Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Connected Non-Profit


We all know that non-profit marketing and communications is changing. Everything is going online. Social media is exploding. There’s more media with fewer audiences. There’s more competition, both direct and indirect. And there’s more choice, giving stakeholders the power to turn us “off” or “on” as they wish. Two of the casualties in this revolution are the techniques that have been a the mainstay of non-profit marketing and communications for decades – advertising and media relations.

Advertising and media relations suffer from the same problem – there’s too many media outlets. For advertising, it means that reaching the same amount of people will require a bigger ad buy over more media outlets. In a sense, it means that to get the same taste you need more butter spread over the same toast. That makes it too expensive. The glut of media also serves to numb us to most ads. They simply bounce off our well-tuned “ad shields” that lets us read a newspaper, magazine or web page without “seeing” the ads on them. For media relations, the story is slightly different. Free publicity used to be a powerful communications channel, but not anymore. Most local media outlets have cut their content to the bone, leaving only national players as true content generators. The result is that the media releases from small-and-medium non-profits go mostly in the wastepaper basket. Even if they do get some traction, they are buried in the back pages because that kind of news doesn’t “sell”. As in advertising, even if you do get a media outlet to pick-up the story the question becomes “who is reading it?”. To get your story on the front page of every media outlet in town takes considerable effort and lots of luck. Results are almost always uneven, and in many cases are actually zero.

The question I have asked myself and others is what can replace these two pillars of most non-profit marketing and communications shops. The answer is simple, and yet so radically different that it leaves many scratching their heads. Advertising and media relations are literally “networks for hire”. When they work, they deliver a connection to many people. If they don’t work, then why doesn’t your non-profit create your own network and deliver your own direct connections? In other words, eliminate the “middleman”.

The place to start is to realize that the barriers to creating your own network of connections are rapidly falling. It used to be that only a newspaper or a TV station could deliver enough people to get your message across. Now, with the rapid advances in online technology, anyone and everyone can create the same thing. You now have the ability to communicate directly with your stakeholders. An email newsletter is a good example. It can deliver more value than a bucket full of media releases to mainstream media outlets because it is direct, it is permission-based (people sign-up for it) and it is infinitely more cheap. True, it will likely reach fewer people, but if you do your homework it will give you the right kind of people – those who believe in your message. One of them is worth a hundred people who don’t know you or who don’t care.

The second technique is to create communications alliances with other organizations to expand your network. Approach another charity in a similar sector. Talk to a social service club. Have tea with a business group. They’re all in the same boat as you. They have trouble reaching their people. If you work together you can share networks. Ask the other charity to do a joint promotion. If you pool your resources, you’ll be able to reach more people with your common message. Ask the social service club to help you send your message to their members. If they believe in the same things as you, they’ll want to share that with their network. Work with them to create a message that works for you and them. Over tea with the business group ask for their help in getting their members involved. Create a promotion aimed at involving business people in your non-profit. Make it work for them. Give them something they need as well as you. You’ll find partnering like this will open up a wide variety of cheap and effective communications channels for you. Plus, it will have the added benefit of giving you a higher profile among community leaders.

With this framework, advertising and media releases can take their proper place as reinforcing tools. Use ads to supplement your growing network. Use media releases to help further your connection with other groups in the community.

Some people will think that this answer is all about social media. It is and it isn’t. Social media is a tool, not a strategy in and of itself. It can be used to connect directly with your stakeholders and to partner with others, but don’t let the hype surrounding social media confuse you. Social media suffers from some of the same problems as advertising – there’s now too much of it. Worse, social media takes time. You can’t create a Facebook page tomorrow and expect to have a million fans. There’s also a scaling problem. Social media tends to work best with large stakeholder groups. If you are a small non-profit in a medium-sized city you won’t get the same result as the national charity that can connect to literally millions of people across the country.

Whether you use social media or something else to deliver these techniques, the most important thing to remember is that you are now in charge of the relationship with stakeholders. Advertising and media releases are not just communications channels, they’re also relationship platforms. The newspaper has a relationship with their readers, the TV station has a relationship with their viewers. Without these ads and media releases you need to step in and fill the gap as the relationship provider. Media outlets know how to give readers what they want. That job now falls to you. It will challenge you because instead of giving them what you want you will now have to think about what the stakeholder wants and how to give it to them.

This solution is designed for small and medium-sized non-profits. It’s low cost and low risk. But make no mistake, it isn’t any easier. One of the seductive things about advertising and media releases is how easy they are to do. This new answer will take more time and more leg work. At the end of the day it will be more sustainable.

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