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

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

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

Overcoming Inertia

In decentralized organizations, decision making is not confined to a few executives but rather shared by all – or at least more – members of the team. In theory, this makes sense. Two heads are better than one, so three must be better than two and so on. Unfortunately, it often ends up looking like this (click image to enlarge):

Humorous infographic of a ponderous decision-making process.Empowerment and collaboration
In the modern world, it’s common for people to seek employment that not only provides a paycheck, but is intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Managers are well-served by building and relying on the talents of their people. When employees grow in competence and value, it benefits the organization and the individual.

However, this management style can go too far. In the guise of empowerment, a manager may blur job responsibilities and dither away opportunities by listening to too many people. If staff is consulted, but ideas never implemented, production and morale can suffer.

Decisiveness and speed
An entrepreneurial organization is usually considered more innovative and responsive to changes in the market. Generally, a strong leader sets forth a vision and inspires others to follow. However, the same leader can become a bottleneck, lack the ability to transfer knowledge or make difficult choices.

Finding the sweet spot
To discourage inertia, leaders must guide expectations. Not everyone who wants to be on a team or committee should be included. The leader must be able to set a clear direction and articulate what is needed from each person – and why. This exercise of authority can make some people uneasy. It’s hard to tell people things they may not want to hear.

Problems occur when the power structure is out of balance, either from the top down or the bottom up. To reach organizational nirvana – a well-coordinated and highly-productive team with clarity over membership, roles and goals – leaders must learn how to communicate with colleagues as well as they do with constituents.

Related Content:
Why Teams Don’t Work
The Secret to Ensuring Follow-Through

Branding From The Inside Out

You’ve got a great new logo and website, brand guidelines, a presence on multiple social media channels, and some soon-to-be-award-winning marketing materials. You’ve got this branding thing whipped, no? Well … um … no.

Think of your printed or online materials as the scaffolding around new construction. It is necessary and useful, but of little value on its own. Until the brand has been built from the inside out, you may remove the scaffolding only to discover there’s nothing there.

It’s a team sport
Successful managers are adept at putting their people in a position to succeed. Unlike Bugs Bunny, forced to play every position against the Gashouse Gorillas, a brand manager can’t succeed unless everyone on the team plays a role.

Because authenticity is the name of the game, it’s important to provide training, support, and incentives for coworkers so that your new branding effort won’t ring hollow.

Winning buy-in
From curmudgeons to the terminally shy, not everyone will proudly sing from your brand hymnal. Though uniform enthusiasm may be unrealistic, it’s not too much to ask for understanding and acceptance.

For a large, nonprofit client, we insisted on scheduling several voluntary, one-hour workshops as part of the brand launch. Each session was designed to provide participants with an overview of project goals, key messages and graphics, and practical tips for putting the brand to work. With a drawing for a free weekend getaway trip and other prizes as incentive, the internal training effort reached over two thirds of all employees.

Additionally, we encouraged the sharing of stories, regularly recognizing “brand champions” through internal communications after the workshops were a distant memory.

Training days
To keep everyone in tune with the institution’s brand, Virginia Tech developed a comprehensive, two-phase Brand Ambassador Certification Program. Since its inception, they’ve identified several best practices, including:

  • Recruit executive-level supporters who believe in the program.
  • Solicit feedback on everything – program content, presentation style, overall value.
  • Offer each class at least twice to accommodate scheduling conflicts.
  • Ask participants to recommend the program to peers.
  • Award participants with official recognition.

Actions speak louder than words
A brand is not what you say, it’s what you do – the sum total of all your actions. The better prepared your organization is to live its brand, the more vivid and indelible an impression you will make.