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Branding -- Using the Power of Common Sense to Earn Loyalty

July 11, 2005

(This is the second in a series of six articles addressing the issue of nonprofit branding. The first part of the series ran in the June 27, 2005, issue of eWire.)

(July 11, 2005) TVs have remotes. So, it seems, do minds. Psychologists call it 'perceptual defense.' People these days mentally click off print ads, TV commercials and logos by the hundreds. In the fast-paced, hyped-up age of information overload, it can be challenging to get your message across. While you may live and breathe environmental activism, civil rights or global health, too many people remain oblivious to the issues you promote so passionately.

Sure, you can usually rely on your loyal base, but you'll never really achieve a critical mass of funding until you find some way to tap into the power and promise of 'the middle'--the regular folks who probably could and would help if they just understood.

But let's face facts. The 'middle,' like all the rest of us, sort their mail over the trashcan.

Those of us who send out those direct-mail pieces have begun to accept the fact that a 1 or 2 percent response rate is all you can hope for. It's just the way things are.

Why? Why have we become so accepting of the numbness of the general public? Why do we believe people won't take the time to learn about us or our cause?

Could it be because we stopped taking the time to learn about them first?

If you step back for a moment and think about your marketing and development campaigns, it's worth asking if any of them are built in a way that reflect how people--real people--develop relationships.

The fact is, most of our efforts to 'profile' constituents through demographics and marketing models amount to nothing more than pseudo-science (Does 'woman, age 25 to 40' meaningfully describe anyone you know?) So it should be no surprise that the campaigns that result from such profiles rarely amount to anything more than mediocrity.

As we struggle to get people's attention, maybe we should be asking ourselves how we can earn their loyalty.

Building Loyalty

A community of loyalists is built by cultivating a relationship over time. A truly integrated marketing and communications system builds those relationships by using the most relevant media choices--from public relations to direct marketing, from websites to television advertising--and smart hand-offs in between to 'choreograph' a relationship between you and those you wish to court. Rather than pounding home your 'message' at every available opportunity, build relationships by properly telling the right story in the right context.

The first step to developing a relationship-based communications system is to stop thinking like a 'marketing expert' and start thinking like a real human being.

Take a deep breath and think about the various mental steps people might go through as they move from unaware or disinterested in your organization, all the way to becoming a committed trustee.

What points of view represent each of these mental states?What biases? What misperceptions?

Then ask yourself what you might be able to say at each mental state to overcome barriers and move people to the next stage of the relationship?

What action would you like people to take to indicate they have begun to move on to the next stage? Does it have to be a donation, or can it be something as simple as attending an event or logging on to your website? Perhaps they could ask for a brochure.

Finally, ask yourself what media choices make the most sense to connect with people at each of these different stages?

Usually the less knowledgeable or interested someone is about your organization or cause, the more effective it is to use mass media tools (television, radio, print and public relations) as opposed to targeted tactics.

Done properly, mass media techniques can move people from a state of 'no awareness,' where your issue is not on their radar screen, to a state of 'passive interest,' where at the very least they have heard of you and your cause. 'Active interest' comes later, when a prospect begins to identify him- or herself with your value system.

Cultivating the Loyalists

As individuals move along the relationship cycle, messages should become more precise. From direct-mail programs to newsletters to special events, specific messages aimed at individuals are the most effective ways to reach out.

Once potential donors reach a stage of serious investigation, face-to-face interaction coupled with other kinds of personalized messaging can set the stage for an initial donation of time or money--the first step to becoming a loyal community member. Readily available information on where the money goes and how it is being spent can allay any residual doubts as to how the donation will truly make a difference.

Invitations to special activities, events and trips, as appropriate, to view and participate in your work firsthand can keep donors excited and engaged. For those who have demonstrated exceptional commitment, rewarding them with some way to 'participate' in your strategic thinking is an effective method to maintain long-term involvement.

Moving people through a relationship cycle does require a different way of thinking, but it's frankly more intuitive than what most of us are doing today. If done right, it can give you the kind of clout and independence most nonprofits only dream about.

Bill Toliver is executive director of The Matale Line, a company devoted to helping nonprofits with communications and fundraising. Visit them on the web at www.mataleline.com or write Bill directly at bill.toliver@mataleline.com.

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