Nonprofit Marketing 101: Be Your Own “Mini Media Mogul” (Part 1)

Nonprofit Marketing GuideAll of us perform better and more willingly when we know why we’re doing what we have been told or asked to do.” – Zig Ziglar

For small nonprofit that have to do in-house marketing and media strategies without experienced communications staff members, don’t worry.  You can become your own “mini media mogul” without having to rely on expensive public relations or marketing firms to get your message out.

This is the first of a three-part series devoted to nonprofit marketing, based on Kivi Leroux Miller’s book, The Nonprofit Marketing Guide: High-Impact, Low-Cost Ways to Build Support for Your Good Cause.  Now in its second edition, it’s become a staple reference book in my nonprofit management library, and you should consider getting it, too.

Nonprofit Marketing: What it is . . . and isn’t

What it is: Marketing focuses on your target audience, identifying what inspires and motivates them; what instills fear, hope, gratitude, needs and other emotions.  Marketing expands the services of your nonprofit organization to meet those needs, wants and desires, in a way that makes sense.  Marketing is more than making a website and publishing a newsletter; it’s about understanding as a whole who your organization is serving and what their needs are, how you’re meeting those needs, and communicating that in a way that engages people in the work of your hard-working organization. When you can embrace what marketing actually is, you’ll do a better job at what you’re doing already.  Every member of the staff should be involved in marketing.  Marketing touches everyone’s job and daily life.

What it isn’t:  So many people have negative associations with the term ‘marketing’ – they may feel that it’s superficial, manipulative, insincere, etc.  Not so!  You know those communication pieces you’ve been calling ‘education and outreach’ because it feels better to you, your staff, and volunteers?  They’re actually marketing pieces.  The label attached to something is less important than the function – marketing is a nonprofit executive director’s best friend!

If You Try to Reach Everybody, You’ll Reach Nobody

There’s really no such thing as a “general audience” (or, for that matter, the “general public”).  In the name of getting your name out there – where ever “out there” is – it can be tempting to imagine that a single, general message will suffice for all purposes.  A more effective strategy would be to focus your limited resources on those who will create the biggest impact for your organization.  If you’re crafting a communications piece with the goal of raising money, then your audience is ‘donors’.  But you can drill down even further – who are these donors, exactly?  What is the size of the gift you’re looking for?  How are they giving you these gifts?  What inspires and moves the donors to give gifts?

If your communication pieces are for advocacy purposes and you want your audience to be contacting their politicians, signing online petitions and boycotting products and services, then your message and delivery will be very different than the piece intended for donors.  Many small nonprofits focus on general, one-size-fits-all communication and marketing pieces.  Unfortunately, little or nothing comes to fruition because they haven’t told their target audience what they want them to do once they’ve become educated.

Writing a Very Basic Marketing Plan

You could spend a lot of time, effort, and money on writing an exhaustive marketing plan for your small organization, but it doesn’t have to a daunting task.  For executive staff with too much on their proverbial plates, you can develop a marketing strategy based on just three questions.  Let’s get started!

Marketing 21) Who is your audience, very specificallywho are you trying to reach?

Don’t focus on the “general public”, since such a homogeneous group doesn’t exist.  Focus on defined specific target audiences, so that you can develop effective messaging and determine how to get those messages out to them.  For example, say your organization is trying to reach donors.  That’s too broad, so let’s continue to drill down.  Who you’re really targeting are homeowners between the ages of 35-65 with incomes of $150,000+, with interests in environmental protection in the San Francisco, California market.  To define the market even further, you could choose to target only those with an interest in marine conservation issues. The more honed your target audience is, the more effective your communications can be.  Avoid the “spray and pray” approach.  A smaller, tighter group is more likely to stick with you for the long run.

2) What do you want them to do with the information and knowledge they get from you?

Have a crisply-worded, definitive call-to-action in your messaging.  Do you want them to donate?  Sign a petition?  Buy a ticket to your event?   Write a letter to their politicians?  Download a document from your website?  Be specific and clear. And be mindful of your language.  Words that mean something to you may not resonate with your audience.  Specifically, I’m thinking about adjectives like these:

collaborate, support, understand, work with us, raise awareness, engage, connect, promote, educate, etc.

What do these mean, specifically?  If you’re asking for a donation in an appeal letter, don’t ask for “support” – ask for money – be direct about it!  I can support your organization with a pat on the back and a “good job!”, but that’s not going to pay your light bill.  Break down your message and call to action very clearly and clarify those  adjectives in plan, easy-to-understand language.  You may be making your target audience work harder than they have to in order to understand your message.

Marketing 33) How and where do you deliver your message?

A lot of nonprofits naturally jump right to this step, even if they haven’t honed in on a target audience or refined their messaging and call-to-action.  You probably already have a website, newsletter, and Facebook page (at least!), and it’s a challenge to determine what to include in each channel.  Why?  It may be because you haven’t carefully considered the first two steps.  If you have done the work for those two pieces, you may find out that being on Instagram isn’t very effective in reaching your target audience, even though it’s a big part of your current strategy.  I find that this is very often the case.  After all, we’re using social in our personal lives, we’re familiar with it, and ‘everybody’s got a page’.  Well, that’s great, but if the only people interacting with your Instagram site are your staff, personal friends, and relatives, it may be time to rethink that strategy.  Avoid doing things out of history and habit, or just because you think you ‘should’ – stand apart from the herd.

Integrated Marketing Strategies

More often than not, you’re going to have to deliver your messaging to multiple outlets (aka, channels).  This is called ‘integrated marketing’, where you’re using the same basic message, with similar aesthetics but you tweak it and place it on your website, social media, email, online newsletter, etc.  In addition, you’re also integrating the message into your offline communications, such as direct mail pieces, and even in personal communications. For example, you can send an email via Constant Contact in early December about a specific campaign, then send your end-of-year fundraising letter in the mail which specifically raises money for the project about which you emailed a week earlier.  Then, you follow up with a second email reminder asking them to give to your organization for that campaign.  When you receive a gift, you call your donor to thank them personally, send a hand-written ‘thank you’ note as well as an acknowledgement letter for tax purposes.  That’s an extremely very effective strategy.  Email can boost your direct mail campaign and vice versa, and the personal touch of communication really sends it home.

This raises the question . . .

How much is too much?  You don’t want to annoy your treasured donor base, but you also want to ensure that if they’ve missed your email, they’re getting your direct mail packet.  And how often should you communicate with your base?

We’re probably familiar with the really big nonprofits that seem to constantly get their materials out there.  It may seem like too much, and the effect is to make small nonprofits somewhat demure about their own messaging.  In general, small nonprofits don’t do enough messaging.   They might send one email per month and two mailings per year and worry that they’re doing too much.  Alternatively, you might consider sending out email communications once per month at a minimum and perhaps even 2-4 per month.  Don’t worry about repeating yourself; repetition is a positive attribute of marketing – that said, quality matters.  When you haven’t segmented your target audience or refined your call-to-action, it may indeed be a little too much because the impression is the “spray and pray” approach.  What you’re aiming for is a well-honed laser of messaging and action.  Your audience will appreciate that.

Marketing 4Most nonprofits tend to ‘over-write’.  You can increase the frequency of your communications (and hence, their effectiveness) by keeping your communication pieces short and crisp.  Nobody wants to read a lengthy diatribe of a newsletter packed with text that isn’t tight.  I realize that it’s all extremely important to you and your staff – but resist that urge.  A short email of 300-400 words tops each week will net you greater positive results – your open and click rate will increase and people will read it.  That’s your goal, not packing everything into a newsletter that I don’t have time to read and so gets moved to my Trash folder.

Cheryl M. McCormick, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Ascend Nonprofit Consulting and Executive Coaching,


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