Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

Print in a Digital Age

Since the widespread adoption and evolution of the internet, the vast majority of non-profit organizations have been scrambling to keep up. This extends to marketing and communications offices, with budgets under pressure, trying to adapt print conventions to the online world – or trying to eliminate print altogether.

Channel surfing
Whether holding a TV remote, a mouse, a smartphone, or a magazine in hand, customers have a glut of options for consuming information and entertainment. And marketers, often with no idea which channel will be most attractive, hedge their bets and churn out content – everywhere.

Thirty years ago, the investment firm EF Hutton used a long-running ad campaign to tout the value of its advice: When EF Hutton talks, people listen.


Nowadays, if EF Hutton was talking, it would be competing with every other bank, broker, and insurance company to be heard. Everyone is talking – including customers – at the same time. It’s much more difficult to listen than it used to be.

Nevertheless, every project, no matter the goal, should start with listening to gain a deep understanding and appreciation for the audience it serves. For your communications to be successful, you must be able to answer your audience’s two fundamental questions:

  • Why should I spend my time with you?
  • What can I get from this [magazine, brochure, website, app] that I can’t get anywhere else?

Old school thinking
While nonprofits may be hampered by a lack of resources, just as debilitating they often remain true to outdated models of gathering and presenting information. Subsequently, many projects suffer from:

  • Poor design
  • A lack of dynamic content
  • Poorly-defined audience and purpose
  • Ineffective storytelling
  • Not embracing the social nature of the web
  • Remaining stuck in the 20th Century

After defining the audience, one must then ask: What is the purpose of this project? It should:

  • Connect with audiences through storytelling, delivery and presentation
  • Shape perceptions of the brand by reinforcing key messages
  • Support organizational goals

To remain relevant you need to take calculated risks, look at things with a fresh eye, absorb and adapt ideas from unexpected sources and, above all, challenge the assumptions of the assignment.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.  – Shunryu Suzuki

Peaceful coexistence
Marketing has become like the gluttonous diner at the all-you-can-eat buffet: I’ll have one of everything! The never-ending churn of producing content on every channel is self-defeating. We’ve got to know our audience well enough to make smarter choices.

Going forward, we need to acknowledge that digital media and print each have strengths, and should be considered and developed concurrently and selectively – not sequentially. When it comes to telling stories:

  • Print can’t compete with digital media for timeliness.
  • Digital media can be social, easily shared and searched.
  • Each relies on design to aid in navigation, legibility and narrative pacing.
  • Print is a less ephemeral artifact – more curated, collectible and savored.

We believe that print remains a vital communications channel worth doing well for two reasons:

  • Some people – myself included – still find print the most pleasurable means of reading for information and entertainment.
  • Print has a lasting visibility and presence – on coffee, bedside, and waiting room tables – that online platforms can’t match.

Working on print and digital content simultaneously and cohesively may be a more fluid process (e.g., developing design concepts from rough drafts or outlines) and can be more work – with the need for video, still photography and web development – but we believe it is the future of nonprofit marketing.

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.

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.

Churn Baby Churn

A communications specialist at a Midwest university told me recently, “We’re putting out fires on a daily basis. Our department has six people to serve 15,000 students and we have no time to think strategically.” Sound familiar?

While too many organizations chase after the latest communications trends, adding ever more tasks to overworked staff, precious few seem inclined to ask: Why are we doing this? Or, better yet, should we be doing this?

Plan to make choices

Marketing should not be viewed as an all-you-can-eat buffet. If some is good, more must be better. It takes considerable discipline to take a step back and evaluate what is working and which activities are just distractions.

Practicing restraint requires having a plan – a communications strategy that defines objectives and target audiences, and sets priorities for the key messages and media channels used to reach them.

Economy of time

If time is currency, you don’t want to spend yours – or worse, your audience’s – foolishly.

In Kristina Halvorson’s excellent essay on The Discipline of Content Strategy, she writes: “Until we commit to treating content as a critical asset worthy of strategic planning and meaningful investment, we’ll continue to churn out worthless content in reaction to unmeasured requests.”

Do fewer things well

The benefit of taking time for strategy is that it encourages action with a purpose. It also allows staffers to shed activities that have been less effective, freeing up time to handle more promising ventures. The only downside to business as usual? Occasionally having to say “no” to colleagues. Or bosses.

By measuring your marketing efforts through a communications strategy, you’re more likely to provide valuable content that your audience cares about. And you can let the fire department handle the fires.

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