Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

First Contact

photo illustration of flying saucer at night with beam of light shining on single person standing below itMy oldest son is a sophomore in high school. Last fall he took the PSAT – a preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test – and scored quite well. As in, 99th percentile well.

Almost instantly, hundreds of colleges are interested in him. The response time is impressive. He gets dozens of emails every day and he’s getting more printed mail than I’m getting bills, so it’s a lot to absorb.

What’s less impressive is the mind-numbing uniformity. More than half the emails he receives appear to be stamped out in a college recruitment factory.

With no photos, logos, or anything compelling or memorable to stand out from the crowd – in the way that his test score does – these colleges invariably open with a compliment on his academic abilities and move on to the offer:

You’ve been selected to receive Backpack Secrets of the Nation’s Top Scholars.

I’d like to give you access to Big Picture: How Your Favorite Movies Can Predict Your College Major.

That’s why I want to give you Best and Brightest: How America’s Top Scholars Choose Their Ideal College.

I’ve chosen you to receive an exclusive guide, Your Best School: How (and Why) to Choose a College on the Rise.

That’s why we want to send you 7 Key Questions: Finding the Right Fit in Your College Search.

Reply now!

As if.

sample of a generic college recruitment email

Sample of a generic college recruitment email

Savvy consumers
My experience is that kids are cynics. They know when they are being sold something. The attempts to “engage” fall flat. Last week, my young scholar reported with bemusement that online ads featuring Derek from [Blank] State University keep popping up in the margins of his web browsing.

It’s the place where Derek began his adventure!

Our apartment together was like a design studio!

Derek designed sneakers in Germany when he studied abroad!

My son’s takeaway: “They want me to think he’s cool, so I could be cool if I go there too.” He’s not buying it.

Be distinct
It’s a hard job marketing colleges to young students. Almost all of those emails are trashed with barely a glance. Almost all of the mail quickly ends up in our recycling bin.

For my focus group of one in this early stage of the recruitment process, what makes an impression to match the gaudy test score? Or at least makes him pause for a second or two?

Good design and good writing.

One email began:

We have learned that you recently suffered the indignity of squandering several hours answering dozens of irritating multiple-choice questions. Sorry about that.

Another had nothing but a giant photo of an orange with an arrow and the headline: Peel Here. Of course, he eats about a half dozen clementines per day. Another began with a curious illustration and the opening line: Why can a fly climb on the ceiling, but a human can’t? (See below.)

What are my early impressions of college recruitment marketing? If you really want to attract the best and brightest students, you’re going to have to step up your game. Delivering a generic first impression is a great way to get your young target audience to tune you out.

Photo of an orange with an arrow and the headline: "Peel here."Illustration of dark silhouettes walking upside down on the ceiling of a classroom. Today's Lesson: Lord of the Flies is written on the chalkboard

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Temptation Nation

The cookie monster looks into the oven while he waits for the cookies to finish bakingIn a windowless room, a child sits at a table staring down a lone marshmallow, his face a mask of concentration. Will he eat it right away? Or be rewarded with two marshmallows for waiting? Studies have shown that those who are able to delay eating the treat generally fared better in life.

Poor Cookie Monster. In a clever new ad for the iPhone 6, the beloved muppet demonstrates the phone’s hands-free, voice command feature while mixing up a batch of cookies. As you can imagine, he’s not very good at waiting.

This intersection between the iconic marshmallow experiment and the smartphone highlights one of the biggest obstacles to success in nonprofit marketing – a lack of self-discipline.

Get your fix
Have you got a lot on your plate today? Who doesn’t?

Check your email. Prioritize your tasks. Make a list. Answer a phone call. Impromptu status update with an office colleague. See what’s happening on Facebook. Get a cup of coffee. Review your to-do list. Text your spouse about picking up the kids after school. Follow a link to a BuzzFeed quiz: Am I more like Hermione or Yoda? Respond to voicemail. Prep for project team meeting. Refresh coffee. Check email again. Break for lunch.

Feeling productive?

It’s not difficult to understand the temptation. Easy and pleasurable distractions provide little doses of dopamine throughout the work day. It makes your brain feel good. Tackling tougher problems requires a different mindset.

Learn willpower
Self-discipline and willpower are often equated with deprivation. In fact, studies have shown a positive correlation between self-discipline and more happiness, more financial security, and better academic performance.

If you would rather go to happy hour than the gym, you’re not doomed. You can learn from the habits of self-disciplined people:

  • Avoid temptation. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, avoid the candy store. It’s better to limit how often you need to use self-control.
  • Get enough sleep. Healthy habits reduce stress and increase resistance to less healthy choices.
  • Break it down. Big goals can be discouraging when progress seems slow. Self-disciplined people understand the importance of setting mini milestones. Jim Hjort, founder of the Right Life Project, says the “perception of velocity toward goals is more important than the distance from those goals.”
  • Follow through. Do what you say you’re going to do – on time. This helps build trust, and colleagues are more likely to come to your aid on the rare occasions when you need it.

What versus why
Full disclosure: I started this blog post about two weeks ago, so it’s not like I’m immune to the daily challenges of getting things done. Procrastination? At times, yes. Distractions? Ever present. Do I have higher priorities? Without a doubt.

When good intentions go astray, it’s often due to a lack of direction. What are the highest priorities? And how does my work fit within that framework?

A mere 7% of employees today fully understand their company’s business strategies and what’s expected of them in order to help achieve company goals.”
– Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, “The Strategy-Focused Organization”

It is easier to concentrate on the most important task if you’re certain what it is. Very few people, on their own, can figure out how their job supports an organization’s strategy.

As the message trickles down from the top of the org chart, people may know what to do, but not understand why they are doing it.

It starts at the top
Leadership is about setting a course – and setting an example. After the strategic plan is released, too often the execution falls flat.

Organizational discipline requires leaders who consistently apply time and resources to top priorities. It also requires an ongoing commitment to provide context for internal audiences:

  • How are we making a difference?
  • How will we expand our impact?
  • What levers are we pulling to increase our effectiveness?

This should be a two-way dialog, not a top-down mandate.

It also helps if leaders are skilled at identifying, hiring, and promoting self-disciplined people. Time spent managing and improving processes is more productive than wrangling those who have difficulty staying on task.

Focused passion
The nonprofit world needs more people who have boundless enthusiasm for solving complex problems. The more disciplined the pursuit of solutions, the bigger the impact will be.

Anyone want a cookie?

Trick or Treat

A collection of colorful Halloween candy organized by typeEvery Halloween, children walk neighborhoods dressed in costume in search of sugary snacks. Jack-o-lanterns, spooky skeletons, the crunch of leaves underfoot. For one night, it’s all good fun – all treats, no tricks.

Many firms are taking a similar approach to offering pro bono services to nonprofit organizations – gathering for one night in a whirlwind of design, costumes optional. The Nerdery, a Minnesota-based web design company, hosts 24-hour website makeovers in several U.S. cities. Students at the Un-School of Disruptive Design aim for social change in its intensive, one-day workshops.

The energy and good will generated by these events is undeniable. But is it possible that they are more trick than treat?

Scrooge
At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I believe design firms should offer the same level of thinking and service to nonprofit and pro bono clients as they do for the ones who have an adequate budget.

Some might consider this opinion uncharitable.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Something is better than nothing.”

True enough.

Believe me, I understand the allure of the design blitz. Take the creative shackles off. Think fast. Don’t get bogged down in bureaucracy. It doesn’t hurt that this model often results in good publicity for the donating firm or individuals either.

Treat the cause
The problem is that one-day giveaways create a misconception about the value and power of design. Design as surface decoration is like giving a hungry family a handful of miniature candy bars when they really need a way to put food on the table next week, and the week after that.

If it’s actually possible to complete a project in 24 hours – to “rebrand” an organization or redesign its website – then what are the for-profit clients paying for? What’s taking you so long?

When you shortchange the design process – discovery, strategy, design, and implementation – you can treat the symptoms, but rarely the cause. You end up with short-term solutions for long-term problems.

There are many things you can do in 24 hours. Solving complex design problems isn’t one of them.

Let’s aim higher.

Data Visualization

Illustration of the Milky Way galaxy with an arrow pointing to the outer regions and the words "You Are Here"Big Data has a tendency to make us feel very small. The digital universe is large and getting larger, doubling in size every two years. All those numbers taken from everyday life have changed the way we live, as companies use algorithms to offer customized services and experiences that were once unimaginable.

This newfound power to recognize and predict patterns in human behavior presents opportunities and challenges. We have access to more information than ever before, but can we make sense of it?

Math for dummies
Mathematics plays a vital role in our quest to understand the world we live in.

The great book of nature can be read only by those who know the language in which it was written. And this language is mathematics. – Galileo

Unfortunately, most of us only read words and pictures. We like stories.

The rapid growth of available data has been matched by a similar growth in attempts to translate math into a language we understand. Complex subjects are summarized by making the math visual. Behold, the rise of the infographic!

Problems without solutions
The popularity of infographics as a way to quickly educate an audience hides one very inconvenient truth – they are incredibly difficult to do well. Unlike a mathematical formula, you can’t just plug in some numbers and produce an answer.

Charts, diagrams, and illustrations all have the power to convey vast amounts of information. If a graphic doesn’t bring clarity to the chaos, your reader must decide whether or not to spend time digesting it. (Hint: They won’t.) If it’s as easy to digest as a Twinkie – and just as nutritious – you’ve missed the opportunity to enlighten.

Short stories
The scarcest resource of the 21st century is human attention. Designers are up against it when attempting to quickly display loads of dense information in a single, compelling graphic. One must understand both the audience and the story you want to tell them. Do they have two hours, two minutes, or two seconds to get your point?

Under the direction of the most skilled practitioners, a great data visualization has a clear narrative. It provides context in both logical and unexpected ways and leaves the audience richer for the experience. Such a deft touch is uncommon.

Far more common is the jumbled collection of anecdotes, arrows, and armies of gender-neutral figures against a backdrop of colorful, oversized numbers. The infographic is supposed to say something, but seems designed to distract.

It’s as if someone took random pages from a handful of sources, stapled them together, and called it a story.

Distilled insight
A primary goal of data visualization is to make information more accessible, understandable, and usable. Though the amount of information is increasing by the day, the amount of useful information almost certainly isn’t. Most of it is just noise.

No matter how much data exists, correlations and insights do not magically appear by themselves. Data is only as useful as the people interpreting it.

An abundance of information requires inquiry and analysis to extract meaning. An ability to edit is more important than the choice of bar graphs or pie charts. Designers have the skills to help determine what is necessary and what is not. The trick is in bravely drawing and defending that line.

Big outcomes
Modern life is enriched by data in countless ways. However, there is a shortage of people who can both tame the data and tell you what to do with it. Data visualization is one way to bring focus to what’s important and prompt behavior change.

Before you jump on the infographic bandwagon, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my information suited to an infographic?
    Don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole. Choose the best method to clearly communicate your message, not the trendiest.
  • Am I trying to do too much?
    It’s your job to deliver the needle in the haystack, not just scatter the hay. The most common pitfall of the infographic is including everything. When in doubt, leave it out.
  • What is the story?
    Focus on the idea, not the numbers, and your design choices should become much clearer.
  • What is the desired response?
    Life is not theoretical. Any data visualization is only as valuable as its ability to prompt thought and action.

To paraphrase the ancient mariner, there is data, data everywhere, yet scarcely a drop to drink. Those who can give numbers context, and connect them to a compelling story, will prove to be very valuable.

Related content:

How a Civil War Vet Invented the American Infographic

Spurious Correlations

Clarity vs Memorability: Which is More Important to Data Visualization?

Perpetual Beta Mode

Illustration by Tom Fishburne. People sitting at a table thinking about different types of lightbulbsI coach my son’s sixth grade basketball team. If there’s one thing I know from watching youth basketball, it’s that there is a very slim chance that five players will do exactly what they’re supposed to do at any one time. It’s a fluid game.

Despite that, my boys want to learn “plays” – a set of instructions that determines who does what in hopes of putting the ball in the basket. They want certainty. My most difficult task as a coach is to provide structure while teaching them to read and react to dynamic conditions on the floor.

Middle schoolers are similar to CEOs in one way – they are accustomed to working in a linear fashion. Projects have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s more important that work is handed in on time than done well. And recess is always right after lunch.

More organizations are starting to see the folly in adhering to a rigid system of working. In its place we are finding a more adaptive approach, one where continuous learning moves the organization closer to its goals.

Perfection is overrated
Nobody wants to be the “logo cop.” When I am asked to help with a new identity or brand refresh, clients will often regale me with stories of crimes committed against their logo. “How can we stop it?” they plead.

Seeking brand consistency is a worthy undertaking. And while consistency has value, it should really be considered the floor – not the ceiling – of achievement.

Do your logo guidelines document all the things “thou shall not do” to the logo? Time spent getting every last detail right remains an often fruitless effort to exert control over people. Instead, invest in setting a clear and compelling brand strategy – a foundation from which people can identify relevant stories for your audience.

A brand and messaging guide should serve as a launching pad, not a stop sign. Establish recognizable patterns – absolutely – but accept and encourage variation and evolution as the natural state of your brand.

Small bets
Solving problems is easy if you have a formula, but it only works when all the variables are known. In rapidly changing times that’s rarely possible. Key information is missing. Opportunities are fleeting. Solutions fail.

We cannot solve today’s problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

Agile project management is rooted in software development, but its methods are now being used broadly. Why? It promotes adaptive planning, ongoing improvement, and a rapid and flexible response to change. Done well, it accelerates execution.

Similarly, designers are taught to solve problems through observation, idea generation, and rapid prototyping that responds to user needs. It is an iterative approach that produces solutions that traditional methods cannot. Done well, it accelerates ingenuity.

Both methods address uncertainty by placing many “small bets” – ideas that can be tried quickly and cheaply. This practice reduces the risk of missing the mark and increases the chance for true innovation. Small bets reveal what works, what doesn’t, and how to improve your ideas.

Minimum viable brand
The Industrial Revolution may be a distant memory, but the transformation of production methods and processes continues unabated. And today, it’s not just about manufacturing. Any service that can be turned into a cheap commodity will be. Want a logo for $99? Done. Want a website that designs itself? Sign up here.

The speed and agility of the marketplace almost guarantees that whatever big idea you’re working on has probably already launched. “Wait and see” turns into “missed the boat” in the blink of an eye. But just because it’s available doesn’t mean people will want it.

Frankly, it doesn’t really matter if your letterhead is the perfect shade of white, or if people like your Facebook page. It is necessary, however, to rally colleagues around your brand’s strategy.

At a minimum, this would articulate your brand promise (what you stand for), what separates you from competitors, who you seek to engage (your audience), and what you want to say (key messages) and show.

If these basic brand elements are clearly understood and communicated within an organization, you can launch ideas quickly, on demand, with fewer resources.

Beta is better
Perpetual beta testing is useful for measuring performance, understanding user preferences, and previewing new ideas. It embraces change as necessary to ensure customer satisfaction. It also guarantees that the most time and money will be spent on the most effective ideas and projects.

Traditional organizations move slowly, learning little, as they seek certainty in an uncertain world. Modern organizations create, listen to feedback, and continue to improve.

Related content:

Is It Time to See Brand Guidelines in a New Light?
What Are Little Bets?
Start-Ups Need a Minimum Viable Brand

Illustration (above) by Tom Fishburne

Future Forecast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What trends do you see emerging?

Make it Clear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Much vs. Too Little

bears_153480112Once upon a time, there was a little girl with golden locks who was fond of breaking and entering. This is a story so familiar that most people would have no trouble providing the missing details or drawing conclusions about the protagonist’s questionable character.

When marketing communications miss the mark – when they fail to get it “just right” – audiences are unable and generally unwilling to fill in the blanks for you. They are left unmoved, puzzled, or annoyed.

Some marketing has style, but lacks substance. Some is as dry as the Sahara and just as hospitable. There are too many words, or too much white space. There’s not enough contrast, or the point size is too small. Can you make the logo bigger?

Like alchemists, writers and designers craft compelling stories by striking a delicate balance between familiarity and surprise. Our most common pitfalls occur when we favor what’s easy over what’s important.

Information vs. Understanding
When I was studying design in college, my professor prefaced a poster design assignment with his Rule of 20/10/5. If someone is standing 20 feet away from your poster, they probably won’t be able to read everything, but you want them to be able to absorb the most important information at a glance. At ten feet, your design should allow people to pick up additional details. At five feet away, you want to reward them for investing the time to thoroughly study your design.

Nowadays, whether it’s a poster, a website, or product packaging, writing and designing with a similar approach helps answer one of your audience’s primary questions: What’s the takeaway?

There is no shortage of data to be mined on any topic under the sun, but audiences need us to help them extract meaning from this overwhelming glut of information. HHComms-InfographicInto the breach, we’ve seen the popularity of infographics grow exponentially.

The problem is that most of them, like the one above, cram a lot of information into a single space without actually adding any clarity to a complex topic. They are eye candy – if you like arrows and charts and little icons – or toxic if you prefer that design is used to advance understanding.

Wealth_InequalityCompare the overloaded infographic to this video about income distribution in America, which deftly uses statistics to bring a complicated story to life. People are not inspired to act by reason alone. We must work harder to distill information into stories that have emotional resonance.

Certainty vs. Curiosity
One day, as a seven-year-old, my son declared himself the smartest person in the house. While he’s a bright young man, he was afflicted with a common cognitive bias known as the Overconfidence Effect – the difference between what people really know and what they think they know.

It affects all of us to varying degrees. In one survey, more than 90 percent of U.S. drivers considered themselves to be “above average.” 84 percent of French men estimate that they are above-average lovers. Without this misplaced confidence, 50 percent of those surveyed should rank above and 50 percent below the median.

How much confidence should we have in our own knowledge? And why does it matter for nonprofit marketing and design?

Adhering to common practices for the placement and display of information certainly makes systems run more smoothly, whether we’re navigating a website or an airport. Based on our online behavior, Amazon’s algorithms conveniently serve up a wide selection of things we may be interested in. But when we operate on autopilot – when we act with a degree of certainty that exceeds our actual knowledge – we can miss opportunities for deeper understanding and insight.

The best opportunity you’ve got to grow and to make an impact is to seek out the, “I don’t get it,” moments, and then work at it and noodle on it and discuss it until you do get it. – Seth Godin

Curiosity requires the humility to ask questions, to listen, and to incorporate new thinking. We should aim to be lifelong learners, like the computer science professor who worked a summer as a lowly intern for one of his former students just so he could find out “what the cool kids are doing” – and bring that experience back to his current students.

When curiosity becomes a habit, our recommendations are made on context, not conjecture.

Caution vs. Courage
In Minnesota, where I live, the locals are famously stoic. Blame it on our ancestors’ natural modesty, or blame it on the cold, but it’s the kind of place where “not too bad” means “good” and any display of excitement is tempered by fear of making a scene. We’re cautiously optimistic.

In a stable environment, risk aversion makes more sense. Conduct exhaustive research to better control and predict one outcome versus another. Seek to make the uncertain certain.

In a rapidly changing environment, like it or not, we’re asked to make many decisions without knowing every possible permutation. We need to recognize and accept our vulnerability.

What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it. – Peter Bregman

Courage is the willingness to do something when there are no guarantees. When we face tough challenges, we need to consider more than increasing the font size or the frequency of our social media posts. To encourage real progress – and not just fuss around the edges – we need to design changes to outmoded systems, not just play with pixels and paper. We need to encourage behavior change.

Invisible vs. Indelible
I have no easy fix for what ails traditional marketing and design. Most of the work has minimal impact. We need visionary nonprofit leaders. We need to rethink how we work. We need to expand perceptions of our value. We need to start today.

Will you join me?

How Twitter is Like Golf

 

golf swing - fore!In an annual ritual that portends the coming spring, Major League pitchers and catchers reported to sunny baseball diamonds all across Florida and Arizona last week. Somewhere, no doubt, people tweeted about it.

But, baseball isn’t the sport I’ve been thinking about recently. No, I’ve been thinking about golf, and how many parallels it seems to have with Twitter – the social network that has captivated the news media, celebrities, and marketing professionals everywhere. For example:

  • Twitter and golf both support a flourishing industry of experts who will gladly take your money in exchange for promises to improve your game.
  • Both are governed by widely accepted rules of etiquette.
  • Fewer shots (and characters) is considered better than more.
  • Golf is the leisure activity most closely associated with corporate success in America. Twitter is considered, by some, vitally important to an organization’s marketing success.

There are other similarities, however, that are cause for deeper analysis.

You’re probably not very good
Most people prefer to spend time doing things they’re good at. Curiously, golf and Twitter are two pastimes in which lack of aptitude does not appear to be a deterrent to participation.

As in most things with a bell curve, the distribution of talent gets pretty thin over on the right edge of the graph. However, a lot of activity, in both golf and Twitter, is generated by this smaller group of people. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, 10% of users account for 90% of all Twitter activity. Similarly, fewer than 10% of Americans play golf and, of those, only a small percentage would be considered avid golfers – those playing 25 rounds or more per year.

So why do the rest of us continue to flail about?

Even though I can’t throw a football like Peyton Manning, dunk a basketball, or hit a 95 mile-per-hour fastball, every once in a while I can swing a club and strike the golf ball with as much purity and precision as any professional golfer. I’m convinced it’s those moments that keep hackers like me coming back for more.

On Twitter, in real time, we can follow the thoughts and actions of those we admire in a way that feels more personal and connected than other forms of media – and some people may even be interested in following what we have to say.

The intoxicating possibility of regularly hitting a golf ball well, or having legions of followers, seems tantalizingly within reach. Except that it’s really not – at least not for most of us.

Aimless practice
It’s much easier to hit your target if you know what it is. This holds true whether you’re swinging a golf club or crafting 140-character messages.

Nearly every golfer on a practice range is swinging a driver – a club that’s used relatively rarely during an actual round – to hit the ball as far as they can. Approximately two-thirds of all shots in an average round occur within 100 yards of the hole. Yet, it’s the rare player that allots practice time according to the frequency of the shot.

Many Twitter users take a similarly haphazard approach to the social network, practicing without a clear understanding of what they hope to accomplish. Is it better used as a broadcasting platform or for instant messaging with friends and colleagues? Is it a link sharing service or a marketing tool? It could be any or all of those things, but few users persist in working with a specific audience in mind, or defining what success looks like and a strategy for achieving it.

Return on investment
Mark Twain is famously attributed with the assessment that golf is “a good walk spoiled.” When it comes to Twitter, nonprofit marketers’ expectations of the social network as an effective media channel can be spoiled by reality.

One of the drawbacks of playing golf is that it costs both a lot of time and money. As people have become gradually busier and the economy has struggled, golf’s popularity has waned over the last ten years.

Twitter, in contrast, may suffer from nearly the opposite problem – with high demand but unlimited supply the cost of participation is negligible, and “playing” can be done in one’s spare time. Because it easily fills the little “throwaway” gaps in an ordinary work day, Twitter may not be as highly valued as an activity that requires a stronger commitment.

In either case, when it comes to marketing, the question that must be answered is not: Do I enjoy this activity? But rather: Is this the best use of my time?

Fore!
The workplace is rife with examples of busy marketing professionals who have difficulty prioritizing the tasks on their to do list – who regularly confuse “nice to know” with “need to know” – and consequently end up either working harder than necessary or distracting themselves with more stimulating, but less vital, pursuits.

People can rationalize all day long about how they choose to spend their time, and point to exceptions that prove the rule, but make no mistake – for the vast majority of people – Twitter, like golf, is an enjoyable diversion, not an integral part of your marketing success.

Related content:
Survey of Worldwide Twitter Use
Defining Twitter Goals

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?