Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

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?

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

Collective Intelligence

Picture yourself in a foreign marketplace – let’s say Istanbul. Merchants line the streets hawking their wares from the shade of colorful canopies. Something catches your eye. You point and ask: How much?

Most people like concrete, measurable answers. Who are the 100 wealthiest people? How many people “liked” our Facebook page? How much do I owe you for that silver bracelet? But as you might find in a Turkish bazaar or the occasional car dealership, sometimes the answer isn’t so clear.

As perhaps never before, we’re faced with ambiguity at every turn. While we value the certainty of working toward a single “right” answer, the future belongs to those who can navigate a more dynamic environment.

Beware the one-man band
Street performers often draw crowds, collecting smiles and spare change as they enliven the urban landscape, but the diversion is fleeting and more curiosity than compelling entertainment.

Out of necessity or habit, some in marketing find themselves playing at work like a one-man band. Instead of instruments, they play editor, webmaster, and office manager, among other things – a jack-of-all-trades, but master of none.

While this approach is limited only by the resourcefulness of the individual, it’s not a successful long-term strategy for meeting today’s marketing challenges. A better way is to draw on the expertise of those around you – your network.

Two heads are better than one
And three are better than two – when they’re the right people. This means we have to become adept at identifying and then collaborating with smart people from other disciplines.

  • Position yourself as an expert. Make it a priority to acquire deep, but narrow, expertise. How narrow? Think, “communication planning for fundraising events,” not simply “events.”
  • Build relationships. Share your knowledge. Write for, speak to, and work with those who value your talents. When someone helps you, stay in touch and return the favor. Keep an active database.
  • Avoid the echo chamber. Regularly seek opportunities to broaden your network with experts in complimentary fields. Seek new and even contrarian perspectives to steer clear of the herd.

It stands to reason that the collective intelligence of a group of experts will apply more insight, wisdom, and experience to a problem than any individual alone can provide. Instead of navigating a situation, it may be better to think of orchestrating a solution. And, next time you’re in Turkey, it will be handy to have a Persian rug aficionado and a negotiation expert on your speed dial.

Related content:
Amy Poehler to Harvard Grads: You Can’t Do It Alone
The Most Valuable People in Your Network

An Interview with Stephen Olson of U7

Logo for U7In a tough economy, small businesses everywhere are struggling to survive. Add a multi-year light rail construction project on your front doorstep, and the future begins to look even bleaker. U7, an initiative of the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) in collaboration with six other non-profit organizations, was launched to support small businesses along the Central Corridor in Saint Paul, Minnesota – with design and marketing services playing a key role.

Recently, I spoke with Stephen Olson, the lead designer at U7.

How long has U7 been around? And what services do you offer?
We started in July 2009. We offer design, marketing and business consulting services, as well as help with financial projections, bookkeeping, and applying for grants. We’ll also provide referrals to consultants in areas beyond our expertise.

What is your criteria for working with area businesses?
The business must be affected by the light rail project, either on University Avenue or one block north or south of University, stretching from Lowertown in Saint Paul to Highway 280. For our purposes, a small business means $2 million or less in annual revenue with five or fewer locations. So far, we’ve worked with nearly 100 businesses.

How does U7 market its services in the community?
We started by going door-to-door, doing cold calls on University Avenue. A lot of the businesses haven’t traditionally sought design and marketing help, and there’s a huge amount of diversity along the avenue, so there’s a trust that has to be gained. It was a lot easier to show potential clients what we have to offer than to try and explain it over the phone.

Now, we get referrals from other agencies like the University Avenue Business Association (UABA), through social media and word-of-mouth – clients we’ve worked with tell their friends and neighbors. We also have a quarterly newsletter that is sent to our target audience.

Through the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC), U7 provides all of these services for free. Was this made possible by a new revenue source, or a reassignment of existing funds?
These are all new revenues and come from a variety of funders: Saint Paul Foundation, Bigelow Foundation, Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, Federal Appropriations Awards, Living Cities, and the City of Saint Paul STAR grant. We are always looking for new funding sources to increase our manpower to help businesses faster!

How many people are currently on staff?
We have five full-time staff members: One project manager, two small business consultants, one loan officer, and me – the lead designer. As lead designer, I supervise a team of three design interns and a contract worker. It’s a struggle to keep up with the demand for our services, so we’re constantly tweaking how we staff and how we work.

What do businesses most often need when they come to U7?
It varies quite a bit. They usually know what they don’t want. We start by conducting interviews to assess where they’re at and determine what is needed. It can take some time to build the relationship and identify how best to help their business. We don’t want to just give them a business card and push them out the door.

Does the amount of help you offer each business vary as well? I’m guessing some businesses have more needs than you’re willing or able to take on.
We rarely turn them away, but we do try to keep a cap on project creep. We’ll usually design 3-4 pieces and then let the business run with it. We want to teach them how to update things, use social media and become more self-sufficient.

We have created marketing plans for a handful of clients: What they can do weekly, monthly, annually to continue marketing their business. Then we stay in contact with them monthly to see how things are going.

The best feeling is when clients call us up spontaneously, excited about seeing their efforts pay off.

Would you share a success story?
The Best Steak House has been around since 1991, and they’ve been very receptive to exploring new things. We did a whole brand refresh with a new logo, tagline, business cards, take-out menu, website, social media and small table tents telling their customers to find them on Facebook and Twitter.

When we stopped in for a follow-up visit, we found out they needed 1,000 signatures in order to qualify for a façade grant. We jokingly said, “Let’s make an Uncle Sam poster with Mike’s (the owner) face on it.” They hung the posters in the windows and bathrooms and got over 1,000 signatures in three days.

Are businesses required to put up any capital or show an ability to implement your design ideas?
When we start working with a business, we explain that all production costs are their responsibility. We ballpark a price for them depending on what they want – usually $100–$400. In a few instances, when a client was unable to pay, we have helped with loans and even done some printing in-house.

Does U7 have a future beyond the construction of the Central Corridor light rail line?
The life span of U7 is tied to the construction, which is scheduled to be completed in 2013. We’ve talked in general terms about possibly offering these services under the NDC banner. There are a handful of other non-profit organizations that serve small businesses, but I haven’t seen any of them doing what we’re doing.

What’s your favorite part of this job?
At my first internship, I worked on projects with some huge corporations. Now I’m working on a very intimate level. These are mom-and-pop stores whose family livelihood depends on the success of the business. It’s pretty fulfilling.

It sounds like a great program. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Steve. I wish you and U7 continued success.

Related content:
Central Corridor Businesses Prepare for Disruption
University Seven website

Just Be Yourself

Nothing is so commonplace as to wish to be remarkable. – Oliver Wendell Holmes

We hear it all the time when it comes to marketing: Be authentic. Savvy consumers have high expectations of the brands they’ll reward with patronage and loyalty. They can spot a pretender from miles away.

If you conduct an internet search for “how to succeed in marketing,” among the 20 million results you’ll find useless statistics on social networks, implausible promises that there’s one true way to achieve success, and pithy advice like this: You have to be awesome.

So, how awesome is your organization?

  • Are you recognized for being an innovative leader?
  • Are you a trendsetter known for regularly taking calculated risks?
  • Are you doing things none of your competitors can match?

Ever noticed there’s a lot less “awesome” in the middle of the bell curve? We simply can’t all be above average. Or, as Judge Smails suggests to Danny, a brown-nosing law school hopeful in the classic film comedy Caddyshack: “The world needs ditch diggers too.”

Hopeful copycats
Many organizations, rather than risk being truly authentic (e.g., We’re understaffed and our customer service suffers for it!) or delivering meaningful differences in their products or services, spend a lot of effort chasing others’ trendy tactics. We need a website, a Facebook page, an iPhone app!

Faced with a moving target of so-called best practices, tactics-focused marketers are perpetually behind – a guaranteed path to the vast undifferentiated middle ground.

Redirect your efforts
A better approach is to invest budget, time and staff resources in identifying ways to deliver a remarkable experience. Marketing driven by a strategic goal is not a quick fix, but a much more valuable one.

In the children’s book, Three Questions, based on story by Leo Tolstoy, a wise old turtle helps a boy discover answers to the following questions:

  1. When is the best time to do things?
  2. Who is the most important one?
  3. What is the right thing to do?

Answers: 1. Now  2. The one you are with  3. Do good for the one you are with

Being authentic in your marketing requires adherence to similar principles. If you know your target audience, and can consistently deliver what they need most when they need it, you’ll develop a truly remarkable reputation.

Related Content:

Online Personas Rarely Match Real-life Behavior
Authenticity Is King Because Branding Bores Everyone

Branding From The Inside Out

You’ve got a great new logo and website, brand guidelines, a presence on multiple social media channels, and some soon-to-be-award-winning marketing materials. You’ve got this branding thing whipped, no? Well … um … no.

Think of your printed or online materials as the scaffolding around new construction. It is necessary and useful, but of little value on its own. Until the brand has been built from the inside out, you may remove the scaffolding only to discover there’s nothing there.

It’s a team sport
Successful managers are adept at putting their people in a position to succeed. Unlike Bugs Bunny, forced to play every position against the Gashouse Gorillas, a brand manager can’t succeed unless everyone on the team plays a role.

Because authenticity is the name of the game, it’s important to provide training, support, and incentives for coworkers so that your new branding effort won’t ring hollow.

Winning buy-in
From curmudgeons to the terminally shy, not everyone will proudly sing from your brand hymnal. Though uniform enthusiasm may be unrealistic, it’s not too much to ask for understanding and acceptance.

Dilbert.com

For a large, nonprofit client, we insisted on scheduling several voluntary, one-hour workshops as part of the brand launch. Each session was designed to provide participants with an overview of project goals, key messages and graphics, and practical tips for putting the brand to work. With a drawing for a free weekend getaway trip and other prizes as incentive, the internal training effort reached over two thirds of all employees.

Additionally, we encouraged the sharing of stories, regularly recognizing “brand champions” through internal communications after the workshops were a distant memory.

Training days
To keep everyone in tune with the institution’s brand, Virginia Tech developed a comprehensive, two-phase Brand Ambassador Certification Program. Since its inception, they’ve identified several best practices, including:

  • Recruit executive-level supporters who believe in the program.
  • Solicit feedback on everything – program content, presentation style, overall value.
  • Offer each class at least twice to accommodate scheduling conflicts.
  • Ask participants to recommend the program to peers.
  • Award participants with official recognition.

Actions speak louder than words
A brand is not what you say, it’s what you do – the sum total of all your actions. The better prepared your organization is to live its brand, the more vivid and indelible an impression you will make.

Favorite Links: October 2010

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

If It Won’t Fit On A Post-It, It Won’t Fit In Your Day
The 99 Percent

What Does a Campus CEO Need to Know about Social Media?
CASE Social Media

The Future of Publishing
Dorling Kindersley (UK)

It Takes All Types

Unless you’re a hermit – and analytics indicate they’re not big fans of the blog – chances are you work with others to conceive and implement your organization’s marketing. Adapting to workplace dynamics and navigating a complex media environment makes it difficult to gain traction in a typically busy day.

As a public service, I present a field guide of the most common types of workers. This completely unscientific study is meant to increase understanding of your colleagues while pointing the way toward more productive behavior.

Short Order Cooks are really good at getting things done, and consequently valuable team members. They are prone to keeping their heads down, and can miss the big picture. Often so overloaded that they have little incentive, time, or authority to act on original ideas or insights. They are guided by short-term, tactical thinking.

Hobbyists are generally competent, but not outstanding in any particular area – a jack-of-all-trades. They like to help, but can be easily distracted. This lack of focus spurs them to seek activities that “sound like fun,” whether or not the task falls within their actual job description. Without strong direction, they can become busybodies.

Backseat Drivers have excellent hindsight vision. They seek more autonomy or the ability to take charge. Happiest when giving advice and opinions, even in areas where they have little experience. If disengaged, they can become toxic snipers or naysayers. May be a frustrated Short Order Cook.

Blowhards never let the facts get in the way of a strongly held belief. They have a tendency to speak loudly, act decisively, and step on others’ toes. Naturally gravitate to big picture thinking, with little patience for details. When in a leadership role, they tend to be more interested in exercising authority than unearthing innovation.

Connectors are adept at integrating information and team members to solve problems. They make natural collaborators, and are good at getting to the heart of the matter. If introverted, they may need encouragement to share their ideas and move to action. Connectors are key players in any work environment.

Whether it’s cobbling together a project team, attracting funding partners, or shaping disparate bits of information into a clear direction, the skill of “connecting the dots” is increasingly valuable and necessary. But can this trait be taught or facilitated? The future of your marketing efforts depends on it.

Every type of worker has something to contribute. The key to a happier and more productive workplace is establishing a culture that is open to ideas, and a structure that gives team members the responsibility and support necessary to perform.

Is your work environment plagued with impenetrable silos? Have you witnessed other types of workers in their native environment? Share your stories.

Related Content:

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

What Not to Spend Time On

Top 10 Characteristics of Great Project Managers