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

Favorite Links: January 2013

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

How Web Graphics Affect Conversions

Storytelling: The Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains

The Bias Against Creatives as Leaders

Smartphones, Silly Users
HBR Blog Network

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.

The Right Tool For The Job

Last weekend, I agreed to help a friend install his new home theater. First, we needed to remove the baseboard so we could keep all the new wires hidden from view. Lacking a crowbar, my friend grabbed the nearest screwdriver and proceeded to gouge the wooden baseboard and scratch the painted wall. As any do-it-yourselfer knows, using the wrong tool can make a small project a lot bigger.

Smart communications professionals recognize the importance of gathering consumer insights. Unfortunately, sometimes, they also reach for the wrong tool.

Lack of focus
When seeking audience opinion, the tried-and-true focus group is often the research tool of choice. Get a moderator, some pizza or doughnuts, and 8-10 people in a room, then watch the insights fly. But qualitative research from a group of strangers gathered around a table may not yield the insights you need.

Focus groups are best used when you have little knowledge about how your product, service or organization is perceived. They can give you a good starting point for further, targeted research. More often, you need specific information.

Simulating behavior
If, like me, you’re lacking a degree in cultural anthropology, interviewing a representative sample of your users about their needs is the next best thing. Interacting with and observing individuals one-to-one often reveals truths that remain hidden in a group setting.

It’s common practice to conduct this kind of research when embarking on a website redesign. Individual test subjects answer questions and complete a series of tasks, giving designers insight into how the site can be made more functional.

A similar approach can be useful whenever “navigation” is involved, such as with magazines, forms, and environmental signage. With as few as 4–5 people, we’ve gathered useful feedback simply by watching and asking a few questions. For example:

  • How often do you currently read (or use) this [publication, form, building]?
  • What is your overall impression?
  • Do you find this valuable, relevant, informative, etc.?
  • Is it easy to find the information you’re looking for?
  • Are there other sources you rely on to get similar information? Where?
  • How does this make you feel about the organization?

By keeping things simple, it’s easier to commit to an iterative process, conducting tests early and often.

Quality, not quantity
Quantitative research is useful when an organization wants to benchmark results over time. Many people place their trust in cold, hard data – the more of it the better. Seeking statistically valid numbers, however, presents two big hurdles – time and budget.

Depending on what is being measured – and for what reason – the importance of sample size is often overestimated. If I’ve interviewed five people who have difficulty navigating your website, surveying 500 or 5,000 more provides very little benefit. There are diminishing returns with each additional data point.

Watch, listen and refine
Many decisions are better served by more frequent questioning of fewer people, refining as you go. Making a habit of interviewing your customers will make your organization more responsive and serve as a tool for continual improvement.

Related Content:
Don’t Make Me Think
To Focus Group, Or Not To Focus Group
Conducting a Needs Analysis

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

The shopping experience at my local “super” retailer often goes something likes this: I walk into the store hoping for a quick trip to pick up a roll of masking tape. After half an hour searching in “Office Supplies,” an employee finally takes me to find it in the hardware section.

When we’ve conducted web usability tests, we have seen a lot of people with experiences similar to my shopping trip. They enter a website with a specific task, then get frustrated when the information they seek is not in the expected section.

When web users get frustrated, they tend to give up. A recent report on university websites underscores the importance of easy site navigation:

  • 92% of prospective students will be disappointed or walk away if they can’t find what they’re looking for.
  • 65% said that they would be more interested in a college because of a good web experience.

In our research, we have found web users overwhelmingly prefer indexed navigation. The idea is similar to a sitemap, but instead of showing the whole site the navigation shows only the most relevant information. Indexed navigation eliminates much of the site users’ guessing by showing what kinds of things each category includes.

Image of indexed navigation.

Indexed navigation (highlighted) is organized by topic and provides users easy access to the information they seek.

When creating an indexed navigation it’s important to ask users what information is important to them, and where do they expect to find it. What kind of categories are they looking for in the main navigation? What kind of information do they expect to see under those headings? Does the wording in the navigation reflect what falls in those categories?

The answers to these questions may be surprising. External audiences often view your website differently. What seems obvious or interesting to you may not be important to someone who’s visiting your site for the first time.

When organizing a site, it’s important to show your users the big picture. The easier it is for people to find what they’re looking for, the better the website experience will be.

Examples of sites with indexed navigation

University of Minnesota

Boston University


– Claire Napier


Flying Blind

Dan's dog Buster.

About a year ago my dog almost died. Buster and I have been together for nearly 16 years. He had been as frisky as ever on a long walk the day before his near-death experience and now, many months later, he’s doing fine.

The problem I faced that day at the veterinary hospital is similar, though perhaps less emotionally charged, to ones faced by non-profit organizations on a regular basis: not enough information to adequately guide a wise decision.

How could Buster seem so healthy one day and so ill the next? What’s wrong with him? Can he be saved? And what will it cost? In a very condensed time frame, with the help of the vet, I needed to consider what little information I had and make a decision.

Unlike large corporations that spend millions on market research every year, non-profit organizations have relatively shallow pockets. However, they are well-served by acquiring as much information as possible before making decisions that affect the success of the organization: Would our stakeholders prefer to get information from us online or in print? How can we increase donations from younger demographics? Is our website as effective as it needs to be?

Sometimes decisions are made with virtually no information aside from hunches or other people’s personal anecdotes. Other times there’s paralysis caused by too much information. Either way, organizations benefit when they take the time to acquire and analyze relevant information.

Targeted market research doesn’t have to cost a fortune or take months to see results. It helps to ask the right questions — or any questions at all. Most non-profits have stakeholders ready to offer their time and insights with little or no incentive. Through facilitated focus groups or online surveys, organizations can quickly collect useful qualitative and quantitative data.

We’ve conducted website usability testing with only 5–6 subjects that resulted in significant improvements in a matter of weeks. Cost? A few thousand dollars.

Sometimes the information is right under your nose, but making sense of it is the problem. If your organization is information rich and time poor, it could be worthwhile to ask an expert to analyze the data with fresh eyes.

As a parent, as well as a dog owner, I often feel as if I’m flying blind. Most often, my course of action is trial-and-error, with only marginal confidence that what I’m doing might work. Non-profit organizations have far less margin for error. By building an organizational culture that encourages informed decision-making, your marketing efforts will be more successful the first time.