Essential communications questions

As longtime readers of our Rich TIPS know, we find that a discouraging number of organizations we’ve worked with have failed to plan their communications from a strategic perspective. They are constantly reacting “a la carte” or as an afterthought when it comes to promotion and positioning. Sadly, they simply produce and release the same old messages in the same old format, year after year, campaign after campaign . . . and then wonder why their results fall short of their goals.

Typical characteristics of this scenario include:

  • Failing to understand the basic needs and profiles of your members, constituents or stakeholders–or how these needs evolve over time amid changing demographics and shifts in the political landscape;
  • Having only a tactical, when-we-have-time approach to communications; and/or
  • Not hiring people to handle marketing and PR, or even if you have such a person, these individuals are not allowed to sit at the decision-making table.

Such nonprofits throw their arms up in the air in exasperation when their message gets lost in the sea of noise created by the thousands of other nonprofits that are trying to promote programs and compete for dollars.

If this sounds familiar, one way to reverse this trend and increase your odds of success in community messaging and fundraising is do better at the onset of every individual communications project. Whether the idea you have for a Twitter feed or newsletter or campaign or brochure or billboard or presentation is brand new or the time-honored (?) tactic you have dutifully been doing for years, make sure you can completely answer the following questions.

  1. Audience. Who, exactly, are you trying to reach? Force yourself to be very specific. Where do they live, what common experience do they share, how old are they, what are their preferred methods of connecting, what is their level of education, etc.? Your potential for success is directly related to your ability to be targeted. All-things-to-all-people doesn’t work any better as a communications goal than it does as a mission statement.
  2. Message. Again, this discipline requires you to be very precise. Your nonprofit does not have a single message: it has messages relating specifically to local community or political leaders, the media, your donors, your volunteers, your corporate sponsors, your funders, and so on. Each audience deserves–and will really only respond meaningfully to–a message designed just for them.
  3. Call to action. If you have sufficiently drilled down on the audience or message as described above, then the call to action gets easy. Not everyone is supposed to call. Not everyone is expected to go online and make a donation now. Not everyone is going to purchase a table at your event. Not everyone will be ready to change his or her behavior. See how that makes sense, once you’ve sliced and diced your audiences into appropriate segments?
  4. Form or format. This is where really thinking through your approach to each individual audience gets tricky, because you have likely used the same channels for the same general outbound communications for some time. (You probably haven’t got the budget flexibility to make a lot of dramatic changes right now, either.) But a simple poster makes sense for one group, a Facebook page for another, a short video for others. Think of the shoe metaphor: does one pair of shoes fit all adults? Does one style of shoe work for all kinds of people in all climates or situations? Pretending that the answer is “yes” is a recipe for mediocre communications.
  5. Creative services. At this point you have managed to target who, with what, to what end, and how. So now you know that you might need a professional writer, a photographer, a web master, a graphic artist, and so on. This is also the time to consider translation services. Cutting corners on the quality of what you produce doesn’t usually fool anyone. Producing things that are obviously amateurish or done “on the cheap” may hurt your brand more than it impresses people. Each audience, strictly defined, will have its own expectation(s).
  6. Audience segmentation. Just when you think you’ve targeted your communications sufficiently, it is still worth considering whether different versions of the same kind of message are warranted. For example, suppose your message is about promoting pedestrian and cyclist safety in an urban area. Segments of the community dictate different versions of the message in different formats: for youth, social media. For older adult drivers, billboards. For the police to use in community outreach, a small printed card.
  7. Delivery and distribution. Some nonprofits can actually afford to purchase advertising space; some like to mail postcards or letters; some rely on speaker-presentations and a small leave-behind piece. All we’re asking here is to think creatively about how to deliver your carefully targeted message(s). Is it time for a change? How about the retro-unexpected, like a hand-addressed envelope? How about offering choices, like a three-minute video online and then an option to also download a 12-page report for those who really want all the data?
  8. Timing. We’ve already mentioned the problem with the when-we-get-around-to-it strategy. Be realistic about your capacity, but be firm with yourself and your creative providers (#5). Set deadlines based on how you’ve mapped out your 12-month program/fiscal year incorporating messaging or campaigns. And let’s stop doing everything in the fourth quarter.
  9. Culture. Before you launch into a communications project, especially a new one, make sure it is a ‘fit’ with your organization in every sense of the word, and reflects your values. Conservation groups probably shouldn’t be doing a lot of printing. Groups empowering youth should engage them as videographers. Literacy and education groups should proof for typos carefully (yes, it happens).
  10. Measuring success. Admitting mistakes and being willing to let go is hard. Notice whether you are keeping a certain message, channel, or project simply because you have always used it or it is the pet project of a certain board or staff member. Meanwhile, there is brand consistency and there is boring; if you’re not sure which way to go, get some fresh eyes and outside ideas to help you.