a field.

He continues:

But who will aggregate and balance the competing viewpoints, suggestions, and research programs of all these specialists in highly complex microdomains? Who else but someone who has been rigorously educated in the general discipline of how to think, of how to evaluate competing claims and conflicting evidence under conditions of extreme uncertainty?

Who else but a designer?

Inconceivable
Before accusing me of being delusional, let me explain. Most people think of design as an act of creation. Among other things, designers make products, buildings, posters, and websites. But design is as much – if not more – about how we think than what we make.

If you had customers facing physical danger in the course of receiving your product or service, it’s safe to say that fixing this problem would be a priority. Less alarming, but similarly, if your website was difficult to navigate or your process for thanking volunteers was too slow, these might also be identified as problems worth solving.

These are all design problems. And, since design is part of everything we do, all of us have a stake in thinking like designers.

Recognizing patterns
Psychologists have long identified pattern recognition as essential to human intelligence. It’s the only way our powerful, but limited, brains can process massive amounts of stimuli. Imagine reading, playing chess, solving equations, or understanding human behavior – all rely on keen recognition of patterns.

The problem with relying only on specialists, is that the patterns they’ve learned can make it harder for them to consider and integrate new thinking. They know too much.

Design thinking is a structured approach to generating and developing ideas to meet a specific challenge. Fostering the conditions in which insider knowledge meets outsider perspective encourages the kinds of questions and breakthroughs that remain largely absent with a more insular approach.

Solving problems
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. We need specialists with their deep, but narrow, expertise to collaborate with less linear, more iterative thinkers – the designers in our midst. In other words, in an age of increasing specialization, we need to be paying attention to both the forest and the trees.

When that happens, we’ll make a regular habit of improving our organizations, not just our logos and websites, and eliminating the gaps between what exists and what is possible. As the web application developer and founder of 37Signals, Jason Fried, has said: The design is done when the problem goes away.

Related Content:
The Cognitive Cost of Expertise
Design Nations

Measure Twice

by Dan Woychick

As more marketing happens on laptops, tablets, and smartphones, the demand for and trust in metrics continues to grow. If something can be measured, it will be, as return on investment (ROI) weighs on the minds of executives everywhere.

Analyze the following proposition. This product deprives you of sleep, makes unpleasant noises at inappropriate moments, is temperamental, requires constant attention, and costs a fortune. Babies. Who in their right mind would sign up for this? What’s the return on that investment?

We like to think we’re rational creatures, and that any situation can be measured, analyzed, and then systematically improved. And while many business metrics can be useful – even vital – they take the place of instinct, experience, and other available means of perception at our peril.

Blind spots
The truth is a lot harder to identify than it would appear at first glance. Individuals, each with their own beliefs and biases, can be relied on only to reveal one version of “reality.” One man’s trash is another’s treasure.

I have fond memories of watching Hogan’s Heroes as a boy and planning “escapes” from the basement with my brothers. I think the show is funny and still apply favorite lines to everyday situations. My wife thinks it’s one of the dumbest TV shows of all time.

In a million different ways we are all “reality challenged” and that’s a good thing – vive la différence! But we can also become blinded by our biases, form premature conclusions, and miss alternative points of view, as in this Awareness Test:

 

Cooking the books
People tend to seek out and believe numbers that support an existing assumption or preferred course of action. In other words, we see what we want to see. Marketers can shape or choose “facts” that feed this tendency.

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. – Mark Twain

Television commercials are rife with examples. Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum. The Ford F-150 offers best-in-class fuel economy. More people find love on Match.com than any other dating site.

The existing bias toward plausibly objective data is widespread and tempting for many organizations. Earlier this year, Claremont McKenna, an exclusive California college, admitted to inflating freshman SAT scores for six years to improve its place in the U.S. News & World Report’s widely-read college rankings.

Blind spots can be dangerous as well. During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, an independent weapons inspector found no stockpiles of WMD in the country. Since these findings didn’t support its strategic goals, the U.S. government simply used other measures to justify military action.

Buyer beware
The collected wisdom of the general public is subjective and often flawed. This creates opportunities for data wonks to dazzle us with metrics that may or may not illuminate effective decisions.

Many social media consultants will happily rattle off statistics that have the imprimatur of legitimate insight: “We measure influence and engagement and have the pie charts to prove it. ROI? Have we got numbers for you!

We know social media is important. That’s what everybody says, and everyone we know belongs to several social networks. Statistics may simply back up our existing beliefs. But, honestly, are you seeking out opportunities to engage in dialogue or conversation with a company, an institution or a brand? I’m not. Do these numbers reflect actual behavior that supports business objectives, or is it wishful thinking?

In preparation for the National Football League draft, teams put college players through a battery of tests. How many times can you bench press 225 pounds? How far can you jump from a standing start? How fast can you run 40 yards? While all those things can be quantified, in isolation – or even cumulatively – they do not reveal whether the athlete can actually play the game.

A measured response
Some things can and should be measured, but the quest for ROI is often more about minimizing risk than maximizing revenue. We must remain aware of our own biases and blind spots if we hope to transcend the data.

Gaining meaningful insights through research most often requires a balance of art and science – subjective and objective measures – because even though bean counters can tell you how many beans are in a jar, they can’t tell you how good they taste.

Related content:
Are Metrics Blinding Our Perception?
Do You Know Your Blind Spots?

Why I Love What I Do

When I was a boy, I loved to draw. Sharpen a No. 2 Ticonderoga and transfer visions from my head to the nearest scrap of paper. Round up the old cigar box full of crayons and try to find a scrap of Burnt Sienna big enough to hold firmly in nubby little fingers. Snip, snip, snip with dull scissors on softly colored sheets of construction paper.

Growing up a sports fan – my dad could enthusiastically hum the fight songs of every Big Ten school; and with five brothers and a sister there was always a game to be played – my interest in drawing and sports eventually overlapped. What began as portraits of local heroes – Rod Carew, Fran Tarkenton, Chuck Foreman – faithfully reproduced from magazine or newspaper photos, evolved into something much bigger.

By the time I was ten, I had created my own personal sporting empire. I named the teams, designed the logos and uniforms, and staged games between them (the Minnesota team usually won). With a quarter and two Rice Krispies box tops, I bought a football game with a ball-shaped marker that slid down a groove in the middle of the field. Plays were called by rolling dice and referring to a chart (of course I added my own). I invented a baseball game using a deck of playing cards – aces were singles, the four of spades was a home run, the king of hearts was a stolen base. And I kept statistics. Every team was fully stocked with players I named – some even had their own baseball cards. After a few years I published a magazine – drew the “photos,” wrote a story about a player on each team, assembled and mailed it to my grandpa.

The point is this: I’ve been trying to shape the world around me for a long, long time.

When passions and talents intersect
I believe that being a designer, thinking like a designer, is as much a personality trait as it is a profession. I feel compelled to communicate, to make things clear. I find beauty in simple, human-centered solutions. I am always looking for a better way – more meaningful, more inventive, more impactful – because good just isn’t good enough when great is the goal.

In that way, I’d like to think, I am much like the people I work with at colleges and universities, social service agencies, and cultural institutions. No one goes into non-profit work for the money, they do it for love. They love to see an immigrant acquire the confidence and skills to transform his neighborhood. They love to see a dog swimming after her master’s stick because the river is clean enough to play in. They love to see the undernourished baby get the health care it deserves. They love shaping the world one person at a time. And I love helping them succeed.

As a designer, success is not about making the tri-fold brochure look nice by Friday. Success is turning a budget deficit into a surplus, uncovering the essence of why an organization is distinct, or building a website that better serves the users’ needs. When I am able to do that – to shape the world by analyzing, synthesizing, and clarifying ideas and information – I really love my job.

Why do you love yours?

Related content:
What Being a Designer Means

Adaptation

Over 170 years ago on the Galapagos Islands, Charles Darwin made an interesting observation. The animals he saw on this remote outpost were not quite like the ones he had seen throughout South America during the survey expedition of the HMS Beagle. In fact, and more importantly, he noticed a tortoise or finch on one island was not quite like a tortoise or a finch on another island. They had adapted to their environment.

We all have seminal moments in our lives – events that prove to be major influences and shift our perspective or open our minds to new ways of thinking. Some moments become shared touchstones. Where were you when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon? What were you doing when you heard about the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center? Others – like the teenager who hears Nirvana playing on the radio and ditches his trombone in favor of an electric guitar – are more personal.

Everything is relative
Seemingly everyone I talk to these days is in transition, trying to reconcile past experiences and skills with current and future market needs. Few planned on careers where it seems the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills.

In a networked, cloud-based world where nothing is fixed or permanent, how do communicators and marketers determine what will endure? How do our skills apply? Perhaps we should be asking: How will we adapt?

Everything is measured in terms of individual perception. To me, that little puppy is cute and cuddly; to you, it’s smelly and sheds all over the furniture; to another, it may look like dinner. If we accept that premise, then our real value is an ability to make ideas and information accessible to each individual in our audience. Fortunately, we have more and better tools to do this than ever before.

Theory meets possibility
The theory of evolution was not new when Darwin published The Origin of Species. He was recognized for synthesizing his experiences and insights with existing thought and making the principle of natural selection accessible to the public.

Similarly, the concept of creating adaptive or fluid websites is not new. With the explosion of mobile devices, web designers and developers debated the merits of various screen resolutions and wrestled with the lack of standards across multiple web browsers. The response has ranged from building a dizzying array of mobile apps to creating and maintaining separate mobile-friendly websites to doing nothing at all.

In the article Responsive Web Design, and subsequent book, Ethan Marcotte gives name to a better way forward. Responsive designs automatically deliver the best site for your users based on what you know about them – one site serving all audiences better.

Responsive web design
The prevalent model for displaying web content concedes that the user experience will suffer on some devices. Simply put, most websites are not user-friendly on mobile devices, and most non-profit organizations can’t afford to create and maintain multiple sites and apps. Responsive web design is a more flexible approach. As Marcotte writes:

Rather than quarantining our content into disparate, device-specific experiences, we can use [technology] to progressively enhance our work within different viewing contexts.

Responsive websites use new technologies and better browser support to rearrange, resize, add or subtract content to fit the device. Additionally, it forces the web team – designers, writers and developers – to rethink how that content is edited, organized and delivered.

Some early adopters of this approach include (drag your browser window larger and smaller to see how the page responds):

Serving the audience
Successful marketers have always aimed to serve an audience’s needs – to quickly respond with interest and enthusiasm. Responsive web designs not only meet your users’ need for relevant information any time, anywhere, on any device, but essentially eliminate the need to create and maintain separate apps and sites.

I believe this represents a seminal moment. If simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, as Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, then the tools we use are finally getting sophisticated enough to make our lives simpler – and that’s an adaptation we can all embrace.

Related content:
Responsive Web Design

Generation Flux

When Design Leaves the Box

Designing Change

Be the change you want to see in the world. – Mahatma Gandhi

We live in turbulent times. It seems as if every institution, belief, and convention is under pressure from an insistent, uncertain and unsentimental future. Fortunately, throughout history, passionate people have responded with innovative ideas that make the world a better place.

Traditionally, nonprofit organizations inhabit the void between governments and corporations, but even that model is beginning to shift. New players are seeking new roles in pursuit of their passions.

Catalysts
Every day, designers work with nonprofits and community groups to raise awareness, inspire donors, and increase understanding of issues they care about. But the whole notion of the client/designer relationship, and what kinds of things designers are (or should be) involved in, is evolving.

As AIGA president Doug Powell noted in addressing the association’s members, “Designers are no longer content to be intermediaries between information and understanding – we strive to also be agents of social change.”

Design, in its most valuable role, isn’t employed solely to promote an idea or initiative, but to help shape it from the ground up – to make change happen.

Think like a designer
Designers are uniquely equipped to tackle complex problems. Though often recognized for beautiful or clever visual concepts, it is a designer’s approach to thinking about a problem that makes them well-suited to venture into new arenas.

The ability to conjure something out of nothing in pixels or on paper is fed by an active imagination that is equally capable of developing new solutions to societal problems. Designers are willing to consider different perspectives, anticipate the consequences, and risk trying new things. This fearless opposition to the status quo is vital to any social change effort.

A designer’s ability to think – both to shape a program or organization and its marketing efforts – can be a distinct strategic advantage.

Inventing the future
Whether due to an impatience with traditional efforts to make change happen, the empowerment of new technologies, or the desire to contribute to society in more meaningful ways, designers are involved in the social change sphere with increasing frequency.

When designers are given the opportunity to have a bigger role, real change, real transformation actually happens. – Yves Behar, One Laptop Per Child

There are many different models for merging design and social change:

  • Emily Pilloton and the team at Project H are using the power of design and hands-on building to transform public education in rural North Carolina.
  • Mark Randall and Andréa Pellegrino formed Worldstudio to help turn clients’ “do good” goals into action that drives positive social change. Additionally, the firm has launched several self-driven programs such as The Urban Forest Project and Design Ignites Change.
  • Corporations are providing new funding models for ambitious do-gooders, including the Pepsi Refresh Project and Sappi Paper’s Ideas That Matter program.
  • Other organizations are beginning to document and celebrate the impact of design on society. AIGA San Francisco launched cause/affect, a biennial juried competition and exhibition recognizing projects that support social good. GOOD presents an ongoing digest of socially-relevant design activity.
  • And some designers, like Steffanie Lorig at Art with Heart in Seattle, and Sue Crolick at Art Buddies in Minneapolis, have completely abandoned design careers to launch their own non-profit organizations.

Challenge and opportunity
Making social change happen, as anyone in the non-profit world can attest, is not a career for the faint of heart. As San Francisco designer Arvi Raquel-Santos put it, “Designers want to create change. They want to help and contribute to society, but how can they create work that matters while trying to make a living in this profession?”

There is no clear path to that goal, but one thing is certain – working for free is not a sustainable business model. Designers must assume a broader role in business, social and cultural environments by forging new relationships and applying old skills in new ways. We must expand our networks, identify and seek support from those who can help our ideas become reality, and grow accustomed to ambiguity and longer time frames – projects are often measured in years, not weeks or months.

Just last week, AIGA launched Design for Good to help ignite interest, encourage connections, and accelerate and amplify design-driven social change. As more designers become recognized for their contributions in this new arena, the hope is that more organizations will seek out our involvement.

It’s an exciting time to be alive. The needs are urgent and many, the opportunities great. And, as the old Apple ad reminded us, the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Related content:
Be Your Own Hero
Working for Social Profit: Six Tips
Design for the Other 90%
Dutiee: A Daily Peek Into Social Good

Getting Engaged

Love is in the air. Or, maybe it’s pollen. I’ve been sneezing so much lately it’s difficult to see straight. But, like the nagging of an impatient mother, it’s difficult to ignore the persistent prodding: When are you going to get engaged?

Helpful advice on wooing that certain special someone is cheerfully, though not cheaply, offered by marketing and social media consultants everywhere. There are thousands of customers waiting to hear from you! Participate in meaningful conversations! Build an emotional connection! Be still my lonely heart.

A meaningful relationship
Do you know anyone who is eagerly pursuing a relationship with a brand? They may interact with, be loyal to, and be supportive of their favorites, but you’re largely dealing with an audience of confirmed bachelors and bachelorettes. People are not interested in committing to organizations or brands, they’re playing the field.

“Engagement marketing” is not an oxymoron on the order of an “open secret” or “exact estimate,” but more of a euphemism turned sideways. In an effort to make something unpleasant seem less so, we often use a velvet glove to soften the blow. You’re not getting fired, you’re being downsized. I’m not calling you a liar, I’m just questioning the credibility of your assertions. In marketing it seems we’re using pleasant concepts – engagement, dialogue, community – as cover for the more difficult things organizations need to address.

Such quibbling over semantics may seem petty – there’s nothing wrong with a concerted effort to be more engaging. In fact, it’s imperative in an age where the consumer undeniably has the upper hand. But, in implying that there’s a causal relationship between marketing (at least in the usual sense) and a customer’s desire to get engaged, consultants over-promise and under-deliver.

Making a promise
Much of what is encouraged in the social media sphere – listening, being responsive, participating in two-way communication – is less marketing and more customer service. Essentially, it’s acting like a good human being, treating others as you’d like to be treated.

In the book In Search of Excellence, a self-deprecating executive explains, “I’m not smart enough to know which things are most important, so I just treat everything as if it’s the most important thing.” The lesson is that excellence, by its very nature, is all-inclusive. An excellent organization must provide great products and service – an excellent experience throughout the enterprise. Always.

Building trust is easy. Just start by telling the truth, and then do as you promised. – Eric Karjaluoto

It’s the pervasive and permanent effort across an organization that can be underestimated by marketing folks and the people who hire them. You want your customers to love you? As Beyonce sings: If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it. Live up to your promise – engagement doesn’t happen in 140 characters.

What are you willing to do?
You can declare empathy for a social cause, or volunteer your time to help solve it. You can tell someone you’re funny, or actually make them laugh. Profess deep compassion for the environment, or make purchases that demonstrate your values. Actions speak louder than words.

The activities that drive personal connection with an organization are operational in nature – they have little to do with marketing. As someone who makes his living as a design and marketing consultant, I won’t tell you that marketing is unimportant. It’s not easy to do well. And it’s especially challenging when an organization can’t deliver on its promise. Before you start thinking about the next campaign, first consider how you can design a better experience for your customers.

Engagement cannot be broadcast or found on any media channel. It’s personally delivered every day, one at a time – like a love note.

Related content:

Speak Human by Eric Karjaluoto
It’s Not About Engagement

Travel Tips

Traveling provides opportunity to explore terrain – both real and figurative – that is unattainable from the comfort of an easy chair. Seven weeks ago, my family and I began a long-awaited trip covering four countries and several time zones. We’ve seen and learned a lot in our travels, some of which is even applicable to non-profit design and marketing. For example:

Be prepared, but don’t overprepare
It’s foolish to embark on any journey without planning your route. It’s equally foolish to think you can or should control every last detail. Trust in your preparation, but remain nimble enough to seize opportunities as they arise – or adjust when things don’t go exactly as planned. They never do.

Watch and learn
Reading about something will never replace real-world experience. Whether entering a new country or a new market, you can never assume people will behave as expected. Observe how people get around, what they like, and where they go. Consider it real-time ethnographic research – then modify your tactics to fit prevailing conditions.

Your reputation precedes you
Chances are others have been where you’re about to go. Fair or not, this can color the locals’ perceptions and behavior towards you. How does your brand play in a new market? What do they know about you (or your type)? This knowledge should guide what you wear, what you say, and how you act.

Meet them half way
This is a friendly visit, not a hostile takeover. Accordingly, being polite goes a long way. To communicate, make an effort to learn the lingo – even a few key phrases. Then understand that regardless of your efforts, some will remain unreceptive. When people want to hear you, they will. If they’re not interested, they won’t.

Don’t try to do too much
Whether you’re visiting museums, eating gelato, or relaxing in the sun, you need to know your limitations. The same holds true when marketing an organization. An overpacked day planner, like an overpacked suitcase, will eventually hinder your ability to function effectively. Focus on doing a few things really well.

Apply your lessons
In marketing, consider each audience you’re trying to reach as if visiting a new country. Every new experience enriches us in ways we can’t predict. By remaining aware of your surroundings and learning as you go, you can become a better traveler and a better communicator.

P.S. One last piece of advice: Travel (and work) with people you like.

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