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Yellow Hibiscus, Red Center 7_IGP0786 s.cI was recently reminded of how important it is to choose the right communications medium when I opened my office email after the July 4th holiday weekend. To my surprise, my in-box was chock full of emails—more than 200 of them. This seemed odd. Could there have been some massive event I wasn’t aware of?  Then the culprit emerged. The university orchestra of my alma mater had sent out an email encouraging people to “chat” about their experiences in the group.  Hmmm. A group chat through email? Not an invitation to join a list-serve or a fan group on Facebook?

I trolled through the first handful of emails and realized that not only had the organization chosen a poor format for this lovely outreach idea, but that almost everyone contacted had responded “reply all” when asking to be removed from the list. Voila! 200 increasingly nasty emails were created, and were still replicating as I watched.  And one of the last ones I read reminded me of how badly your brand can be damaged by such a seemingly innocent mistake. An alumn said they couldn’t believe the university had sent such a missive and they wanted to be removed from all future lists and never hear from the place again.  Ouch!

I quickly sent off an email to the VP of Public Affairs saying, essentially, “your brand is on fire.”

Brand wound self-infliction isn’t as uncommon as you would think. The Washington Post recently produced marketing fliers promoting a series of private, sponsored off-the-record dinners between policymakers and journalists that set off a firestorm of controversy about whether or not the Post could maintain its brand of journalistic impartiality.

So, how to choose the correct medium for your message?

1. Know Your Audience. It’s important to know how your audience prefers to be communicated with.  I recently sat on a marketing panel at an independent schools conference and one audience member asked whether they should be sending out emails or Facebook invitations to their alumns. I responded with another question “have you ever asked them?”  It’s really important to periodically query your target audience(s) about how they like to be reached.  A quick email survey using a tool such as Survey Monkey can suffice.

2. Know Your Options. Trying to jump-start a conversation that goes on beyond your initial contact? A Facebook page or Linked In group might work best.  Trying to get customers to respond to something new? Offer a clickable coupon link that also takes them to other content you want viewed. Want to reach potential donors? Send them a link to a You-Tube video that tells a short but compelling story about real people benefiting from your organization’s work.  And be wary of e-newsletters. If you must send them, make sure they have easy navigation and clickable links to full articles (one group I support still sends a PDF–yuck!).

3. Know Your Limitations. Donors and customers don’t want to hear from you every day. Prospective donors and customers want to hear from you even less. So be thoughtful about your communications tool, and then the content you deliver with it.  Offer information and connectivity that is truly useful to them.

4. Know Your Internal Content Generators. Yes you have standards and best practices. Surely my alma mater does. But clearly not everyone knows them. That’s because users/content generators are everywhere, not just in the PR office. Educate early and often. Rinse and repeat.

5. Know Your Power. Electronic and social media, when used correctly, can greatly magnify and support your brand.  Use them well…or else.

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In the last two weeks I’ve spoken with one VP of marketing whose job was completely eliminated at a major national nonprofit, and one marketing director at a mid-sized for-profit who confessed she had no time to do long-term strategic work since she was really functioning as communications director, and without any support staff.

Who hasn’t felt the pinch on long-term strategic thinking when short-term tactical communications work needs to get done? And why should we care?

I think we should care because organizations are likely to find that while they net some short-term savings with cuts to personnel and marketing budgets, their brand may take a bigger hit than they think in the long-term.  If all you’re doing is getting out your weekly customer e-newsletters and press releases, you may actually be suffering from internal bleeding without knowing it.  With tactics focused on short-term “get the word out” communications, organizations can be missing out on three key marketing strategies: attracting new customers/donors, retaining existing ones, and constantly establishing your brand as the best in class.

So, how to maintain a brand focus without all the people and budget to help?

Consider what some of the biggest firms are now doing: using Twitter as a tool to provide customer service.  USA Today reported this week that companies like Comcast, Pepsico and Whole Foods are using Twitter to provide customer service more quickly and successfully than 800 numbers and websites once did.  Pepsico went so far as to change its top customer service employee’s title to “Global Director of Digital and Social Media.”

Title changes aside, how can mid-sized for-profits and nonprofits use this technology to do more than put out 140-character press releases?

  1. If you are a school or university, consider tweeting to keep in touch with alumni on issues they care about.  But also tweet parents about important news–changes to the soccer game schedule, deadlines for scholarship apps, etc.  Letting them opt-in will make them feel they aren’t going to miss important news.
  2. If you are in the business of social change, keep donors up to date on the impact of their funding.
  3. If you are a government agency, keep stakeholders apprised of policy issues and where they stand, and any new information you have posted elsewhere about it to save them time fishing for it.
  4. If you are a for-profit, keep customers apprised of issues and information that could negatively or positively affect their business outcomes, so you can demonstrate your depth of knowledge in your field and your value.
  5. If you are a thought leader in your area of expertise, consider sharing what you know, what you are reading, and people worth watching. (For some reason, nonprofit leaders are particularly late adopters of this technology, and yet they have the most to benefit from one another and the least staff resources to pull in the information in other ways.)

Nothing replaces people and budget, but it looks like Twitter can offer some interesting opportunities to maintain a good brand presence in this downturn.

Volunteers are the hard currency of nonprofit work. They are the grassroots organizers, the field operatives, the advocates in the community, the donors and board leaders.  And yet they often get the least amount of training and support when it comes to communicating what you do and who you are. At the DC Cares Philanthropy Summit I attended this week, Nicky Goren, Acting CEO for the Corporation for National and Community Service commented (and I paraphrase) that a large donor will be paired with an executive, but a volunteer will be managed by an intern.   We both have nothing against interns, I’m sure, but I agree that we do often under-support volunteers.

Volunteers Need to Know Your “Elevator Pitch”

One of the most important tools you can give a volunteer is a firm understanding of your mission priorities.  This can often be called talking points or an “elevator pitch.” (For details, see my post on brand consistency). You also want to convey the key aspects of your brand values. Hopefully someone who volunteers for you already has some sense of these or they wouldn’t have given of their time, but it’s worth conveying the kind of tone and face you want for the organization.

Miscommunication Undermines Mission

The way information is communicated about your organization, as well as the content of that information, contributes to how your nonprofit brand is perceived.  Years of good work in the community can be eclipsed very quickly by a few misspoken words, or a freelance opinion from a volunteer who doesn’t know the full picture.  Not speaking on an issue can also damage the organization’s reputation.   A situation at The Horace Mann School, and independent school in New York, is a case in point.  The school dismissed an English teacher after he wrote a satirical novel set in a school much like that of his (former) employer.  Some faculty and parents objected strongly to the dismissal.  The teacher sued the school.  The New York Times published a story on the situation, and called the board, the alumni association and the head of school’s office for quotes. All refused.  The story included the following stinging notation: “Horace Mann officials, including Head of School Thomas M. Kelly, declined to comment for this article. Many parents of current students, members of the alumni council and current teachers did not return phone calls requesting interviews about the dispute stirred by Mr. Trees. The school’s motto is ‘Great is the truth and it prevails.’ ”

I use this story to illustrate the fact that “no comment” can have just as negative an impact on your brand as misinformation.  Volunteers and board members should be briefed periodically by the executive or Board Chair on key initiatives, goals and successes, but also failures or challenges.  When volunteers and board members are familiar with your story and how you communicate it, they do a better job of supporting your organization. And by being in regular contact with communications staff, they know who to go to if they have questions when something more critical arises.

Brief Volunteers on Key Messages

Regular communication with board members, donors and volunteers, in good times and difficult ones, is essential to helping them support your brand in the community.  Be sure to give new volunteers a short orientation to be sure they understand your core values, your core mission areas, and your strategic goals for the year.  When board members, volunteers and donors are on the same page, they can help move the mission forward by communicating with stakeholders and engaging new donors and volunteers.  When these same individuals are in the dark, or not well prepared to describe your work, your impact will suffer. (I once overheard a parent involved with an organization pitch it by saying they were having trouble filling spots for their program–probably not the message they wanted in the community!)

In these economic times, volunteers are more essential than ever in helping nonprofits deliver on their mission.  Make sure you have a branding and communications plan that supports them in their work.

If you have a great way of briefing new volunteers, please share it!

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth ten thousand.  That’s why You-Tpower snackube, Vimeo and other online video tools have become so useful to small businesses, nonprofit organizations and federal agencies who in the past may have avoided video because of the cost of mass distribution. (The cost of quality production isn’t necessarily cheap, but if you are able to get your video 100,000 views rather than 100, obviously your cost per view goes way down).

So what are video content best practices?

After having produced roughly 400 such projects, here are my Top Five Tips for Creating Successful Video Content:

1.  Know How the Video Fits Into Your Brand Plan. You have a great story—someone touched by your organization, or some important piece of information that needs to be disseminated to the public. Great. But know how it fits into your overall messaging and branding strategy. Will your name or the name of a particular product/service be consistently mentioned? Are you trying to promote recognition for your organization, for a particular project or person? Do you need to build support for an initiative or connect viewers to your larger mission? Will there be other supporting media for this video content? (i.e. direct mail and/or email campaigns to drive traffic?)  Do you need other lives for this content after it is first published (see #4)?

2.  Know Your Target Audience. If your audience is “everyone,” think again.  Develop target sub-demographics and learn what kinds of content appeals to them.   If your story has multiple parts/levels, consider breaking into smaller pieces and placing the content with different headings/links in order to attract the right audience.

3.  Buy the Best You Can Afford. Remember what your mother once told you about buying a dining room set?  “Buy the best you can because you want it to last.”   Many organizations make the mistake of thinking that if something is going to appear on the web or in a podcast, it can be produced on a shoestring because it’s a one-use item.  To the contrary, every penny you spend should be powerful and credible.  The production plan should include multiple ways to use your source material after the initial roll-out.  For example, if you have an interview-driven story, plan the interviews so that other selects can be used elsewhere (and make sure your permissions cover this alternate usage!).  Background footage (“b-roll”) can also be re-purposed.  My personal preference is to shoot high definition, widescreen video because it makes a bigger impact even when compressed for the web, since it degrades less.  But whatever your format, a polished production, professionally produced, will also allow you to “multi-purpose” the end-product more reliably, pulling parts for your website, your intranet, an email campaign, or a large-screen projection at a major donor event.

4.  Make it Short and Sweet. When watching television, people can relax in their favorite comfy chair, and even then the average program contains only 22 minutes of actual content.  On the web, viewed in a tiny box, in a show that likely does not contain professional actors and perhaps offers a glimpse of you speaking or some kind of advocacy message, your time-frame for catching attention drops to minutes.  And when you consider mobile video going to iPhones and the like, we’re talking seconds.  So make every second count. That means using visuals, music, audio, graphics–everything at your disposal–to make a message with impact. (Important note on copyright: make sure the visuals and audio belongs to you, or that you’ve licensed it for mass distribution!)

5.  Measure Impact. Speaking of impact, measure it! So many organizations produce video content without a handle on whether or not it is effective. Plan a way to find out. It could be a short email survey to a random sampling of people who received your web link or signed up for you podcast. It could be an audience survey for a live event. It could be simply aggregating the data already provided to you by You Tube or your podcast distributor.  Analyzing and disseminating this information amongst your leadership and communications team will help you refine your approach the next time.

Social media and the web of access provided by Web 2.0 have had a profound impact on how organizations function.  And while corporations were early adopters, government agencies and nonprofits have now caught up and are fundamentally changing the way they connect to the people they serve.

But there are pitfalls to instant communications.

As anyone who has sent an email and wished they hadn’t knows, in a Blackberry world, it is all too easy to push something out of our in-box and into someone else’s without taking much time to think about that transaction. We need to remember that we represent a brand–for ourselves, or perhaps as a staff person for a government entity or board volunteer for a nonprofit.  We need to remind ourselves that however trivial it may seem, every piece of information we send communicates something about our brand.

I thought about this recently when I sent an email to the head of an organization with whom I’ve been involved for five years with a concern about a staff policy with respect to its “customers.”  Within seconds, he had forwarded my email to those very staff whose actions concerned me (note to self: mark such emails Confidential).  He later explained that he was busy getting ready for an upcoming conference and didn’t really have time to deal with it himself and wanted to be sure the matter was handled. The takeaway I got from that interaction–rightly or wrongly–was 1) he was overwhelmed by the job;  2) he didn’t value the direct communication of an involved supporter; 3) he wasn’t a great communicator.

We can all be more mindful of how quickly we press that “send” or “forward” button, whether we represent only ourselves or an entire organization.

On the positive side, the instant message world offers new opportunities to promote your mission and brand. Many organizations routinely change the “tag line” for staff emails to include current campaigns, web links, new You Tube videos, twitter feeds, etc.  But there are just as many who miss the opportunity and have staff who send emails with no information at all.

Here are the kinds of communications that are often overlooked, but which your staff (and board) should always consider affects the perception of your brand:

1. Letters to Your Constituents/Community.  Especially those updating people on an important issue (for example, how you are handling swine flu with respect to your upcoming conference)

2. External Emails.  Every staff person should have contact info, tag line, web links, and any other relevant link-of-the week on their emails to keep your constituents up to date.  Anyone with a Blackberry should be careful where they point that thing!

3. Internal/Staff Emails. Be sure it’s clear these are for internal consumption only, but still think about how it would look posted on your website.

4. Staff Blogs. This is becoming a significant issue for hospitals, law firms and universities, since many doctors, legal experts and professors have their own blogs. And while they are independent individuals with opinions, they also must operate within the framework of their institution (not to mention federal laws like HIPPA).

5. You Tube Videos. Be sure you have permission from anyone in your videos and any music or voiceover talent you use in them to be on the Internet (often, organizations create internal videos and the licensing for the music and narrator, as well as the permissions for on-camera appearances have not been cleared for internet use).

6. Facebook Pages. Many organizations are now encouraging staff to post to their FB pages and to show a more personal side. Just think about exactly how personal you really want to be in a work context.

7. Twitter Feeds. Thankfully brief, these should still link back to mission and direct readers to your other brand presences.

Your brand can both benefit from and suffer from our Web 2.0/Blackberry world. Taking the time to think through your electronic brand extensions is now mission-critical.

The salmonella-in-peanuts debacle reminds us that brands built over a lifetime can be ruined in an instant—even for actions and outcomes for which those brands are not responsible. Sales of direct-to-consumer peanut butter—which does not contain the tainted Peanut Corporation of America nuts—are down 25%. Big names like Kelloggs (Keebler, Famous Amos), JM Smucker (Jif) and ConAgra Foods (Peter Pan) are reeling. Thousands of smaller companies have filed for bankruptcy. The lawn fertilizer giant Scotts even filed a law suit for damage to its bottom line and its good name against a supplier who failed to admit to Scotts that it had sold tainted peanut meal, used in the company’s wild bird seed. (The Washington Post, Sunday March 1st). Peanut farmers, who had nothing to do with the infected processing plant, said they are experiencing staggering losses and will plant 30% fewer crops this year (NPR, 2/10). The very brand of the peanut itself has been damaged.
One of the lessons to learn from this brand catastrophe is that if what’s known as the “brand promise” is broken, even if not by your organization, you may be punished anyway. Nonprofits learned this the hard way after the United Way and Red Cross accounting issues arose, and Congress, the IRS and donors large and small began asserting themselves with concerns about financial oversight at other 501(c)3’s.

So, how to deal with such brand threats?

Of course, you must actively push out the great stories of your organization and what it does in the world. Web-delivered success anecdotes, You-tube videos, and Facebook updates are all part of this package, and most nonprofits are already actively managing and updating this content in order to “tell their story” every day. But often overlooked is another component of brand management: defending your story, and your good name, from becoming tarnished by forces both internal and external.

Two excellent antidotes to brand threats are 1) good governance, and 2) good listening. In today’s climate of more rigorous oversight, small organizations must create better clarity, benchmarks and rules for how they run themselves. Larger ventures have a different challenge: peeling back the layers of programs, administration and large boards so that constituents–donors, staff, volunteers—can understand what you do and how you do it. Maintaining a high level of transparency and using governance best practices are part of the antidote for brand problems.

Engaging Critics

Intertwined with good governance must be a regular process for good listening. That means listening to those who are actively “marketing” against you. Maybe it’s an individual who was unhappy with an outcome at your hospital. Perhaps it’s a small but vocal group who disagrees with your organization’s position on a policy issue. Or someone who posts an anti-your-organization social networking page (case in point: the uproar over the new “Avatar” TV series’ lack of Asians in its lead cast, led by a Facebook group with more than 2,200 members as of today and causing the studio to recast at least one lead role.) Whatever the source—and this is critical–you need to be engaged with critics of your brand. Even when you think/know they are wrong. Even when it’s just one person. Because, in the world of 24 hour news cycles and the blogosphere, one person can be a very powerful voice.

Listening Gets Results

And if you listen, you will often find at the heart of the complaint a real issue you need to address—something that is showing a tear, if not a break, in your brand promise. Fixing it gives you the opportunity to improve your services and outcomes before a problem reaches crisis proportions. And then, be sure to tell everyone about those improvements. Rinse, repeat!

Nonprofits often resist marketing. Marketing and sales smack of for-profit activities. In the best of cases, marketing dollars are viewed as an expenditure that reduces money for core mission projects. Worst case, branding, marketing and brand management are considered downright inappropriate.

But whether you know it or not, you are already selling your mission. The question is to whom, how, and how effectively?

In today’s highly competitive marketplace of ideas, your non-profit organization has very little emotional space in which to differentiate itself from the pack. When a nonprofit calls or sends us mail, or when a friend discusses volunteering, we look at this request not just against a backdrop of all our nonprofit investments but also against the other competing interests in our lives—our son’s Little League team, our work picnic, the birthday party we are hosting next weekend.

Here’s where a strong brand comes into play.

When a household already contributes to a church and a Little League Team and a PTA, they may feel that their nonprofit “basket” is full. To make an impression on this family, a nonprofit has to make a bold and memorable case for support. Having a strong brand already in place can help open the door or close the sale. For example, when my local volunteer fire department comes knocking at the door for their annual donation drive, I already understand their brand. They volunteer at our schools to explain fire safety to the children. The firehouse hosts kids’ parties and we’ve all taken the tour and tried to lift the 100-plus pounds of gear each firefighter wears in a fire. And a few years ago, they put out a fire on my street. They have a strong brand and they don’t need to tell me what they do. So the conversation is focused on what level of donation I am able and willing to give for the cause.

Not everyone can have as compelling and easy a case to understand as the local volunteer fire department. But if they don’t, they need to work hard to make it easy for people both inside and outside the organization to “get” what change they make in the world. Then, the trick is that once you’ve invested time and dollars making your brand known, you need to manage your brand so that there’s no slippage. Your “brand promise” has to be delivered as expected every time your organization or its name/logo is used. And that means Every Time, or you may have done lasting damage to your mission by reducing your ability to raise funds and attract talented staff and volunteers. (More on how good governance connects to your brand promise in a future posting).

Do you have a brand success story or brand crisis? Please share (names can be changed to protect organizational anonymity)!