Lead With Your Message, Not Memes

More nonprofits are feeling pressure to shake up their communications strategy. Change is good, but the path to connecting with stakeholders is still old-school.

There’s little question that associations can always stand to better communicate their missions. Whether that means you ought to Shark Week-ify that mission is another matter.

The matter comes up in light of a story last week in the New York Times about how nonprofits are increasingly looking to professional marketing firms to spread the word about their work. The lead example in the article is the Colon Cancer Alliance, which, with the help of an outside company, generated a “Shark vs. Colon” meme timed to the Discovery Channel’s deathless “Shark Week” programming. With more organizations competing for attention and dollars, the Times article says, it’s imperative that nonprofits find splashier ways to communicate.

There is definitely a risk for nonprofits that don’t morph with the changing consumer psyche.

“There is definitely a risk for nonprofits that don’t morph with the changing consumer psyche,” the head of one marketing and advertising firm told the Times. “They run the risk of losing their member base because they don’t feel as relevant to the consumer.”

Message, Not Medium

For a nonprofit executive whose job it is to uphold and promote the organization’s mission, those are scary words. And even though associations aren’t under quite the same pressure to solicit donors, they all want to get word to their members about the value of their membership, encouraging them to buy books, attend meetings, and otherwise engage in the association’s work. Every organization need to think about its message, and the executive is the person who usually signs off on how it’s expressed.

But, reading the Times article, I worry that an important distinction between the medium and the message is at risk of being neglected. The method toward improving communication isn’t designing a memorable meme and making sure you post about it on Instagram, Facebook, etc. It’s figuring out who’s receptive to your message, where they’re spending their time, and sending the clearest message you can to those places.

A few years back I wrote about the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s effort to reboot its brand identity. LLS had two jobs to undertake that involved communicating internally and externally: It was striving to better unify the organization’s chapter model with consistent messaging, and to build more storytelling into its public-facing marketing. On the surface, the campaign was splashy—lots of bright colors, TV and bus ads. But the core message was dirt-simple: We’re very close to curing blood cancers, and you can help. Any communication that didn’t send that message, under the rebranding, wasn’t communicating.

So if you’re thinking about doing a better job of spreading your mission, the point isn’t so much to hire a company to expensively reshuffle your messaging. (At least not right away.) One lesson from LLS’ experience is that associations of all budgets can focus their message, so long as it’s consistent. “Who’s your audience? More important, how do you speak to that audience in a consistent fashion?” said former LLS chief marketing officer Lisa Stockmon. “There’s a rigor to a rebranding process, and smaller organizations want to be mindful of that. You all have to be on the same page.”

A Good Story

That’s not to say that the Colon Cancer Alliance or any of the other groups in the Times story made a mistake in going for a more professional marketing plan. Indeed, the piece tucks in some good advice about the value of storytelling for nonprofits doing outreach today. Today, they need “personal stories about having a disease or being helped by a nonprofit”—or, by extension, improving their business or practice through an association.

That sort of accentuate-the-positive storytelling has proven results. In June the Times reported that a campaign to support Syrian refugees did better by promoting the idea of improving the lives of children instead of a “help people who are suffering” angle. “If you can trigger a sense of hope, donations go up,” said one of the researchers quoted in the story.

Association leaders are right to feel a little anxiety about making sure they’re heard. People have short attention spans, and even at organizations the provide must-have certifications, there are often advocacy and foundation fundraising efforts that executives hope members will contribute to. A good meme might help with that. But a better bet is finding the stories that prove out the value of your mission.

What are some of your strategies for promoting your mission to members or the public? Share your experiences in the comments.

(BrianAJackson/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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