Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven 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.

Rogue Designers

A group of people gather inconspicuously in a public place. Participants nervously wait for their cue. And then it begins, simply at first, then building momentum as more join in. The exhilaration grows as bystanders stop and watch with surprise and delight, finally bursting into applause as the unexpected performance reaches its conclusion.

Flash mobs – with singing and dancing that transform an ordinary classroom or train station into a scene from Glee – are usually performed by volunteers, often total strangers, for nothing more than the fun of it (and repeated views on YouTube).

When it comes to design or brand standards, most organizations are looking for consistency, choreographed through manuals, training, and the occasional friendly reminder. The goal is to display admirable skill and precision that reflects well on the organization – we are good at what we do! So, why is it so damn hard to get people to use your logo correctly?

The art of conformity
At one time or another, we’ve all encountered a well-intentioned – I’m giving benefit of the doubt here – “rogue designer” in our midst. This is the sort of departmental do-it-yourselfer who might decorate the president’s official business with a clip art border of puppies, or arbitrarily change corporate colors because they were “feeling orange” that day.

In the nonprofit world, where a “big media buy” means a trip to the copy center, each impression is precious. That’s why it’s so important to get everyone voluntarily pulling in the same direction.

I recently polled a few colleagues who’ve had success managing brands to assemble some best practices for keeping aberrant design behavior to a minimum.

Ongoing communication
Developing design standards is a painstaking process, but often too much is assumed. An email is sent, a couple meetings scheduled, and some files are uploaded to the website – then we move on with our busy lives. And, so do our colleagues. It reminds me of the warden in the classic movie Cool Hand Luke admonishing his prisoners, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Less famously, Mary Ridgway, creative director at Fort Hays State University, wisely notes: “Branding isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it process.” In fact, the process – planning how and when you will communicate with internal stakeholders – is as important as the product (logos, fonts, and colors). Keep in mind:

  • Transparency matters. Getting buy-in works best when people feel involved. Let them know what’s happening, how things are progressing, and ask for feedback. Start early and keep at it.
  • Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. How does what you’re asking people to do make their lives more difficult or less convenient? How can you make it simpler or easier? Ideally, this is a two-way street, says Sheila Hines Edmondson, a communications consultant. Empathy helps build trust and encourages open discourse.
  • Training days. The brand launch is only the beginning, a time for handing out balloons and coffee mugs. Schedule workshops – and annual orientation sessions for new hires – to bring everyone up to speed on what the brand standards are, why they are important, and how each person has a role to play in the brand’s success.
  • It takes a village. Recruit a committee of brand champions – ambassadors who lead by example and help you reinforce the brand consistently across the organization.

Chain of command
As a child, no one ever said, “Mommy, when I grow up I want to be a manager.” And certainly nobody aspires to the fresh hell of serving as a manager without authority. Brand standards won’t succeed unless there’s visible and vocal support in the executive suite. Without it, the benign paternalism of the brand manager can quickly devolve into resentment and bitter resignation.

Despite the benefits of ongoing communication, ultimately every brand needs a benevolent dictator. Allison Manley of the Chicago-based firm Rogue Element observes, “Getting buy-in from multiple voices is fine, but it’s impossible to please everyone. There must be one or two people making the final decisions, and willing to take any heat they might receive.”

Control of the purse strings is a useful policy as well, says Mary Ridgway. “If someone bypasses my approval, the purchasing department won’t pay the bill, and the rogue must pay out of their own pocket.”

Style and substance
It’s important to document the elements that define your visual brand. The style or brand guide is the foundation for everything your organization produces. These guidelines summarize the brand and illustrate components of the organization’s identity, including: key messages, examples of common print and online applications, explanation of the logo, typography, color palette, and graphic elements.

Make electronic files and templates easily available by posting them on your website. Do you really want to be the bottleneck that responds to every random logo request? However, to discourage foolishness, make those graphics and templates difficult to edit or alter.

Your aim is true
Let’s face it: designers are all kind of control freaks at heart. Accepting that some battles aren’t worth fighting or fretting over is a tough step for some. Where do you draw the line? The answer is rarely crystal clear. Accept that some of the “rogue” work is going to look fine and some is going to be horrible. Sometimes, the best you can do is to ask the offenders for future cooperation.

For most people, there’s joy and fulfillment in being part of something bigger than oneself – cheering on the home team, going to the cineplex, or gathering for Sunday services. Creating the conditions for brand success require tapping into that innate human desire to belong.

Finally, as with a flash mob, don’t underestimate the element of surprise and delight. Ongoing, involuntary drudgery inspires little brand enthusiasm. When all else fails, take the words of Chuckles the Clown  to heart: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

Are We There Yet?


Photo of a rainbow over Cottonwood Campground in Teddy Roosevelt National ParkI’ve been going on family road trips since I was a kid. Every year, my dad drove us to destinations across the U.S. and Canada. When I was 11 years old, we traveled 1200 miles to Montreal in a Chevy Impala sedan (four in front, five in back) pulling a pop-up camper. It seemed perfectly normal to me at the time.

My family and I just returned from our summer vacation (two in front, two in back) to Glacier National Park in Montana and Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. The accommodations were a bit more luxurious – Back in my day, sonny, we were lucky to play with rocks. We didn’t have any fancy, portable DVD players! – but in many ways things haven’t changed that much.

As a child, aside from the cramped conditions, vacations were pretty easy. Go where you’re told. Eat what’s put in front of you. See new places and things. As the one planning the vacations now – truth be told, my wife did most of the preparation for this trip – I noticed there are lessons that can be applied to non-profit marketing.

Prepare, but don’t over-prepare
Before embarking on our trip, we consulted with friends, scanned guidebooks, and dusted off our favorite road atlas. We assembled a rough itinerary, made a few reservations, and pulled out our camping gear. We did not get hung up on things beyond our control, like the weather, bears, or mosquitoes.

Many make the mistake of trying to plan for or maintain control of every contingency – What if they use the logo wrong? How can we stop people from posting negative opinions on our site? If you want to make the gods laugh, show them your plans. While details matter, to maintain one’s sanity and keep your projects moving forward, it’s far more productive to stay focused on the big picture.

It may take a while to get to the good stuff
Eight hours is a long time to spend in a car. It feels even longer while driving through eastern Montana or the wheat fields of Saskatchewan, but that’s the price we paid to get to some truly spectacular locations. If it were easy or convenient, everyone would be doing it!

In my experience, marketing people seem especially prone to being dazzled with the latest tools and technology. New media channels and techniques bring with them the promise of instant success (if you don’t examine the numbers too carefully). No matter the media, effective marketing takes a lot of work over a long period of time. There are no shortcuts.

Take a look around
Look out the window! Occasionally, for my boys, taking in the mountain scenery was no match for reaching the next level of Mario Kart. Most of the time, however, they’re pretty observant. Asking questions is a reliable method for acquiring local knowledge (get there early to avoid crowds) and preferences (what’s your favorite hike?). It pays to remain curious about the people, places, and things around us.

It’s easy to become jaded to our surroundings and start working on autopilot, but that’s when we stop learning and stop seeing new or better ways to do our jobs. If, as Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up,” then the other twenty percent surely must be paying attention.

We’re almost there
No matter how well planned or engaging, eventually on any adventure someone will ask: Are we almost there? On our recent trip, during a beautiful, but unexpectedly long hike to a pristine glacial lake, my nine-year-old posed this very question. To keep him amused, I began improvising a little tune.

We started hiking yesterday.
If we’re lucky we’ll be there by May.
We’re almost there.

We have a compass and a machete.
It feels like our legs are made of spaghetti.
We’re almost there.

This surely can’t be the final verse.
If this takes much longer we’ll leave in a hearse.
We’re almost there.

Before long everyone joined in, making up new lines and finishing each others’ verses. And, before long, we had arrived at our destination … and it was awe-inspiring.

However, the dirty little secret is that no matter what small fibs or distractions you invent to placate your tired and impatient inquisitors, the real answer to that age-old question is this: You’re never there. You’re always learning, always moving.

And, if you’re lucky, sometimes you get to stop for ice cream.

Moving Day

The phones don’t work, the printer is acting squirrely, and I’ve misplaced the network cables my IT guy needs. No matter how well planned, no matter how hard we might try to get work done, there is no less productive environment than an office on the day after moving.

This morning I arrived at my new office fully expecting a headache or two, and I haven’t been disappointed. Change is all around – in the sights, the sounds, and in every freshly painted corner of the new space.

But what happens on all those other ordinary days? What happens when we aren’t prepared for change, or worse, when we don’t recognize it?

Slow to adapt
In 1872, William Rand and Andrew McNally printed their very first map for the Railroad Guide. Over the years they were innovators, adapting to new printing technologies and the growing popularity of the automobile, until Rand McNally was nearly synonymous with mapmaking. Then, in 2005, Google Maps launched.

Eastman Kodak, the film pioneer whose distinctive yellow box was present at family gatherings for over a century, recently declared bankruptcy. Even after decades as a consumer icon, and despite Paul Simon pleading “don’t take my Kodachrome away,” Kodak mistakenly believed it was in the photo business – not the memory business.

But make no mistake. This is not just a story about deflated, old school companies – pity the poor dinosaurs. Until early 2008, Myspace was the most visited social network in the world. By the end of last year, it no longer ranked in the top 100.

Risk and reward
My eight-year-old son is notorious for clinging to the familiar. He had a favorite pair of flannel pajamas that began as pants, gradually becoming threadbare clam diggers as he grew. Once, when he discovered we were painting our cabin a new color, he cried – literally – “but it’s been this way my whole life!

Most people are resistant to change. But can you blame them? We are conditioned from an early age to do the right thing. Any teacher has undoubtedly been asked by a student, “What do I have to do to get an ‘A’?” And countless meeting debates have ended with the phrase, “But we’ve always done it that way.”

There is generally not enough incentive to offset the risk of standing out. If we are supposed to learn from our mistakes, how is it that we ever learn anything? Mistakes are barely tolerated and often held up to ridicule.

Changing the game
If every day felt like moving day, anxious workers would be scrambling to make sense of our chaotic mess of a world. In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s the world we live in.

Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction. – Pablo Picasso

Our problems are too complex and too abundant to rely only on traditional methods.
We need more people and institutions prepared to be disruptive.

The KaosPilots is an alternative business school located in Denmark that aims to attract and train social entrepreneurs and creative leaders. There are no subjects or classes and schoolwork is highly collaborative and experiential.

Peter Thiel, a cofounder of PayPal, awarded 24 students each a $100,000 fellowship not to attend college for two years. Instead, the winners are to work with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to develop business ideas in areas such as biotechnology, education, and energy.

Perpetual motion
There are always more possibilities than you think. Computers may be binary, but human beings are not. Once we embrace the constant change around us – every day is moving day – and encourage alternative methods of thinking and learning, we will be better equipped to thrive.

And over time, that new space – that new way – just might start feeling comfortable. That’s when you know it’s time to move again.

The Bleeding Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then, please share your examples here.

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

A humorous look at project prioritization:

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

How Did We Do That?

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

When you’ve been successful, what went right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does your audience have an emotional stake in the outcome?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herding Cats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related content:

Close the Gap Between Projects and Strategy

Time For A Project Pre-Mortem?

Make Meetings Work: Fight the PowerPoint

Making Better Decisions

When our boys were much younger, sometimes my wife would ask me to watch them at home while she went to a doctor’s appointment or ran errands. With my laptop, I can get work done virtually anywhere, so this was not a problem – or was it?

Almost invariably, I would lose patience after one too many distractions from my diminutive “clients.” My frustration was that in trying to simultaneously get work done and be caretaker for my children, I was doing neither task very well. And, in truth, only one of these two can actually be done “later.”

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about? – Henry David Thoreau

Simplify to gain traction
It’s easy to blame employers, colleagues, or fate as reasons behind our never-ending list of daily tasks. However, as we struggle to assess an overwhelming number of choices, we often make no choice at all. If this were a lunch buffet, we’d be the ones waddling to our seat with a calorie-laden tray in each hand. It’s unhealthy.

Just last week a colleague, after being asked by her new boss to describe the top 10 qualities of all great communications programs, shared her list with me. As lists go, it was well organized and comprehensive – in fact, a little too comprehensive. Beneath each of the numbered items on the list were five bullet points (making it a 60-point list). This is hardly a recipe for establishing priorities, but it’s understandable.

In the book, Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath explain:

Forced prioritization is really painful. Smart people recognize the value of all the material. They see nuance, multiple perspectives — and because they fully appreciate the complexities of a situation, they’re often tempted to linger there. The tendency to gravitate to complexity is perpetually at war with the need to prioritize.

I suggested to my colleague that what her boss wants is not what he needs, “I’d give him your list and then say: But [fill in the blank] is the MOST important quality. Then prioritize your work around that directive.”

After all, while Moses had a list of Ten Commandments, Jesus came along and simplified things. The most important commandment (essentially) is: Love your neighbor as yourself. This simple phrase has guided the actions of good people for centuries.

Move from abstract to concrete
Many non-profit marketing folks aren’t fortunate enough to have a directive as clarifying as the Golden Rule. More likely, they’re saddled with a committee-authored mission statement that provides neither a clear purpose nor a way to measure success. Let’s look at an edited example from an American university:

We are dedicated to the discovery, development, communication, and application of knowledge in a wide range of academic and professional fields. Our mission of providing the highest quality undergraduate and graduate programs is inseparable from our mission of developing new understandings through research and creativity… We seek to serve persons of all racial, ethnic, and geographic groups, women and men alike, as we address the needs of an increasingly diverse population and a global economy. In the twenty-first century, we seek to assume a place of preeminence among public universities while respecting our history and traditions.

So, to recap, this school teaches many different things to many different people in many different ways in hopes of being well regarded sometime in the next century. As Bill Cosby once said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” In contrast, the following university has chosen to prioritize:

Our goal is to be recognized as one of the top five public research universities in the country.

As marketing professionals, our primary mission should be to clearly identify the purpose of the organization we serve, moving from an abstract concept to a concrete goal around which to evaluate the choices we’re faced with every day.

Invest time wisely
The high-stakes uncertainty of stock market investing provides a reasonably good analogy to the current marketing landscape. A diversified portfolio of investments – rebalanced from time to time depending on age and family situation – is common practice among investment advisors. Similarly, marketers have a variety of communication channels available to achieve their objectives.

Action expresses priorities. – Mohandas Gandhi

Where you invest your money – and your time – says a lot about what you value, your tolerance for risk, and your goals. You wouldn’t place as much trust in a stock tip from your flaky brother-in-law as on the successful track record of an established company, yet many marketers seem eager to chase the latest trend.

When shaping your marketing portfolio, “all of the above” is not a choice. Invest your resources proportionate to the activities that best support your goals. That means your budgeted time can’t add up to more than 100%, and some projects should be abandoned.

A disciplined approach
A relentless focus on goals and priorities is necessary to make better decisions. When in doubt, ask yourself these three questions:

How can I make this less complex?
Our neighborhood print shop has a tiny complaint form on which there is a 1/4″ square and instructions to “write legibly” – humorous, but effective.

How does this support our primary goal?
One goal. One purpose. One measure of success. If you’re struggling, return to the previous question.

Is this the best use of my time?
Honesty can be painful when we have to disappoint people we like and pass on projects we may enjoy working on. If you never say ‘no’ you have no priorities.

What techniques do you use to make good decisions? I’d love to hear about them.

Related content:

If It Won’t Fit on A Post-It, It Won’t Fit In Your Day
Don’t Overthink It: 5 Tips for Daily Decision Making
A Practical Plan for When You Feel Overwhelmed

Are We Our Own Biggest Problem?

Recently I asked a few dozen colleagues a simple question: In the current marketing environment, what is the single biggest problem you face today? Bear in mind that this survey was intended as a qualitative exercise, so I won’t break down the numbers into excruciating detail, but undeniable trends emerged. Nearly 90% of the answers fell into two broad categories:

  • We can’t do everything we want to do or should do.
  • Others within the organization don’t understand what we do.

I’d argue that the two are related.

No time. No money.
OK, there is no silver bullet here. Every nonprofit seems to be understaffed and inadequately funded, and that’s not changing. But, there are other issues exacerbating the situation.

As one person wrote: “The proliferation of channels makes it overwhelming for single practitioners and smaller organizations to keep everything fresh and up to date.” Others expanded on this theme, highlighting the difficulty in knowing which channels are the most effective use of limited time and money.

Sounds like some research would be useful here. Oops! Remember? There’s no money available for that. And yet, some organizations still manage to produce effective marketing. How is that possible?

You can’t always get what you want
I’m willing to bet that if I asked the same group of people which factors are present when they’re most successful, one answer would be similarly common: Clear goals and priorities.

All projects are not equally important, even though they are often treated that way. Part of the blame can certainly be assigned to an organization’s leaders if they don’t provide clear direction. But, as a group, marketing people have to get better at setting expectations and defining project parameters.

Remember the old adage? Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick any two. If you want the project done well – quickly – I can drop everything else I’m doing, but it won’t come cheap. On the other hand, I can finish this project fast for a relative pittance, but it won’t be very good.

The soul-sucking truth is that too often we are implicitly being asked – or voluntarily committing – to do work that won’t be very good. We’ll do each project as well as we can, putting in long hours in hopes of turning lemons into lemonade, but work ethic isn’t the issue here.

We know there is a process that leads to the most successful outcomes, but when we work without clear goals and priorities we are setting ourselves up for failure more often than not. And that leads us to the related problem.

They just don’t understand
If you’re regularly asked to make decisions without adequate information, juggle too many responsibilities, or provide explanation for failing to perform miracles, you may work in an organization that doesn’t understand what you do – or what you’re capable of doing given appropriate support and direction.

Maybe I’m naïve to think that one should tackle this problem at the top: Boss, I’ve identified the biggest obstacle to doing our work effectively. Will you help us find the time – and work with me – to address it?

One of the survey respondents, who is relatively new at his job, is working to educate his organization about what marketing is and how it can help them. He’s planning a series of lunch meetings and presentations over the next year. I’ll be interested to hear how this effort shapes perceptions. Fortunately, he has the support of a “very smart boss.”

In our experience, when nonprofit organizations launch new initiatives, the most often overlooked element is internal communication. So much of the focus, understandably, is on external audiences, that one’s own colleagues are an afterthought. Just remember, internal communications and education must also be good and cheap, so it may take a while. Be patient, but persistent.

Own your own fate
Examining problems from a new perspective can prompt insights – and more questions:

  • In order to do your job better, what if what you need isn’t more time or more budget (face it, that’s not happening anyway) but more understanding?
  • If you’re able to start each project with clear objectives how does that change things?
  • What becomes possible if you know which projects are the most important to achieving organizational goals?

Face it, if these are your biggest problems and you spend no time trying to address them, then who’s really at fault?

Of course, there is one possibility that is almost too depressing to contemplate: You may have leaders that expect fast/cheap work – and can tolerate the trade-offs – because deep down they don’t believe marketing really makes a difference. If, reluctantly, you determine this is the case where you work, either find an enjoyable hobby or look for a new job. Life is too short.

To be continued…
I’ll be writing more about this topic in coming weeks, but what are your thoughts? If these are the biggest problems we’re facing, is all hope lost? Is this simply our lot in life? Or do you have plans in place to address these issues? I’d love to hear about them.

Related content:

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Why Being Certain Means Being Wrong

How to Break Through Bureaucracy to Keep Projects Moving