Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Raising Expectations

One ordinary morning, a memo appears in your in-box.

We are embarking on an organization-wide, resource allocation review. Each department is required to provide benchmarks to evaluate the value and effectiveness of its work.

In other words, please justify your existence.

This is a conversation that I’ve been hearing a lot lately. It’s not an unreasonable request. Marketing departments should not be immune from scrutiny, or excused from providing evidence that their work is effective. However, as a colleague in higher ed noted when faced with this assignment: We can track the typical things – media coverage or Google analytics – but most of the indicators that we’re making good use of our financial resources are tied to other offices, like Advancement or Admissions.

Separation anxiety
There seems to be a common misperception among both for-profit and non-profit leaders that departments function independently of one another – that marketing’s impact, for example, can be separated from an organization’s overall goals.

Other than putting together a birthday card for an office colleague, isn’t the success of any marketing assignment inextricably linked to others’ goals? If the advancement office doesn’t raise enough money, then fundraising communications weren’t successful enough. If enrollment targets were missed, then admissions marketing must be improved.

I understand that anxious executives want reassurance and a way to mitigate risks – marketing is a mysterious line item in the annual budget. Unfortunately, it’s also often viewed as an add-on – more style than substance – and subsequently expected to show return on investment without the advantage of being considered an essential organizational function.

Roll up your sleeves
Imagine driving down the road when suddenly your car starts making a funny noise. Next, smoke starts billowing from under the hood. In a panic, you pull in to the nearest repair shop. You tell the mechanic, “I’m kind of in a hurry and I don’t have much money. Can you fix this?” The mechanic walks slowly around your vehicle, deep in thought. Finally, he fills a bucket, grabs a sponge, and washes your car. Did he solve your problem, or just make it look better?

Too often marketing offices are being asked to make the engine run better – to help an organization solve a problem or reach a goal – without ever having the opportunity to look under the hood.

Let me be clear: It’s not management’s fault that marketing is misunderstood. It’s ours. Until we can make a compelling case – using both objective and subjective measures of value and effectiveness – marketing will continue to encounter the resistance of low expectations.

State your case
Marketers are in the business of telling stories, but we don’t write fiction. Successful marketing is reliant on thorough inquiry, diligent training and practice, collaboration, and coordination of resources. None of that happens in a vacuum.

If you’re going to have an ROI discussion, do it within the context of organizational, not departmental, goals. Whether you’re trying to convince people to choose your service, attract donations, or inspire volunteers, the planning, strategy, and measurement take on a different tenor when each element of the enterprise is considered interdependent.

Before the lights dim, before the conductor raises the baton, a discordant blend of strings, percussion, and woodwind instruments squeaks and groans from the orchestra stage. It is only when the musicians begin playing in unison that we can appreciate their talents. That’s what marketing can do. If it’s not in alignment – and deeply involved – with an organization at its core, few measures carry meaning or insight.

What to measure
There’s a lengthy history of valuing scientific, left-brain thinking over the more intuitive right hemisphere of the brain. Increasingly, complex problems require the flexibility to integrate both ways of thinking.

Rather than counting web “hits” or desperately seeking more “likes” on Facebook, here’s one measure that should be tracked:

How much time and money is spent learning about your audience(s) – internal and external – so that whatever marketing materials are produced can be as targeted and relevant as possible?

As those numbers increase, so will the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

How do you demonstrate a return on investment?

The Bleeding Edge

There’s been an explosion at the factory on the edge of town. At the regional hospital, emergency room personnel maintain radio contact with the paramedics en route, bracing for the arrival of a half dozen injured workers. Successful medical treatment is reliant on ER staff correctly identifying and attending to the highest priorities first. This is what’s known as triage.

Every day competing priorities explode on the desks of non-profit marketers, yet it’s the rare organization that has the knowledge and discipline to focus attention on its most effective communications efforts. Instead, most professionals scramble from one thing to the next, unable to confidently make decisive choices or commit the time necessary to do each job well.

How did we get here?
As they say, the first step to getting healthy is acknowledging the problem. Not a single person I’ve ever met disputes the current state of affairs, nor asserts that this is the preferred way of doing business, yet nothing changes. In fact, it seems to be getting worse. So, what’s the next step?

If we can’t get beyond acknowledgement, then maybe we can attempt to understand the forces conspiring against behavior change. I’ve observed frequent variations on the following themes:

  • Everyone else is doing it. It’s one of the oldest excuses in the book – the argument that we’re only mimicking behavior seen elsewhere – but it didn’t impress your mom, and it’s not a good enough reason to do things today.
  • It’s the latest thing. Ooh, shiny! Whether it’s a fascination with new technologies, attention deficit disorder, or boredom with the same old tactics, the allure of the next new thing is undeniable. Getting results, however, can usually be attributed to spot-on strategy, not a trendy tool.
  • We don’t know what works. It’s difficult to isolate the effects of one thing on an integrated marketing effort, but far too many decisions are made without any information – or any plan to measure the results of our efforts.
  • We don’t know what our audience prefers or expects. At first glance, what they want is everything … for free. We act as if everyone is anxiously waiting for our up-to-the-minute news, opinions, and flash mob videos. What would happen if people had to opt in instead of opt out of your content delivery? Don’t forget to ask.
  • Fear. Advertisers and the media are highly skilled at amplifying feelings of inadequacy – your breath stinks, your life is boring, and no one will ever love you. Did you hear 16 universities have great new Google+ brand pages?!? Take a deep breath, treat reports of your imminent demise with skepticism, and chart your own course.

Adopt or adapt
It’s often difficult to accept our limitations, it’s so … limiting. The ability to make a clear-eyed assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses is an incredible advantage when it comes to focusing time and energy.

A start-up company doesn’t begin by operating on a global scale. A novice hiker doesn’t attempt to tackle Mount Everest. And a single musician, no matter how talented, can’t match a symphony orchestra’s depth of sound. Each, on its own, is capable of great things, but it would be foolish to suggest they are capable of the same things as someone with greater resources and expertise.

Can non-profit organizations, notoriously understaffed and underfunded, afford to be early adopters in marketing communications? Does it make sense to rush to produce the next great smartphone app, dive headfirst into multiple social networks, or add new distribution channels when ongoing commitments are barely getting produced? Something’s gotta give.

There’s no shame in staking out a more deliberate strategy of agile adaptation. Let others be trailblazers in technology – or marketing communications – and aim to be a smarter second (or third) to market. It’s a model that’s worked pretty well for Apple Computer, among others.

Making better choices
Intensive training and hours of practice helps emergency room doctors and nurses make dozens of rapid-fire decisions on the spot. More significantly, these medical professionals have a crystal clear filter through which to weigh their options – which patient outcomes will most benefit from immediate attention.

For marketing communications, that filter is a comprehensive content strategy. Content includes all the text, graphics, video, and audio you produce. Content strategy, as defined by Brain Traffic’s Kristina Halvorson, is “the practice of planning for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” Without a clear strategy, every decision is made piecemeal, without consideration for how it supports business objectives and meets your customers’ goals.

In order to begin planning, and then executing, your content strategy, you need:

  • Analysis of existing content. Who creates it, where does it go, who maintains it, and what goals is it intended to address? Understanding your current situation is the key to designing a better way.
  • A plan to measure results. If you’re going to fail, you need to fail quickly and learn from the experience. Making the same mistakes over and over again is an expensive way to do business.
  • Audience insights. Numbers won’t tell you everything. There’s no substitute for listening to the people your organization is attempting to serve – through web usability testing, surveys, focus groups, phone interviews or casual conversations.

You also need good writers and designers, disciplined thinkers, and leaders who help colleagues understand and stay true to the organization’s marketing communication goals. But you already have that, right?

A glimmer of hope
The current non-profit communications model leaves many professionals feeling like a hamster on a wheel. By cultivating a more contemplative, less reactive way of doing business, handling the onslaught of requests for your time and attention can become less arbitrary. Just remember to polish your diplomatic skills before telling a co-worker their project is not a high priority!

There’s a lot to be said for knowing your audience, knowing their expectations, and knowing what you’re capable of producing well. Next month, I’ll look at a few examples of organizations that actually improved their effectiveness by doing less – or at least doing things differently – thanks to the guidance of a clear content strategy.

Until then, please share your examples here.

Related content:
The Terrifying Truth of New Technology
Make Sure You Measure Up
Confessions of a Twitter-Phobe

A humorous look at project prioritization:

Dilbert Comic - pointy-haired boss outlining next year's "areas of focus"