Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Take a walk downtown to understand the marketing challenge you face

I took a walk in downtown Toronto the other day. I was thinking about the marketing challenge that faces all charities and non-profits. It was a just a five minute walk between Union Station and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. By the time I had reached my destination I had my answer.

I was attending the Association of Fundraising Professionals Toronto Congress. My walk was all inside through various buildings and walkways which also lead to the Rogers Centre, a large entertainment complex, and the world-famous CN Tower. It was full of various signs advertising everything from tourist destinations to colleges.

In five minutes I counted how many ads I saw on the wall, on signs, on displays. There were more than 70. Some were large and some were small. But on average, every three seconds or so I was exposed to another message.

And this is what struck me. The world is awash in marketing, in advertising, in messages of all kinds. My five minute walk shows that the main marketing challenge that any organization faces today is being heard. The efforts that organizations make at trying to figure out who they are and how to brand themselves pale in comparison to the problem of how they will be noticed in the stormy sea of marketing messages out there.

Arguably, the route that I walked has in fact one of the highest concentrations of ad messages in one of the most heavily messaged cities in all of Canada. I was literally at the business end of all Canadian marketing. If I had been a few blocks north or a few kilometers east I would not have had the same concentration of advertising. But I argue that that doesn’t matter. What I saw and heard was in fact the future for most cities – wall-to-wall advertising. It may not exist everywhere, but soon it will.

And that brings us right back to the problem of being heard. A message everything three seconds is too fast for most people to process. We are not video cameras that record everything and store it in a computer memory hard drive. In other words, I did not process and store the memory of each message as it went by. When humans are exposed to multiple messages we automatically pick and choose which to take note of and which to ignore. Some we will read, but most we will simply ignore. And even those that get processed to some extent or another may not make it to long-term storage in our brains. We might just as easily process the message and then dump it, retaining no real meaning of it at all.

So, in fact, of the 70 messages most people walking that route saw and heard, most would in fact be wasted. They would not work of and by themselves. It means that advertising only works through high volumes of ads. One ad won’t be effective, but because advertising is now a numbers game, 500 will.

More importantly, it means that competition for the attention of target audiences is reaching a saturation point of sorts. Of all the factors that go into creating and sending a message to your stakeholders the most critical is breaking through – in being heard above the chorus of other messages and of not being “tuned out” by people who are now accustomed to receiving and rejecting literally thousands of messages a day.

There are ways for non-profits to break through but not all of them are easy. They take hard work and critical thinking. You will need a good strategy, not just a nice logo. You will need to be clever about the types of mediums you use, not just pick social media because it’s cool or billboards because they are big and shiny. You will need to push the comfort level of your masters to get a message that’s loud enough to be noticed, not just send a message like everyone else.

All it takes to figure this out is a walk in downtown Toronto.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The case for transparency

Everybody everywhere seems to be talking about transparency. There have been a number of high profile media pieces on charities recently – what they spend, how they spend unwisely and even a few about how some are scams. There have been reports by watchdogs that have questioned why many charities don’t adequately report their financial statements. There have been various legislative moves in Canada and the US to review, publish or even cap the salaries of charity executives.

It’s enough to make any charity put their head down and hide. And many have been doing just that. For years, charities have known that the public and the media wanted more transparency and for years they have done nothing. Now, they have to react.

I’d like to make the case for transparency.

I do this because I know many of my communications colleagues will advocate a “hide and seek” strategy on this issue that will try to avoid full disclosure. I have worked for and with many non-profits and I know that many leaders want to “spin” their annual reports and financial statements to dodge the transparency issue. Too few communicators are pushing back with a plea for full transparency. And, on the face of it, why should they? The way they think, there’s too much to risk and not much to gain. What is the communication case for transparency?

First and foremost, it should be obvious by now that transparency is now the new standard. One can argue that the charity watchdogs, the politicians and the media are all wrong and use hopelessly flawed frameworks to judge our sector, but it does not matter. Wrong or right, the trend is there. There is a growing demand for transparency, one that cannot be denied. And the first paragraph or the first page of the rulebook of communications is to give people what they want. If they want transparency, woe to the charity that doesn’t give it to them.

Second, avoiding this issue only serves to create doubt. And in the communications game, doubt is deadly. If your donors see another, perhaps bigger charity raked over the coals for not being transparent then what will they think? Some of them will start to ask questions about you. They will want to know why your annual report isn’t easily accessible and why people have to ask to get a copy of the financial statements. Your lack of transparency, real or imagined, at a time when other charities are being held to account on this issue makes you look suspicious.

The most important reason to embrace transparency is that doing so can actually differentiate your organization and get you out ahead of this issue instead of hiding in a corner with the blanket over your heading like everyone else. There actually is an advantage here. Adopting total transparency will make you look innovative. You will stand out in the crowd. And your donors and stakeholders will be happy you did so. It is the perfect engagement tool. In a sea of competition – for donations, government funding, media attention and more – transparency could be the one thing that makes your charity the leader.

The comeback on total transparency is that donors may ask pointed questions about your finances, operations or CEO salaries. The anti-transparency folks will say a move like this will only give ammunition to those who want to make trouble. That may be true, but so is this. It is better to fight a communications battle with all the facts on the table than hide behind a curtain. No matter what the issue is, if you appear to be “hiding”, you will have a much tougher battle than if you release it all. In other words, the biggest piece of ammunition you can give your “troublemakers” is to give them a sense that you are hiding something. That’s why every conspiracy theorist seems to be so driven – it is the secrecy of the issue they fight that gives them their real power. Take away the issue of secrecy and your will find it creates fewer problems, not more.

So, have I made my case? I’ll bet many of you say yes. But I also bet that I will keep on seeing many charities ignoring this advice.