Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

The Decision

Imagine a crisp autumn day. A teenager is visiting a college campus with her parents. It’s just one step in a lengthy selection process of reviewing websites, speaking with friends and relatives, and weighing the pros and cons of one school versus another.

Even though most people aren’t given a national TV audience to announce their plans, it is widely assumed that a big decision – choosing a school, volunteering time or money, pursuing a job – demands deep thought. But does it really work that way?

In our experience with regional public universities, we’ve noticed the opposite is true. Prospective students are not very familiar with many schools, often making their choice based on general – and sometimes inaccurate – impressions. In other words, the common perception – touring multiple campuses, filing lots of applications, sorting through piles of information – is the anomaly, not the rule.

Just the facts, ma’am

As noted in Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide, it turns out our brains weren’t designed to be rational or logical or even particularly deliberate. This can be seen in all walks of life, for instance:

  • In an age of unprecedented dissatisfaction with our elected representatives, incumbents are still re-elected nearly 90% of the time. Even taking into account an incumbent’s built-in advantages, this doesn’t seem possible.
  • Kobe Bryant is considered by many to be the premiere basketball player on the planet. Who else would you want shooting the ball with the game on the line? Based on statistical analysis, dozens of players perform better under pressure. While Bryant makes a lot of clutch baskets, he is not more skilled at making those shots, he just takes more of them than other players.

The facts suggest we persistently disregard information that would be helpful in making our decisions.

If I’ve heard of you, you must be good.

With exposure to a barrage of daily messages and with access to a world of pretty good – or at least largely indistinguishable – choices at our fingertips, we often take decision shortcuts by turning to the familiar. It’s as much a coping mechanism as it is a reflection on what we value or believe.

We trust who and what we know.

Are we doomed?

So, while this is great news for Goliath, it represents a daunting marketing challenge for underfunded nonprofits with little name recognition. How can you compete?

  • If you’re well-positioned in the minds of consumers, the pool of competitors shrinks. We’re this, not that. It’s called branding.
  • You’re less well known than you think. Invest in some small-scale market research so the right messages are reaching the right people.
  • Expand your communications beyond the low-hanging fruit. Anyone can preach to the choir and remain a well-kept secret. Using social media can strengthen connections with customers and turn them into advocates.

Like you, your audience is faced with decisions every day. To guide your marketing decisions, remember to ask: How can we get more people to know, like, and trust us? Becoming the familiar option will help more people choose you.

Related Content:

How Facts Backfire

The Relevance Filter

Everyone Has Choices

Expand Your Way of Seeing

In the modern business environment, nothing is trusted more than cold, hard facts. Simply using one’s own eyes and ears to observe how people interact with your product or service, on the other hand, is an underappreciated skill.

Ethnography is observing people’s behavior in their own environments, so you can get a holistic understanding of their world. – LiAnne Yu, cultural anthropologist

While it’s not necessary to be a trained social scientist to benefit from observing others, like any skill, regular practice increases proficiency. When communicators put themselves in others’ shoes, they begin to see beyond their own preconceptions, leading to more compelling stories and experiences.

What’s bugging you?

If you’ve ever been to an airport, chances are you’ve got an opinion or two about how the whole experience could be better – from parking to check-in to boarding your flight. When it comes to personal preferences, you’re probably not as unique as you think.

Keeping an ongoing, personal “bug list” is a good place to start training yourself to note patterns of behavior in real-world settings. Those behaviors will provide clues to where opportunities for improvement exist.

Take the time to gather new insights. If you’re far removed in age and experience from your target audience, curiosity is the key to obtaining new points of view. When it comes to honing your powers of observation, look for a few people that fit your target audience. It’s better to know a few people deeply than many people superficially.

Imagining action

When conducting on-site research is impractical – maybe you’re planning for a winter event in late summer – it may be useful to think in terms of verbs rather than nouns.

Take a college, for instance. Don’t think of class registration, think of a specific student registering. This involves action – all of the steps and processes around this activity. Is there a building that registering students need to visit? Picture that environment. Are there forms to fill out? How could they be simpler? Imagine the experience of a real person moving through the necessary steps to register for classes.

If you know your organization well, you can “see” that experience. Where are the opportunities to improve communications? If that experience is improved, does it present marketing opportunities?

Define the problem.

The tighter the focus of your observation, the more valuable the insights will be. For example, broadly trying to encourage more people to make donations isn’t nearly as helpful as asking: What are the competing priorities for young, first-time donors?

Removing barriers to communication will make interacting with your organization more intuitive. Once you become more attuned to audience behavior, keen observational insights will make your communications and marketing more powerful, clear, and well understood.

Related content:

Ethnography Primer

Everything You Know Is Wrong

There are a few unwritten rules in marketing, including: people don’t read, social media is a game changer, and the more data the better. But what happens when best practices aren’t?

For every adage, there’s a counter-intuitive example that proves the folly of following absolutes. The death of reading, it turns out, is greatly exaggerated. According to researchers at the University of California in San Diego, people are reading nearly three times as much as they did 30 years ago. And how does it change your marketing efforts if the hottest social network of 2009 isn’t as social as expected? With only 27% of its users actively participating, Twitter is becoming more of a news feed than a social network.

Homogeneous thinking

The propensity to follow conventional wisdom is understandable. Entire businesses are built on “the wisdom of crowds.” (See Netflix and Pandora, among others.) Without question, using good data and the experience of others to guide decision-making is safer and more efficient than reinventing the wheel. It eliminates the big mistake. But it also eliminates the transcendent.

Because few people trust their intuition or instincts as much as their data, a lot of marketing efforts tend to look and sound alike. Unfortunately, original ideas aren’t the result of number crunching or focus groups. As Henry Ford noted, regarding the first car he ever built: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

It takes courage to be unconventional.

When we encounter bold ideas, we’re inevitably drawn to their audacity, often nodding reverently: “I wish I’d thought of that!”

The Flip has been the best-selling camcorder on Amazon.com since the day of its debut, capturing about 13% of the market. Yet no market research suggested an unmet need for a virtually featureless video camera.

When is a risky choice a good idea? When it works, of course! In the most recent Super Bowl, the New Orleans Saints’ onsides kick to start the second half was widely credited with turning the game in their favor.

More marketing failures are the result of trying to please everybody than going against the grain.

Innovation comes from asking the right questions

I only know one graphic designer joke: Q: How many designers does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: Does it have to be a light bulb?

Without exploring what is possible – and even what may seem impossible – no one generates new ideas. The more you question the status quo, the more often you try something new or different, the more likely your ideas will break new ground.

In an undifferentiated marketplace with a multitude of pretty good choices, falling back on conventional wisdom just won’t cut it any more. Or as your mom might say: “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?”

Related content:

Are Metrics Blinding our Perception?

Social Media Sins

Too Much Data Leads to Not Enough Belief

The Art of Non-Conformity

Flying Blind

Dan's dog Buster.

About a year ago my dog almost died. Buster and I have been together for nearly 16 years. He had been as frisky as ever on a long walk the day before his near-death experience and now, many months later, he’s doing fine.

The problem I faced that day at the veterinary hospital is similar, though perhaps less emotionally charged, to ones faced by non-profit organizations on a regular basis: not enough information to adequately guide a wise decision.

How could Buster seem so healthy one day and so ill the next? What’s wrong with him? Can he be saved? And what will it cost? In a very condensed time frame, with the help of the vet, I needed to consider what little information I had and make a decision.

Unlike large corporations that spend millions on market research every year, non-profit organizations have relatively shallow pockets. However, they are well-served by acquiring as much information as possible before making decisions that affect the success of the organization: Would our stakeholders prefer to get information from us online or in print? How can we increase donations from younger demographics? Is our website as effective as it needs to be?

Sometimes decisions are made with virtually no information aside from hunches or other people’s personal anecdotes. Other times there’s paralysis caused by too much information. Either way, organizations benefit when they take the time to acquire and analyze relevant information.

Targeted market research doesn’t have to cost a fortune or take months to see results. It helps to ask the right questions — or any questions at all. Most non-profits have stakeholders ready to offer their time and insights with little or no incentive. Through facilitated focus groups or online surveys, organizations can quickly collect useful qualitative and quantitative data.

We’ve conducted website usability testing with only 5–6 subjects that resulted in significant improvements in a matter of weeks. Cost? A few thousand dollars.

Sometimes the information is right under your nose, but making sense of it is the problem. If your organization is information rich and time poor, it could be worthwhile to ask an expert to analyze the data with fresh eyes.

As a parent, as well as a dog owner, I often feel as if I’m flying blind. Most often, my course of action is trial-and-error, with only marginal confidence that what I’m doing might work. Non-profit organizations have far less margin for error. By building an organizational culture that encourages informed decision-making, your marketing efforts will be more successful the first time.