Favorite Links: January 2014

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Inside the Box: People Don’t Actually Like Creativity

If a Tweet Worked Once, Send It Again
(and other lessons from The New York Times social media desk)

Nieman Journalism Lab

Brené Brown on Vulnerability, Human Connection,
and the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

Brain Pickings

What I’ve Learned from Giving Directly to People in Need

Twas the Night Before Deadline

Santa sleigh over blue forest with snow falling at night


Twas the night before deadline, when all through the office
Everybody was stirring, so nervous and cautious.
The layouts were hung on display in the hall,
In hopes that the boss would soon make a call.

Designers were huddled around glowing Macs,
Writers were bleary buoyed by coffee and snacks.
To reach their objectives, they toiled and strained,
But uncertainty dogged them and questions remained.
When down by the front desk there arose such a clatter,
They sprang from their cubes to see what was the matter.

Arms full of trinkets brought home for his friends,
Out tumbled coffee mugs, tote bags, and pens;
The boss had returned from an industry conference.
He tossed out new jargon that seemed to be nonsense.

More rapid than FedEx his big ideas came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Curation of content, engagement will spiral,
“Go leverage our channels, make sure it goes viral!
“On Facebook! On Pinterest! On Tumblr and Twitter!
“Optimize! ROI! There’s a lot to consider.”

His minions were puzzled. Was this a direction?
Should they blindly take action or risk insurrection?
Chasing marketing trends, they’d seen this before,
Yet the lack of success was hard to ignore.

And then, in the back, sitting calmly without blinking,
The web guy asked softly what all had been thinking:
“What’s our primary objective? What are we doing?
“What do we know about the audience we’re pursuing?”
We all turned to face him, intrigued by his candor.
Would we find clarity and wisdom, or enrage our commander?

“By the skin of our teeth, by the seat of our pants,
“It’s no way to work. We leave everything to chance.
“Employing random tactics does not count as strategy.
“It’s not ‘integrated.’ It’s a marketing tragedy.”

The boss smiled wanly, his confidence waning,
He wasn’t used to his colleagues complaining.
Then he straightened his tie and tapped on his phone,
“He’s tweeting!” an intern exclaimed with a groan.
Next seen by his followers, the privileged few?
“We can’t all be leaders #sotrue”

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon filled us with that familiar dread.
The launch date was nigh; it was business as usual:
Adrift, yet hopeful, almost inexcusable.

We sprung back to work, just like Santa’s elves.
We laughed at our fate in spite of ourselves.
This lack of a plan would be quite ironic,
If industry-wide it wasn’t so chronic.

Then we heard in the distance, could it be so?
The sound of sleigh bells o’er the fresh-fallen snow.
Would our wishes be granted? We were good girls and boys.
A research-based plan would be better than toys.
Santa laughed as he rode through the cold winter night:
May your customers be merry and your strategy bright!

by Dan Woychick

Light a Candle

Photo of yellow candles and candle lightby Dan Woychick

There’s not a single designer I know who, upon receiving a freshly printed copy of a new publication or clicking on a just-launched website that they designed, doesn’t immediately spot something that they wish could be fixed or improved. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse, this tendency to fixate on details. But in an effort to hew to the adage “it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” let’s take a moment to appreciate a few of the things that make working in nonprofit design and marketing worthy of thanks.

More than in the private sector, where passions tend to favor profits over people, most people who work for nonprofit organizations do so because they care – about the mission, about doing good, about helping others, about making the world a better place. Life is too short – and we spend too much of it at work – to spend it on things we don’t care about. I’m thankful for people who follow their heart.

We live in a time of nearly unprecedented disruption and upheaval. Changes to the way we communicate, raise funds, learn, travel, and consume everything from movies to medications can cause uncertainty and anxiety, but these changes also represent tremendous opportunities. I’m thankful for living in a time when the status quo is being questioned relentlessly, and conditions are ripe for change.

The phone that I have in my pocket is more powerful than the computer that was on my desktop twenty years ago. From file sharing to Facebook to Photoshop, from gigabytes to Google, our remarkable advances in technology are a great equalizer. Tools and software that were once non-existent or cost-prohibitive to nonprofit organizations are now essential and readily available. I’m thankful that technology makes it ever easier to do previously unimaginable things.

Nonprofit organizations tend to take the long view. When you’re tackling some of humanity’s most challenging problems – poverty, education, abuse, hunger – it’s probably wise not to rely on quarterly reports to boost your self-esteem. Persistence in the face of long odds and slow progress is a requirement both to one’s sanity and developing innovative solutions. I’m thankful for both the patience required to dream big, and the impatience necessary to avoid settling.

In addition to the reasons above, I like working with people who work in the nonprofit sector because they tend to be bright, collegial, and generally good humored. It’s not like it’s a laugh-a-minute trying to advance the human condition, but in my experience tough problems often call for a lighter touch. I’m thankful for people who don’t check their humanity at the office door.

Americans are remarkably generous. Despite occasional evidence to the contrary, I think that deep down we maintain an unwavering belief in our responsibility to help those who are less fortunate. As one of my clients once said, “People don’t give you money because you need it. They give you money because they feel they can make a difference.” I’m thankful for all the people who donate time and money to make our world better, and our nonprofit organizations possible.

Often, it’s the little things that make working in the nonprofit world a gratifying experience. I’m thankful for wonderful collaborators, audacious dreamers, and enough candles to light the way.

What are you thankful for?

Favorite Links: November 2013

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Why Tablet Magazines Are a Failure

Hey, Designers: Stop Trying to Be So Damned Clever
Fast Company Design

Welcome to Dinovember
Thoughts on creativity – from medium.com

Why I’m Filming a Documentary About Social Impact Design
Design on GOOD

Too Much vs. Too Little

by Dan Woychick

bears_153480112Once upon a time, there was a little girl with golden locks who was fond of breaking and entering. This is a story so familiar that most people would have no trouble providing the missing details or drawing conclusions about the protagonist’s questionable character.

When marketing communications miss the mark – when they fail to get it “just right” – audiences are unable and generally unwilling to fill in the blanks for you. They are left unmoved, puzzled, or annoyed.

Some marketing has style, but lacks substance. Some is as dry as the Sahara and just as hospitable. There are too many words, or too much white space. There’s not enough contrast, or the point size is too small. Can you make the logo bigger?

Like alchemists, writers and designers craft compelling stories by striking a delicate balance between familiarity and surprise. Our most common pitfalls occur when we favor what’s easy over what’s important.

Information vs. Understanding
When I was studying design in college, my professor prefaced a poster design assignment with his Rule of 20/10/5. If someone is standing 20 feet away from your poster, they probably won’t be able to read everything, but you want them to be able to absorb the most important information at a glance. At ten feet, your design should allow people to pick up additional details. At five feet away, you want to reward them for investing the time to thoroughly study your design.

Nowadays, whether it’s a poster, a website, or product packaging, writing and designing with a similar approach helps answer one of your audience’s primary questions: What’s the takeaway?

There is no shortage of data to be mined on any topic under the sun, but audiences need us to help them extract meaning from this overwhelming glut of information. HHComms-InfographicInto the breach, we’ve seen the popularity of infographics grow exponentially.

The problem is that most of them, like the one at right, cram a lot of information into a single space without actually adding any clarity to a complex topic. They are eye candy – if you like arrows and charts and little icons – or toxic if you prefer that design is used to advance understanding.

Wealth_InequalityCompare the overloaded infographic to this video about income distribution in America, which deftly uses statistics to bring a complicated story to life. People are not inspired to act by reason alone. We must work harder to distill information into stories that have emotional resonance.

Certainty vs. Curiosity
One day, as a seven-year-old, my son declared himself the smartest person in the house. While he’s a bright young man, he was afflicted with a common cognitive bias known as the Overconfidence Effect – the difference between what people really know and what they think they know.

It affects all of us to varying degrees. In one survey, more than 90 percent of U.S. drivers considered themselves to be “above average.” 84 percent of French men estimate that they are above-average lovers. Without this misplaced confidence, 50 percent of those surveyed should rank above and 50 percent below the median.

How much confidence should we have in our own knowledge? And why does it matter for nonprofit marketing and design?

Adhering to common practices for the placement and display of information certainly makes systems run more smoothly, whether we’re navigating a website or an airport. Based on our online behavior, Amazon’s algorithms conveniently serve up a wide selection of things we may be interested in. But when we operate on autopilot – when we act with a degree of certainty that exceeds our actual knowledge – we can miss opportunities for deeper understanding and insight.

The best opportunity you’ve got to grow and to make an impact is to seek out the, “I don’t get it,” moments, and then work at it and noodle on it and discuss it until you do get it. – Seth Godin

Curiosity requires the humility to ask questions, to listen, and to incorporate new thinking. We should aim to be lifelong learners, like the computer science professor who worked a summer as a lowly intern for one of his former students just so he could find out “what the cool kids are doing” – and bring that experience back to his current students.

When curiosity becomes a habit, our recommendations are made on context, not conjecture.

Caution vs. Courage
In Minnesota, where I live, the locals are famously stoic. Blame it on our ancestors’ natural modesty, or blame it on the cold, but it’s the kind of place where “not too bad” means “good” and any display of excitement is tempered by fear of making a scene. We’re cautiously optimistic.

In a stable environment, risk aversion makes more sense. Conduct exhaustive research to better control and predict one outcome versus another. Seek to make the uncertain certain.
In a rapidly changing environment, like it or not, we’re asked to make many decisions without knowing every possible permutation. We need to recognize and accept our vulnerability.

What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it. – Peter Bregman

Courage is the willingness to do something when there are no guarantees. When we face tough challenges, we need to consider more than increasing the font size or the frequency of our social media posts. To encourage real progress – and not just fuss around the edges – we need to design changes to outmoded systems, not just play with pixels and paper. We need to encourage behavior change.

Invisible vs. Indelible
I have no easy fix for what ails traditional marketing and design. Most of the work has minimal impact. We need visionary nonprofit leaders. We need to rethink how we work. We need to expand perceptions of our value. We need to start today.

Will you join me?

Favorite Links: September 2013

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Cut to the Chase: How Stories Engage
Stanford Social Innovation Review

Stop Raising Awareness
Minnesota Do-Gooders Club

Let’s Get Curious!
Mule Design

Re3 Story Hack
A hackathon for storytellers with a conscience