3 Market Changes That Have Completely Altered the Role of Marketing in Nonprofit Organizations

Word of mouth cartoon


Gone are the days of marketing from the inside-out…When the exhibits teams would decide on the new attraction and leave it to the marketing team to get folks in the door. Now, in order to remain relevant and solvent, nonprofit organizations must market from the outside-in.

The increasing importance of the role of technology in our lives has brought about several changes in how the market interacts with organizations, raised the stakes in brand communication (with a new emphasis on accessibility and transparency), and even altered how we maintain our own personal relationships. This era of stakeholder (donor and constituent) empowerment has also changed the way that smart, sustainable organizations operate on the whole…not just how they “market.”

The old, inside-out method of marketing: Nonprofit boards of directors, exhibits teams, program executives or other content gatekeepers decide on the next, big feature or program for an organization – often based solely on “experiential intuition” and supported by little or no market data.  In other words, the “Someone Important – a would-be expert – just decides” method of content development.

Once the decision is made, marketing teams are notified of the content and charged with the task of bringing people in the door to see/experience the content that this important person/committee likes. It’s a self-protecting system for higher-ups and other departments: If people didn’t come, it was the marketing department’s fault.

The new, necessary outside-in method of marketing: Organizations actively listen to their audiences and collect market data to determine what kind of content the organization’s visitors and supporters want. Instead of marketing and PR teams responding to executive committees alone, things are increasingly the other way around: Marketing folks are the experts on your audience and they work with decision-makers to determine which programs will engage the maximum audience (and, in turn, attendant revenues). Instead of being informed of what to “sell,” marketing teams within the most successful organizations that IMPACTS works with (nonprofit and for-profit clients alike) are brought on board in the earliest phases of the content development process to lend voice to the market’s preferences.

Here are three, critical evolutionary changes that serve as key reasons why organizations benefit by “marketing” from the outside-in:


1. There is an increased emphasis on product and experience (mostly, because you cannot hide it if people do not like your product or service)

How many times have you looked at your on-staff social media pro and asked urgently, “How can we increase our Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews?!” (Some CEOs even ask me this with the assumption that the answer lies in somehow “mastering” social media sites!) Your social media pro can’t increase your peer review ratings on their own because peer reviews are a result of audience experiences with your product or service. Marketers can frame the experience, provide critical clarification, and manage customer service on public platforms after the event, but you cannot sweet-talk your way out of several already-posted negative peer reviews harping on the same product or service downfall. In today’s world of transparency with the increased importance of word of mouth validation, smart organizations increasingly understand that sometimes maintaining support and affinity is dependent upon listening to audiences and then changing the product.

Increasingly, organizations are finding that they should not just have special exhibits – they should aim to have special exhibits and permanent collections that people want. (I’ll put extra emphasis on permanent collections because we can trace “Blockbuster Suicide”  to many of the financial perils currently faced by many museums).


2. Welcome to the age of the empowered constituent/supporter (and the increased need for audience interaction and participation)

Thanks in large part to the real-time nature of social media and digital platforms, today’s audiences are armed with vast amounts of real-time information. So much information, in fact, that audiences prefer to make decisions on their own or with the help of peer review sources (the value of which is on the rise). Indeed, if your organization isn’t particularly attune to the market (or chooses to selectively ignore potentially negative feedback as “anomalistic”), then there is an excellent chance that your audience may have more “visitor intelligence” than you do.

The role of the curator is evolving, and people now prefer to experience and interact rather than to be told what to do/think. We are seeing an increase in audience participation and crowdsourced exhibits. With these trends possibly re-defining the staid reputation of museums and other visitor-serving organizations, the “come to this because I told you so” method of thinking about marketing doesn’t work as well. It’s an outdated, inside-out approach to cultivating visitors. Today, organizations build stronger affinity when they articulate the value for the visitor (i.e. “What’s in it for the audience?”) rather than messages wherein the only apparent “gain” is the admission revenue (i.e. “What’s in it for the organization?”).  And, really, the “Because I say it will make you smarter” rationale doesn’t cut it as a major component of the value proposition.

Simply put, in order to articulate value to your visitor, you have to know your visitor now more than ever before.


3. Nonprofits sometimes determine importance, but the market always determines relevance (and organizations that misunderstand this now experience expedited financial strife)

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating: As highly-credible topic-experts and trusted authorities, nonprofits often are able to declare “importance.” However, if the market isn’t interested in your area of expertise or does not find it salient in their lives, they may deem your “importance” to be irrelevant. All too often, nonprofits generally misunderstand the role of the public as the ultimate arbiters of an organization’s relevance…and how much they need supporters and diversified revenue streams simply to stay afloat.

When we forget this, we get caught up and sidetracked by things like Judith Dobrzynski’s recent “High Culture Goes Hands-On” article in the New York Times. We forget that at the end of the day, we need to attract attendees, members, donors, and supporters…and that a museum that is closed cannot serve its social mission.

Due to the speedy share rate of vast amounts of information, we now live in a time when irrelevant messages are easily drowned out by other priorities – and even more-relevant “noise!” This may possibly expedite financial woe for organizations unwilling to consider the wants and needs of their audiences.

We must keep up or get left behind. We must evolve (like every other being, entity, or industry that has ever existed) or risk extinction. Increasingly, a big part of our evolution is discontinuing old habits of marketing from the inside-out, and instead keeping tabs on the market so that we may contemplate the best ways to operate from the outside-in.


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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 5 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

5 Responses to 3 Market Changes That Have Completely Altered the Role of Marketing in Nonprofit Organizations

  1. Dana Allen-Greil

    As someone working in education at a museum but who has a firm grasp on and experience in marketing and outreach, I always say that good education programs ARE good marketing (but not always the other way around). I often feel compelled to say this when I encounter THAT LOOK when someone says the word “marketing.” That looks that says “ick.” Marketing is still a dirty word for many museum professionals; it is seen as crass, not intellectual or serious, and driven only by popularity or financial aims.

    For some reason many people working in museums seem to think that marketing is just promotion or advertising. But the idea that marketing is more than that isn’t a new idea. Marketing is really a 360 degree function that starts with what you are offering (product) and who your audience is (people). It isn’t that everything a museum does has to appeal to the broadest possible base (another misconception: that marketing people just want to go for the biggest possible general audience). Rather, the product should be developed with an audience in mind and then promoted to that audience. It’s an end-to-end job that requires a seat at the table from the inception of a project in order to succeed. All of these issues have been fundamental to marketing theory since the 1960s.

    I do see how social media has sparked more conversations about the role and function of marketing, i.e., should social media “live” with press/communications/marketing? With digital? With education? With customer service? With fundraising? I know you’ve written quite convincingly about how social media must be represent many parts of an institution to be successful. Conversations about where social media should live are a teachable moment in which we can broaden the discussion to larger issues of marketing. Those of us working outside of a marketing department in museums must be accountable for collaborating on marketing aims and a better understanding of what marketing is really about is critical in order for this to catch on.

    One of the big market issues I think you missed in your list is a more widespread belief (since the 1980s) that museums are educational institutions first and foremost, with the corresponding value of being accessible and relevant to more people. I think your #1 issue (product and experience) has always been important; I don’t think there is an “increased emphasis” on this today. I think what is changed is WHO the product and experience are for and HOW we know what those people think and want from us.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking piece, Colleen!

  2. Susan

    Please say more about the NY Times article. I’m interested in your reaction to it. Seems like you think those museums missed the mark — and she did too.

    • colleendilen

      Thanks for asking, Susan. To clarify: I do not think the museums that Dobrznski mentioned have missed the mark. I do think that the author and those executives who may have read her article and taken her more personal assessment at the end as expert analysis may be missing the mark.

      In regard to increasing active participation in museums, she writes: “This is all in the name of participation and experience — also called visitor engagement — but it changes the very nature of museums, and the expectations of visitors. It changes who will go to museums and for what.” I think this is the point. I don’t think museums are losing what makes them unique (a question she raises in the article). Instead, smart institutions are changing to be MORE unique – and also to remain relevant to meet the evolving needs of a changing marketplace with different expectations than those of the past. In short, the author’s perceived desire to stymie museum business evolution or stall change may not be representative of the needs of organization constituents and the business changes required to remain solvent.

  3. Susan

    Thanks for the clarification, Colleen. I may have read the NY Times article too quickly. So visitors’ expectations have already changed and the institutions she cited have evolved to meet those expectations. But the author has it out of order.

  4. Dan Spock

    Wondering if you saw the recent dust-up between Dobrznski and Nina Simon over her blog post attacking her work at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Make sure to read Nina’s rebuttal on the thread. http://www.artsjournal.com/realcleararts/2013/09/trouble-in-paradise-santa-cruzs-museum-loses-its-way.html


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