Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Everything You Know Is Wrong

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

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

Homogeneous thinking

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

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

It takes courage to be unconventional.

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

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

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

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

Innovation comes from asking the right questions

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

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

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

Related content:

Are Metrics Blinding our Perception?

Social Media Sins

Too Much Data Leads to Not Enough Belief

The Art of Non-Conformity

The Illusion of Control

Being a designer is as much a personality trait as it is a profession. Most designers can’t help themselves – they are compelled to do what they do. Basically, it’s an impulse to control the form and function of our own little corner of the world.

With the rise of social media, there’s great anxiety in some circles about “losing control” of the message. If employees or customers are allowed to comment at will, is the end of civilization imminent? Is branding doomed?

What this noisy newcomer to the media table has exposed is that we never really had control in the first place. Just because conversations are now happening in a public space doesn’t mean those same conversations weren’t happening in private. If you provide poor customer service, over time people will find out about it. The only difference now is the speed at which the news travels.

So, why bother?

If we have no control, aren’t all marketing efforts pointless? If a random tweet from a cranky constituent can torpedo years of carefully orchestrated plans, are we just wasting our time?

Before you begin to regret the time and money you’ve invested in graphic standards and marketing plans, consider the following statement: All products, services, and organizations are commodities – one is easily interchangeable with another of the same type. We know this is not true.

Marketing a nonprofit organization is a lot like being a parent. It is confounding and humbling to be reminded, repeatedly, that we can’t always make things (or kids) turn out exactly the way we’d like. And yet, despite our lack of control, we continue our efforts to inform and shape opinions. We know it matters.

Relax and embrace the ambiguity.

A website may pave the way to an inquiry. A chance conversation at your child’s soccer practice may lead to a referral. A customer survey may identify a previously hidden opportunity. The fact is your actions, and those of your colleagues, have more influence – if not tightly squeezed and defined control – than you imagine.

Instead of circling the wagons, use new forms of media to listen to your stakeholders. They don’t want to destroy the organization or take your job. They just want to be heard. Listening is your opportunity to influence their experience and perceptions. And having hundreds of engaged advocates is better than employing a single, controlling marketer.

Uncertainty over the outcome of your marketing efforts is not sufficient reason to abandon them. When in doubt, keep trying to do what’s right for you and your organization. That’s the one thing that is completely under your control.

57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)

As a favor to a friend, I met with the marketing folks at a small, private grade school a few weeks ago. This school’s five-year enrollment slide threatens its business model, if not its very existence. As the conversation unfolded, I was taken aback by the dizzying array of “marketing” activities the school has dabbled in over the past few years. It was apparent there had been no analysis of the relative merits of one option versus another. All were accorded equal standing: Gotta get your name out there!

This predisposition to action is as common in non-profit organizations as in corporate America. Shoot first. Ask questions later. But tactics without strategy usually amounts to a whole lot of noise signifying nothing. Or as legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden put it: Never mistake activity for achievement.

Witness the headlong rush to social media – Facebook, Twitter, et al. Conveniently neglecting history (remember when TV killed radio?) the true believers assign it magical powers and the actionistas jump on board.

Don’t get me wrong. Social media has tremendous potential … as another channel of communication. And that’s the problem. For most non-profits, adding things to the marketing mix should be among the least of their worries. With budgets and staff stretched thin, “more” is rarely better and can lead to diminishing returns. Better focus – doing a few things really well for good reason – is the best way to make sure your marketing channels are worth watching.