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

Doing Better By Doing Less

The phrase “less is more” is often associated with the famed Modern architect, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, who believed that simplicity and clarity are necessary for good design. One thing we can say with absolute clarity is that today’s nonprofit marketing professionals are expected to communicate with more people in more ways across more channels than ever before.

Last month, I wrote that a comprehensive content strategy is necessary to prioritize the ongoing requests for your time – the antidote, if you will, for the epidemic of reactive, tactics-based decision making that is threatening our sanity and effectiveness.

Rather than grasping at straws or acting arbitrarily, a content strategy helps plan for the creation and publication of all your marketing communications by answering questions such as:

  • Who is responsible for creating the content?
  • Which content gets published where? Why?
  • Does the content reinforce our key messages?

In order to answer those questions, you must know your business and marketing objectives, understand your audience’s needs and expectations, and be able to prioritize accordingly. While this may make things more difficult initially, it should simplify your life in the long run.

Here are a few examples of nonprofit organizations that found more success by doing less.

New delivery methods
Pamela Fogg is the design director at Middlebury College. Last fall, she and her marketing team were charged with facilitating more contact with prospective students throughout the admissions cycle. They were also looking to improve yield – the conversion of applicants to enrolled students.

Image of Middlebury College e-blastMore printing and mailing was not an option. In fact, the marketing team decided to eliminate the granddaddy of student recruitment, the viewbook. In its place, they developed a series of e-blasts, sent to prospective students about every six weeks. Featuring a seasonal campus banner image and three stories that were being produced for the website regardless, the e-blasts also included helpful admissions links and links to the college’s social networking sites.

“By sending these out, we felt we were engaging our students more throughout the admissions process,” said Fogg. The proof is in the numbers. “Our applications were the highest ever.”

To help with yield, the college set up a site for admitted students that featured five new videos. “The videos were created to showcase our DNA … strengths that were featured in our last viewbook. Those are pretty much the same themes that guide the editorial content we share in all of the e-blasts.”

When admitted students visit campus, the videos play in a loop in the admissions office. Additionally, the college launched Murmur, a collection of personal audio stories. Visitors can use their mobile phones to hear short stories at marked locations all over campus. Results? The college saw a whopping 25% increase in yield.

The entire effort was part of a cohesive communications strategy characterized by frequent, consistent, and relevant content, with smart distribution that leveraged existing assets. “Everything we do gets repurposed, and those videos proved to be valuable fundraising tools as well,” added Fogg.

The changes also had a powerful effect on the bottom line. “The financial downturn was one reason not to spend over $100K on the viewbook, but we also had a better web presence than in previous years. We wouldn’t have done one without the other,” Fogg explained. “We essentially went from four print pieces to one small piece in under two years, resulting in less printing costs, less mailing costs, and less staff time.”

Changing a communications culture
Cammie Croft has been a pioneer in bringing government communications into the 21st century. Originally a member of the Obama administration’s new media team that revamped the site, Croft recently became director of new media and citizen engagement for the Department of Energy (DOE). Think you’ve got a challenging work environment? Try tackling outdated technology, antiquated rules, layers of bureaucracy, and serious security concerns.

The Energy Department is expected to support cutting-edge research, advance clean energy, and reduce the dangers of nuclear and environmental disasters, but that was far from evident on the old website. Croft’s team needed to rethink how a massive, decentralized department would create, publish, and coordinate its content.

Image of websiteBefore moving a single pixel on the site, several months were spent challenging assumptions, building relationships, and setting up systems and processes to handle the new workflow. The DOE team was able to save money by consolidating several outdated websites onto the same Drupal platform used by the White House. Croft established a centralized publishing team to promote the department’s activities and goals and engage its audiences. Team members specialized by subject area rather than media channel to create greater staff versatility.

Research identified two primary audiences. Unlike most existing governmental sites, the DOE wanted to reach ordinary Americans directly. Additionally, the site needed to continue serving niche audiences – specialists involved in energy policy.

The content strategy outlined what types of content would reside on the new site, where it would be located, and how to provide the context that would make it accessible for the general public. “We want to help people understand why energy matters, and what impact it is having,” said Croft in a recent interview. “The key is localizing the data and making it easily available.”

Incremental improvements
With one thing habitually leading to another, websites always seem to become more complex over time. Because website design and production tends to be iterative in nature, with readily-available analytics and usability testing, they are also prime beneficiaries of a well-planned content strategy. In other words, you don’t need to start from scratch – or tackle an entire site – to benefit.

Image of SUNY Oswego admissions landing pageAfter finding success with a simplified landing page in support of an admissions marketing effort, the State University of New York (SUNY) Oswego decided to tweak its new admissions home page. The amount of copy was reduced dramatically, based on analytics that showed contextual links were largely ineffective, and the design focused on a short video and a handful of key links. According to Tim Nekritz, director of web communications, the change represents “the continuing evolution in how we handle web content.”

Chas Grundy, while working as Notre Dame’s director of interactive marketing, helped the IT department streamline its website. With over 4,500 pages, the department couldn’t manage the amount of content they had, which led to inaccurate, outdated and redundant information. “Over several months, we used analytics, user testing, and other research to cut content down to under 1,000 pages,” said Grundy. “In shrinking the website, they reduced the number of people needed to maintain it.”

Similarly, after a merger of two departments at Ithaca College, a comprehensive audit and the resulting content strategy helped reduce the number of pages on its Financial Aid site to 1/3 the previous amount. Besides reducing ongoing maintenance, the better-organized, more intuitive site slashed the volume of phone calls from frustrated families and students.

Simplify, simplify
By doing too much, it is difficult to do anything very well. Adopting a content strategy represents an opportunity to focus your messages, reduce your workload, and increase your effectiveness.

How have you simplified your marketing communications? I’d love to hear more examples.