Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

There’s Only One Best Practice

network of dotsSitting in a conference room, answering questions from my client about an impending website redesign, it dawned on me that what they really wanted to understand was best practices. What steps do we need to take to mitigate the risks of initiating this project? What must we do to increase the certainty of a successful outcome?

It’s my job to know these things, to guide them from point A to point B, and help them meet or exceed the project’s objectives. And it’s prudent for the client to adhere to best practices in many facets of the organization’s operations. It assures an acceptable standard of performance, a threshold of competency.

What best practices won’t do – what they often inhibit organizations from doing – is encourage people to set their sites higher. Scaling up the impact of nonprofit organizations requires a mindset that leaves best practices for those who wish to blend in, to be as good as – but not better than – what already exists.

Just do it
Nike’s longtime tagline leaves no wiggle room for the impassioned athlete. There are no excuses. For the vast majority who fall short, there is honor in putting forth one’s best effort in pursuit of the pinnacle.

Back at the office, we’re more often encouraged to hold our passions in check. Curiosity killed the cat. Look before you leap. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There’s no shortage of wisdom devoted to avoiding unnecessary risks.

Imagine what our world would be like if there weren’t dedicated individuals with a passion for helping others? Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector has grown faster than both the business and government sectors, yet problems of poverty, education, the environment, and public health are as vexing as ever. We don’t lack passion. We lack alignment.

If you start with the premise that most everything we know is out of date, then the need to reach beyond conventional approaches – to discard “best practices” – becomes imperative.

Connect the dots
Imagine a symphony orchestra. Before the lights dim, before the conductor raises the baton, a discordant blend of strings, percussion, and woodwind instruments squeaks and groans from the stage. It is only when the musicians begin playing in unison that we can appreciate their talents.

For maximum impact, we need more people, departments, and organizations working better together. We need to be playing the same tune.

The most valuable skill set today is the ability to connect the dots. Collaborators will inherit the earth, or at least improve it. People (and organizations) that can assemble and marshal diverse resources – ideas, agendas, funding – have the best chance of enacting systemic change.

There are no marketing secrets or shortcuts. Creating remarkable products and services is the only best practice worth pursuing. And the best way to do that is through more frequent and effective collaborations.

Related content:
How Do Nonprofits Get Really Big?
Measuring Nothing (with Great Accuracy)

Social Media Agnostic

My faith is being tested. As someone who believes in the value of solid marketing strategy and good design, I find myself skeptical about the relatively new kid on the block – social media.

While I believe it merits a place at the marketing altar, when the prophecies of the true believers grow insistent and I’m asked to enthusiastically embrace that which I cannot see (or measure), I begin to wonder if I’m being sold snake oil rather than salvation.

Faith-based marketing
Most non-profit organizations I’ve worked with are mildly to severely short on staff and budget to tackle their day-to-day marketing. But the conversation with social media mavens often sounds something like this:

Non-profit: “Our social media efforts seem to be falling flat. What’s wrong?”
Maven: “For success, you need to commit more time to social media.”
Non-profit: “I don’t have more time.”
Maven: “Then you need more sophisticated analytics to track your efforts.”
Non-profit: “Where’s the return on that investment?”
Maven: “Oh, you can’t really measure success like that. It’s all about engagement.”
Non-profit: “What’s that?”
Maven: “You’ll know it when you see it.”
Non-profit: “What if I don’t see it?”
Maven: “Then you’re not spending enough time and money on it.”

Setting expectations
Compare the commitment for social media success to other time-intensive activities like gardening. Similar to social media, gardening takes planning, strategy (picking the right plants for your available plot of land and conditions), monitoring, feeding and weeding. Even then, factors beyond your control – like a hailstorm – can sabotage your efforts.

You may enjoy gardening and find value in its tangible and intangible benefits, but it’s wise to set realistic expectations. If you just want to grow a couple potted tomato plants, chances are you’ll have enough time to maintain your commitment and enjoy the fruits of your labor. If your goal is to feed the whole neighborhood, you may need some help, not to mention more land and a tractor.

Same old story
What seems to get lost in the hype is that social media is just like all other marketing efforts – success requires planning, meaningful goals and solid strategy. Without it, the only measurable growth will be in the number of marketers who’ve lost their faith.

Related content:
Looking past friend-counting
Social Media’s Massive Failure

Mining Your Blind Spots

I was recently asked for guidance from a communications professional whose new boss wanted a report on their advertising’s return on investment (ROI). Panic ensued.

I can understand the panic, as it sounds a little like a Dilbert comic strip after the pointy-haired boss has returned from a conference with a new buzzword. This is not meant to deny the importance of spending ad dollars wisely, or tracking the effectiveness of your marketing efforts, but trying to construct a meaningful ROI report retroactively is folly.

What can be measured?
Everything. Anything. Just because it’s difficult to find meaningful numbers to attach to an enterprise doesn’t mean people won’t keep trying. Data allows us to rationalize our actions. And it’s widely accepted that reason is more reliable than emotion or feelings. But is it?

Conventional wisdom
Across the corporate and non-profit landscape, quality improvement efforts are stuck in the factory mentality of the Industrial Age. If only things are well-measured, the thinking goes, we’ll produce better widgets, graduates or advertising.

Our brains are wired to overestimate the likelihood that our future will look a lot like our past. This influences everything we do, placing great importance on data – essentially, history quantified. Unfortunately, our high tech world’s rapid pace of change virtually guarantees that the future we imagine is an illusion.

Learning to anticipate
Wayne Gretzky, the hockey legend, consistently outfoxed bigger and faster competition by passing to spots where a teammate was going to be. How did he always seem to magically be one step ahead of everyone else?

Undoubtedly, through hours of practice on his backyard ice rink, he acquired lots of data. But many players practice a lot. It may be precisely because of Gretzky’s disadvantages that he discovered an unexpected competitive advantage. He could sense, or feel, the play developing, and learned to see risks worth taking.

Risk aversion is human nature, but it blinds us to opportunities as well as threats. In marketing your organization, common assumptions about what the future holds (influenced by those ROI reports) create an artificially narrow set of choices.

To expand your vision, you need to recognize and resist the herd mentality. In your market, or with your audience, what is least likely to happen? Learning to see into your blind spots – exploring unexpected territory – allows you to anticipate the opportunities that others miss.

Related Content:

How to Become a Visionary

The Big Assumption Underlying Internet Media Ventures

Field Sense May Be Teachable

Signal-to-Noise Ratio

Last month, on the road to our Wisconsin cabin, I fiddled with the radio dial trying to maintain a clear signal to the end of the baseball game. At the same time, I adjusted the visor to block the glare of the setting sun, kept the accelerator at a steady 63 MPH, and ignored passing traffic as I stayed vigilant for deer darting from the ditches.

Responsibilities and Distractions
Just as I needed to continually shift my attention from one task to another while driving, for many in the non-profit and higher ed world this time of year can be particularly hectic, with maybe a week of relative calm in mid-October before the rush to the end of the calendar year.

Unfortunately, this cycle of “busy-ness” usually repeats itself until years go by and all the good intentions are buried with last month’s budget report. But what is everyone busy doing?

Missing the Big Picture
Even acknowledging that many are doing the jobs of two people doesn’t explain why so many non-profits favor tactics at the expense of strategy.

What needs to be done this morning? Or this week? If everything is equally important, you’re suffering from an imbalance of short-term, tactical thinking. It’s all distracting all the time – too much noise and not enough signal.

Is it possible that people secretly like, or are comforted by, this constant, daily churn? Do we seek distractions? One thing’s clear – being busy keeps us from staring at a blank piece of paper and making hard choices.

Priorities
No one remembers the press release that recapped the company picnic. Not one person. The same could be said of countless other tasks that fill our daily to-do lists. But rather than leaving us depressed at the insignificance of our jobs, this news should free us to prioritize – to carve out more time for the things that really matter.

As we get older, we tend to spend less and less time on the things we say are important – time with family and friends, favorite hobbies, exercise, healthy food. Just as we can and should make choices that simplify our daily existence away from the job, we should seek to do the same at work.

Fewer distractions, and better focus, should make us more effective in our work – and keep that signal loud and clear.

An Interview with Julie Dappen of MAP for Nonprofits

Recently I had the opportunity to discuss non-profit marketing with Julie Dappen, director of marketing and communications at MAP for Nonprofits. Since 2003, Julie has provided her clients with market research, marketing plans, communications plans, public relations, and brand development. Before joining MAP, she worked in corporate communications and public relations positions for HealthPartners and Regions Hospital in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

MAP provides services and consulting to other nonprofits. This includes accounting, board and leadership development, board recruitment, legal services, strategic planning, marketing, and mergers. Each year, MAP serves more than 500 nonprofit organizations.

How does MAP help nonprofits with their marketing?
We provide services to help nonprofits build their own marketing capacity, with a flexible delivery model that accommodates different budgets. We work collaboratively with our clients on projects ranging from market research, to marketing plans, brand building, and name development. We can also help implement plans, as needed.

Have you seen increased demand for these services in your time at MAP?
We are seeing increased demand, perhaps due to the economy.

What types of organizations most often seek MAP’s help?
About 10 percent of my clients are small nonprofits, 70 percent medium, and 20 percent large. The organizations are a diverse group: human service, education, arts, culture, environment, and more.

In your opinion, how much of a role does design and marketing play in an organization’s success?
Design and marketing play a primary role. Who’s going to do business with you if they don’t know you?

How has the role of marketing changed over time?
Marketing has evolved continuously in response to market changes, generational changes, the introduction of the internet, and social and mobile media. Some of the principles don’t change – although some do!

Speak a little bit about some of the marketing principles that don’t change. In my experience, I’ve seen instances where people seem to think all the rules have changed when a shiny new toy emerges.
It used to be that when clients wanted a brochure the communications person would respond, “Let’s talk about your audience and what you want to achieve before we decide whether you need a brochure.” Today, clients want Facebook or Twitter, but once again they’re not always thinking about how the tools will help them strategically. While we have many more tools to choose from today, strategy has changed only slightly.

What principles of marketing do you think have changed?
Years ago, advertising focused on product features and benefits. Today, it’s more likely to focus on emotional benefits or how the product/service might positively affect people’s lives. It’s also much more difficult to break through the clutter today. I think we’re seeing an incredible amount of humor used in advertising in attempts to make it memorable.

Do you feel non-profit organizations today are more design- and marketing-savvy?
In general I think they are savvier, especially when they have talented, professional staff members.

For an organization that recognizes the importance of marketing, but lacks the staff resources, how would you recommend they acquire it?
This is a tricky question. Volunteers are great, if they are qualified, but some don’t see the job through to the end, or don’t leave the client with the right kind of files, or aren’t realistic about the nonprofit’s budget.

I’m a big believer in collaborating with the best expert you can find and afford. How might a nonprofit find a marketing partner?
Pro bono agency work is harder to come by, but usually more reliable. I believe in buying top-notch, affordable expertise, too, as long as the expertise can pass into the nonprofit’s hands for ongoing needs. For example, I believe nonprofits must have the ability to update their websites themselves, quickly.

What misconceptions exist about design and marketing in the non-profit world?
Some believe the entry-level writer or the neighborhood volunteer is a designer simply because they have access to design software. I wish everyone would understand that the quality and consistency of their marketing materials reflects directly upon the quality of their nonprofit.

I suppose another misconception is that nonprofits don’t need marketing. Even human service nonprofits, attempting to meet an overwhelming demand for basic services like food and shelter, need to market in order to tell their stories effectively to volunteers, funders, neighborhoods, etc.

Finally, I believe there’s a misperception in the non-profit community about using alphabet soup for names.

You’re saying that non-profit organizations shouldn’t be using acronyms.
I believe non-profit names need to work harder than for-profit company names. We simply don’t have the awareness-building budgets. I cringe when nonprofits adopt acronyms – meaningless names that usually lack any sort of memory hook.

Would you share an example of an organization that is doing effective marketing?
The Fringe Festival, an annual 11-day performing arts festival, comes to mind. In 2008 the festival featured over 150 shows, with 800 performances, more than 1,000 participating artists, and nearly 400 volunteers. In 2008, they sold 40,000+ tickets, an eight percent increase over the previous year.

They have clearly identified their market and audience. Their fun and consistent design, distinctive brand, and irreverent messages speak to their target audience. They’ve built a recognizable community among attendees with Fringe buttons (over 15,000 in 2008). And the audience participates in the Festival’s marketing by discussing and recommending performances, both in person, and via website reviews.

Great example! And they have been very steady with their efforts. The event seems to grow little-by-little – both in its impact and in the number of marketing activities they are undertaking. I think people sometimes think a marketing campaign is a silver bullet – the key to instant recognition and acclaim – when patience really is a virtue. And then you’ve got to have a good product or experience to back it up.

Any other campaigns or organizations that are doing interesting things?
I have a special interest in social marketing – marketing aimed at educating the public on issues, and ideally changing behaviors. For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota’s “Do” campaign, or “Depression Hurts” from Eli Lilly. I’d love to see more nonprofits pool resources and collaborate to attempt larger, more impactful, mission-oriented campaigns.

These organizations must be tracking their return on investment. How do you advise your clients on measuring the impacts of their marketing?
It varies with each marketing plan and tracks back to the objectives set. It might be the amount of donations versus the cost of the promotion, the number of people signing up to be members versus the cost of the membership drive, the number of new clients brought in through an email campaign versus the cost (include labor in those costs!)

Assuming financial and staff resources are always in short supply, what advice would you give to a new (or established) nonprofit organization to help get its marketing message out?
For new nonprofits: Capture names and addresses of every volunteer, donor, client, or contact in a database and stay in touch with them. Don’t over-seek donations. Take the time to share updates, challenges, and successes. And invite their opinions and ideas. Also, be inquisitive about your clients and market. Gain insight on what they feel is important, and speak through your marketing to them by telling stories of how your work changes lives.

Marketing staff at established nonprofits have a responsibility to regularly take the pulse of their clients and market. Also, they need to realize that they will not reach everybody, so they must be strategic about whom they want to reach and focus resources there.

How should an organization prioritize their audiences and marketing efforts?
People want to develop a laundry list of audiences – and that’s okay – as long as they focus their marketing efforts on the audiences that are most critical to their success. For example, a nonprofit conducting business-to-business sales might segment its clients into industries, and then measure total revenue by industries, placing a priority on the industry that is spending the most money.

What are some common marketing pitfalls for nonprofit organizations?
Not being purposeful and consistent with brand, design and messaging. Each new volunteer or staff member wants to experiment with a nonprofit’s brand identity. Within the organization, people grow bored with consistent design. They don’t see the bigger picture – that long after they’re bored, the consistency is working.

I call them departmental do-it-yourselfers. Does the importance of the brand need to be better communicated within organizations?
Yes. But easy access to technology has invited do-it-yourselfers to experiment – and it’s fun! Oh, the trouble they cause without meaning to.

Julie, thanks for your sharing your insights!

United We Brand

Many organizations choose to market some of their products and services differently from their core brand. This is common in industries ranging from hotels and cars to food products and clothing retailers. For example, The Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy are parts of a single corporation. While all three stores sell clothes, they each have a distinct price point, customer base, visual identity and marketing.

Is such an approach appropriate and beneficial in the non-profit sector? Or do you risk diluting your brand? Consider the following questions:

What is your organization’s core promise?

Whether for a small non-profit organization or a large, national retailer, a brand is more about what’s being promised than what’s being sold. For example, Old Navy promises fashionable, casual basics for its young, value-conscious customer, while Banana Republic offers more formal, higher-end clothes for young working adults.

Similarly, most colleges and universities serve customers with a wide variety of interests ranging from business and the arts to engineering and medicine. Should each program be branded separately? While it would be unrealistic to suggest that all programs are of equal quality or prestige, the core promise from the university is basically the same: We will provide an education that will help you pursue your chosen career.

Before fragmenting your message or modifying your brand, consider your important similarities as much as your superficial differences.

Who is your target audience?

Different audiences often have different needs. Because she knows the brand, a 30-year-old looking for an outfit to wear to the office is not going to shop at Old Navy. Similarly, a teenager may turn to a non-profit organization with different needs than a working adult.

Because a university primarily serves students, a department that serves a distinctly different audience – providing agricultural resources to the neighboring community, for instance – might want to market itself differently. In this case, one must ask: How important is the association with the university? If that association is a large motivator for the target audience to turn to the department, you probably want to think twice before obscuring that connection.

What is your audience looking for?

Collection of Pew Research logos.The Pew Research Center provides information on American issues, attitudes and trends. Though different Pew-sponsored programs delve into a broad array of topics, a quick look at the description of each of these programs reveals that that they all provide the same service – information. The organization’s many programs would benefit from reinforcing its audience’s expectations for reliable insights and data, instead of creating distinct logos for each (see graphic).

Conversely, the fans of a university’s athletics teams are seeking entertainment, while its students in the classroom are seeking a degree. In this case, it makes sense to brand the university’s athletics and academics differently.

The sum of many parts

We’re all inclined to think that our organization, department, program, or service is unique. But, you’d be wise to carefully consider the benefits and perils of pursuing distinctly different brands before proceeding. Often it is those unique factors that work together to shape your audience’s perception of a single, solid brand.

By Claire Napier and Dan Woychick

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