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

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

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