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What Is That Noise?

April 19, 2018

NoiseHow many times have you been startled by a noise and thought: What in the world?

You try to ignore it, but it won't stop, so you decide to take action. You go looking for the source, find and disable it, and sigh as you walk back to your chair.

I know the feeling. It's a feeling of exasperation, the feeling you get when someone or something absolutely insists you pay attention, whether you want to or not.

It's the feeling many of us have after we've been exposed to nonprofit marketing.

Hey, I get it. Marketing is noise to some and the stuff of life for others. It can inspire, persuade, and make us fall in love. It can move us to action or dissuade us from taking a stand. It can be something we welcome into our world — or something that intrudes on us when we least expect it.

The question you need to ask is: Is our marketing something our supporters want, or is it the noise in the background they wish would stop. Based on my experience, there's too much of the latter happening in our space.

Let me explain.

When I'm asked by nonprofit organizations to evaluate or design a strategy to raise awareness of their cause or help them build a movement, the first thing I ask them is to share their marketing materials with me. I then go through those materials with an eye to identifying common themes and key messages. Often, however, my review ends with the thought, What was that noise?

Don't get me wrong. In most cases, the materials tell a good story. Many tend to feature a "heroic" individual or individuals, and almost all end with a call to action involving a donation.

Why are "hero" stories so common? And are they effective? I'm skeptical. And the reason for my skepticism is that, in most cases, the target audiences for those stories had no role in creating them.

Still with me? Let's try a thought experiment.

On a piece of paper, answer the following questions:

  • What is the real purpose of your organization?
  • Why should I care about it?
  • Who benefits from its efforts, and how am I connected to them?

I'm willing to bet the questions above caused you to sit back and spend a few minutes thinking about your answers. I'm also willing to bet your answers included some version of the following:

  • Non-specific concepts like the all-too-familiar "e" words (empower, educate, engage).
  • Statistics related to the problem your organization is working to solve or address.
  • The "hero" typically featured in your marketing materials and promotions.

Now let's try a different thought experiment. On a piece of paper, answer the following:

  • Whom do you admire at work and why?
  • Who made a difference in your life?
  • Tell me about a person you know who is going through a personal or professional challenge at the moment?

As you were writing, I'm willing to bet your fingers could barely keep up with your thoughts. Why? Because you were prompted to think about a person or persons whom you admire and have a deep affinity for. In effect, it was an exercise about first "listening" to your audience — i.e., you — before "talking" to it.

In my opinion, the exercise above underscores a real problem with the marketing materials so many of us create and use. The stories we share with supporters and potential supporters tend to be inauthentic — not because our intentions are bad, but because they have very little relatability to the individuals with whom we are communicating. They are not of the audience, by the audience, or for the audience. They are what we think our audience wants to hear.

Here's the thing: the difference between the kind of messaging our audiences want to hear and are likely to respond to and plain old noise is that the former must be created with our intended audience's participation and permission.

So don't be a noise-maker. You want the members of your audience to care about and share your marketing messages with others. And for that to happen, you need to get their input before you sit down to create a marketing campaign. But most of all, you need to be with them — authentically — before you get down to the business of talking to them.

Headshot_derrick_feldmann_2015Derrick Feldmann is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change and the founder and lead researcher on the Millennial Impact Project.

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