Monthly Archives: December 2009

He’s Making a List

By Dan Woychick

Just like that jolly old elf and a certain late-night talk show host, people love lists. In fact, every morning I begin my day by making a list of things to do. But despite a personal and cultural imperative to list things, I have a growing love/hate relationship with lists.

As any longtime reader of newspapers and magazines knows (insert “old media” jokes here), ’tis the season of year-end lists – from New Year’s resolutions to best movies, music, or recipes. Despite the temptation to cynically attribute this tradition to a writers’ desire to take it easy during the holidays, since most of these stories can be finished well in advance of publication, the source of my growing unease lies elsewhere.

What’s your motivation?

With the multitude of new voices providing commentary via blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook postings, it should come as no surprise that the number and frequency of lists has exploded as well. What is Google, after all, if not an expansive list of online content?

Used effectively, a list takes infinite possibility and orders it into a simpler, usable form. But unlike grocery lists or instructions on how to assemble your child’s new Lego set, most published lists serve a less utilitarian purpose. They’re more like junk food – a short-term pleasure.

My disdain for this trend stems from the suspicion that people are altering the way they write simply to get noticed. To me, this fundamentally changes the nature of the task. Are you looking out for your best interests? Or your readers’?

I get it. A headline that promises “The 5 Best Top 10 Lists” tells the reader: “This isn’t War and Peace. I’m not asking for a huge investment of your time and attention.” But that’s also the problem: We’re rarely getting any new insights – any nutrition – here.

Looking back

Most lists summarize the past without providing any additional context. They exist more as a collection of observations by an interested bystander than as the work of an active participant. The best lists take information and reveal something we didn’t know, synthesizing disparate thoughts and experience into concise and insightful conclusions or predictions.

Just as good advertising is the fastest way to kill a bad product, poor writing is the quickest way to lose your audience. If your writing is interesting or relevant or useful, it doesn’t matter what format it comes in.

Related Content:

Interview with Umberto Eco: “We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die.”

The Illusion of Control

By Dan Woychick

Being a designer is as much a personality trait as it is a profession. Most designers can’t help themselves – they are compelled to do what they do. Basically, it’s an impulse to control the form and function of our own little corner of the world.

With the rise of social media, there’s great anxiety in some circles about “losing control” of the message. If employees or customers are allowed to comment at will, is the end of civilization imminent? Is branding doomed?

What this noisy newcomer to the media table has exposed is that we never really had control in the first place. Just because conversations are now happening in a public space doesn’t mean those same conversations weren’t happening in private. If you provide poor customer service, over time people will find out about it. The only difference now is the speed at which the news travels.

So, why bother?

If we have no control, aren’t all marketing efforts pointless? If a random tweet from a cranky constituent can torpedo years of carefully orchestrated plans, are we just wasting our time?

Before you begin to regret the time and money you’ve invested in graphic standards and marketing plans, consider the following statement: All products, services, and organizations are commodities – one is easily interchangeable with another of the same type. We know this is not true.

Marketing a nonprofit organization is a lot like being a parent. It is confounding and humbling to be reminded, repeatedly, that we can’t always make things (or kids) turn out exactly the way we’d like. And yet, despite our lack of control, we continue our efforts to inform and shape opinions. We know it matters.

Relax and embrace the ambiguity.

A website may pave the way to an inquiry. A chance conversation at your child’s soccer practice may lead to a referral. A customer survey may identify a previously hidden opportunity. The fact is your actions, and those of your colleagues, have more influence – if not tightly squeezed and defined control – than you imagine.

Instead of circling the wagons, use new forms of media to listen to your stakeholders. They don’t want to destroy the organization or take your job. They just want to be heard. Listening is your opportunity to influence their experience and perceptions. And having hundreds of engaged advocates is better than employing a single, controlling marketer.

Uncertainty over the outcome of your marketing efforts is not sufficient reason to abandon them. When in doubt, keep trying to do what’s right for you and your organization. That’s the one thing that is completely under your control.