Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA)

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Eight Realities To Help You Become A Data-Informed Cultural Organization

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A Quarter of Likely Visitors to Cultural Organizations Are In One Age Bracket (DATA)

Nearly 25% of potential attendees to visitor-serving organizations fall into one, ten-year age bracket. Which generation has the greatest Read more

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The Top Seven Macro Trends Impacting Cultural Organizations

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The Three Most Overlooked Marketing Realities For Cultural Organizations

These three marketing realities for cultural organizations may be the most urgent – and also the most overlooked. This Read more

Financial Solvency

The Game Has Changed: Nonprofits Now Compete with For-Profits (DATA)

Arm wrestling for profit

An organization’s nonprofit status may carry neither the perceptual weight nor the relevance that many leadership teams imagine…and nonprofits may be sabotaging their own opportunities for support because of it.

All organizations – not just nonprofits – are now in the business of promoting “social good” in order to gain support. The recent Super Bowl was an excellent example. From McDonald’s “Pay With Love” commercial, to Dove’s #LikeAGirl campaign, to all of the emotional daddy-love commercials tugging at our heartstrings, the world’s biggest advertising stage was full of attempts to demonstrate meaningful brand values. The integration of social values within business operations and communications – “corporate social responsibility” – is one of today’s most prominent business trends. And, this trend has a profound impact on nonprofit organizations because, today, the market demands transparency and authenticity to encourage support (e.g. donation, ticket purchase, etc.). The market increasingly expects organizations to articulate and demonstrate a “why” (or “so what?”) beyond “to make money.” In fact, many studies demonstate that social responsibility is no longer optional for businesses.

In other words, if your organization imagines one of its key differentiators to be its social responsibility, well, then your thinking may be at complete odds with the way the market perceives and evaluates all organizations (i.e. nonprofits and for-profits alike).

Consider this: A nonprofit organization’s “competition” for funds and market share isn’t limited to a similar organization down the street. It’s increasingly a myriad of entities within the for-profit sector. And, generally, these entities have a leg-up in allocating financial resources to help communicate and support their social missions.

Here are some considerations for organizations to remain relevant and meaningful in our age of social good for business’s sake:

 

1) Consider that people may not even know that you are nonprofit

“Wait. What?!” For many individuals working within nonprofits, this can be a big shock. However, time and time again in my work at IMPACTS, the data indicate that the majority of the same public that organizations endeavor to serve do not know that many nonprofits are actually nonprofits.

IMPACTS perception of VSOs as nonprofit

A majority of people – including visitors! – are unaware that these organizations are nonprofits. As the data indicates, the market’s lack of regard for an organization’s tax status extends to all types of visitor-serving organizations – so no one is immune to this condition. The question is: Does it matter? Well, if you consider your organization’s tax-exemption as a primary differentiator in a crowded, competitive market, then this data may be very alarming. However, if you tend to accept that the market is infinitely more interested in what you actually do as an organization than it is in the esoterica and vagaries of the US tax code, then this finding isn’t nearly so troubling.

We all know how challenging it can be to make a lasting impression. In the few precious moments when we hope to engage with our audiences, is the foremost thing that we hope to communicate about our tax status? And, if so, does the market even care? Which leads me to…

 

2) Audiences are increasingly sector-agnostic

The fact that people are confused about the nonprofit status of many organizations likely doesn’t matter.

Data suggest that 91% of global consumers will chose to associate with and support brands and organizations that provide some sort of social benefit over a product that does not. For nearly all brands right now, it’s cool to be kind.

For-profits are well aware of this and many have (or have had) campaigns that tie directly to a purpose, prominently including: Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative, Bank of America and Khan Academy’s Better Money Habits, Coca-Cola’s Ekocenter, and Toyota’s Meals Per Hour, and LifeBuoy’s Help a Child Reach 5. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. These initiatives are focused and generally easy to communicate and understand. This may be why the Pepsi Refresh Project didn’t do very well by comparison – and that also may be why many true nonprofit organizations are struggling when it comes to communications. But I digress…

While many of these types of initiatives include a nonprofit beneficiary, the fact remains (and, indeed, becomes glaringly obvious): People don’t need to donate directly to a nonprofit to support something that they believe in. They can simply buy fast-food fried chicken.

And, with that, BAM! We’ve attached the idea of “giving” to a traditional economic utility curve. This model is arguably more sustainable because the consumer actually gets something (a product or experience) in addition to the feel-good attached to supporting a cause. Whether nonprofits like it or not, this model changes the way people think about supporting causes.

It’s great that some nonprofits are benefiting from these campaigns. They are an opportunity for securing support from a for-profit company and can be very successful partnerships! However, many organizations neglect to consider what all of this may be doing to the general market’s attitude toward nonprofits. I’m absolutely not saying that these partnerships are a bad idea. I’m saying that to move forward, it may be best to recognize (and accept) this evolution we’ve helped to create in the market’s perception and their related progression toward a more sector-agnostic world.

 

3) Having a mission is money

It’s time that nonprofits remove the emotion that may be elicited by the use of the word “mission” so close to the word “money” and tackle this one head-on. I’m talking mostly to organizations that do provide a service, product, or experience and indeed operate – at least a little bit – based upon the concept of a more traditional utility curve (i.e. visitor-serving organizations).

Visitor-serving organizations that highlight their mission financially outperform those marketing primarily as attractions. At IMPACTS, we check in on this data every quarter and the connections between how well audiences believe that an organization achieves its mission continues to correlate with financial performance.

Yes, nonprofits are arguably and increasingly competing with for-profits – but not on how well these entities can be for-profit-y. For-profits are competing with nonprofits regarding how conceptually nonprofit-y they can be!

Transparent, social-good acting, for-the-best advocating, morally-sound, socially-valuable…the same perceptions that may have been traditionally associated with successful nonprofits are among the biggest wants of for-profits in today’s world. If your marketing team is all about discounts and sweepstakes and only posting about how people should “visit us!” tell them to knock it off. That’s not good business, and it’s not the sweet spot in which these organizations need to shine.

 

4) Demonstrating impact and prioritizing transparency are more important for nonprofits than ever before

Donors increasingly make decisions based more on the values that an organization shows by way of their actions and real-time communications on social media then what an organization tells in ads and individual status updates. The web empowers potential supporters to make their own decisions about organizations based on their overall perception of the brand. Organizations that don’t walk their talk generally suffer. Extreme cases are those of McDonalds and SeaWorld.

Right now, nonprofits risk being perceived as second-rate at achieving the very positive attributes that define them (i.e. being about more than making a buck).

Sharing compelling mission-related stories and providing real impact is at the heart of many nonprofit organizations, and its how they’ve kept the lights on for decades. In fact, people care more about how they feel when they give than how organizations spend their money. The reality is that many for-profits have more resources to elicit the very emotions that nonprofits try to summon…and that “giving” could be going somewhere else.

 

Nonprofits are masters of tugging at heartstrings and making the world a better place. Now – more than ever before – it’s up to all nonprofit organizations to do more than tell. It’s time to show how well we do what we do best. Our increasingly sector-agnostic world has changed the game. Organizations need to decide if they still want to be a valuable player and, if so, update best practices accordingly.

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page (or ) Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter

 

Photo credit:  © Nikolai Sorokin | Dreamstime.com

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Financial Solvency, Fundraising, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

Three New Pricing Realities For Visitor-Serving Nonprofits in The 21st Century (DATA)

Admission tickets

Want to keep moving your mission moving forward and your doors open? It’s time to end the debate on these pricing-related topics.

As the visitor-serving industry (museums, theaters, symphonies, historic sites, etc.) broadly struggles with declining attendance trends and a potentially unsustainable reliance on kindness and not commerce, “getting your price right” is more important than ever to nonprofits who depend on the gate to support their missions. Too high of a price may serve as a barrier to visitation. Too low of a price risks leaving money on the table and all of the attendant fiscal challenges associated with failing to maximize earned revenues.

Much is happening in the world that changes/challenges the way that traditional visitor-serving nonprofits operate: social media and technology, the need for real-time transparency, and changing demographics in the United States and beyond are just a few, prominent factors influencing our industry. And, these factors are changing everything from internal operations to membership products and the role of fundraising. And, unsurprisingly, the information age requires embracing new realities related to pricing.

Let’s end the debate on these three pricing-related topics and get on with the business of running effective businesses that enable meaningful missions:

 

1) Pricing is NOT an art (Pricing is now a science)

Determining the optimal price of admission is no longer a trial and error process. In fact, it’s anything but a “guess” (however well-educated). Data is playing an increasingly important role in the way that institutions operate for good reason.

A near-decade of research including hundreds of interviews with US visitor-serving nonprofit organizations strongly suggests that many pricing models are the product of “unintentional collusion” (AKA “the blind leading the blind”). This deeply-flawed model fails to contemplate two critical factors when it comes to informing a pricing strategy: (i) the fact that a proximate (or competitive, or peer) organization has established a price does not necessarily mean that it is an optimal price; and (ii) the market tends to view organizations – however “alike” they may be – in very unique terms, and this uniqueness frequently extends to pricing.

Unintentional collusion looks something like this:

IMPACTS unintentional collusion

Thanks to readily available data and analyses, there is no reason to base pricing on anything beyond an organization’s own, unique equities. For every organization, there is a data-based “sweet spot” in which admission prices are optimal.

Let’s consider a quick example of what an optimal pricing strategy looks like when charted (Note: This particular example is from a performance-based entity, but this way of considering pricing applies to any type of admission):

 IMPACTS ticket price analysis example

In the above example, the data-informed analysis suggests that pricing less than $75 for a ticket to the performance (more specifically, to a “premium” seat at a non-matinee, live performance) would be “value advantaged” – a polite euphemism for leaving money on the table! However, anything above $75 pushes the price into the “value disadvantaged” realm – a place where the price poses a needless barrier to entry (and, generally, one where the increased per capita revenues will not offset the decline in attendance). For every category of admission, every organization has an optimal price – one that is neither value advantaged nor value disadvantaged.

Organizations guess their price (without leveraging data to inform their pricing strategy) at their own risk. Getting the price wrong can alienate potential visitors and supporters if it’s too high, and make it difficult to raise prices to an optimal value over time if price starts too low.

Looking for ways to help support a price increase? Well, data suggest that a whiz-bang new exhibit or facility expansion isn’t necessarily coupled to an increased price tolerance. Instead, efforts to improving an organization’s reputation or the overall satisfaction of visitors are much more reliable indicators of increased value for cost perceptions.

 

2) Admission pricing is NOT affordable access (Admission enables affordable access)

A thought that sometimes emerges once an organization’s optimal pricing has been quantified is strangely, “but that’s too expensive to provide affordable access!” Admission is not a substitute for affordable access. Admission and affordable access programs are completely different things…and an organization needs to establish its optimal pricing strategy in order to support effective affordable access programming.

In other words, if you subsidize price in the name of affordable access (i.e. artificially lowering the price to create a value advantaged pricing condition), you are limiting your organization’s ability to fund quality programs that DO provide true affordable access. Making your entire pricing strategy an “affordable access program” leaves money on the table as folks pay an admission price below what they (the market!) indicate they were willing to pay for your experience.

When it comes to the truest definition of affordable access, an admission price point of $15 or $20 or $25 is functionally irrelevant to many of our most under-served audiences…most any price at all may pose an insurmountable barrier to visitation.

What if you aim to provide affordable access for the community? Won’t a high admission price deter folks? The data suggest “no” – at least not the people who were able to pay in the first place – but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to develop true access programming to better engage constituents for whom price is barrier while also considering strategic promotions that celebrate your community. Speaking of which…

 

3) Discounts are NOT promotions (Promotions serve a purpose beyond cheap access)

Promotions celebrate community while discounts devalue your brand. These are very real and very different things. The biggest differentiating factor is the question “So what?” If the point of providing a discount is simply admitting folks for a lower price, then the discount is a bad idea that devalues your brand. (And, as a reminder, data suggests that all discounts provided through social media are bad business for nonprofit organizations.) However, if an organization’s answer to “so what?” is “to celebrate a community” and that purpose is made clear in external communications, then the program that you are describing is a promotion. The feature of a promotion may include a special pricing opportunity – think special pricing for mothers on Mother’s Day, or differentiated pricing for local residents.

Discounts make people say, “I got in cheap.” Promotions make people say, “I feel valued.” Discounts are not only meaningless, but data suggest that they also lead to less satisfying overall experiences and even increase the time before a return visit! While this may be surprising to some folks, it’s classic pricing psychology in action.

IMPACTS intent to revist

 

 

If visitor-serving organizations aim to keep providing inspiration and education to the masses, then the first imperative is to exist – and it’s hard to exist (let alone thrive) in the long-term without a sustainable revenue strategy that optimizes pricing.

Pricing strategies – and even pricing psychologies – are not mysterious so let’s stop guessing. The data is not uncertain.

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution 4 Comments

Signs of Trouble For The Museum Industry (DATA)

Main Hall and Stairs Mational Museum Warsaw

As the US population grows, the number of people attending visitor-serving organizations is (still) in general decline. And this is a very big problem for sustainability without a digital-age shift in our business model.  It’s not just museums. Many visitor-serving organizations – science centers, historical sites, aquariums, zoos, symphonies, etc. – are failing to keep pace with population growth.

Consider: In the five-year duration spanning 2009-2013, the US population increased by 3.5% from 305.5 million to 316.1 million. The majority of this growth occurred in major metropolitan areas – the very population dense regions where many visitor-serving organizations are located. Indeed, nearly one in seven Americans live in the metropolitan areas of the country’s three largest cities – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

However, during the same duration, data indicate that attendance at many nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations has declined. In fact, of the 224 visitor-serving organizations contemplated in the 2014 National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study of Visitor-Serving Organizations (NAAU), 186 organizations (83.0%) reported flat or declining attendance. And this is neither a regional nor curatorial content-specific finding – the study representatively contemplates visitor-serving organizations of every size, type, and area.

Many organizations are hesitant to acknowledge attendance challenges…especially when they have historically cited being the “most visited” as an indicator of their expertise and effectiveness. I sense that pressure from governing boards also plays a role – particularly as many organizations have been tasked to maximize earned revenues (often inevitably linked to visitation). Perhaps most concerning of all are attempts to blunt the challenge by proposing half-measures as remedy – you’ll no doubt recognize the “don’t worry, we’re going digital!” excuse and the related practice of sending mid-level staff to innovation conferences as attempted evidence of progress. (This last excuse may be especially worrisome as it seems that many staff members tasked to “innovate” may not actually be empowered to carryout their plans for advancement.)

But, regardless of the excuse, the numbers suggest that our industry risks becoming less relevant to future audiences. What does this mean to visitor-serving organizations? Let’s look at a few examples. (Note: To keep this from being a huge, overwhelming chart, I pulled out major metro markets and a few areas cited as “up and coming.”)

KYOB VSO attendance - IMPACTS

To illustrate, the population of the Atlanta, GA Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has increased in the past five years by 9.4%. During the same duration, visitation to the Atlanta-area organizations contemplated in the NAAU study indicates an attendance decline of 4.6%. Think about that – if engagement were keeping pace with population growth, an organization with an annual attendance of 1,000,000 in year 2009 would reasonably expect to welcome 1,094,000 visitors in year 2013. Instead, on average, the studied organizations saw attendance decline from the theoretical 1,000,000 visitor level in year 2009 to 954,000 visitors in year 2013. Measured against the expectations of population growth, visitor engagement underperformed by 140,000 visitors!

The expectation would be for attendance to increase alongside population growth – otherwise, it is indicative of underperforming the opportunity.  Again, the findings are stark and concerning for organizations in the engagement business:

KYOB VSO Performance against expectations - IMPACTS

In most any other business, if you saw the market steadily increasing in size and your product’s usage in steady retreat alongside it, you’d likely think, “This business model sucks.”

Well, our business model sucks.

Confronted with this evidence, I’ve heard leaders recycle tired strategies of securing larger donations from an aging donor base, and plans to gain more grant funding from governments and foundations. Generally, they aim to “pivot” from a reliance on earned revenues to (hopefully…fingers crossed!) additional contributed revenues. Except no. The visitor-serving industry doesn’t need to pivot. It needs to reset.

Here are three behaviors we need to adapt to reset our current condition:

 

1) Stop citing poor previous efforts as evidence that something will not work

Some visitor-serving organizations will declare that they “already tried” something after investing only the most minimal of resources necessary to claim effort. This is a surefire recipe for failure …yet, it happens all of the time. Here’s a quick example: Many organizations will offer options to buy tickets online and simply invest enough to create a webpage for it. Then when nobody uses that method to buy tickets they say, “Look! We tried that and nobody bought tickets that way!” Actually, nobody bought tickets that way because your site wasn’t mobile friendly, it takes 10 different screens to buy a ticket, it requires several pages of personal information, it’s confusing and time consuming, and it costs more. Often it’s an organization’s own fault when data-informed things don’t work, but organizations frequently take a half (or maybe a one-tenth) approach to something and basically (knowingly or unknowingly) set it up for certain failure. This is just one, basic example.

“Our crummy product failed, ergo everything related to this project won’t work” justifies stagnancy by masking it with false wisdom. Organizations think that they are cutting-edge for trying something without any conviction, and that the wisdom they received from their inevitable failure justifies closing the book on really big things like digital engagement. How does this even make sense? This type of excuse-making is a shortcut to irrelevance. Just stop doing it.

 

2) Stop defending past decisions

This seems to be a particularly hard one for many leaders to embrace. After all, it may be human nature to defend one’s past decisions as “right” and “good.” And, at the time when they were made, they probably were. But times change. Today, we are witnessing incredible changes – many borne of technological advancement – accelerating progress at a revolutionary pace. By what rightful reason do we think that we’re exempted from the prevailing changes affecting the rest of the world?

Just because you spent thousands and thousands of dollars on print material doesn’t spare you from the necessity of hiring an online community manager. On a more substantial investment scale, those millions of dollars that you invested in a new entrance to facilitate faster put-through times doesn’t exempt you from developing a mobile ticketing platform that may make ticket counters increasingly obsolete. This is a lesson to learn in real-time (as opposed to retrospectively): Repairing and updating past decisions is often more time-consuming and, ultimately, more expensive in the long run than starting anew. It’s OK – heck, even encouraged – to approach the current condition untethered to the past. That was then, this is now.

 

3) Embrace the inevitable path of progress

Max Anderson, CEO of the Dallas Museum of Art, gave a short ignite talk at the most recent Museum Computer Network conference. The topic of his talk was how to “persuade your museum director to help you” (i.e. how to get him/her to invest in “innovation”). From the beginning of the video it’s easy to see one of the biggest, most glaring problems in our industry: He begins his talk by asking how many museum directors are at the conference. Very short awkward silence ensues…followed by laughter. Really?! Are even our conferences about innovation and new ideas attended primarily by middle managers?!

The reason for the lack of executive decision-makers at many conferences is not necessarily the fault of museum CEOs (as the conferences aren’t always adequately geared toward Directors). But it’s not wholly the task of middle managers to communicate and justify the imperative to remain relevant to CEOs either. There’s a messed up barrier to betterment here, and it has more to do with a flawed structure than simple lexicon within an antiquated museum hierarchy. His talk is absolutely true, probably staggeringly helpful, and thus amazingly messed up at the same time.

We’ve developed this detrimental idea that “digital” has to do with “tech” (not people), and “innovation” isn’t necessary for survival. Max Anderson’s “primer on the psychology of museum directors” underscores that the status quo (and, of course, legacy!) is what museum directors are primarily interested in…but the status quo isn’t working to bring in more people by creating crowds OR buzz. Efforts to abide the current condition fundamentally ignore the challenges imposed by a broken model. Changing lexicon is a pivot. Pivots sound pretty. Pivots sound agile. After pivoting, however, you may be facing in a different direction but you’re still standing in the same place.

Millennials – the largest generation in human history – may necessitate an update to the visitor-serving model in the information age. These “kids” will soon have kids, who will eventually have more kids, and if we continue to ignore the reality of negative substitution in our attendance, then we may soon have no museums, aquariums, or symphonies for those “kids” to go to at all. (OK – perhaps some hyperbole. We likely won’t have zero museums. Just more empty ones.)

 

The forces of change that propel the world forward are not going away. If we don’t change our model to one that is more sustainable, then we risk going away. This is a moment when our biggest barrier to engaging emerging audiences is holding dear to our increasingly irrelevant plans and practices. We need a reset. And it’s up to all of us to put our heads together and make it happen.

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter

 

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 11 Comments

Why Using Social Media For The Sake of Using Social Media Hurts Organizations

social media symbolsConducting contests that none of your online audiences are interested in, spending copious time on the newest social media features (that none of your audiences are using), measuring success by vanity metrics, and building out features that nobody is asking for…why do organizations do these things? They don’t help support bottom lines like getting folks in the door, building affinity, increasing donor support, or sharing knowledge if they aren’t relevant to your market or strategically integrated into an engagement plan…. and yet organizations brag about these useless endeavors to their boards and at industry conferences.

Many organizations seem to be feeling so “peer pressured” to be utilizing social media that they are using it to do stupid, time-consuming things for audiences that don’t matter (often, so that they may secure “innovation” points within the industry. Many museums, in particular, are guilty of this one). Your audience that does matter, however, is often left thinking something like this.

Using social media for social media’s sake is dumb. Let’s quit it. Want to impress the nonprofit next door (and also your donors and supporters)? Actually be good at running your organization and using social media to do so. A big reason for this problem is deep-rooted in how organizations view “digital” engagement. Specifically, many view social media as a tech skillset and not a strategy for building relationships with living and breathing human beings.

Doing social media for social media’s sake is like being expert at hammering a hammer but not knowing how to use it to build a house. You purposefully become expert at using the tool…but you forget that the whole reason that you have the tool is to actually build something. Hammers (social media) can help us build bigger and stronger houses (organizations) if we do something more than bang the floors with them.

Here’s why the rampant bad practice of using social media for social media’s sake is (at best) a distraction and, more likely, a stupid and capricious waste of time, talent, and resources:

 

1) It does not accomplish anything

Several questions should be considered before carrying out a digital initiative (or any initiative, for that matter). Some of those questions may be:

  1. Who will this initiative serve/who do we want it to serve?
  2. What do we want this audience to do in the near and long-terms?
  3. How does this initiative help us achieve our stated goals?
  4. “So what?” Or rather, what is the reason why this audience would be interested in this initiative? How is it relevant to them?
  5. What need does this initiative help serve?
  6. How will we capitalize on gains from this initiative with this audience (i.e. what will be the next step in the engagement process for them)?
  7. Does this initiative have value to our desired audience?

Only after contemplating these questions can one determine if an initiative is worth the required effort. If your organization has trouble answering any of these questions – or if the answers are too broad or inconclusive (e.g. “targeting all social media audiences” rather than a subset), consider altering the initiative so that it meets a strategic engagement need or opportunity. Know exactly who you are talking to with the initiative, why it is helpful/relevant to them, what you want them to do, and how you’ll keep them engaged. Most stupid initiatives have only resolved one or two of these things.

 

2) Providing the opportunity to participate does not mean that people will participate

The “If you build it…” mentality is categorically false. Just because you launch an initiative does not mean that people will take part in it. I don’t know why some organizations still overlook this fact. If you’re asking people to take an action that just has too high of a barrier/requires too much effort or doesn’t fulfill a relevant want for them, then they probably won’t do it.

I’m often asked things like, “How can we get more people to participate in our photo contest? We’ve done everything!” The answer depends on what you had hoped to accomplish by launching that specific contest. If you’re targeting the audience and they aren’t biting, chances are your specific initiative is just not going to provide the value you’d hoped because, well, the market has spoken and they are saying, “Nope. Not interested in doing that thing.”

 

3) It wastes resources

Resources can be tight for nonprofit organizations – and time is money. You may as well dedicate your time to spinning in circles in your office instead of carrying out social media for social media’s sake. In fact, that might even be better because it may cause you less stress than having to answer the question, “So…why was that strategically beneficial for us in the long term?”

 

4) It makes social media buy-in harder in the long run

On that note, carrying out several initiatives that aren’t strategically integrated into an engagement plan may make executives wonder what your engagement plan even is! Carrying out social media “bells and whistles” can be like crying wolf. How can executives (let alone your audiences) know which initiatives are important and which are for vanity? These types of initiatives may be especially difficult to reconcile if you don’t even have baseline practices down like social care.

 

5) It misses the point of social media

I refer again to my opening analogy about how social media for social media’s sake is like becoming really good at hammering, but not knowing how to use a hammer to build a house.

 

If you don’t know how that new, “cool” thing that you are doing on social media supports and enhances your organization’s bottom lines, then it’s probably a waste of time, money, and energy. Utilizing social media to strategically engage audiences is not only a good move – it’s increasingly critical.

Lest the signal be lost amidst the noise: The important word in the preceding sentence was “strategically” – not “social media.”

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page (or ) Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends Comments Off on Why Using Social Media For The Sake of Using Social Media Hurts Organizations

The New Trickle Down Effect: Why Nonprofits Are Innovators for Industry

teaching innovation

The company for which I work annually invests millions of dollars to help nonprofit organizations better understand and engage with their donors and visitors… and nonprofit leaders should know why.

It’s been a while since I wrote about myself, so I hope that you won’t mind my taking a moment to point out a trend: Inevitably, after talking shop with readers of “Know Your Own Bone” (but who may not know much about IMPACTS), there’s an awkward moment of silence before I’m asked, “So, why do you do what you do, and how does it…work?”

It sounds like a strange question, but I’ve come to understand exactly what they are asking.

Here’s a bit more about my “day job,” but, on “Know Your Own Bone,” my mission is to make accessible “big data” and data-informed analysis to nonprofit organizations for free (i.e. no advertisements, promoted opinions, sales pitches, etc.) Of course, this response often begs a few follow-up questions: How can I do this and feed myself? And how is this not detrimental to IMPACTS?

It’s no secret that there isn’t generally a massive pile of cash associated with helping nonprofits, and yet I work with a for-profit company that invests millions of dollars to help organizations better understand their market opportunities. It almost risks sounding like an example of “Do as I say, not as I do” – except, it’s decidedly not.

Nonprofit organizations are infinitely complex, and helping to understand how the market engages with that sector has proven incredibly valuable to the other sectors that IMPACTS serves. Indeed, when it comes to innovation, some of the best R&D happening in our space is being pioneered by nonprofits. For once, the “Next Practices” are trickling down from the nonprofit sector to the corporate world.

Here’s why:

1) Motivating visitation and/or giving decisions relies on understanding a series of complex behaviors

While it’s true that nonprofit organizations are not always the quickest to evolve, they rarely get the pat on the back that they deserve for working in an industry that can be exponentially more complex than that of most private enterprise.

Consider this visitor-serving organization example: Getting someone to visit a museum (or theater, symphony, science center, botanic garden, aquarium, historic site, etc.) requires an understanding of many multi-faceted, high-barrier motivations and behaviors. To get to a museum, for instance, a family would need to decide the visit would be worthy of their time, prioritize that experience over every other leisure time pursuit (including staying home and relaxing!), find an open day in everyone’s schedules, get the family dressed and into the car, drive to the museum, park, pay for that parking, play real-life Frogger hustling across a busy street, pay for admission, explore the facilities with the kids until they get tired, stop for snacks (if the kiddos get cranky), avoid (or embrace) the gift shop, then return to the car and fight traffic on the way home…

(Pant, pant…) There is a lot about consumer behavior to understand there…and we haven’t even yet begun to consider the philanthropic motivations that play an important role in helping nonprofits thrive. Perhaps now one can start to understand how – when compared to motivating engagement with nonprofit organizations – getting someone to buy a car, go to a movie, or even vote for a political candidate seems downright simple!

 

2) Understanding those behaviors and motivations informs other industries

Contrast the task of motivating the behavior of visiting an organization with the task of, say, motivating that same small family to enjoy a specific television show in pajamas in the comfort of their own home. If you are a member of the entertainment industry trying to get folks to watch a show – or even sign up for an “on demand” entertainment delivery platform, there is much less to understand and far fewer barriers to engagement.

Understanding why folks behave (or, for that matter, do not behave) in the interests of nonprofit organizations provides IMPACTS with incredible data and insight attendant to extremely complex behaviors, the transitive applications of which frequently inure to the benefit of comparatively less-complex behaviors such as, say, watching television.

Yes. What you work hard to understand and do in your day-to-day jobs at your organization actually informs how other industries do business…because the behaviors that nonprofit organizations motivate are complex and understanding them sheds light on the “hard to measure” aspects of human behavior and motivation. Unlocking the key to complex human behaviors and motivations is the secret sauce in many a corporation’s recipe for success…and the pioneers in this research are often nonprofits.

 

3) People. Planet. Profit. (You actually have THREE bottom lines)

Nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations must not only sustain themselves (some more than others), but they must also serve their communities (people) and social missions (planet). That’s a whole lot to think about compared to private entities – which, generally, are primarily obligated to the single bottom line of profit.

At the risk of some simplification, “profit” is relatively simple to figure out. People and planet – ostensibly selfless business motivations – are a little more inscrutable. And, yet, in our modern era where corporate social responsibility is increasingly good business, there is a growing need to better understand the more intricate aspects of human behaviors.

Again, this doesn’t even touch upon the topic of philanthropy – the motivations of which defy traditional utility curves.

Most simply put, nonprofit organizations are metaphorically juggling three balls at once…while many corporate entities are consumed by the one ball that they have up in the air. Add to this circus the fact that, well, two of your juggling balls are rather strangely shaped. (I love bad metaphors.) Understanding the expertise that goes into juggling three balls at once helps make the work of those with only one or two balls a whole lot easier.

 

4) Nonprofiteers are better than they think (but the imperative to evolve remains urgent)

Visitor-serving organizations, like many nonprofits, can get a bad rap. They are sometimes called slow-moving or culturally antiquated. Negative substitution of audiences is making increasing attendance difficult and long-siloed structures impede abilities to be agile and adaptive. CEOs of nonprofits are generally paid less than their for-profit peers, and retaining talent in a highly-competitive market can be a struggle.

However, consider again that visitor-serving organizations work every day to motivate a series of complex behaviors intended to inspire folks to act in the best interest of not only themselves, but of their larger communities. While some organizations have become accustomed to patting themselves on the back for achieving mediocracy, it’s important to keep in mind that, in many ways, the continued relevance of nonprofits and visitor-serving entities in the face of many challenges is quite a remarkable feat!

I think people who work in nonprofits are the best kinds of fighters. That’s why I’m lucky to get to work with them and that’s why I feel passionate about hounding my company to continue to help them.

 

5) Much of the data conceptually belongs to you

Providing data and insight in a transparent, open-fashion feels like a good practice. Doing the right thing is a reward unto itself. And, in terms of the means of effectuating knowledge transfer, “giving away” information for free is the very nature of blogging.

I don’t think it’s fair to gather information about human behavior regarding visitor-serving organizations and simply sit on it for monetary purposes. Luckily, the company for which I work doesn’t think that either. So I get to share some of it here. I am grateful for that.

The more information I share, the more I hope that I can garner your trust and provide aid as a valuable resource. If I can do that, the data will be more helpful…and the changes we are seeking will have greater impacts in our communities.

Leaders of nonprofit organizations: pat yourselves on the back. What you’re doing is hard, important, and paving the way. 

Data proves it.

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page (or ) Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 4 Comments

The New Realities of Advertising Costs (Hint: You Are Getting Less Than You Think)

Budget expenses

Many nonprofit organizations misunderstand the increasing costs of advertising – and it’s costing them dearly.

It’s that season when organizations are preparing their budgets for the upcoming year. For many of us in the communications space, tis the season of spreading tough-love  in the hope that nonprofit organizations don’t hamstring themselves with a flawed “save one’s way to prosperity” approach to budgeting for marketing expenses – especially social media and advertising. Increasingly, advertising is not an optional expenditure – it is a basic cost of doing business for any organization that relies on the time, engagement, or concern of audiences (…which happens to be most organizations).

When it comes to budgeting for a necessary advertising investment, a tremendous challenge confronting many nonprofit organizations is a reliance on precedent behaviors to inform our future planning efforts. The advent of digital technologies amplified by an increasingly platform agnosticism market have rendered many of the traditional “rules” of advertising obsolete. The communications world – and, in turn, the advertising world – is in a period of significant revolution and reinvention. A dogmatic beholdenness to the past is likely to leave an organization forever behind.

Here are two important points that your organization should keep in mind when it comes to the basic cost of advertising:

 

1) The cost of advertising has increased dramatically in recent years and many organizations are not keeping pace with inflation

Though you may be spending more, you are probably getting less return on your advertising investment than you were a few short years ago. The few percentage points that organizations add to their advertising budgets each year is simply insufficient when contemplated in the context of the escalating costs of advertising.

For instance, in my experience, even forward-thinking organizations keep their annual ad budgets relatively stable (“Hey, this is how we’ve always done it!”) and will sometimes add 5-10% if there’s a special program or campaign taking place that they’re trying to promote. The thing is, while organizations think that they are spending more (because they are actually spending more), they are increasingly getting less.

Take a look at the chart below. The chart indicates examples of observed advertising costs during the last five years.  For relativity purposes, the escalating cost factors have been standardized and charted as index values.

 IMPACTS cost of advertising

“Blended CPM” indicates the growth in costs “blended” across all media types (i.e. broadcast, radio, print, digital, outdoor, etc.) as observed by the actual media plans of twelve IMPACTS clients.  CPM is an acronym representing the Cost per One Thousand impressions.  Thus, the average observed costs to advertise have increased by 41% in the five-year duration ranging from years 2010-2014.

As additional examples of advertising costs, within the same five-year duration, the chart indicates that the costs of a 0:30 second advertisement during the Super Bowl and Grammy Awards broadcasts have respectively increased by 60% and 105%.

We are living in an increasingly personalized world that emphasizes speed and convenience. We can simply TiVo, Apple TV or On-Demand our way out of most ads on our favorite television shows because we watch these shows at our convenience. Because of this, programs that folks watch live (e.g. sports, news, award shows, etc.) command premiums when compared to the costs of similar programming a relatively few short years ago.

In the simplest terms: Yes, on average, your organization will need to have increased its advertising budget by at least 40% in order to match your advertising efforts of five years ago. If you’ve added less than 40% to your budget, then your organization may actually be achieving less advertising impact than you were in 2010.

In the end, it’s a lesson in business and economics: You cannot just throw a bit more money at something year over year and get mad when you don’t get correspondingly “more” in return. If you’re not increasing the budget at the rate of what things cost, then you’re actually getting less. This lesson seems particularly challenging for nonprofit boards to understand when they are confronted with a proposed increase in the advertising budget. “So, if we spend more money on advertising, how much more support will we get?” is a perfectly reasonable question posed by many a board member. However, the question from board members probably ought to be, “If we don’t sustain significant investments in our audience acquisition strategies, how many visitors will we lose…and what will be the costs of trying to re-acquire them in the future?”

 

2) The first thing that organizations often cut is marketing (despite the increasing importance of funding in this area)

Compounding matters is the fact that – despite an abundance of the well-publicized reasons why it is a terrible idea – many organizations trying to balance budgets still seem to cut the marketing budget first.

This may be particularly relevant for visitor-serving organizations (museums, theaters, symphonies, gardens, aquariums, zoos, etc.) as these types of organizations are having a rough time meeting attendance goals. The anxiety associated with this causes organizations to deny data and do a lot of dumb things (and maybe some more dumb things) that will hurt them even more in the long run, and cutting marketing budgets in the Information Age is another one of them.

It’s a tough pill to swallow for traditionalists and specialists within organizations, but marketing is increasingly important for the survival of your organization. For many of the most successful organizations, marketing is at the center of strategic conversations. It’s a big change for many entities! And, organizations aren’t solely deciding that this should be the case…the market is deciding for them. As I say in nearly every post: Organizations can sometimes determine importance, but the market determines relevance.

Mix one part “not keeping up with the cost of advertising” with one part “cutting your marketing budget” and watch your audience awareness dwindle to record lows. For those persons in the nonprofit sector who may continue to balk at the idea that they need to spend more to acquire, engage, and communicate with their audience than they did five years ago, I ask you: What makes advertising exempt from the most basic laws of inflation? Again, these cost increases are the most basic costs of doing business.

 

For marketers, it is a tough road ahead: The “This is how we’ve always done things” and “Last year plus five percent” approach to budgeting and media planning that permeates many organizations is an increasingly doomed strategy. In a way, this post isn’t exclusively about marketing or advertising. It’s about a new way to think about the constantly evolving world that we live in. The world waits for no one. We need to keep pace or risk being left behind.

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page (or ) Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Digital Connectivity, Financial Solvency, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends Comments Off on The New Realities of Advertising Costs (Hint: You Are Getting Less Than You Think)

Why Talking About The Future of Museums May Be Holding Museums Back

Marketoonist- Risks

What if we took some of the time that we spend patting ourselves on the back for thinking about “the future” and use it to better adapt to the world we are living in right now?

Before I jump in, I need to come clean and admit that I’m not innocent here. I’ve been (proudly) called a futurist for visitor-serving organizations and I even say that, for a living, I help “future-proof” nonprofit organizations. Some of my favorite resources and those that I believe to be the most thoughtful focus on “the future” (like the Center for The Future of Museum’s blog – which is worth checking out for its valuable thought-fuel). But here’s the thing:

While those ideas shared by our industry’s most engaging thought leaders and go-to resources may be “future-facing” (as in, they are sure to increase in relevance in the future) they are not actually about the future. Yes, it is a matter of language that is confusing things. Using the word “future” when we are talking about the “present” may be harmful to organizations because of what the word “future” means. Many resources focusing on “the future” are actually communicating about emerging trends that are happening right now…and when we call them “the future” we do our organizations a grave disservice.

Here’s why:

1) Things that get characterized as “the future” within the museum industry generally are not about the future at all

Check this out: Embracing millennials, mastering community management on social media, opening authority, heightening engagement with onsite technologies, breaking down ivory towers with shifts from prescription to participation, engaging more diverse audiences, utilizing mobile platforms, understanding the role of “digital,” breaking down organizational silos…These are things that we frequently discuss as if they are part of the future. But they aren’t. In fact, if your organization hasn’t already had deep discussions about these issues and begun evolving and deploying new strategies at this point, then you may arguably be too late in responding to forces challenging our sector today.

 

2) Calling it “the future” excuses putting off issues which are actually immediate needs for organizational survival

What if we called these things “The Right Now?” Would it be easier to get leadership to allocate resources to social media endeavors or deploy creative ways to grow stakeholder affinity by highlighting participation and personalization?  Are we excusing the poor transition from planning to action by deferring most investments to “The Future?”

Basically, we’ve created a beat-around-the-bush way of talking about hard things that separates successful and unsuccessful organizations. For many less successful organizations struggling to find their footing in our rapidly evolving times, their go-to euphemistic solution for “immediate and difficult” seems to be “worth thinking about in the future.” When we call it “the future,” we excuse ourselves from thinking about these issues right now (which is exactly when we should be considering if not fully deploying them).

Contrast this deferment strategy with those of more successful organizations who invariably and reliably “beat the market to the spot.”  It isn’t pure chance and serendipity that underpins successful engagement strategies – these are the product of ample foresight, planning, investment and action…all of it done many yesterdays ago!

 

3) The future implies uncertainty but trend data is not uncertain

Moreover, common wisdom supports that “the future” is uncertain.  “We cannot tell the future.” Admittedly, some sources that aim to talk about the future truly attempt to open folks’ brains to a distant time period. However, much of what is shared by those we call “futurists” is not necessarily uncertain. In fact (and especially when it comes to trends in data), we’re not guessing.  I’ve sat in on a few meetings within organizations in which trends and actual data are taken and then presented as “the future” or within the conversation of “things to discuss in the future.” Wait. What?

Certainly, new opportunities evolve and trends may ebb with shifting market sentiments…but why would an organization choose uncertainty over something that is known right now?

 

4) We may not be paying enough time and attention to right now

I don’t think that referring to “right now trends” as “the future” would be as potentially damaging to organizations if we spent enough time being more strategic and thoughtful about “right now trends” in general.  Many organizations seem to be always playing catch-up with the present.  If organizations are struggling to keep up with the present, how will they ever be adequately prepared for the future?

 

5) Talking about “the future” sometimes provides a false sense of innovation that may simply be vanity

To be certain, we all need “wins” – especially in nonprofit organizations where burnout is frequent and market perceptions are quickly changing. The need for evolution is constant and the want for a moment’s rest may be justified. That said, it seems as though talking about “the future” (which, as we’ve covered, is actually upon us) is often simply providing the opportunity for organizations to pat themselves on the back for “considering” movement instead of actually moving. To have the perceived luxury of being able to think about the future may give some leaders a false sense of security that they aren’t, in fact, constantly trying to keep up with the present.

 

Talking about “the future” seems to mean that you are talking about something that is – yes – perhaps cutting edge, but also uncertain, not urgent, not immediate, and somehow a type of creative brainstorming endeavor. While certainly brainstorming about the actual future may be beneficial (there are some great minds in the museum industry that do this!), it may be wise for organizations to realize that most of what we call “the future” is a too-nice way of reminding organizations that the world is turning as we speak and you may already be a laggard organization.

Think about your favorite museum or nonprofit thinker. My guess is that you consider that person to be a kind of futurist, but really, you may find that they are interesting to you because they are actually a “right-now-ist.” They provide ideas, thoughts, and innovative solutions about challenges that are currently facing your organization.

This is all a long way of saying something incredibly simple, but astoundingly true: The future is now.  Let’s start treating it that way.

 

A quick aside: Speaking of “the future is now,” I’ll be conducting a free webinar with Blackbaud tomorrow (August 14) at 1pm Eastern entitled “Get Strategic: How to Connect With Members in a Digital Age.” You can sign up here!

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page (or ) Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter  

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 5 Comments

Six Reasons Why Content Is No Longer King (And What Now Holds the Throne)

Know Your Own Bone - Connectivity is King

“Content is king” is confusing people and the reign is over. There’s a different ruler in town that is driving successful organizations: connectivity.

“Content is king,” said Bill Gates famously as the chief executive of Microsoft in 1996.  And for a while, there was little reason to disagree with Mr. Gates’s assessment – so much so that this mantra has been used by marketers the world over.  It makes sense: You need content to inspire folks to act in your organization’s best interest (i.e. become a member, purchase a ticket, make a donation, etc.).  But the reign of content has ended and – while still important – the saying is becoming quickly outdated in today’s increasingly digital world. In fact, the repetition of this saying is causing, cultivating, and excusing misunderstandings among organizations’ staff members. 

Let’s clear the air and work together to update the saying so that it can be more effectively applied to the purpose of inspiring action in today’s world. There’s a new king in town. Today, connectivity is king.

 

1) The concept of content as king is causing some problems

Let’s get one thing straight: Content is not unimportant. Compelling content creates the bridge that often inspires connectivity. However, our misbelief that content remains supreme is causing certain organizational problems that risk growing more deeply-rooted each day. Here are some symptoms of the outdated notion that content remains king that may actually jeopardize an organization’s solvency. Each of these conditions are symptomatic of a content-centric organization that deeply believes that what it outputs is more valuable than its outreach.

 

2) Connectivity is about your organization and its relationship with other people (Content is just about your organization)

The marketing channels about which the “content is king” saying may have originated were one-way communication channels. In other words, they were channels that generally gave your organization a “mouth” (e.g. television, radio, billboards, etc.). However, today’s most effective and efficient marketing channels have mouths and ears. That is, they provide a means of supplying feedback for the organization in addition to being soapboxes (e.g. social media, peer review sites, email, etc.).  Thus, it makes sense that the driving force in cultivating a desired behavior may have evolved to be more about linking up with an individual by way of a shared passion or situation than about an organization itself.

In other words, content is not necessarily about your audience. Cultivating connectivity, however, breeds and helps to strengthen a relationship with your brand and organization. Connectivity happens when an organization presents a passion or platform that resonates with a potential constituent. It’s about both the organization and the potential constituent. It’s the passion/subject/topic/mission/sentiment that bonds (or interests) the constituent to what your organization stands for.

 

3) Connectivity is necessarily relevant (Content can be irrelevant)

Connectivity is definitionally personal in that it is depends on something being of personal interest to an individual.  That  means that connectivity is necessarily relevant. Content, on the other hand, risks self-orientation that may not answer one of the most important questions that communicators should ask themselves from the perspective of potential constituents when they put out content: “So what?”

 

4) Connectivity is prerequisite for action (Content can operate in isolation)

Remember (because I mention it in nearly every post): Your organization can sometimes determine importance, but the market always determines relevance. In other words, you can talk…but unless people are connected to what you’re saying, nobody may be listening. Simply put: Without connectivity, nobody cares about your organization.

Connectivity is a prerequisite to action (e.g. signing a petition, securing a donor, summoning support, selling a ticket). Content, however, can easily operate in isolation if it isn’t thoughtful and/or doesn’t inspire connectivity.

 

5) Content can be the bridge that provides a pathway for connectivity (but if connectivity is not present then your content is pointless)

This is where connectivity emerges as the true “king” in today’s environment. Certainly, content is critical. Arguably, there could be no connectivity without content. However (and this is where folks are getting confused), there can be a great deal of content without connectivity.  Not all content is connective.

Connectivity that’s created through a shared interest in a topic, idea, mission, purpose, or sentiment aligned with your organization’s brand and values is powerful.  Otherwise, your content will likely fall on deaf ears…and certainly not inspire engagement and supportive behaviors

 

6) Connectivity is about your whole organization and its mission (Content is viewed as marketing jargon)

Because “content” tends to fall under the conceptual categorization of one-way communication, the idea of “creating content” often falls to the marketing or public relations department. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But what IS a bad thing is when people “not my job” content creation. Today, communication and content creation is an every-department job.  Worse yet, the problem of silo-ing the important work of creating connectivity is often exacerbated within organizations due to some staff members’ ridiculous associations with the word “digital.”

 

Connectivity can be sparked when the content being communicated communicated is deeply-rooted within your organization and mission. It may seem strange to some leaders, but the ins and outs of your day and your passions matter to your audiences. Often, to audiences, the transparent, unvarnished insights of how and why you do what you do in pursuit of your mission is every bit as important as what you are doing.

There’s a reason why marketing messages increasingly perform poorly in terms of engagement: People want to know what’s really going on…not simply receive your sales pitch (which, frequently, is the charge of the marketing department).  The most connective content often comes from other departments who represent the core of what you do. The marketing team’s best role is strategically making the balance of your organization’s content accessible (i.e. inspiring connections).

 

Let’s stop aiming “to content” and instead aim to connect.

If you supply content, they will come? Nope. Not necessarily.

If you supply connectivity, they will come? It’s much more likely.

At our best, our organizations do more than provide education…even more than provide memorable experiences in the case of visitor-serving organizations.  We provide and facilitate meaningful interaction – connectivity.  By connecting people to people, people to places, and people to ideas, we transcend mere content and provide pathways to engagement.  People – not artifacts – change the world.

Content isn’t dead, but connectivity assuredly is king. 

Long live the king.

 

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page (or ) Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter  

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 4 Comments

The Role of Email Has Changed. Here Is How to Evolve Your Communication Strategy (DATA)

RIP email

llustration by Sam Manchester/The New York Times

The efficacy and best practices related to email as a marketing channel have changed. Data suggest that email is less effective in reaching large quantities of people than it was even a few short years ago. But, can an organization use email to reach the right quality of people? Maybe.

I recently shared updated data from a Media Consumption and Usage Study conducted by IMPACTS that demonstrated a trending decline in the overall, weighted value of email as a marketing channel.There’s been some additional buzz about the decline of email, and worries about this changing platform seem to be lingering – especially in light of the big data I recently shared at MuseumNext. “I see that there’s a decline in email,” one attendee noted. “Email is working just fine for my organization.”

Indeed, organizations shouldn’t give up on the platform – especially if it is helping their organization achieve its goals – but it’s important to recognize the changes taking place that alter your market’s perceptions and usage of email:

IMPACTS Public sources of information 2011 - 2014

 

1) The overall efficacy of email as a communication channel for reaching mass audiences has dwindled

It used to be all about email lists – buying them, swapping them, getting people on them – and then “spamming” folks with marketing messages. It was about quantity of people more than the quality of people. Not anymore. Thanks to the increasing and massive trend toward personalization in marketing messages (due, in large part, to “touch points” made possible via social media), email is now a less effective method for engaging large quantities of people. The data indicate that mass messaging holds lesser value to audiences…and we observe people “opting-out” and unsubscribing to content that is not particularly relevant to them.

And folks can afford to opt out because – unlike the earlier days of email – there are much more personalized, real-time information channels promising greater connectivity readily available to them.

 

2) Email may now be better utilized for cultivating current audiences that already have an affinity for your organization

Email’s relative stability in terms of trust and amplification potential indicate that while it may not be wise for it to be your organization’s primary engagement or audience acquisition channel, it may still offer value by adapting its application to better serve current constituencies. Email should be approached as an “opt-in” opportunity for those who are budding brand evangelists. In other words, this communication method may be better suited for moving potential stakeholders through an engagement funnel instead of as a means to engender general awareness of programs, events, etc.

 

3) Your organization should not necessarily stop sending emails

Just because a channel’s weighted value is changing doesn’t mean that it’s wise to abandon the platform – especially if it is working for you in terms of helping to meet your financial and mission-related bottom lines. What this does mean is that your email strategy should not be stagnant – when it comes to email, a sound strategy may be to “ride the wave until it crashes.”

Obviously, people still use email; however, they are using it in different ways and expect more personalization than email typically delivered in the past. Know this. Adjust. Watch the market. If something is still working, then, hey, it’s still working! That said, (and as is true with all communication channels) sending email for email’s sake without understanding how or if it is contributing to your goals remains an unwise idea.

 

4) Start exploring other channels that will help achieve your goals

While it’s not a bad idea to keep “riding the wave [that is email] until it crashes,” it would be advisable to concurrently cultivate engagement on other platforms in preparation for the inevitable crash. Heretofore, if your organization has been relying heavily on email, then it may be a good idea to consider building communities and strategies on other platforms so that you aren’t stuck with antiquated outreach tools that the market deems obsolete. Alternative channels and platforms that capitalize on real-time, ongoing, personalized communication generally involve social media or other web-based platforms…now is the time to start developing capabilities and capacities in these arenas before it’s too late.

 

5) Understand that email has changed and will keep changing.

Email has maintained its perception in regard to trust (i.e. how trustworthy it is perceived to be as a communications channel) and amplification values (i.e. how easy it is to share the message). You can see the data broken down by reach, trust and amplification here. It makes sense that amplification has not changed as it’s just as easy to hit “forward” today as it was in 2011. As other platforms evolve, how people view and use email will evolve as well. It is not used for the same purpose as it once was thanks to new information channels. The roles of organizations’ websites have also recently changed due to the presence and capabilities of social media. Know that things are changing and the relative strengths of communication channels are certain to keep changing, too.

 

An exciting aspect of leading an organization in today’s world is the incredible access provided by web-based platforms and how digital assets (and how the market perceives and interacts with them) constantly evolve. Wise organizations realize that the world is moving and it is unwise to maintain the same strategy for communication platforms year after year without considering changes in the market.

In sum, email is not dead…but it has certainly evolved. Many organizations have not caught up. If they don’t then, well, you know what Darwin had to say on such matters…

Darwin on change

Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page (or ) Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter  

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends Comments Off on The Role of Email Has Changed. Here Is How to Evolve Your Communication Strategy (DATA)

The Real Reason Some Nonprofits Stink at “Digital” (And Why It Is Getting Worse)

Dilbert vagueness plan

Within some organizations, “going digital” is causing more problems than it’s solving. This isn’t because of the people who work in digital. It’s because of the people who don’t.

I’ve posted briefly on the dangers of separating “digital” and “marketing,” but this topic arose quite explicitly on the very first day of the annual MuseumNext conference last month and was inspired by a presentation from museum pro, Koven J. Smith. (Sidenote to make good on a promise:  the slides from my keynote at MuseumNext are available here.)  Though the seeds of this article blossomed at a museum-oriented conference, the threat is relevant for many nonprofit organizations and businesses in general.

“Are you saying that ideally nobody in museums should have “digital” in their title?” one person asked in regard to a point in Koven’s talk. He paused for barely a moment. “Yes,” he stated simply.

This idea was a small part of his argument (check out more of his rich thought-fuel here), but I think he’s onto something big…something that I observe everyday in my work with well-intentioned nonprofit organizations: We are breeding a culture of misunderstanding around the important role of “digital” in the future of our organizations and, frankly, it imperils the vibrancy of the very future that we are trying to ensure. “Digital” has been allowed to become an “other” (i.e. “not within my scope of work” and/or “something I don’t ‘get’”) for certain individuals in certain organizations, and, like most “others,” digital (as a concept) is misunderstood, abused, and used as a scapegoat for an organization’s cultural and structural shortcomings.

Dramatic? Maybe…but until we solve this issue, how can organizations steeped in these misunderstandings remain relevant and thrive in the future? Here’s why conceptually separating “digital” – as the rest of the organization understands it – is a problem that is making it harder for nonprofits to succeed.

 

1) It constantly reaffirms that “digital” is about platforms or technological skillsets and not about people (and it actually IS all about people)

Digital engagement and engagement are one in the same – they are both about people and behavior. Likewise, digital fundraising and fundraising are synonymous in successful organizations. Again, they are both about people and behavior. Digital touch can be as powerful in inspiring audiences as physical touch.  “Digital” is a way of communicating and connecting, not “knowing java” or “mastering Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm.” Sure, those skills may have value in the digital world, but they aren’t the point of “being digital.” Communication goals on real-time, digital platforms should serve the exact same purpose and mission as the rest of the institution.

An online donor is still a donor. For visitor-serving organizations, a website visitor is still a visitor (a person connecting with your brand and mission). The difference is the platform (“connection point”), and the goal is the same as “in real life.”  Digital – when it is used with audiences – IS “real life” and organizations will benefit from treating it as such.

 

2) Believing “digital” is about technology instead of people and behavior breeds a desire to simply translate real life to the digital realm (and that is generally a bad idea and waste of resources)

This, too, was a very popular topic of conversation amongst the thought leaders at MuseumNext: The very real-time nature of digital platforms necessitates different behaviors online than would take place in similar offline situations. For instance, a businessman may not check out your collections (if you’re a museum, for instance) at 10am in his pajamas “IRL.”  But, he can do so digitally…and that changes how we need to think about collections, engagement, social care, image rights, accessibility, membership retention, donor cultivation, and donor discovery. It’s not a one-way track wherein we simply “copy and paste” what’s onsite onto the web. That’s not engaging and it misses opportunities. If we didn’t deeply believe that “digital” was aligned more closely with technological skillsets than brand strategy, then we probably wouldn’t still be making these mistakes (i.e. posting our collections to the web or starting a simple blog, patting ourselves on the back for it, and wondering why nobody engages with it.)

 

3) It excuses leaders for being out of touch with the market (which is a glaring sign of bad leadership)

To paraphrase another point made at MuseumNext: It’s okay (and maybe even cute) if your grandmother doesn’t know what Twitter is or how exactly it is used. It’s absolutely NOT okay for today’s leaders, fundraisers, curators, and administrators to not be minimally facile with Twitter, Facebook and basic platforms or means of modern day engagement. Ignorance isn’t cute. It makes you less qualified for your job.

A basic facility with engagement platforms doesn’t mean everyone needs to be tweeting up a storm 24/7 – but if someone claiming a position of influence or leadership doesn’t understand what Twitter is, its benefit as a social force, or how people use it, then you’re dealing with a willfully ignorant, disconnected person. Good tip for organizations whose solvency depends on making connections with the market: Don’t hire people who live in holes.

Tough love moment (which I’ll admit may be funny because I’m an energetic, camp counselor type): I’m talking to you, people who say “digital just isn’t my thing” and write it off as something that isn’t worth your time to minimally understand. You sound stupid. Personally, finance isn’t my innate passion – but I’m a professional, functioning adult and, as such, I make an effort to understand the basics of how the world around me works.   There are no excuses for choosing ignorance and disconnection – especially for people in the nonprofit realm who often claim “education” and “engagement” as their raisons d’être.

 

4) It makes digital teams a dumping ground for nebulous projects

Koven Smith MuseumNext It’s difficult to read, but Koven‘s slide references a quote that was made jokingly, but may be indicative of a larger point: “If my co-workers say, ‘I don’t get this,’ it’s automatically in the digital department.”

When the digital department becomes a dumping ground for all things tech-oriented, an opportunity is lost. “Digital” is not necessarily the same as “IT.” Again, it’s about people, strategy, engagement, and utilizing new platforms in creative ways. When “digital” devolves into a language that certain employees cannot speak or a thing that they’re allowed not to understand, they become more removed from the world that we live in. That excuses and further cultivates an out-of-touch team… and that could be deadly for the future of your organization.

Does this mean everyone needs to run out and learn code? Again, no. Not even a little bit. But join the conversation and start thinking more strategically about organizational goals and creative engagement. It’s okay if you don’t know CSS (of course), but understand what the CSS is trying to achieve.

5) It silos marketers from content (which makes it harder to make connections to audiences)

“Digital” often resides somewhere around marketing within organizations – and that’s good! But if “digital” is considered too much of an “other,” then it forces web engagement teams to operate on their own. Social media is an every-department job, and often, creative engagement is as well. Marketers have no connective content without the aid of other departments. Basically, if we conceptually divide “digital” from the strategic functions of the organization, then we lose the very benefit of being “digital” – creating connections to people and creating meaning that will inspire a desired behavior (e.g. donation, visitation, participating in a beach clean-up, etc.).

 

Basically, when people in organizations stubbornly section out “digital” as something associated simply with technological skillsets, they are admitting to being out of touch with the very people that they are trying to serve. (P.S. Museum visitors and most bigger nonprofit donors for other kinds of organizations profile as “super-connected” with broadband access at home, work, and/or on mobile). When it comes to the inevitable pace of innovation, there is no comfort in yesterday.

If you don’t care to “get” digital, then get out of the way. Your organization is trying to effectively serve a social mission and it has important work to do.

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 8 Comments