Thursday, July 19, 2012

Corporate success is built on nonprofit wisdom

How many times have you heard a blustering layperson exclaim, “We need to run this organization more like a business!” If you work or are involved in the nonprofit sector, odds are you’ve heard that more times than you’d care to remember.

The truth is that nonprofits can benefit from adopting best business practice and many progressive organizations have added to their success by doing so.

But here’s another truth. The most successful and talked-about companies today have built that success on nonprofit wisdom. Moreover, today’s leading business advice echoes principles that are pillars of the nonprofit world.

Before you write off the notion of businesses learning from nonprofits as heresy or insanity, consider these two examples.

Mission is at the core of every nonprofit. It defines them. It is why they exist. It is why people donate to them and volunteer their time for them. While, as Elaine Fogel points out, they don't always do a great job of articulating them, missions are the driving force of every nonprofit.

Many businesses talk about mission, but it is most often a poorly disguised way of saying we’re in business to make money. However, it is those businesses that have identified a more sophisticated calling that are experiencing greater success. They in fact have identified a mission – a deeper reason for their company to exist. When that mission resonates with consumers, profits soar.

Simon Sinek, author and speaker, delivered a must-see TED talk called "How great leaders inspire action.” In it he asks questions like “Why is Apple more innovative than all their competition?” His ultimate answer is that those corporations that have mastered an understanding of why they do what they do, are most successful. He is quick to point out that making a profit is not an answer to why. Rather it is an outcome. For Sinek, "why" is your “purpose, cause or belief.” And furthermore he says, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” If that’s not the triumph of mission, what is?

Carol Cone, a CSR and cause marketing pioneer and now vice president with pr giant Edelman has declared this the decade of Purpose. In her terms, Purpose  is “an organization's reason for being beyond just making profits. Purpose expresses their values in action through a variety of strategies and programs engaging stakeholders to create positive social change and organizational growth.” And what does that Purpose do? “It creates differentiation; fuels product innovation, growth and sales; builds trust and protects reputation and engagement; and it inspires employees, customers and consumers.” If Purpose is mission, then mission is at the core of business success.

Every nonprofit – even the really small ones – has a community that is an essential component in its decision-making and its success. In fact, the relationship between nonprofits and community is axiomatic.

Successful businesses have discovered the power of community. On the strength of the online world they are building and engaging communities that become powerful ambassadors for their products and services. Examples abound in the world of consumer products (think Dove, Nike, and 1000’s of others). Even in the B2B world, success is being built on community as is attested to by this list of the 71 best B2B online communities.

In a monumental piece for HBR, Henry Mintzberg, posits that an important way of rebuilding companies in the wake of the recent financial crisis is creating community. In this sense, he is referring to creating internal communities, where decision-making is decentralized and employees sees themselves as citizens or members of a collective. The key is the organic nature of community – the sense of belonging, caring and ownership. This aspect of community is clearly borrowed from the committee structure that is a plank in the nonprofit platform.

Some would say that community is not only essential to the success of the product; it is a feature of the product itself. This piece from Social Fresh astutely declares that “When you have a community, you get something more.  Now, by being a customer, you’re not just getting the features of that product, but you are now a part of something.  You have a group of people where you can ask questions, get help, give help and build real relationships.” Community is a reason to buy, to commit. This may be news to progressive companies but nonprofits have always understood that community is a criterion for involvement.

There are tons of other examples of how nonprofits have demonstrated organizational superiority over businesses. Perhaps one day, we’ll hear the story of the corporate director who said, it’s time we start running this company like a nonprofit.”

What do you think?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Nonprofits don’t care about marketing

Well, maybe not all of them but the results of Nancy Schwartz’s latest Nonprofit Messages Survey sure are depressing – especially for those of us who are trying to service the marketing needs of organizations without becoming a nonprofit ourselves.

The results are mind-boggling. Here are some of the highlights with what seem to be the unavoidable questions that are provoked:

84% of organizations characterize their marketing messages as difficult to remember.
So, why are they using them? Is it just me or do others find it unbelievable that organizations admit to such ineptitude?

76% of organizations feel that their messages connect with target audiences only somewhat or not at all.
Is it possible that this many organizations would admit that they are relatively unable to communicate with stakeholders?

When asked what is “the single greatest barrier to developing more effective messages” 28% said it was a low priority or that they were too busy with other tasks.
Let me make sure I got that right. For almost one in three organizations, communicating effectively is a low priority?

In response to the same question, an additional 27% of organizations said they don’t know the process or lack expertise in developing appropriate messages.
But if you already are prepared to admit that your marketing messages are difficult to remember or don’t connect, don’t you think that you might find out something about how to change them? The online world is overflowing with free marketing advice for nonprofits. For a tiny investment there are resources that are imminently affordable (look at for example). There are tomes of books that have been written about nonprofit marketing. Ignorance is not an excuse.

What’s more astounding is that these are people that bothered to take the survey in the first place. And they could only have found about the survey if they were subscribed to Nancy’s Getting Attention blog or had enough interest in marketing to begin with.

The seemingly inescapable conclusion is that while many (most?) nonprofits know that marketing and communications are vital to the success of any organization, they are just not doing enough about it – by their own admission.

All of this seems to be living proof of a point made by Dan Pallotta in an insightful but controversial blog post. In it, he said,
 “I see people who wear the debilitating lack of resources in their organization like a badge of honor, despite the fact that the deficiency undermines their ability to impact the community problem they are working on. I see people moving from one nonprofit to another, from one cause to another, seemingly more addicted to "the struggle" than passionate about solving any particular social ill.”
In 2012, it’s time for all nonprofits, regardless of size, to abandon the nobility of the struggle that Dan refers to and develop or acquire the expertise to at least be competent in the ways in which they communicate. We’re not talking about viral videos or award winning campaigns. The bar set by the survey is unbelievably low. We’re talking about connecting with target audiences or creating messages that can be remembered. Nonprofits should be able to figure out a way to do that.

Either that or they just don’t care.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Brand hopes v. brand reality

Every business or organization has two brands. Or, more accurately there are two facets to the brand.

Most of us are very aware of one of those. It is all the ways in which we present ourselves to various audiences – customers, donors, employees, and constituents. It is reflected in the messaging and aesthetics of websites, social media platforms, logos and print material. Savvy marketers know that is also expressed in the way people are communicated with when they interact with an organization.

But there is a second facet to your brand that is equally important but neglected by many organizations. It hinges on a more sophisticated understanding of what a brand is. Seth Godin defines a brand as
“the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” 
Your brand is determined by the way customers perceive your organization. There is a kind of tyranny in that. You can spend infinite resources on strategy and creative but your brand is only as good as people say it is.

We can take that a step further with this great comment from Susan Gunelius in a post on the Forbes blog.
"Remember, companies don’t build brands, consumers do by experiencing those brands, developing feelings for those brands and emotional connections to them, and talking about those brands with other people."
 Ouch! That’s pretty humbling – but absolutely the truth.

In fact, the folks at Social Fresh would advance the argument by saying that not only do customers build your brand, they have the potential to become part of the product itself. People often choose to buy, donate or affiliate because they become part of a community. That community in effect becomes a feature of the value proposition you are putting forth.

Now we can better understand my two facets analysis. Given these definitions of a brand, the outbound facet – the promotional material, the look, the messaging – is really the aspirational side to your brand. It is the way you hope to be perceived.

The second facet to your brand is what people are saying or feeling about your organization. That is the reality aspect of your brand. In a perfect world (think Apple) the two facets are in unison. People’s perceptions match the positioning and messaging of your marketing efforts.

In most organizations however the reality brand is not a perfect reflection of the aspirational brand. That demands attention and here’s what you can do.

1. Set the goal. Make sure your aspirational brand is well defined and therefore you know how you will measure brand success. What do you want people to be saying about your organization? How do you want to be perceived? That articulation of your brand will set the bar

2. Face the facts. Don’t be afraid to discover there is a gap between the way you want your organization to be perceived and the way it is. It’s not a failure. Brands are inherently dynamic and a continual work in progress. To improve your brand you need to actively seek to determine the size of the gap between your aspirational brand and the real brand.

3. Conduct research. This can be qualitative or quantitative. Yes, survey your customers or better yet, prospective customers. Consult your sales people or front line staff about what they hear through their interactions. Ask “people on the street” if they have heard of your organization and what their perceptions are.

4. Monitor. Whether it’s on social media sites, in parking lots, on op ed pages, or in grocery stores, take every opportunity to listen to what people are saying about your organization. This is where the real truth will emerge and you better be there to hear it.

5. Engage your community. Ensure your stakeholders have an idea of what your aspirational brand is. Provide them with a statement that goes something like, “We want people to think about our organization as …..” Train them to not just ambassadors but receptors so that they are sensitive to people’s perceptions and can report them to you.

6. Be open to change. It’s possible that people have positive perceptions of your organization that aren’t reflected in your outbound marketing. Perhaps those perceptions have the potential to create a powerful brand statement. As opposed to influencing perceptions, you may want to change your positioning to match those perceptions.

Being aware of both facets of your brand and working to making one an accurate reflection of the other will undoubtedly bring success to your marketing efforts.

What do you think? Do you buy the two-facet analysis? What do you do in your organization to make sure perceptions align with messaging? What suggestions do you have for others? Please comment.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Marketing Gap of 21st Century Education

There is a major gap in the way independent schools are marketing themselves. Here it is. The promise of a 21st century (21C) education is more meaningful to educators than it is to parents.

At the core of this issue are differing views on what it will take for today’s children to be prepared for their future as adults and what that future will look like. Educators and educational literature clearly point to an era in which skills will trump knowledge and in which there will be a set of professional/vocational roles never seen before.

But I believe that parents still want their kids to know the three R’s and view educational success in terms of their children becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants and engineers. In their eyes, the best schools have the best results in standardized testing and send more of their students to the best colleges.

While independent schools proudly promote their adherence to 21C principles, parents are looking for other markers of success. This discordance may or may not be keeping parents from enrolling children, but it will certainly lead to disappointed customers in the future.

I’ve been reading (and would encourage everyone involved in education to read) Seth Godin’s treatise on education called Stop Stealing Dreams. He provides some relevant views and analysis. For example, he says:
“Parents don’t ask their kids, “what did you figure out today?” They don’t wonder about which frustrating problem is no longer frustrating. No, parents have been sold on the notion that a two-digit number on a progress report is the goal—if it begins with a “9.”
A little cynical perhaps but successful marketing requires you understand the motivation of buyers even if you don’t agree with them. To deny the ways in which parents measure success, will lead to unmet expectations.

Godin tells a powerful story about the way sales of LEGO were saved. It seems that in response to sagging sales, LEGO moved from selling packages of assorted blocks to pre-defined kits – ones that provided the necessary blocks and instructions to build a particular thing - a robot or a spaceship or a tractor. It worked. Sales increased because “they match[ed] what parents expect[ed] and what kids have been trained to do. There’s a right answer! The mom and the kid can both take pride in the kit, assembled. It’s done. Instructions were followed and results were attained.”

The 21C educational maxims of creativity, collaboration and communication are too often falling on deaf ears. In addition, parents aren’t convinced of the need for 21C super-skills like bravery, responsibility, judgment and willpower. The purchaser is buying something other than what the vendor is selling. That can only lead to problems.

Here’s what I think independent schools should be doing about this:

Acknowledge reality. Parents are likely not interested in the tenets of 21C education. Children are still being taught to think in a very 20th century manner by both parents and society. Godin sums it up by saying, “We’re entering a revolution of ideas while producing a generation that wants instructions instead.” It’s important that schools and their marketers are honest about the views of target segments. We can’t be deluded by our own marketing material.

Conduct Research. Find out what your parents consider to be the markers of educational success. Determine the attitudes of your parents toward the principles of 21C education. Perhaps ask parents about their vision of success for their children as expressed in more emotional terms – happiness, preparedness, having more opportunity than parents did. All of that will be invaluable marketing from recruitment and retention points of view.

Find common ground. Parents ultimately want heir kids to have the tools for success. Or as Godin poignantly says, “Parents were raised to have a dream for their kids—we want our kids to be happy, adjusted, successful. We want them to live meaningful lives, to contribute and to find stability as they avoid pain.”

Perhaps schools need to a better job of acknowledging that primal parental motivation and with that as a basis, explain that the definitions of “adjustment,” “success” and “meaningfulness” have shifted.

Avoid jargon. Explain better. Schools have an obligation to train parents while educating their children. The term “21st Century Education” is one dimensional and not well understood. Schools should provide literature, workshops and lectures for parents explaining the concepts and the need for the techniques. Provide parents with practical examples of how all of this is being implemented and the ways in which their children are benefiting.

Empathy is a critical ingredient to successful marketing. It’s important that we put ourselves in the shoes of parents and view the world that way. Godin says, “What matters is that finding a path that might be better is just too risky for someone who has only one chance to raise his kids properly.” Smart independent school marketers will listen carefully and guide themselves accordingly.

And what do you think? Are independent schools doing a good job of marketing the promise of a 21C education? What can or should be done? Please comment with your ideas so we can create an important conversation.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What brand is your thank you?

In a fit of fundraising heresy I posted this question on Linked In last week:
Does saying thank you really make a difference? Do you know of a research study that proves that thanking donors will lead to further or increased donations?
There was some method to my madness. I had just read the findings of a study conducted for AFP Canada by Ipsos Reid, entitled, “What Canadian Donors Want.” One of the conclusions reported was:
"Less than half agreed with the statement that not receiving a thank-­you message would decrease their likelihood of giving in the future (14% strongly agree, 31% somewhat). Fifty-­two percent disagreed with the statement (30% somewhat disagree, 22% strongly disagree)."
Stripping away the confusing double negatives, it tells us that 52% said that not receiving a thank you would not decrease the likelihood of giving in the future.  That seemed to fly in the face of fundraising fundamentals.

Being a proponent of data based decision-making, I decided to see if in fact there was research that could confirm the efficacy of thanking donors.

So, I contacted some industry experts and I posted my question. I received a number of interesting responses although none of them could point to studies that directly confirm that thanking donors will lead to improved results.

I was directed to research conducted by Penelope Burk that indicates donors say they will give again if they receive:

1. prompt, meaningful acknowledgment of their gifts
2. reassurance that their gifts will be directed as donors intend
3. meaningful results on their gifts at work, before they are asked for another contribution

But that speaks to intent and not actual results and in addition, the "prompt, meaningful response" was only one of three requirements.

There is interesting research at Donor Voice that shows that a significant number of donors feel that a gift should be acknowledged within two weeks. But that speaks to timeliness. Interestingly, 54% of donors said it didn’t matter how long a charity should take to say thank you. It occurs to me that’s pretty close to saying it doesn’t matter whether they say thank you at all.

Some seemed to feel that the answer to my question was immaterial. For example:
"Why would it matter? You are going to thank them because it's the right thing to do, anyway, so what difference does it make?"
Others responded more rhetorically and one of those responses unwittingly addressed what I believe is the core of the issue. Here’s what he said:
"Is there really a reason to consider not thanking a donor? If we found out it doesn't make a difference, how do we change our behavior?"
Well, maybe the AFP study has told us that it isn’t making a difference and that yes, we need to change our behaviour. I believe the research may indicate that donors have become cynical about “canned” thank you letters and emails. Perhaps they are saying that no thank you is better than a clearly automated thank you.

In commenting on the research that he presents at Donor Voice, Kevin Schulman says, “there are in fact a lot of donors who don’t care about the acknowledgment." He also speculates that there may be a segment of donors who are “annoyed by the constant stream of thank you’s” And then he addresses what I believe is the crux of the issue. He says, “… I’d further guess this is about … the way the acknowledgement is done.”

In the same way that organizations have to break away from the clutter to compete for donated dollars, they have to make sure that their acknowledgments also stand out. Thanking a donor just because it’s the right thing to do may be a wasted opportunity. If branding helps get the gift in the first place than the thank you ought to reflect that branding. The thank you is part of the brand experience and organizations should give a lot of thought to expressing gratitude in a way that is brand-consistent. This may include considerations like:
  • the voice in which the thank you is written
  • the design of the thank you
  • content that accompanies the thank you
  • the medium that is used for thank you
  • who says thank you
I’d bet that organizations that give serious thought to the experience of being thanked see a great lift in gift frequency and amounts.

The last thing that organizations want is donors who say "no thanks" to being thanked.

I’d love to hear what others have to say on this and in particular would like to see some great examples of well branded thank you’s.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

David and Goliath meets Social Media

Here’s an interesting David and Goliath story about the power of social media to transcend the rule of law. It’s also a cautionary tale for any business or organization about the power of social media.

The “Goliath” in this story is Lassonde Industries Inc. of Quebce that sells a line of fruit juices under the name Oasis. Lassonde is a major corporate concern reporting about $750 million in sales on its website. Our “David” is a small local producer of soap products that had the misfortune of choosing the name Olivia’s Oasis.

So, in 1995 the battle begins when Lassonde sues the smaller Oasis for trademark infringement – presumably because they are worried that consumers might somehow confuse the locally available soap products with their national brand of juice products. In 2010, a Quebec court rules that Lassonde’s trademark claim is without grounds and orders Lassonde to pay the little Oasis $100,000 in costs and $25,000 in damages. But Lassonde can’t live with that. They appeal and low and behold the Quebec Court of Appeal rules in their favour, reversing the previous decision. Battle done. Winner declared, right?

Wrong. Within hours of the decision being made public, a popular Quebec TV host tweets his 100,000 followers and I bet you can almost guess what happens next. Yup, the (Goliath) Oasis page is besieged with thousands of negative comments including calls for a boycott.

To give the company a little credit, they react quickly and dispatch a senior executive to meet with the owner of the little Oasis and offer to pay all her costs. You can get the full details from the story in the National Post.

So here’s what I take from this tale of biblical proportions:

1. The rules have changed. In effect, social media rendered the decision of the court meaningless. It means that in the future, companies making similar decisions will have to consider not only issues of law but also how those issues will play out in the online world.

2. Organizations have to get smarter about the power of social media. Amazingly, Lassonde’s COO was shocked by the social media onslaught Lassonde but I’ll be that most people reading this could have predicted the outcome. This has cost Lassonde far more than what they will pay to the “David” Oasis and their own legal costs. Even after their attempt to make things right the comments today on the company’s Facebook page are overwhelmingly negative.

3. You can’t hide under the radar. Businesses or organizations have to assume that every decision will be subject to the scrutiny of social media and they have to be prepared to be judged in that court. That may mean taking a different course of action or proactively deciding how the story will be told. Recent controversy at World Vision and the Komen Foundation prove that even nonprofits are not exempt.

4. Social media will always side with the underdog. If you’re considering how a story will play out, you have to take that reality into consideration.

Social media is causing a major shift in the modern day battlefield between David and Goliath and smart companies are studying the revised biblical tale.

What’s your take? What are the implications of this story? What are you doing about your social media strategy? Any David and Goliath stories to share?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Both gift and sale are four letter words

If organizations treated a gift more like a sale, they’d find out the two words have more in common than four letters.

There was a great post from The Agitator last week discussing the fact that fundraising organizations often concentrate on donor acquisition to the exclusion of donor retention. This, despite the fact that data clearly demonstrates that it is more likely to get an additional donation from a first time donor than a new donation from someone who has never given.

It made me think about how this issue is dealt with in the for-profit world.  In business terms, a donation is essentially a sale. And for enlightened companies the sale is the beginning of a process, not the end of one.

There’s an old sales adage that goes something like, “Sometimes the scariest thing that can happen is making the sale.” It may sound counter-intuitive but the point is that sometimes making the sale is easier than delivering the product. The principle is easy to understand in service industries or in cases where something is being custom made. But I would argue that’s its potentially true when any sale  – or donation – is made.

That’s because there’s an implied contract in every sale. Even when a finished product is at the centre of the exchange, there is an experience to be delivered. It could be the taste, the feel, the time saved, the utility gained or even the jealousy of others. Successful businesses worry about whether that experience is delivered. They understand that their brand is at the core of that contract. They know that the possibilities for future sales lie in meeting the expectations of current customers.

What’s the implied contract in a charitable gift? Answering that question will allow organizations to see the ways that they can increase donations from current donors and in fact attract new ones. The more practical question is what’s the potential donor experience that can emanate from making a gift and what can organizations do to make sure it is delivered? Here are some thoughts (potential experience in italics and action items below):

A personal sense of satisfaction.
Thank you notes, calls, videos that reinforce that feeling. Congratulate your donors for what they have done.

The ability to tell others about what I’ve done.
Recognize donors publicly. Use social media or other means to make it easy for donors to share what they have done.

The knowledge that I am helping people, supporting a cause or making a difference.
Regular communication that informs donors about the difference their gifts – in specific or in general – are making. Personal communication with a donor. Testimonials from those who have been helped.

The opportunity to find out more about an organization or a cause.
Develop a relationship. Inform donors about opportunities for further involvement – those of time and money.

The opportunity to do it all again.
If it was a rewarding experience the first time, odds are a donor will do it again. Don’t be afraid to ask. Often.

There are lots of other (and probably better) ways of defining the donor experience and figuring out how to deliver it. But recognizing that the donation – just like the sale – is just the beginning of the relationship is the key to growing your donor base and the quantum of giving to your organization.

So, what do you think? Is a donation really a sale in disguise? What does your organization do deliver on the contract that is made when someone makes a gift?

Monday, March 26, 2012

“Wow” is not the “how” of brand building

Last week I read a post on the HBR blog that described two “wow” customer experiences. They really were amazing. One involved a tech company customer service rep who was on a very long troubleshooting call and upon hearing the client say that he was hungry, had a pizza delivered to the client’s office. The other involved an employee at a restaurant chain who delighted a three year old with a “ride” on his mop.

So your first instinct might be to think about all the ways you can create those kind of “wow’” experiences for your customers (or donors or parents). But here’s the thing. If you’re relying on those kind of out of the ordinary experiences to distinguish your brand, you’re making a big mistake.

The reality is that you can have an amazingly successful organization without ever having created one of “those” moments. Let me illustrate by looking at things in reverse. Let’s say you have a company that delivers a sub-standard product with salespeople who are generally less than attentive and one day one of your reps does something truly heroic. Guess what? You’re still going to have a lackluster brand that doesn’t get much attention.

The latest installment in John Moore’s Talkable Brand video series makes the point. The video tells us if you want people to talk about your brand, it has to be loveable.  And what makes a brand loveable? Things like always doing the right thing by customers, consistently delivering more than promised and keeping promises even it means losing money. These are all exercises in consistency. Great brands are defined by what they do every day – not just on a good day.

So what is the “how” of delivering a great brand experience? Whether it's for a business, a nonprofit or an independent school, I believe it revolves around three things:

1. Quality – you have to have the best possible people delivering the best possible product or service. Period. Good marketing can’t compensate for mediocrity.

2. Know your brand and make sure that everyone in the organization does as well. Seth Godin defines a brand as “[a] set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships…” Make sure you know the expectations you’re meeting, the memories you’re creating, the stories you want told and the relationships that you want developed.

3. Be consistent. Develop the systems that make it possible for your organization to distinguish itself in every interaction every day.  This involves things like quality control, research, staff training, professional development and incentive programs.

Counting on exceptional experiences to distinguish you brand is like developing online content designed to go to viral. They’re both not going to happen. Being strategic by knowing your target market and how to meet their needs – every day – is a much better approach.

What do you think? Is it really the “wow” experience that makes a difference? And if not, what are your “hows” of brand-building?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pinterest? Five reasons why it’s not worth your time.

For most normal sized nonprofits and fundraising organizations – and many businesses for that matter – it’s not worth spending marketing resources on Pinterest.

What is Pinterest, you ask? (by the way, if you’re asking that question, you may have already proved my point.) It’s the social media phenomenon of the 2010’s. Imagine a virtual bulletin board on which you can pin your favourite images. But because this is an online board, you can also pin links to your favourite videos and other media. Most importantly, other people can pin stuff to your board and if you see something you like on someone else’s board, you can share it on yours. To top it all off, you can curate multiple boards. It’s very visual and very engaging and very powerful.

It’s also very popular. Pinterest is the fastest growing website in history, going from 400,000 users in June 2011 to 12 million today.

Based on all that, you probably think that my opening assertion to stay away from Pinterest is a symptom of insanity or a Luddite-like aversion to technology. Nope, it’s just being realistic.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read a ton about Pinterest and my conclusion is that using Pinterest effectively, requires  a ton of thought, attention and time. That’s also true of other social media channels, like Facebook, but Pinterest has some unique qualities make it particularly demanding. Here’s why I think Pinterest isn’t worth spending a lot of time on:

1. The numbers aren’t there yet. Yes the growth over the past six months is impressive but consider that as of December 2011, Facebook boasts 845 million users. That’s 70 times the number of Pinterest users. In addition, Pinterest faces some upcoming copyright issues (the result of so many images being shared) that could stymie its growth.

2. Pinterest needs to be monitored. You can’t just pin stuff up and forget about it. Remember other users are pinning stuff to your board so just like a Facebook page you need to know what they’re saying – or in this case pinning.

3. You need marketing insight to use Pinterest well. There's a great piece on Pinterest that has been put together by Engauge that asserts "Before hitting the road, a Pinterest strategy needs to roll up into an overarching digital and marketing strategy" and then goes on to present a one page matrix of decisions and action that will be necessary. On the other hand,  Elaine Fogel recently reported that less than a quarter of nonprofits have marketing plans. Sounds to me like Pinterest is beyond the grasp of most npo’s.

4. Using Pinterest requires creative ability. The article I quoted before also says, “Use Pinterest to get the word out. But make sure you do this tastefully.” This refers to both the aesthetic quality of content and some ingenuity in coming up with content that relates to your cause but isn’t seen as blatantly promoting your cause.

5. Pinterest is a time suck. This may be my summary point. The marketing resources of most nonprofits are already stretched to the max. Adding Pinterest to the mix will only add to the burden. If its not done well, it will reflect poorly. And even if it is done well, current research is light on any direct relationship between Pinterest and donations.

Pinterest is definitely worth keeping an eye on – particularly from a nonprofit point of view. Here’s a list of nonprofit Pinterest pages that will show you the difference between using the medium well and not.

Beyond that, I wouldn’t do any more. In my view, most nonprofits should work on getting their marketing house in order before putting even a drop of effort into Pinterest.

What do you think? Is your organization devoting time to Pinterest? Do you have any Pinterest success stories? Please comment and tell us.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The nightmare of classroom websites and what to do about them

Note to Readers: We could use everyone’s insight and wisdom on this issue. Even if you are not involved with the world of independent schools, please read on and comment with your best advice.

Classroom websites and e-newsletters represent an enormous challenge for marketers of independent schools and are a potential source of communications horror stories.

Often times I draw on my experience in the business world as a source of solutions for situations encountered in independent schools. But this is a communications phenomenon for which I can’t think of a business parallel.

Here’s the situation. Stronger home-classroom partnerships clearly lead to better learning outcomes. For that reason, teacher-parent communication is regarded as a pillar of educational success. That communication takes many forms including parent teacher conferences, individual meetings with parents, written communication and of late, classroom e-newsletters and websites.

The point is this. Teachers may not be fully aware of the school’s mission, vision and philosophy (MVP). They may not be able to articulate the brand. As a result, there is great potential for teachers communicating something that is at odds with the schools policy or persona. Misaligned messaging and broken branding lurk every time the publish button is pushed.

We know that web-based communication can be shared at lightning speed and passed on with germ-like ease. So, an e-communications misstep by a teacher is not likely going to be kept quiet and could cause embarrassment and confusion to an entire school community.

In the business world this is akin to a company allowing every customer service rep or salesperson to have their own website with which they communicate with their customers and for which they independently create the content. That’s a disaster waiting to happen and to my knowledge would not be tolerated in any corporate organization.

But the demand for classroom websites and e-newsletters increases daily. Parents love the communication. So solutions must be found. In that spirit I offer some practical advice.

Overall Measures
  1. Ensure that teachers are brand and MVP aware and can articulate what distinguishes the school
  2. Provide teachers with clear communications guidelines that include sample statements and nomenclature they should be using in describing the school.
  3. Because administrators are the front line supervisors, ensure they are fully fluent with the brand
  4. Create tight templates for websites and e-newsletters to ensure consistency in messaging and even aesthetics.
  5. Every classroom website or e-newsletter should have a link to the main school website
Specific guidelines for teachers
  1. Ensure that content has been proofread carefully and is grammatically correct. Nothing has the potential for more embarrassment.
  2. Address parents in a customer-centric manner that respects the realities of choice and tuition.
  3. Amplify the classroom-home partnership by clearly telling parents how they can help their children with specific projects
  4. Avoid pedagogical jargon (I call this edu-speak) and use simple language     
  5. Assume that students will be reading and don’t say anything you wouldn’t want them to know
  6. Find a balance in communication that conveys personal concern and involvement but on the other hand is not too informal or friendly
  7. Be positive. Criticism has tremendous potential to be misunderstood
This is an issue that’s not going away. So it would be great to share ideas and solutions. And I said in my introduction, it would be interesting to hear how those from the business world would approach this. Please comment.

Maybe together we can turn this potential nightmare into a communications dream.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

7 Reasons why Print isn’t Dead

Yes, it’s true. Despite what the social media and content marketing gurus tell us, print isn’t dead.

I still get tons of direct mail, lots of junk mail and my newspapers (yeah I know I’m a dinosaur) are still overflowing with inserts and flyers.

What’s more interesting is that many of our clients report that customers are still asking for printed material. Even some independent schools that are targeting a younger demographic say that prospective parents are asking to have a kit mailed to them.

On top of that, I just read a really interesting and persuasive piece on the virtues of printed annual reports by Tom Ahearn - who is a true expert in nonprofit communication. He demonstrates that print accounted for a $10.7 billion dollar investment by Warren Buffett and a small fortune left to the Rhode Island Foundation.

So now that we have determined that news of print’s death has been greatly exaggerated, the question is - where does print fit into a marketing mix?

For starters, you should be using print differently than you use online marketing. Don’t just replicate in print what exists on your website. By the way, the corollary of that is that your online content should be more than a series of print pieces rendered as pdfs.

Print can deliver user experiences that online content cannot. Take advantage of them. Here are some of the unique properties of print and seven reasons that print is still alive and kicking.

1. Think big. A large print piece provides more real estate and potential visual impact than even the largest monitor. The brochure that folds out into something larger than life or a well-designed poster has an incredible wow factor.

2. And small. A small teaser piece can, in the right setting, deliver more impact, more quickly than any smartphone. Whether it’s being put in the hands of pedestrians or comes with your mail or is included with a purchase, small print pieces make an impression.

3. Texture. You cannot provide texture on an electronic device. This can refer to traditional linen or laid finishes or rougher “recycled” finishes. It also encompasses smooth or high gloss finishes. The thickness (or thin-ness) of a piece also contributes to the experience. The feel of a printed piece delivers unique sensations that make a distinctive statement about a product or organization.

4. Shape. Paper can be cut into a range of configurations that is limited only by the imagination. Think about pop-up greeting cards or print pieces with windows that reveal something on the other side or a business card with rounded corners. Even something as simple as a presentation folder can only be rendered in print. Consider the myriad possibilities for saying something unique about your company.

5. Colour. Admittedly, a monitor delivers incredibly vivid images but the web is limited to 256 colours. Print can incorporate an almost infinite array of colour that, combined with great design, will yield pieces that are beautiful and eye catching – and stand out.

6. Fonts. Same issue as colour. If you want your online copy to be indexed by search engines and readable on most computers, your choice of fonts is quite limited. There are tens of thousands of available fonts and print allows you to use them to their fullest potential.

7. Personalization. Everyone loves to see his or her name in print (even if they won’t admit it). Technology, like variable printing, has made personalization in print painless. Whether its something as simple as a personalized letter or a more impressive personalized book or proposal, printing someone’s name will increase affinity and better get their attention.

So there you have it. The strategic use of print is still an effective way to distinguish your organization from your competitors and that is the reason that print is not dead.

There are many other unique properties to print. Please comment and tell me about how you have used them in your marketing mix.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Forget about Viral. Think Strategic.

If you want to create online content that will propel your business or organization, stop thinking viral and start thinking strategic.

First, let's be clear about something. Online content refers to videos, case studies, white papers, photos, blog posts, tweets, and anything else you post online (on your website or elsewhere) to market your business, school or organization.

Part of the inspiration for this post has been John Moore’s Talkable Brand video series. It’s really well done - informative, entertaining and inspiring. If you have any responsibility for marketing in your organization, you should watch it.

The third video in the series makes the case that Talkable is Bankable - if people are talking about your brand, they will consider buying your product. That’s pretty hard to disagree with.

But in the process of proving the effectiveness of word of mouth, I believe he has dispelled any promise that marketers may hold out for their content going viral. Citing a variety of sources, John presents the following data:
  • The maximum number of people with whom we can have stable relationships with is 150
  • 80% of our conversations are with the same 5 to 10 people.
  • 62% of our conversations are with our strongest ties – spouses, family and close friends
  • 80% of cell phone calls are with the same 4 people
  • The average Facebook user has 130 friends and the typical Facebook user directly communicates with just 4 friends each week
What I see in those statistics is that people communicate in small circles. While this deals primarily with personal communication, my sense is that business communication isn’t much different. Our network of trusted sources is fairly small. The only hope then for any online content going viral is in the overlap between these circles of influence and I wouldn’t bet on that happening very often.

It also tells me that I may have 500+ Linked In contacts and over 1000 Facebook friends but the number of people who are going to really take action based on what I say or post is relatively small.

Add to the mix some research that was posted last month by Emarketer that showed most most consumers don’t mention brands on Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps even more surprising is that most internet users say they first learn about new brands, products and services from offline print media or word of mouth. Only 24% said they most frequently or often hear about them on Facebook or Twitter.

All of these stats say the same thing to me – don’t even think about content going viral. It’s not going to happen.

Instead concentrate on creating content that is strategic. Your content should be:
  • Targeted – speak to the needs and interests of the segments most likely to buy your product
  • Valuable – give users something (perspectives, information, creativity) that they can’t get anywhere else
  • Original – your content should distinguish you from your competitors
  • Believable – it’s got to be a genuine reflection of your organization and make promises that are deliverable 
  • Brand aligned – content must enhance the experience you want users/customers to have when they interact with your company
  • On message – make sure the language and positioning inherent in your online content is consistent with what’s on your website and in offline material.
If that’s not enough, my colleague Ruth Zive has 67 Content Strategies for you to consider in her new e-book. It's a great resource.

In the end, the promise of a million hits may be sensational, but the results driven by strategic content are far more attainable and ultimately more valuable.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fundraising and the 4 P’s of Marketing

It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about chewing gum or feeding the hungry; the principles of good marketing remain the same. But how you apply those principles to the fundraising arena will affect results.

One of the fundamentals of traditional marketing is the four P’s – Product, Place, Price and Promotion. In very simple terms - develop the right product for the right target; develop the location that will be most conducive to sales; price it effectively; promote it strategically and presto, you have marketing success. More importantly, the combination of how each of these is applied represents an opportunity to truly stand out from your competitors.

Applying the four P’s to the world of fundraising requires some consideration. Here’s my take.

Product – First you have to understand that the product you are marketing is not the cause, the institution or the organization for which funds are being raised.  The product is the impact fundraised dollars will have. The product is what the donor will feel when she or he makes a contribution. The product is the relationship that will ensue. If you are marketing a fundraising opportunity, you are selling a dream, a vision, a sense of satisfaction, and the ability for an individual to make a difference. There’s no question that the credibility and capacity of the organization are key ingredients in your ability to deliver that product. But your focus is the exchange with the donor and the unique opportunity that it can provide.

Place – You want to think about where the donor will be when making a giving decision. For new donors, that may be in their home or their office. Is it reading a letter or looking at something online? Put yourself in the shoes of a donor - in that place - and think about what would make you give. If you’re using an email or mobile campaign, you have to consider the possibility that prospective donors are on a subway, in their car or walking down the street. That’s going to take a quick and powerful pitch to promote action.  Another approach is to use images and video to transport the donor from wherever they are to where you need them to be.

Price – The way in which a product is priced makes a huge statement about that product. A $1000 a plate gala invitation makes a very different statement than a $5 point of sale opportunity. You want to make sure you have the right giving options for the right target. Think about who your donors are  – whether that’s for the whole organization or a particular campaign – and make sure the giving levels are aligned. This also means the array of options should be different online than it is for direct mail and even different for different segments. The most important consideration is what will your donor feel when he or she sees the giving level being requested.

Promotion – Your website, print collateral, letters and advertising have to take all that is unique in the points above and tell donors the stories that set you apart. Your material cannot not look or sound like the stuff from every other organization. Find the essence of what makes you different and transform it into something that is not only easily communicated but that is talkable – so that people can easily talk, tweet and email about it. This could be a great thank you video or a unique website design or an effective tagline. You can search the web and will find lots of examples. But remember your aim is not to copy what others have done but rather be inspired to find the means of effectively distinguishing your giving opportunity.

Whether you’re a marketing specialist, a fundraiser or a volunteer solicitor, using the four P’s effectively will improve results.

That’s my interpretation of how to apply the four P’s to fundraising but I’m sure others have different opinions. Please share yours by commenting below.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Shared content beats paid content and what you can do about it

OK, now we have the proof of what we all thought was true in the first place.

Content delivered through social media sharing is more effective than the same content delivered through paid advertising.

A piece from Ad Age Digital summarizes a study conducted by GE using the social media site BuzzFeed and facilitated by Vizu, a digital advertising measurement firm. The “GE Show” was distributed on BuzzFeed using both paid advertising and sharing. Attitudes of those who watched it each way were tested. In addition, a control group that had not seen the online piece at all was tested.

All three groups (sharing, advertising, control) were asked the question, “"What comes to mind when you think of General Electric (GE)?" Overall, 77% of those who saw the content via sharing had positive responses to the question compared to 55% who saw it via advertising and 42% who didn’t see it all.

The study also measured something called “brand lift” by specifically measuring the number of people that responded to the question using the word “creative.” The calculation reported wasn’t clear to me but the contention is that there was a brand lift differential of 138% between those who were exposed via sharing and those not exposed at all.

So what do businesses and organizations that are just a wee bit smaller than GE do about this?

I looked at some of the content. It’s pretty slick. Great quality video combined in some cases with neat interactivity. And it’s on message. Not the kind of content that’s within the budget of most marketing departments. It makes me wonder that if the content was good but not amazing would there still be a 20 point spread in positive reaction between those who viewed it via sharing and those via advertising. Probably not but its an academic point for most of us.

The message for most businesses is don’t worry about paid advertising. Just start creating content – white papers, video testimonials, case studies, how-to guides, handy reference material. Don’t bet on your content going viral and being seen by millions (hundreds would be very good). You’re better off concentrating on developing content that is of value to your target audience and then distribute it using a well-planned social media strategy. Better yet, find ways to have your customers participate in content creation. There are tons of online resources that will help you with all of that. If that doesn’t work for you, I can connect you with a very creative marketing firm that can help.

The results of the GE study are hardly startling. Research shows that word of mouth is more effective than advertising every time. You may not be able to duplicate GE’s results but if nothing else this study should tell you that if you’re not thinking about content marketing, it’s time.

That’s my take on this research and how it relates to the majority of organizations. What’s yours?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Six Pillars of Independent School Marketing

(Note to readers: Even though this post focuses on independent schools, the points made are easily transferable to other nonprofits and businesses. Don’t discount what can be learned)

After directing the marketing and communications activity of an independent school in Toronto for the past six years, I gave some thought to what has accounted for our success. Here, then are my six pillars of independent school marketing.

It starts with numbers. Even the most creative marketing efforts won’t be effective without a wide array of reliable data. You need a demographic and attitudinal profile of parents - current, new and prospective. You need to know what’s going on in your catchment area in terms of real estate and business.  It’s important that you do your own surveys and access other available research. All of this will allow you to more accurately put yourself in the shoes of prospective parents and develop positioning and messaging that hits the mark.

Fish where the fish are. Let’s face it – not every parent considering an independent school is going to be interested in yours. Wide-net techniques like advertising in high circulation newspapers are expensive and often ineffective when you’re really interested in a very narrow target. Once you've determined the profile of the prospective parent that is most likely to choose your school, figure out where to find them. Use mail drops to particular postal areas, advertising or presentations aimed at specific organizations, create cooperative opportunities with local businesses or service providers. Make sure you have the right online presence. The more laser-like your targeting is, the more results you will see.

Think outside in. Education is one of those fields where it’s easy to fall into professional patter that most parents don’t understand. "Differentiation" is an example of a word that most people can define (sort of) but few can apply in an educational context. Yes, prospective parents want educators to be experts but they need to be able to understand them. The key is to use plain language in your materials and presentations. More importantly, remember that the heart rules the head in most (if not all) decisions. You need to evoke emotional responses through images and words that speak to what parents really want for their children.

Your parents are customers. Think Zappos or Starbucks and provide your parents with an outstanding consumer experience. They are paying a lot of money to send their kids to your school and they have choices. This presents unique challenges in an educational setting because the product can’t always conform to the desires of your customers. There has to be integrity to the educational product and experience. But parents can still feel like their voice is being heard if the outcome isn’t the one they wanted. Respect and responsiveness must still be the basis of all communication. Every interaction with a parent – in the front office, in the classroom, in the tuition office, in every email or letter and e-newsletter, must let parents know how much they are valued and appreciated. Perhaps more importantly, there needs to be multiple channels - both online and off - that allow parents to provide opinions.

Constantly collaborate. Educators and administrators must be strategic partners. Meet with Principals and Vice Principals often and involve them in marketing planning and decision-making. The truth is that the educational staff determines the nature and the quality of the product and your job is to put the fruit of their efforts on a pedestal. They can be the source of great ideas and provide outstanding marketing content and events. Administrators have daily contact with parents and frequently speak to colleagues in other schools. They are invaluable sources of information. Your marketing efforts won’t be nearly as effective without them.

Listen. Very carefully – to all stakeholders – faculty, administrators, current and prospective parents, lay leaders, non-educational departments, support and maintenance staff. You may not always agree and it may try your patience, but there is something to be learned from every interaction. It will add richness to your understanding of the school. You would be amazed at how often the kernel of a great marketing idea comes from a conversation with a member of the office staff or one of the custodians. Listening also means monitoring social media and using it wisely. Encourage people to offer opinions – online and off. They will make you a better marketer.

Admittedly, these are pretty high level principles and each of them could be spun off into detailed discussions. But I think these represent a meaningful starting point.

Having said that, I’m interested in the opinions of others who are marketing independent schools. What are your six pillars?

Monday, January 9, 2012

“No” is not the end of the conversation

For salespeople, fundraisers and businesspeople, making sure that we learn something new from every interaction with a current or prospective buyer (or donor) can convert a “no” into future success.

This was brought to mind by a book that I am currently reading and an article I recently read - combined with a lesson learned early in my career.

The book is a classic. In fact, I’m almost embarrassed to say I am reading it for the first time. Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People is filled with timeless wisdom. Its insights are as relevant today as they were when it was published 76 years ago. They’re the kinds of things that will make you say, “Oh yeah, I know that” and then realize that you’re not putting them into action. Carnegie’s approach is all about putting the other person first with imperatives like “Become genuinely interested in other people” and, “Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.”

The article is from the current issue of Motivated magazine. In it, Stuart Knight argues that the key to realizing business and professional goals is what he calls “Powerful Conversations.” Meaningfully connecting with people, Knight argues, should be at the top of all of our to-do lists and is the ability that distinguishes the most successful people in any field. As he says, “Success … [is] not directly related to how many people you know, it has everything to do with the number of people who feel like you know them.”

So, how can we transform all of this great advice about conversations into something more results oriented? I was taught an invaluable lesson learned during my career in headhunting, which, by the way, is probably the world’s most challenging sales environment. In the course of any week, I would make at least 100 cold calls and more often than not, I didn’t get the answer I was looking for. But the owners of the agency drummed a very simple principle into our heads - even if you don't make a sale, learn something from every phone call. Discover something you didn’t know about the person the company or the industry. The point was to make every call worthwhile because you never knew when the information gained could be used to your advantage.

How can all of us involved in promoting our businesses, raising funds for a cause or selling a product, get greater value out of the thousands of solicitations we make every year – even when we get “no” for an answer? Easy. Just ask questions. The answers may produce leads, provide the basis for a future pitch or simply enhance our understanding. Here are some examples:

  • What do you think are the prospects for your industry in the coming year?
  • Who do you see as the leaders in the field? 
  • Do you think your charitable giving will increase or decrease this year?
  • What organizations are you volunteering for?
  • What charitable organizations do you think are doing the best job?
  • What are your company’s (or department’s) major goals for the year?
  • What do you think was the most notable advance in your industry last year?

Admittedly, this all relates to the rather low-tech realm of phone or face to face contact. But I think the principles can be adapted to e-communication and in fact successful use of social media lies in maximizing the potential to learn something from every interaction.

For me the key is to not regard “no” as the end of the conversation but rather to use it as a point from which to build relationships and increase knowledge.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Five steps for converting failure into success in 2012

How are you going to convert the failures of 2011 into success in 2012?

Many of today’s greatest business minds extol the benefits of failure. A search of the Harvard Business Review site yields hundreds of articles and blog posts about failure with titles like, “Strategies for Learning from Failure” and “Enjoy the Fun of Failure.” I even stumbled upon – a website devoted to failure.  There is clearly much to be gained from making mistakes but as I reflected upon the ups and downs of 2011, this was the thought that came to me:

Past failure can only lead to future success if you’re prepared to forgive yourself.

I know it sounds self-help-ish and the truth is that it does borrow from some insight I’ve gained from other parts of my life. Many pundits make it seem like failure almost magically leads to success. But I think there’s a strong business case to be made for the process of forgiveness being the only means by which failure can be converted to success. Here, then are my five steps to business forgiveness and success in 2012.

1. Acknowledge you have failed. Many initiatives die with a whimper and not a bang. You don’t officially declare them deceased; you just stop working on them. They gradually disappear from your to-do lists. Sometimes, we’re given a helping hand in accepting defeat. A domain renewal notice or worse, a loan call, may force you to make a decision. Otherwise it’s easy to procrastinate. So, start by taking an honest look at all the projects that you started in the past year (or earlier) and officially brand those that aren’t going anywhere a failure. You can’t possibly benefit from the experience until you do that.

2. Do the post mortem. Now that you’ve deep-sixed a number of initiatives, take an honest look at what went wrong. What could you have done differently? Even if on the surface, your action or inaction didn’t lead to the project’s demise, it’s worth it to think creatively about missed opportunities. You may want to wait a while before doing this. It may take some distance before you have the objectivity to be brutally honest. Alternatively, you may want to enlist the help of others and have them give you their analysis.

3. Take responsibility. Calculate the cost of the failure – in dollars, in time, in relationships. Don’t forget about the opportunity costs – other projects that lagged or languished. Don’t spare yourself. You need to know the real consequences of initiatives that have gone south.

4. But give yourself a break. First of all, there were probably lots of things that you did that were perfectly right. Take credit for them. There were likely many mistakes that you made that you couldn’t possibly have avoided. You may not have had the right experience. It may have been the first time using particular skills or levels of complexity. There may have been key information that you could only have known once you started.

In all likelihood, the actions of others and just plain luck also played a role. It wasn’t all your fault and you needn’t feel guilty for those things over which you had no control. This kind of analysis may allow you to see important signposts in future projects.

5. List the lessons learned. Now you’re at a point where you can really learn from your mistakes. Sum up the process above by formally or informally taking stock of the knowledge and experience that you’ve gained. More importantly, consider the ways in which you can put it to use on current and upcoming projects.

There’s inevitably a great deal of guilt and regret associated with failure. Taking the steps above will allow you to dispel those emotions, forgive yourself and truly convert failure into success in the coming year. Enjoy 2012.