If you work for a nonprofit organization, we need to talk about marketing communication. I know you have other priorities. Your cause is vital, your resources are meager, and your biggest headaches—staffing shortfalls, fundraising goals, that crucial event next Tuesday—are urgent.
But still, hear me out. We need to talk about nonprofit marketing communication because it is central to your mission. The best nonprofits maximize their impact by melding brand, issues, audiences, and resources into a cohesive and effective strategy. Marketing communication lies at the heart of that strategy.
The Importance of Communication
Still not convinced? Then don’t take my word for it. Listen instead to a recognized expert—Sean Gibbons, executive director of the Communications Network. His organization works with leaders from foundations, nonprofits and consulting firms “to transform society and improve lives through smart, strategic communications.”
Writing in The Case for Communications, Sean puts forth a compelling argument in favor of the communications function. He identifies four vital components in advancing what he calls “big, bold ideas”—a distinct brand, a culture of communication, the capacity to act, and a strategy for winning. These are themselves big, bold ideas. Nonprofits function by building relationships, and brand, which we might loosely define as organizational personality, is essential to relationships. So is strategy. Strategic communication cultivates and understands its audiences. It starts conversations. It listens to communities. It builds relationships. It tells powerful stories. It inspires people to take action.
Lest you think these are mere lofty words, Sean backs his ideas with case studies. He cites organizations like the World Wildlife Foundation, whose communications strategy highlighted awareness of illegal poaching by 270 percent. Or the Natural Resources Defense Council, which spurred the United States and United Nations to take action against food waste, while enlisting businesses large and small to join its cause. If you work at a nonprofit, marketing communication can have a profound impact on your organization. But how do you get the most out of communications?
Nonprofit Marketing Communication 101
In nonprofit marketing communication, the fundamentals are brand, issues, audience, objectives, message, strategy, tactics, and measurement. All of these concepts are important for your organization.
Managing Your Brand
Let’s start with brand—the cornerstone of communication strategy. More than a name and a logo, a brand is the purest statement of what an organization hopes to achieve.
In this sense, we are speaking about brand as a self-defined identity. The concept is central to all aspects of nonprofit operations, especially fundraising, but it also has a strategic connotation. Nathalie Kylander and Christopher Stone, writing in The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, speak of brand as a tool for “strengthening internal identity, cohesion, and capacity.” Their post is nuanced and well worth reading. For me, the takeaway is the idea of brand as an expression of pride—pride in a nonprofit’s mission, planning, values, and partnerships.
You can also think of brand as reputation. Writing in The Importance of Branding, Rhyla Holley at Collaborative Communications defines brand as “… how your organization is perceived. Your brand is about the emotional connection your stakeholders have with the work that you do.” Nathalie Kylander and Christopher Stone echo this point. “Externally, the brand reflects the image held in the minds of the organization’s multiple stakeholders, not just its donors and supporters but also those it seeks to influence, assist, or reach.” Whether you conceive of brand as self-defined identity or externally defined reputation, it’s clearly the alpha of communication. Without brand, there is no motive to speak.
Identifying Your Issues
Yet brand forms only part of the motive to speak. Issues form the other part. Your mission requires ongoing communication about the issues central to your cause. A crisis, threat, or opportunity might compel you to speak to your audience. You are losing volunteers. Your organization has appeared in the news. Or you have spotted a wonderful new opportunity to serve your community, and this opportunity prompts you to raise money, recruit volunteers, and seek program participants.
Understanding Your Audience
Once you have identified your issues, you must consider your audiences. Every organization has at least one target audience, or set of stakeholders. Nonprofits typically communicate with staff, boards, funders, program participants, and volunteers, although the precise list varies for each organization. You may also communicate with people unaffiliated with your organization, but don’t make the mistake of calling this audience the general public. There is no such thing as the general public. Every audience requires segmentation.
In the first instance, you define an audience by combining brand and issue: We need to talk to audience X about issue Y. You may also segment this audience by factors such as age, gender, geography, or occupation.
But segmenting an audience is only the starting point. To communicate effectively, you have to learn more about the people you’re talking to. So do some research. Interview members of your audience. Survey them. Imagine them by creating audience personas. Gather both quantitative and qualitative data. You can summarize this data in free-form notes or capture it in a spreadsheet, but the most important thing is to get it in your head. Develop a mental picture of your audience. It will help you refine your campaign and, of course, it will help you communicate directly with your audience as you begin writing for it.
Marketing communication is never just idle chatter. It is always goal-directed. When we assemble words and images, we are trying to achieve something.
Communication strategists make a distinction between goals and objectives. Goals are broad, long-term, and aspirational. They are general statements of what your organization is trying to accomplish. They’re often found in an organization’s mission statement. Objectives, on the other hand, are specific and measurable. They define the changes you are trying to bring about in your target audience, whether those changes are in attitude, behavior, or action.
The key point about objectives is that they should be measurable. This quality makes them actionable. As your campaign unfolds, you can track progress against your objectives and, if necessary, calibrate your messaging and tactics. At the end of your campaign, you can review your metrics to gauge your success.
Strategists often use the acronym SMART to guide them in forming objectives. Objectives should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. To give you an example, “recruiting volunteers” would be a goal. “Recruiting 100 volunteers in six weeks” would be an objective, and a SMART one at that.
Communication strategists also categorize objectives as outputs, outtakes, and outcomes. Creating 20 blog posts is an output; it measures your activity, but not what that activity achieves. Getting 50 percent of a target audience to recall your organization’s name and purpose is an outtake; it measures the influence you have on your audience, but not what your influence helps you achieve. Recruiting those 100 volunteers is an outcome; it measures an action your audience has taken as a result of your campaign.
The most important objectives are outcome-based. These are the objectives you will use to measure the success of your campaign and the value of your communications function. But it doesn’t do any harm to track outputs and outcomes as well, as long as you don’t exaggerate their importance. Outputs are prerequisites for success. If you don’t write those blog posts, no one will know about your program. Outtakes predict action, at least to a certain extent. If people don’t know about you, they won’t sign up for your program. But outcomes are key. Outcomes are the gold standard in communications.
Choosing Strategy and Tactics
We often use the words strategy and tactics interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Strategy is a broad-brush statement of how you will achieve your objectives. Tactics provide a more detailed view. Strategies are surprisingly few in number. They are:
- Performance—changing your organization’s practices in response to justified criticism
- Engagement—working with your audience to devise a solution to a shared problem
- Special events—meeting with your audience face to face
- Alliances and coalitions—teaming up with others who share your views and interests
- Activism—campaigning for social change
- Media relations and publicity—placing your cause before the public
- Community relations—doing good works in your community to enhance your brand
- Government relations—working with elected and appointed officials to advance your goals
Whichever strategy or combination of strategies you choose, remember that it must bear directly on your brand, issues, audience, and objectives. Linking these elements is the essence of strategic communication. Tactics flow from your chosen strategy, and they should also be linked to the other elements of your plan. If your strategy is engagement, for example, your tactics will address questions such as how and when you engage with your audience and what form the dialogue will take. If your strategy is media relations, your tactics will identify journalists who already cover your organization or issues and who have an audience that can be helpful to your cause.
Choose your tactics carefully. Always consider whether your tactics will help you achieve your objectives. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of individual tactics. Ask yourself whether other tactics will work better, or at less cost.
Crafting Your Message
My core argument throughout this article is that communication is a calculated, goal-oriented activity, not an improvisation. Messaging is no exception to this rule. Messaging begins with the key ideas of your campaign, the things you want to say about a particular issue to a particular audience. Your organization may have just one or two key messages in your overall communications program, or it may have many.
Key messages serve two purposes—they keep your communications clear, focused, and consistent, and they become the building blocks you can craft into finished articles, blog posts, and infographics. In Creating Your Core Message, Vanessa Chase Lockshin at The Storytelling Nonprofit identifies elements such as an organization’s mission statement, funding priorities, or donor impact as source material for messaging. The point is not that you reproduce these things in your marketing communications, but that you use their key ideas as source material for other messages.
But how do you turn these building blocks into compelling communications that inspire your audience to support you? Claire Axelrad at Maximize Social Business has some good ideas. Writing in Messages Nonprofits Can Use to Raise Awareness, she urges us to humanize our communications. Avoid the tiresome facts and explanations, she counsels. Kick the dry theoretical language to the curb. “You can’t explain people into caring about you,” she writes.
Instead, Axelrad advises us to adopt a storytelling approach. Put a human face on your organization. Profile a client, staff member, or volunteer, and include quotes and photos to make your story protagonists vividly human. Then go further and involve your audience. Develop “messages that help your would-be supporters easily see themselves as actors on your stage,” as Axelrad puts it. By putting a human face on your organization, and highlighting the vital role your supporters play, you move beyond dry, rational arguments into compelling messages that motivate people to act on your behalf.
Finally, one last thing. Always close with an explicit call to action. Don’t assume your audience will know what to do—tell them. Write a short, crisp sentence in the imperative mood, and make your call to action stand out visually. Better yet, provide your audience with the means to act on your call, right then and there.
Measuring Communication Results
Communication is a qualitative activity, but its results are quantifiable. Make sure you measure the results of your communications.
Program measurement is a broad field, but before we delve into its principles and mechanics, let’s ask a basic question: why. Why should you measure your communications at all? The simple answer is that measurement is good stewardship. As a steward of resources, it’s your obligation to demonstrate that you use them wisely. So measure your results, and share the data widely within your organization and with your board. They’ll appreciate it.
To create a measurement strategy, begin with your objectives. You may recall from Setting Objectives that they fall into three categories—outputs, outtakes, and outcomes. Focus on outcomes, which chart behavior changes in your target audience. These are the objectives you most want to measure.
If you’ve chosen appropriate objectives, your outcomes will be inherently measurable. Look at them now. A method of measurement may be obvious. Did you set specific targets for fundraising or volunteer recruitment? Great. Now check your progress. Record the measurement. You’ve just performed your first program evaluation.
But how do we translate these concepts into the digital realm, where so many nonprofits communicate? The answer lies in creating specific, clickable calls to action for each objective. Do you have a fundraising target? Count the clicks on your DONATE NOW! button and tally the funds collected through your online payment system. Is engagement one of your objectives? Count your newsletter signups. Is brand awareness an objective? Count your social media shares.
I’ll cover measurement techniques in greater detail in the blog. But for now, I want to leave you with one last piece of advice. Act on your data. Whatever metrics you track, whatever results you obtain, your data will provide you with insight and knowledge. Use them well. Adjust your communications in response to data so that you achieve the best results for your organization.
We’ve said a great deal here about nonprofit marketing communication, and yet we’ve hardly scratched the surface. Brand, issues, audience, objectives, strategy, tactics, messaging, and measurement—everything is connected. In a diagram, it looks like this: All these topics deserve closer examination. I’ll explore them in greater depth in my blog. But let’s close, for now, with one final thought. Your mission is vital. Marketing communication will help you accomplish it.