Monday, February 28, 2011

Word of Mouth

This article recently appeared at Charity Village.

One of the most rewarding and cost-effective marketing campaigns I’ve ever done was one in which the stakeholders carried the message. I created a campaign that asked hospital donors and the public to send in their stories about why they gave to the hospital. And then I asked people to go online to vote for the top story. We received 30 stories and 500 people went online to vote. Web traffic doubled, online giving went up. More importantly, our donors were engaged.

That technique is called word of mouth marketing, and more and more it is becoming an essential item in every marketing toolbox.

The technical definition of word of mouth marketing is a “strategy, supported by research and technology, which encourages consumers to dialogue about products and services,” according to PQ Media, a US research company which measures its use. In other words, it is about creating “buzz” – people talking to people about your stuff.

This, as you already know, isn’t new. Buzz has been around for centuries. Word of mouth marketing simply recognizes and amplifies a pre-existing phenomenon – people will talk about something that interests them to others they know. Word of mouth marketing doesn’t create that buzz it just makes it work with a marketing objective in mind. In other words, the voice still belongs to the customer. Word of mouth marketing simply harnesses that to deliver a marketing message. The key is to listen, facilitate and encourage the sharing of information.

Authenticity is the cornerstone of word of mouth. Real buzz can’t be faked or manufactured. Just ask Sony Pictures. In 2001, ads for films including Hollow Man and A Knight's Tale quoted positive praise from a reviewer called David Manning, who was exposed as being invented. Sony temporarily suspended two employees and wound up paying a hefty fine. Worse, their credibility was tarnished.

Word of mouth works in a number of ways. First and foremost, it encourages communications. Today, marketing is all about conversations. The more people talk, the more engaged they are. It also works because it creates a sense of community. In our wired and increasingly wireless world, people are beginning to think in terms of tribes. A shared experience, like a word of mouth campaign, can fuel this. Another factor is the way it identifies and empowers influencers in your stakeholder community. Its very nature attracts the truest believers and strongest advocates. The impact of word of mouth also runs both ways. Your stakeholders learn about you, but you also learn about them. A campaign like this promotes listening. Perhaps the best things about word of mouth is that it is easy to measure. Since most of the tools involved are online offerings, metrics are superior to many other forms of marketing.

As a marketing technique, word of mouth is cost-effective. It doesn’t take much to start a campaign. Many involve simply a good idea and existing social media platforms. There is some leg work involved, especially in the research needed at the front end. But there are also savings, too, because much of the content is often user-generated. It is also a multi-platform technique. It can be used across most channels, including mobile devices.

The result is that word of mouth marketing is growing at a time when many other marketing tools are shrinking. According to PQ Media’s Word-of-Mouth Marketing Forecast 2009-2013 (, spending on U.S. word of mouth marketing increased 14.2% to $1.54 billion in 2008. Total spending is expected to increase 10.2% to $1.70 billion in 2009 and grow by 14.5% during the 2008-2013 period, reaching $3.04 billion.

The power behind word of mouth has much to do with the changing marketing landscape. Media consumption has been transformed by the Internet, the social media revolution and, lately, the explosion in mobile devices, like smartphones. The result has been serious fragmentation, which has made it more difficult to reach their target audiences. People read fewer newspapers and watch fewer TV channels and spend more time online or playing things like video games. This is especially so with younger generations. Word of mouth fits easily into the new way of marketing. It is online, conversation-based and youth-friendly.

In the Harvard Business Review, McKinsey & Co. strategy consultant RenĂ©e Dye, found that two-thirds of the US economy is at least partially effected by “buzz” ( It is a myth that only outrageous or edgy products are buzz-worthy. In fact, most things are. She found that all something needed to be “buzzable”, is a uniqueness and visibility. The best “buzz-starters, she said, were usually an organization’s best customers. The only major challenge in creating buzz was timing – buzz has to catch the wave at just the right time.

But will it work for a non-profit? The answer, according to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association in the US (, is yes. They point to the New Jersey State Library which ran a word of mouth campaign called the Super Librarian Video and Comic Contest in 2008. The goal was to create some buzz for the local library among younger audiences. The contest yielded 40 submissions. The voting process to pick the winner generated 17,000 votes. Analysis showed that most of the votes were generated by a small number of teenage influencers who in turn engaged friends, family and community in the project. Since it was primarily based on existing channels such as websites and YouTube, the costs amounted to just a few posters and some prizes.

So, how can you do a word of mouth marketing campaign? Start by trying to identify your existing influencers, especially those who have extensive social networks (online or offline). Do some research with them to find out what kind of campaign would interest them. Remember, it has to be something they “do” as well as communicate to others. Get a few suggestions and test them. At the same time, start routinely capturing online contact information about your stakeholders – email, websites, blogs, Facebook, Linkedin, YouTube, etc. When you want to start a word of mouth campaign, you’ll need this to get started. Over the long haul, remember to encourage recipients of your email messages to forward the mailings to others. And make sure you routinely get your stakeholders involved in communicating to others through things such as sending a letter to the newspaper or a local politician. The more active they are the better.

Based on my experience, likely the biggest challenge you will face when embarking on a word of mouth marketing campaign is the scepticism of your colleagues. Many simply won’t get it. Do research at the beginning of the project that shows how receptive your stakeholders will be to the campaign. Try it on a small scale, if necessary. But don’t let them dissuade you. Word of mouth is here to stay and it’s too powerful to ignore.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Spending less means less effectiveness

There’s an old adage in marketing: you need to spend money to make money. Some research from a US study on non-profits has found that is very true.

The Nonprofit Fundraising and Administrative Cost Project reviewed the tax forms of 250,000 US non-profits in-depth case, did in-depth studies of nine organizations, and analyzed 1,500 survey responses. They found that spending on infrastructure, including things like marketing was directly tied to overall effectiveness.

“…contrary to the popular idea that spending less in these areas is a virtue, our cases suggest that nonprofits that spend too little on infrastructure have more limited effectiveness than those that spend more reasonably,” they concluded.

They suggested that besides the ceilings that many put on overhead spending, there also needed to be floors as well. “Although our study does not specify where those floors should be set, it is an issue the sector needs to reflect on and address.”

In Canada, there are no benchmarks about non-profit spending on marketing. In the US there is some data that shows that marketing spending is an average of between 2-3% of operating costs. However, the data suggests there are in fact wide varieties of spending across the non-profit sector.

Where does that leave you? Come budget time you need to not only ask what your maximum spending on marketing is but also what is your minimum. Find it by looking at what the basic marketing picture looks like and costing that. Set that as the minimum and go from there.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

5 ways to make digital part of your non-profit marketing

Facebook done wrong
Last time, I talked about digital’s role in marketing. Now, I’m going to show you how to do it.

That’s a big step for many non-profit marketers. Digital is still a mystery to them. It’s a big category. They might understand web, but not social media. They may understand social media, but not mobile. And the list can go on and on. It’s complicated.

Here’s how you should frame digital in your plans.

Inspirational. Most non-profit marketing has an inspirational message. Many times, especially in fundraising, that’s the key to the entire messaging platform. Many years ago, inspiration could be conveyed in a newsletter or a direct mail piece. Now, that job is harder. The multimedia that we are exposed to every day has set a new standard for the sad story or the one that inspires hope – it now has to be one that we can see or hear for ourselves. It has to be real. And the best way to show that is through digital products, such as online video, photos or even audio.

Hub. Many years ago I went for a job interview and when asked about what role the web played in my thinking I told them that it had to be the centre of everything in the marketing program. The people interviewing me didn’t get that. To them, a website was just another tool. They were way, way wrong. Then, as now, all marketing campaigns have a “centre” – a centralized place where the main effort is made. That can be a website or Facebook or even Twitter. The idea is that your marketing program needs a hub. Everything should point to it.

Multiplier. There’s no doubt that digital channels can really make your marketing go further. The classic non-profit example is the quarterly newsletter. I tell my clients to keep it, but reduce its frequency. I then tell them to take the money they saved and plough it into an email newsletter that comes out more frequently, but with a smaller footprint. The effect is to increase overall engagement. The email multiplies the print newsletter. The same applies to other digital offerings.

Measurer. There are no better metrics than digital ones. They are easy to generate, easy to understand and they are true. By that, I mean that they paint a very clear picture of the results. Let’s face it. Many of the measurements used in non-profit communications don’t amount to much. I still find people who say what they spend is a measurement of their success. I find others who count press releases issued or number of impressions from ads. But all of those can be misleading. Spending is really about allocating. Press releases are nice, but do they really lead to news items? And if so, are they where people can see them or on some lonely back page? Impressions are nice, but we all know that we can read a newspaper and ignore the ads in them. Impressions don’t equal attention. Things like web traffic however show action. They tell us about customer behaviour. That makes digital a powerful measurement platform.

Interactive. Today, marketing is a conversation. Until now, that wasn’t possible. Digital has put asking for and listening to the opinions of your customers into your hands. You can ask for comments, roll out a survey or do a contest. The place to do that is online.

Five simple digital strategies. You can use one, use two or use them all. Whatever you do, make sure you put digital into your plans from the start.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Don’t make digital last

Oh, no! Digital last again!
We live in a digital age, but many us don’t think digitally. That’s a problem for non-profit marketing.

I don’t have to tell you what you can already see all around you. Your reading this on a blog, either on your computer or your smartphone. Your non-profit likely has a website. You might have Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. We’re all connected and all online. We’re living a digital life and working in a digital world. And all our stakeholders, funders, donors and volunteers live there, too.

But there’s a problem. We don’t all think digitally. Research has shown that digital channels are still an afterthought in too many marketing efforts. The reason, I suspect, is that most marketers think along traditional lines. They dream about a campaign, an ad or a communications plan in terms of the print newsletter, or the TV spot or the direct mail campaign. They bring in the digital stuff after the fact, and that’s why many digital offerings under-perform. They are “add-ons”.

Old timers like me can shoulder some of the blame. I enjoy telling my kids that when I was growing up there were no iPhones, no video games and my TV was black and white (this puts me in the same category as the dinosaurs). We were brought up to think in certain ways, and today’s digital world requires a different way of thinking. Not all of us have made the leap. But before you dump all over my generation, you should also likely consider another obvious reason – this stuff is complicated. Most non-profit marketers wear many hats. They don’t have time to figure out the latest app or compare Facebook metrics. Digital, to them, is not the lowest hanging fruit.

The place to start is on tying all the pieces together. Integration is the most powerful weapon you have. Don’t think about your challenges in terms of the different output platforms. Instead, think about the idea that will drive them all of them to the same end point. Perhaps it’s a single message, or a brand or maybe a shining goal. Find it and then think how it will flow throughout all your marketing channels, not just the easiest one or the obvious one. Instead of managing one channel or another, plan out how each channel can operate at maximum capacity.

Thinking differently works. And when you think digitally, you’ll have better, more effective non-profit marketing.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

RECAP: New report gives Canadian Non-Profits failing grade in Marketing

NOTE: This Blog was posted in late December, but due to popular demand I've reposted it.

2010 named Year of the Stakeholder Relationships
Canada’s non-profit organizations received a failing grade in marketing for 2010. That’s one of the conclusion of a new report by the Non-Profit Marketer, a leading national blog that focuses on non-profit marketing and communications. The report, the Non-Profit Marketing Year in Review, says stakeholder relationships was the key issue for non-profits in 2010, but most lacked resources, skills, data and vision to deal with it.

“We’re calling 2010 the Year of Stakeholder Relationships. It was the year where non-profits were challenged by technology, the economic downturn, growing funding problems and increased competition. All of this put pressure on one of the most critical assets non-profits have – their relationships with their volunteers, funders, donors, supporters and friends,” said John Suart, author of the report and creator of the Non-Profit Marketer.

2010 saw the continued rise of social media across all age groups. Canadian non-profits are increasingly turning to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to attract and keep stakeholders, but the medium is still very young. Research from the US shows that while a majority of donors now use social media, only 6 percent actually give money that way.

The use of mobile devices is also on the rise, and will likely change the marketing landscape for all business, including non-profits. More than three-quarters of Canadians now have cell phones. Research from US shows that most adults now text more than they place calls, and the trend is growing, especially among the young.

“At the same time, the economic downturn has hurt Canadian non-profits. Research released from Statistics Canada in November showed that Canada’s donor-base is shrinking. The number of taxpayers claiming a deduction for a charitable donation hit its lowest level in 30 years,” said Suart. “They’re hurting.”

“Stakeholder engagement has never been more important for non-profits in Canada, but unfortunately many of them are unprepared to deal with the issue.”

Non-profit marketing continues to be consistently underfunded. Research shows that spending on marketing varies widely between organizations. Data collection, a key tool in the marketing arsenal, has been hampered by a lack of up-to-date practices, like the collection of email addresses. Skills was the soft underbelly of most non-profit marketing operations in 2010. The larger operations, especially those in fundraising, could afford to hire top quality talent. But for most non-profits, this continues to unattainable. The churn in budgets and skills coupled with the lack of vision and poor data creates marketing programs that tend to follow, not lead.

The report recommends a clearer mandate for marketing departments and better, more consistent funding. Further, it calls on stronger integration and measurement to make sure marketing dollars are spent wisely.

“Can stakeholder relationships be saved? The answer is yes. The tools and the know-how to use them are there. What is needed is leadership to show the way. Like in past years, non-profits will somehow find a way to muddle through as they always have, and, hopefully, always will,” said Suart.


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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Your non-profit communications program is WAY dead

I’ve just finished reading a book that tells me that most of the stuff I used to do in non-profit communications only a few years ago won’t work anymore, and likely never did. And yet, it was a refreshing read.

PR is half-dead.
Brian Solis is a new media guru, who writes about both PR and social media. His book, Putting the Public back in Public Relations, basically says that PR as we know it is pretty well dead. Sort of half-dead, like a flesh-eating Zombie. You need to remove its head to finally kill it.

Solis, although somewhat repetitive, says the old way of making press releases and sending them to reporters is useless. First, it is inefficient. The reporters and editors don’t give two hoots about your press release anymore. Second, because it ignores the fundamental shift in PR away from the fractured media to the citizen journalist, also known as the blogger.

“We now need to expand our scope of participation and outreach by also identifying, understanding, and engaging the everyday people who have plugged-in to a powerful and democratized online platform for creating and distributing information, insight, and opinions – effectively gaining authority in the process,” he says in an overly complicated description of his book.

It is really a lot simpler. Bloggers and social media groups have the same power to influence the world as the traditional journalist at your local newspaper (if there are any left). In other words, you now have the power to talk to your audience, or part of it, directly. Use it.

So, he says it makes sense to find bloggers and other social media groups and try and engage them directly. For him, a heavy hitter who often deals with large issues, this is easy. For Mr. and Mrs. Local Non-Profit, it is harder. Finding a blogger interested in technology is easy for Mr. Solis who’s playground is the entire Internet. Finding one that is interested in your small neck of the wood isn’t. That being the case, there are surprisingly more local and interest-driven bloggers and social media types than you would think. You need to go find them.

Once you do, Solis says you need to engage them. Don’t send them your press release. They’ll be even more ticked off than the reporters you send it to. Talk to them. Marketing today is about conversations. So, Solis says that’s what you need to do. I think he’s right, but it sounds easier than it is to do. It is something that takes time. You can’t find these people and converse with them adequately in 15 minutes. You will need to cultivate them.

Brian Solis: unprentencious?
So, here’s what you need to do. Get your feelers out. Do some heavy searching. Look for blogs, Facebook groups, special interest websites that impact your audience. Then, get to know them. Comment, ask questions, send them information they can use. And when it is time to send a media release, send it to the bloggers first. And send them info they need to blog about it – pictures, links, bios, etc. Solis calls this the Social Media Release, a new, hip cousin to the age old media release (which is more than 100 years old by the way).

Thank you Mr. Solis for making me feel inadequate. But thank you for telling me I suspected all along. Things are different in PR and we have to change with the times.