Non-profit communications and marketing directors receive a lot of suggestions, advice and sometimes commands about how to improve the marketing strategy of their organization. The lines between advertising, marketing and public relations are continually blurred and with the rise of social media, well, everyone is now a marketing guru.
We asked non-profit pros for the worst marketing advice they’ve ever received and we received more answers than we expected. So many answers dealt with social media for non profits that we created an entire post dedicated to that one aspect of non-profit marketing.
So grab a cup of joe and take a trip through the land of non-profit marketers. Maybe we can unearth a few mistakes you can avoid in your next campaign.
- “We’ve always done it this way” or “traditionally, nonprofits do it like this”. My first professional job out of college was leading a local Main Street organization. We had a saying “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. Ceci Grasso Dadisman, an arts marketer and former Director of Communications at Palm Beach Opera, says, “Too many non-profits see themselves in a bubble and only compare themselves to other non-profits. We need to first think about marketing in a more global sense.” Using the typical non-profit marketing strategies as a point of context or reference for training purposes is fine, but don’t limit yourself to what’s already been done--especially if you’re looking to get different results.
- “You can’t do XYZ…” Linda Spencer, Strategist, Consultant and Content Creator, was once told she couldn’t do what was then a very cutting edge and progressive marketing campaign. She kept pushing the idea and the campaign turned out to the be the most successful marketing campaign the organization ever did. “Every time someone says ‘you can’t’ it shuts ideas and energy down,” Spencer says. While not every idea is viable, before you automatically say “you can’t”, take another look and know why it can’t be done.
- “Just have a cool website” or the opposite “We don’t need a website, just use Facebook”. A “cool” website isn’t a magic bullet, and neither is Facebook. The coolest of websites won’t help your organization if no one knows it exists. And Google doesn’t give points for being cool. Organizations who use Facebook in lieu of a website are only renting space. None of the content or who it reaches is really owned by the organization. Amazing non profit websites working in tandem with Facebook and other marketing efforts can, however, make real impact.
- “We don’t need social media. Our donors are too old to be interested in that.” The latest demographics for Facebook show 56% of Seniors over the age of 65 are on Facebook along with 63% of people aged 50-64. Those statistics coupled with a real need to attract younger donors should squash that argument. If it’s not, throw in the reality that companies who give grants to local organizations often research those organizations by looking at their social media pages.
- “Can’t you get that for free?” Although some media may be willing to trade marketing for sponsorship or donate space to nonprofits, getting free media exposure isn’t possible all the time. Non-profit marketer Rachel Gattuso backs that up with a reminder to safeguard your nonprofit’s brand--which means having a website, graphic design or videography donated isn’t always what’s best for your organization. She also points out that actually paying for some advertising offers you more leverage in messaging when you need it.
- “We need to change the name.” Whether the suggestion is coming from a consultant, the board or the staff, give some serious considerations to the impact on the organization’s donors, staff and other supporters before jumping into that idea. While situations do arise that mandate a name change for the organization, first check the motivations of the person or people making the suggestion. Then make sure everyone, including staff, understand why the name change is or isn’t happening.
- “Why don’t we put a QR on this?” #2010 Multiple marketers are still hearing this suggestion although the QR code was most popular by usage 2010-2012. Marketers are always on the lookout for how trends might change, but right now the QR code appears to be tabled. Smartphone makers may actually be the ones to change the direction of this marketing tactic. Should they release a phone with a QR code preloaded or that natively reads QR codes marketers could see the popularity of the tactic rise again.
- “Just wait for it to blow over.” During a recent my presentation to the National Council for Adoption, a non-profit marketer asked me how to respond to heated discussions on their Facebook page. We discussed the times to stand down and the times to step in. Whether it’s a public relations fiasco or passionate discussion on social media, you need to have a plan of when to “let it blow over” and when to intervene. As one marketer pointed out, your fans on social media will likely step in to turn the tide of the conversation if given a little bit of time. Having clear guidelines about what’s accepted and what’s not also allows you to give warnings or delete comments without feeling guilty. When it comes to those PR nightmares, get prepared now by creating an emergency PR plan and follow it.
- “Well, that didn’t go exactly the way we wanted it to, maybe we should try it again.” Whether it’s e-mail newsletters that didn’t get the open rate you wanted or an event that didn’t raise the funds you needed, repeating bad marketing doesn’t make it good. Convincing your ED or your board of this truism isn’t always easy. When it comes to events, almost all organizations have pet projects that just can’t be cancelled--ever. For other marketing related activities, sometimes it’s up to you, the true communication guru, to give a little push back and insist on good stewardship of your organization's’ contacts. That means not spamming them with more e-mails that don’t get read.
- Hold off on telling our story until it’s over. True victory in your organization means the world has no more need for advocacy in your organization’s area of expertise. Waiting until you’ve reached that full victory to tell your story means no one else will have a chance to support you. Sometimes progress is a bigger motivator for volunteers and donors than victory, because you still need their help. Your story is continually developing and changing. Give voice to the people you support now and allow others to be a part of your success.
- “Let’s do a quiet launch with a big event.” When the YMCA of Greater Seattle hired a PR firm to help them launch the largest non-profit capital campaign in the Pacific Northwest, they got off to a rocky start. The firm initially suggested a large event involving busing young people to an area park to ring a giant bell on a holiday. Monica Elenbaas, VP of Communications at the YMCA at the time, said the organization turned down the suggestion. They continued to work with the PR firm and instead created a series of forums focused on their target markets which became a model for Y’s across the world. One forum hosted a standing room only crowd. Elenbaas’ experience is a reminder in-house communications teams often have valuable insight to their target markets. PR teams willing to work with in-house departments can produce meaningful (and in this case award winning) marketing and PR campaigns.
- “What are the chances that the owners of that image are going to find out we’re using it without their permission?” We’ll just leave this one right here. While it may feel like an urban myth to many organizations, organizations who have been asked to take down an image or been sued for using an image they didn’t have rights to will tell you it’s actually possible. With the plethora of free or cheap stock photos available, your organization has no excuse for using unlicensed images. (Need some direction on images? Check out this article we wrote about finding the right image for your organization.)
- “Strategic planning? Eh, we’ll get to it but marketing doesn’t need to be a part of it.” Most marketing and communications directors have been here, shut out of the strategy sessions and then told what they need to do. Good public relations, communications and marketing is all based on research, which makes it an integral part of the strategic plan. Afterall, how much good can the organization do if no one knows it exists. I know it and you know, but convincing the ED and your board to include your department can be a full-time job.
- “Can’t you just make it pretty, real quick?” Um-hum. Graphic design looks easy. You just put in a picture and some pretty stickers and voila you have beautiful graphics. Few people truly understand the time it takes to ensure your fonts don’t fight and the wording is long enough to get the meaning across but short enough it actually gets read. Then you have to follow the brand guidelines and before you know it you’ve spent hours perfecting what your co-worker thought would be a 15 minute job.
Fighting those well-intentioned advice-givers makes us all roll our eyes from time to time. If you’ve been nodding your head as you read this list, know you are not alone.
We love working with non-profit organizations, but we also recognize the staff of these non-profits often understand the people they serve, their donors, their volunteers and other supporters better than we do just out of the gate. Our agency offers additional hands on deck, expertise in digital media and an outside view for organizations who aren’t ready to add to their communications department just yet. If you need some back-up or just a few new ideas, schedule a little time with us. We’d love to hear how you’re fighting the good fight and even what marketing myths you’re battling.