Friday, January 27, 2012

Nope, you aren't the best

There’s nothing like a snappy slogan. We all love those cute one-liners that touch us on an emotional level. They seem so effortless to say that they appear to be simple to make. One has to remember that making a brand and a slogan isn’t easy…unless you want a really mediocre one.

There’s one major trap in brand and slogan making – the over-promise. Some people wrongly think that the brand should be a dream painted very large. They argue that a big brand has to have a big promise. It has to sound “big” or what good is it?

The problem is that these “big” brands can’t always deliver what they say. They say something too “big”. It can be a promise that cannot be met. Or it can be a promise that doesn’t work all the time – a fair-weather dream.

In my opinion, the classic example of this is Ford. In the 1980s, they come up with “Quality is job 1” to combat Asian imports eating into their market share. They did invest more in quality, hence the slogan. However, quality was still not perfect. And so, for thousands of people who bought a Ford the slogan was a joke. I know one of them. She bought a Ford. In her case, quality was definitely not job one. Her car never ran right. And what happened when she experienced this disconnect between the brand and her reality? She told everyone about it. And so, Ford’s marketing was all for naught with everyone she told.

A quick look around Ontario shows that the over-promise is still alive and well. I recently saw a new brand for a local economic development agency. “The possibilities are endless,” the slick brochure screamed at me. On first glance it didn’t look too bad. That changed when I discovered it was for a town of 6,000 people with lots of brownfield sites, few major industries and limited services. This gave the idea of endless possibilities a new meaning. I guess there’s lots of possibilities when there’s nowhere to go but up.

Another brand for another city caught my eye. “Prepare to be amazed,” it proclaimed on its website. Then I saw that the major employer in the town cut their workforce from 12,000 workers to 3,500 a couple of years back. Amazing indeed. They still use the slogan, though.

And then there was my favourite city brand – “Where you want to live.” It sounds lovely and I’m sure it was intended to make the city it was created for sound more homey and attractive. But the city, which I won’t name, is not in fact the place where people want to live. The last census says it grew at a rate four times LESS than the provincial average.

So, before you go saying your non-profit is the best, is perfect, can do anything and such, think again. Resist the temptation to say you provide the best care or that you are making a better world. You are, but unless you can do that ALL the time, it will come back to haunt you.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Social media not tied to strategy will fail

I love reading the many blogs, emails and social media pages I get each day. My favourite are the "top ten best ways to use social media" I see tjhese all the time. Considering how many people have created or read one of these "top tens" you'd think that there would be no one left in the entire non-profit sector who wasn't a social media genius. Obviously, there are still plenty of non-profits who need help with social media, so what gives?

The problem isn't with social media, it's with the non-profits and, to some extent, the mainstream ad agencies they insist on using. These top ten tips actually make sense and in many cases are very helpful. That's not in question. The real problem is that they are done in isolation. They are done without much thought about strategy. That's why they don't work very well and in some cases fail miserably.

Social media is a tool. It is very powerful, but at the end of the day it is just another tool. In most cases, it is not a strategy. And yet, when people read these top ten lists it sounds like one. Facebook can do this. Twitter can do that. Use both and all your communications problems are solved. These are coupled with the myriad number of success stories where a modest sized charity has become ridiculously successful with social media. It makes it appear that social media alone will carry the weight of a non-profit's communications program. For most non-profits, this just isn't true. Social media needs to be part of the mix and may even need to lead the pack, but it can't do everything all by itself.

The real problem with social media is not creating it. It takes a heartbeat to put up a Facebook page. No, the real challenge is integrating it with the rest of the non-profit's communications. The Facebook page has to work with the website and the print materials and the events. There's usually little in those top ten lists that tells you how to do that. It takes a strategy to make it all work. Too often, charities have no communications strategy and that's why their social media doesn't achieve the miracles that the top ten lists talk about. A tool without a plan is like a road trip without a map. You can drive, but you can't easily get where you want to go.

Your strategy must look at the big picture. Who are you targeting? What is your message? What do you want to achieve? It has to figure out how all the pieces fit together. It also has to work out how the strategy will flow across all the tools in the arsenal. The biggest sin when it comes to social media is to treat it like another news feed. Social media has the power to deliver much deeper relationships with your stakeholders, but that won't happen if you just post shortened versions of your media releases to Facebook. Your strategy needs to work out how social media will do what it does best -- engage and interact with your stakeholders. Creating a strategy will be hard and take time, but it is worth it.

So, before you invest more time and effort into social media take a look at your overall strategy. Do your homework and figure out the big picture. When you do, your social media will work better and achieve greater results.

Monday, January 16, 2012

To the ends of the earth

I had a chat a while back with a non-profit leader who ran a charity that was an organization of organizations. Each of their members represented smaller organizations which in turn had their own local "members". This person couldn't seem to understand why I was suggesting they create a communictaions program that not only reached their members, but also their members's members. "That's not who we communicate with," they said.

Big mistake. The key to non-profit communications is to pursue every potential stakleholder to the ends of the earth and back again.

Their way of thinking is common. It literally is "short-sighted". They see as far as their immediate internal audiences. Everything else is so blurry to them that they lump it all together in one big "external" category.

This particular non-profit had a very common communications challenge. No one knew who they were or what they did, except of course their members. "We can't seem to reach people," they lamented. This was no surprise to me. They were spending time and money trying to communicate to their immediate members and no one else. And yet here was a very large group of allied stakeholders sitting almost at their fingertips. Their member's members were all connected to their organization indirectly. Even better, the non-profit knew who these people were and where to find them. They could double or even triple the reach of their communications program without much more effort by connecting to their member's members. It would make their overall program much more cost effective.

Technically, this non-profit's internal audeince is only their member organizations. That's what their rules and regulations say. That works for mission and vision statements, but not a modern, efficient communications program. The neat categories that this non-profit had made up in their heads didn't reflect the reality of the world they lived in. The local members were as close to being an internal audience as they could possibly be. All that kept them from being part of the internal stakeholder group was an artficial barrier.

Like many organizations, this non-profit relied on their member organizations to deliver the non-profit's message. The non-profit talked to the members and those organizations talked to their members. The member organizations had varying levels of communications infrastructure and the result was an uneven distribution of the message. Some people got it, some didn't. The non-profit didn't realize that they had a stake in how their members did their communicating, and so, much of the message was lost and much of the communications wasted.

To this non-profit, the cure to their problem was advertising. That's how they would reach the public. Imagine how much more money they had to spend because their existing communications couldn't even reach their member's members. And, at the end of the day, when the ads were finished they still had the same problem -- they were ignoring some of the people who were very close to them.

The whole point of communicating is to capture as many people as possible to communicate with and keep on communicating with them. The ultimate goal is to convert as many strangers into friends, which makes the lines between internal and external audiences moot. Every potential stakeholder is a target. None can be ignored. And if you want your communications program to be effficient and powerful you will pursue every person, every group and every organization to convert them. To the ends of the earth if necessary. And back again.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Empty Message

Can you have a message without action?
If you look at a lot of non-profit marketing you’d have to say yes. Many non-profit ads have a strong message, but a weak or non-existent call-to-action. Why?

To understand we need to look at how many of these ads are created. For too many non-profits buying an ad is an exercise devoid of deep thought. Many do not have brands to guide them, and many more have brands that aren’t much more than logos and colour schemes. Many also have no communications or marketing plan to give their advertising structure and purpose. I’ve read many communications plans that read more like budgets and less like a blueprint for communicating. So, the ads are often created in a strategic vacuum.

A second factor is that non-profits often turn to others to make their ads because they don’t have in-house marketing resources. These could be designers, big ad agencies or media outlets who produce cookie-cutter style ads by the thousands. This means the ads are often made by outsiders who invest little in doing the homework about the non-profit and its needs.

A final issue are the communications goals of the non-profit. Often these are poorly defined. They may have a goal like “raise our public profile” but not one that approaches anything like “We want people who hear our message to do X.”

One can begin to see how challenging finding a call-to-action can be. However, for-profits also have a challenge here as well. One reason is that finding a call-to-action is hard. Anyone can put up a website URL or phone number and call that a call-to-action. Making something more than that takes precisely the  kind of thinking that non-profits don’t usually do. With new QR code technology this has become more of an issue. Many for profits put something valuable at the end of a QR code, such as special video or a coupon. Non-profits do this to varying degrees, but many times I have seen QR codes simply lead to their website as if their URL wasn’t enough.

There is another bigger issue to think about as well. If a non-profit puts together an ad with a call-to-action, good or bad, do they have the communications infrastructure to exploit the responses?
What’s the point of the call-to-action is it doesn’t actually result in some form of engagement? But you know as well as I that when some people go to a non-profit in response to an ad they are turned off by what they find. They find content that isn’t very compelling and few things that speak to them. Worse, many non-profits spectacularly fail to capture who these new visitors are in order to turn them from strangers into stakeholders. Visitors are not presented with an email newsletter sign-up or any other way for the non-profit to figure out who they are. And so, the visitors come, see a few pages and leave, never to come back.

All of this makes it obvious to me and I hope to you that creating a call-to-action is important, but takes hard work. However, I firmly believe that taking the time to think through the entire process is very valuable.