We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:
Figure It Out
Harvard Business Review
by Dan Woychick
Newspapers will deliver the news, as long as you don’t mind the ads. Cable TV providers offer your favorite shows wrapped in a package of obscure channels featuring llama-shearing marathons and dozens of tips for organizing your sock drawer. You’ve got to sit through the opening act before the featured band takes the stage. And, I’d be willing to wager, there were a few courses required to get your bachelor’s degree that have proven to be only marginally relevant to your subsequent career.
The missing link
A similar approach is often seen in website design. Organizations routinely put feature stories in a visually prominent place on the home page while more utilitarian functions and links are pushed to the margins. While it’s possible that audience research indicated a strong interest in these types of stories, it’s more likely that the organization has a keen interest in promoting them.
In my experience with usability testing, site visitors consistently show little to no interest in website feature content. It just gets in the way of finding the information or completing the task they came to the site for in the first place. Who’s serving whom?
Product designers can become enamored with new bells and whistles while sacrificing ease of use. Architects can create spaces that don’t adequately consider environmental impact or human behavior patterns. Governments create forms and procedures that are needlessly complex.
What do all of these things have in common? They all overlook – or undervalue – the experience of the end user: human beings.
The golden rule
Imagine if marketing and design excelled at treating others as we’d like to be treated. Imagine if your marketing, in fact, your entire organization, was guided by design thinking. Design thinking has emerged in recent years as a trendy package of processes geared to solving complex problems through creativity and innovation. Combining empathy, analysis, insights, and rapid prototyping, design thinking encourages multidisciplinary teams to keep the end user firmly at the core of any proposed solutions.
This is where theory and practice sometimes diverge.
Considering the end user, or customer, as a means of developing perceptive and effective solutions is not particularly new or mysterious – no matter what you call it. As the design thinking process is embraced by more people, it seems there is a lot more thinking than doing. For example, I’m not convinced that brainstorming generates more creative solutions (research shows the opposite may be true), or that the design process will always benefit from putting lots of people in a room with a pile of Post-It® notes.
Getting to know you
I do believe in developing empathy for an audience through research, and would propose a more accurate name for this type of problem-solving process is human-centered design. It’s not primarily about the thinking. It’s not about profits. It’s not a secret shortcut to innovation. It’s about delivering a product, service, or experience that fills a real human need.
That all sounds great, you’re thinking, but how does that work in the real world? I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist and I don’t even own a white lab coat. No worries.
Like anything, human-centered design benefits from regular practice. Acquiring the tools, techniques, and experience require nothing more than time, a keen interest in the human race, and an abiding desire to solve problems.
Turning ideas into action
There’s no shortage of good ideas. A human-centered design process uses divergent thinking to create many choices, helping uncover new opportunities and generate more actionable ideas faster. The most critical skill, however, is developing an ability to evaluate those ideas, to converge on a choice and move forward. To do so, weigh your options against the following criteria:
The best ideas live where these three criteria overlap.
As consumers, we’ve come to expect that we can get exactly what we want when we want it, and there’s little reason to accept anything less. Consequently, marketing strategies that rely on bait-and-switch tactics or bundling desirable with less desirable services will become more difficult to sustain.
Human-centered design offers a better way to deliver services, products, and experiences that satisfy real needs, providing a new thing to think about – how to deal with all those happy customers.
Human Centered Design Toolkit
by Dan Woychick
At this time tomorrow, I’ll be strolling on a Caribbean beach with sand gently squishing between my toes. Meanwhile, as on most days, tens of thousands of nonprofit marketing and communications professionals will squirm uncomfortably as the sand shifts beneath their feet, wondering: How are we supposed to thrive in a perpetual state of transition?
As the old saying goes, the only one who likes change is a baby with a dirty diaper. Human beings are creatures of habit who tend to bristle when told they can’t do something – like order a super-mega-ton soda – and howl when a favorite social network changes the look of its interface. We tend to be more willing to accept change if we’re calling the shots … except when we don’t know which call to make.
Fumbling through nirvana
Navigating our magical WiFi world in our smart cars with our smart phones sure has a way of making us feel dumber than ever.
When trying to reach a target audience, the multitude of media choices is matched only by the limits of our personal bandwidth. The difficulty in determining what device or behavior will be the next lasting standard can cause indecision.
Quickly adopt the latest buzzworthy tactic (QR codes anyone?) and you risk jumping on the wrong bandwagon, wasting precious resources for middling results. Bury your head in denial and you risk irrelevance in the modern world. As Roger Martin noted in the Harvard Business Review:
By far the easiest thing to do is to see the future as so unpredictable and uncertain that you should keep all your options open and avoid choice-making entirely. The irony, of course, is that not choosing is every bit as much a choice, and every bit as impactful, as choosing to choose.
Psychologists have long identified pattern recognition as essential to human intelligence. What’s needed now, more than ever, is for recognition that “business as usual” is a pattern that doesn’t exist – the status quo is forever changing.
To make more intelligent choices, I believe we need to work on the following:
Ambiguity is the new black.
Have you ever noticed that people are rarely able to predict what will make them happy? This phenomenon is defined by author Tal Ben-Shahar as the “arrival fallacy” – the belief that you’ll be happy when you arrive at a certain destination: “Once I buy this dress … Once I get this job … Once I’m married …” Whether it makes us happy or not, we still need to make decisions. In order to make better ones, we need to develop and hone our ability to quickly and comfortably move between stages of relative certainty.
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
If we, indeed, learn from our mistakes, we sure try hard not to make any. Given two choices, virtually everyone would pick the “sure thing” over rolling the dice. We want to make a choice, and then not have to make it again – at least not for a good long while. We like knowing more than we like learning.
We need to embrace and practice a more iterative, non-linear method of solving problems. Don’t get paralyzed aiming for perfection. Rather, make many little mistakes quickly. As Thomas Edison said: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
In both personal and professional environments, we need to improve our capacity to absorb ongoing transitions while still performing effectively. A more resilient system embraces diversity of thought and experience to avoid an “echo chamber” effect. As in farming, monocultures may be efficient, but can cause more harm than good long-term.
Additionally, we can’t wait for the quarterly report or the performance review to recalibrate our efforts. The tighter the feedback, the closer it comes to happening in real time, the better we will adapt to the rapid pace of change.
Process not product
One of the things that’s become increasingly clear, one of the things that hasn’t changed, is that a project’s structure is far more important than whether or not the final deliverable is a website or a magazine or a branding campaign. Process matters.
Developing the skills to adeptly navigate our rapidly changing marketing landscape can help you turn quicksand into a day at the beach.
by Dan Woychick
In an annual ritual that portends the coming spring, Major League pitchers and catchers reported to sunny baseball diamonds all across Florida and Arizona last week. Somewhere, no doubt, people tweeted about it.
But, baseball isn’t the sport I’ve been thinking about recently. No, I’ve been thinking about golf, and how many parallels it seems to have with Twitter – the social network that has captivated the news media, celebrities, and marketing professionals everywhere. For example:
There are other similarities, however, that are cause for deeper analysis.
You’re probably not very good
Most people prefer to spend time doing things they’re good at. Curiously, golf and Twitter are two pastimes in which lack of aptitude does not appear to be a deterrent to participation.
As in most things with a bell curve, the distribution of talent gets pretty thin over on the right edge of the graph. However, a lot of activity, in both golf and Twitter, is generated by this smaller group of people. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, 10% of users account for 90% of all Twitter activity. Similarly, fewer than 10% of Americans play golf and, of those, only a small percentage would be considered avid golfers – those playing 25 rounds or more per year.
So why do the rest of us continue to flail about?
Even though I can’t throw a football like Peyton Manning, dunk a basketball, or hit a 95 mile-per-hour fastball, every once in a while I can swing a club and strike the golf ball with as much purity and precision as any professional golfer. I’m convinced it’s those moments that keep hackers like me coming back for more.
On Twitter, in real time, we can follow the thoughts and actions of those we admire in a way that feels more personal and connected than other forms of media – and some people may even be interested in following what we have to say.
The intoxicating possibility of regularly hitting a golf ball well, or having legions of followers, seems tantalizingly within reach. Except that it’s really not – at least not for most of us.
It’s much easier to hit your target if you know what it is. This holds true whether you’re swinging a golf club or crafting 140-character messages.
Nearly every golfer on a practice range is swinging a driver – a club that’s used relatively rarely during an actual round – to hit the ball as far as they can. Approximately two-thirds of all shots in an average round occur within 100 yards of the hole. Yet, it’s the rare player that allots practice time according to the frequency of the shot.
Many Twitter users take a similarly haphazard approach to the social network, practicing without a clear understanding of what they hope to accomplish. Is it better used as a broadcasting platform or for instant messaging with friends and colleagues? Is it a link sharing service or a marketing tool? It could be any or all of those things, but few users persist in working with a specific audience in mind, or defining what success looks like and a strategy for achieving it.
Return on investment
Mark Twain is famously attributed with the assessment that golf is “a good walk spoiled.” When it comes to Twitter, nonprofit marketers’ expectations of the social network as an effective media channel can be spoiled by reality.
One of the drawbacks of playing golf is that it costs both a lot of time and money. As people have become gradually busier and the economy has struggled, golf’s popularity has waned over the last ten years.
Twitter, in contrast, may suffer from nearly the opposite problem – with high demand but unlimited supply the cost of participation is negligible, and “playing” can be done in one’s spare time. Because it easily fills the little “throwaway” gaps in an ordinary work day, Twitter may not be as highly valued as an activity that requires a stronger commitment.
In either case, when it comes to marketing, the question that must be answered is not: Do I enjoy this activity? But rather: Is this the best use of my time?
The workplace is rife with examples of busy marketing professionals who have difficulty prioritizing the tasks on their to do list – who regularly confuse “nice to know” with “need to know” – and consequently end up either working harder than necessary or distracting themselves with more stimulating, but less vital, pursuits.
People can rationalize all day long about how they choose to spend their time, and point to exceptions that prove the rule, but make no mistake – for the vast majority of people – Twitter, like golf, is an enjoyable diversion, not an integral part of your marketing success.
by Dan Woychick
Since the widespread adoption and evolution of the internet, the vast majority of non-profit organizations have been scrambling to keep up. This extends to marketing and communications offices, with budgets under pressure, trying to adapt print conventions to the online world – or trying to eliminate print altogether.
Whether holding a TV remote, a mouse, a smartphone, or a magazine in hand, customers have a glut of options for consuming information and entertainment. And marketers, often with no idea which channel will be most attractive, hedge their bets and churn out content – everywhere.
Thirty years ago, the investment firm EF Hutton used a long-running ad campaign to tout the value of its advice: When EF Hutton talks, people listen.
Nowadays, if EF Hutton was talking, it would be competing with every other bank, broker, and insurance company to be heard. Everyone is talking – including customers – at the same time. It’s much more difficult to listen than it used to be.
Nevertheless, every project, no matter the goal, should start with listening to gain a deep understanding and appreciation for the audience it serves. For your communications to be successful, you must be able to answer your audience’s two fundamental questions:
Old school thinking
While nonprofits may be hampered by a lack of resources, just as debilitating they often remain true to outdated models of gathering and presenting information. Subsequently, many projects suffer from:
After defining the audience, one must then ask: What is the purpose of this project? It should:
To remain relevant you need to take calculated risks, look at things with a fresh eye, absorb and adapt ideas from unexpected sources and, above all, challenge the assumptions of the assignment.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. – Shunryu Suzuki
Marketing has become like the gluttonous diner at the all-you-can-eat buffet: I’ll have one of everything! The never-ending churn of producing content on every channel is self-defeating. We’ve got to know our audience well enough to make smarter choices.
Going forward, we need to acknowledge that digital media and print each have strengths, and should be considered and developed concurrently and selectively – not sequentially. When it comes to telling stories:
We believe that print remains a vital communications channel worth doing well for two reasons:
Working on print and digital content simultaneously and cohesively may be a more fluid process (e.g., developing design concepts from rough drafts or outlines) and can be more work – with the need for video, still photography and web development – but we believe it is the future of nonprofit marketing.
May you find grand adventures with each turn of the page.
By Dan Woychick
A few weeks ago I was getting ready to travel to a conference in San Francisco. I needed something to read on the plane and stopped by the neighborhood bookstore looking for a copy of Jonah Lehrer’s latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.
“I’m sorry. We don’t have it anymore. The publisher recalled the book.”
Now, I’ve heard of product recalls. The Toyota dealer is expecting our car any day now to swap out a faulty floor mat. But a book? Were the pages inflicting an inordinate number of paper cuts? Was it printed with disappearing ink?
As it turns out, Mr. Lehrer fabricated a couple of quotes attributed to Bob Dylan, amid other sloppy reporting, and it cost him his day job with New Yorker magazine in addition to his publishing contract. Fortunately, our local library didn’t get the recall memo, and last week the copy I requested became available.
Looking for answers
Lehrer is an entertaining author in the mold of Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, or the Heath brothers, who has carved out a niche by skillfully stringing together business and scientific anecdotes to make the study of human behavior more accessible.
In addition to the cautionary lesson of his ethical lapse, Lehrer’s Imagine provides reason to believe that we have enough examples and understanding of how creativity works to facilitate more widespread innovation. Let’s examine a few of the key ingredients identified in the book.
Human mash ups
New York City was doomed. If you’d asked people in 1860 to imagine the future of the United States’ largest city, they would likely have predicted an uninhabitable wasteland filled with disease and mountainous piles of dung. If the city continued to grow at the same pace there would be nowhere to put all the horses, and no way to clean up after them!
But, despite the crime, high cost of living, and scarcity of space, the world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history. Why do cities succeed? As explained in research by the theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, the bigger the city the more productive each resident becomes. Cities are hotbeds of creativity.
According to Lehrer, the key lies in both the density and diversity of cities, which encourages human friction – the unexpected “collisions” or interactions that spur new thought. We get smarter by being around other smart people. In fact, many successful businesses, from Pixar to 3M, design their offices to maximize these kinds of accidental conversations and experiences. They aim to mimic the creative power of a city.
Ideas are an inexhaustible resource
Every year about this time there are news stories about the latest “must-have” toy and what people are willing to pay – and do – to acquire it. Unlike tangible goods, which gain value when scarce and lose value when in abundance or out of favor, ideas are always valuable. The more an idea is shared, the more valuable it becomes.
Most big ideas don’t have a single author. If Edison hadn’t invented the incandescent light bulb, someone else would have done so within months, if not weeks. Any idea that passes through the hands of a few smart, creative thinkers is always the better for it.
Good artists copy; great artists steal. – Pablo Picasso
Concerned about theft, some people and companies prefer to keep their ideas closely guarded, but this tends to stifle breakthroughs. Lehrer points to ancient Athens, Florence during the Renaissance, and Elizabethan England as examples of places that multiplied creativity through a culture of sharing.
Many paths to the same destination
When it comes to using one’s imagination to fuel innovation, every story is different. And every story is the same. There was nothing. Now there is something.
Lehrer delves into techniques and practices of encouraging creativity in individuals. Sometimes we need to relax; sometimes we need to chug caffeine; sometimes we need to bear down, while at other times we need to daydream. Lehrer acknowledges that summoning creative thought will never be easy, but suggests being aware of how it works gives us more tools to use – making it more likely to happen.
At times, complex problems require the creativity of a group, not just one person. Getting groups to work creatively, however, is not an easy assignment. It requires the right mix of people – some familiarity with each other, but not too much, is desirable – and the right approach.
Nearly everyone has spent time in a conference room with a stack of Post-It Notes and a group of colleagues with the goal of generating lots of ideas. What’s the number one rule of brainstorming? No criticizing another idea! That rule, research has shown, results in meetings with fewer and more lackluster ideas. In a group setting, debate, dissent, and constructive criticism produce far better results – but inevitably some people will have their feelings hurt.
An optimistic future
Despite the scandal surrounding Imagine, I think the book contains many useful insights on creativity and how best to summon it. Lehrer’s prescription for a more imaginative future boils down to four big ideas:
Human creativity is undeniably mysterious – like a magic trick. Even when we understand the source of the trick, it doesn’t dull our appreciation for what happens – and how it happens. The good news is that creativity is not the provenance of a chosen few, but something we can all learn to be better at.