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.

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