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.

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