Category Archives: communications strategy

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

Mythbusters

by Dan Woychick

Close up photo of pen book on field of leaves. We All Have Stories to Tell. http://favim.com/image/263830/From the earliest days of civilization, human beings have told stories to explain the unexplainable. The desire to make complex things simpler and more understandable has produced an abundance of myths, aphorisms, and rules of thumb that remain cultural touchstones to this day. For example:

  • Bats are blind.
  • Don’t go in the pool after you eat.
  • You need a college degree to get a good job.

The enduring appeal of tales like these owes as much to the familiar comfort they bring as to any kernels of truth they may contain.

Stories are how we think. They are how we make meaning of life. Stories explain how things work, how we make and justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we create our identities, and how we understand our place in the world. – Dr. Pamela Rutledge

Critical mass
With WiFi and mobile networks reaching ever more broadly, the ability to share knowledge and shape opinions has never been easier. With such accessible broadcast platforms, I’ve noticed a growing number of self-appointed “thought leaders” make it a habit to point out – often quite eloquently and convincingly – the many ways that prevailing wisdom is misguided.

However, unlike the curious band of misfits on the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters – an entertaining mash-up of pop culture and science experiments – many writers are long on sweeping opinions and woefully short when it comes to offering alternatives to the myths they’re busting.

It’s one thing to observe and document a problem and quite another to create a new solution. Or, as I once heard a director observe – critics are to motion pictures as ornithologists are to birds.

Learning to fly
Having the ability to discern good from bad – or true from false – is only the beginning when there is the need to replace a familiar story with something better. Moving people and organizations to action – achieving behavior change and positive outcomes – requires more than exposing dusty myths to the light of day.

Humans simply aren’t moved to action by ‘data dumps,’ dense PowerPoint slides, or spreadsheets packed with figures. People are moved by emotion. The best way to emotionally connect other people to our agenda begins with “Once upon a time…” – Peter Guber

People need stories. To transcend the current state of things, we need to be myth builders, not myth busters.

Spinning yarns
If we treat marketing and communications as a concerted effort to engage people around a compelling narrative – if, like TED.com, we really have “ideas worth spreading” – we may need to rethink how and with whom we work. Some key threads to consider:

  • Stay curious. The most certain path to understanding and reaching an audience is to vigilantly resist thinking you know more about them than you really do. Just remember that the child who repeatedly asks “Why?” – tiresome though it may be – is learning a lot more than you are. Make no assumptions and ask lots of questions.
  • Collaborate. As a way to multiply our curiosity and skills, we need to get used to the idea of expanding our personal networks. The problems that desperately need solutions require stories and audiences on a far greater scale. We must combine forces, bringing new voices and ideas to the table, to increase our effectiveness.
  • Make small bets. Start thinking of your office as a laboratory where experiments are ongoing. Reaching the big milestone is a misguided mindset. Use prototypes or pilot projects to fail early, fail fast, and learn faster.
  • Take the long view. Next year matters more than next week. This is not a recipe for procrastinating, but an acknowledgment that coordinating complex systems is an effort that bears fruit over time. The best way to rally people to your cause – to share stories on an epic scale – is to keep the big picture clearly in sight.

Creating value
Revealing the truth is undeniably a form of storytelling. We all benefit by living with our eyes wide open. But if we want people to listen to our stories, to care, and to act, we can’t simply point out that the emperor has no clothes, we must also provide a new wardrobe. Because, as Ira Glass noted, great stories happen to those who can tell them.

Related content:
Why Storytelling is the Ultimate Weapon
Social Proof, or Why We Pick Crowded Restaurants Over Empty Ones

Are You in the Mood?

by Dan Woychick

I like watching home renovation shows – it beats doing renovation projects myself! The culminating moment of this television genre occurs when the designer reveals the makeover to the appreciative homeowners. Ta-da! Remarkably, no one ever hates it … or maybe they just edit that out in post-production.

Every designer has experienced that sound – an unmistakable, albeit brief, silence that signals a presentation is about to go horribly wrong. Weeks of work will be discarded. An entirely new direction will be requested.

From the client’s perspective, that very same moment is when a bit of trust is eroded: Wasn’t she listening when we spent all that time discussing this project? Why doesn’t he understand what I need? Did I hire the wrong designer?

A cure for the big reveal
Truthfully, many designers feed off the adrenaline rush of presenting their many awesome ideas – conjured out of thin air – to an appreciative audience. Clients are complicit in this process, often preferring to bypass information gathering and get right to the mockups with assurances that “I’ll know it when I see it.” Except when they don’t.

We’ve found one of the best ways to eliminate that awkward presentation moment – and improve designer/client collaboration – is to include a mood board in the creative process.

The mood board foreshadows our vision of the overall look and feel of a brand campaign, publication, or other large marketing communications initiative. It encourages conversation that allows us to acquire insights, uncover stylistic pet peeves, and confirm or adjust strategic points of emphasis. This intervention, early in the process, represents a small investment with an extraordinarily high rate of return. Think of it as rapid visual prototyping that makes the design of all subsequent materials more efficient and predictable.

Most importantly, a mood board bridges the gap between the thinking (strategy) and the doing (tactics).

First things first
Before we begin playing with pencils or pixels, each project must be grounded in a sound communications strategy. We begin by reviewing all existing research, marketing plans, resources, and other relevant background materials.

In a series of conversations, we aim to familiarize ourselves with the project’s stakeholders, challenges, and opportunities. Our goal is to form recommendations based on identifying the gaps between current and desired audience perceptions and behaviors.

At the completion of this phase, we summarize the project in a creative brief. This document outlines the project goals, the findings of our initial meetings and discussions, and establishes both a blueprint for design development and criteria for measuring the project’s success going forward.

Making ideas visible
Initially, clients may have difficulty wrapping their heads around the idea of a mood board: “Exactly what are we looking at here?” The mood board isn’t intended to look like an ad or a website or a two-page magazine spread.

As we begin the conversation, first we set the context by reviewing the agreed upon communications strategy. The mood board is a visual reflection of that strategy and uses color, typography, imagery, key themes or messages, and other graphic elements to signal the tone and creative direction for the project. This allows our discussion to focus more revealingly on the big picture – does it feel right – rather than fixate on specific tactics or minor details.

The reason mood board presentations are so productive is that the designer and client are reviewing an unfinished product. There’s room for interpretation. This early peek allows time to incorporate feedback and, along with the creative brief, provides a tangible touchstone for evaluating everything that follows.

A natural progression
Life may be full of surprises, but if I’ve done my job well, a presentation of a full-blown campaign should be greeted with comments like “Of course!” or “You nailed it.” I prefer to find drama on television, not in boardrooms.

By using mood boards, you can help your clients see what you’re thinking, enable them to participate in the creative process, and produce more effective design. That should put everyone in a good mood!

Think Like a Human

by Dan Woychick

Rodin’s The ThinkerFor decades, empires have been built on a simple and consistent business model: We’ll sell you what you want, as long as you also get a bunch of other stuff that you don’t want.

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
Diverge + ConvergeThere’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:

  • Desirability: Throughout the process, listen to and understand what people need and want.
  • Feasibility: What is possible within your organization? Acknowledge the barriers, but optimism rules. Don’t shortchange yourself by aiming too low.
  • Viability: Great ideas are like currency, but money matters. Solutions need to be scaled to available resources.

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.

Related content:
Human Centered Design Toolkit

Shifting Sands

by Dan Woychick

Paradise BeachAt 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.”

Building resilience
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.

Print in a Digital Age

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.

Channel surfing
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:

  • Why should I spend my time with you?
  • What can I get from this [magazine, brochure, website, app] that I can’t get anywhere else?

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:

  • Poor design
  • A lack of dynamic content
  • Poorly-defined audience and purpose
  • Ineffective storytelling
  • Not embracing the social nature of the web
  • Remaining stuck in the 20th Century

After defining the audience, one must then ask: What is the purpose of this project? It should:

  • Connect with audiences through storytelling, delivery and presentation
  • Shape perceptions of the brand by reinforcing key messages
  • Support organizational goals

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

Peaceful coexistence
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:

  • Print can’t compete with digital media for timeliness.
  • Digital media can be social, easily shared and searched.
  • Each relies on design to aid in navigation, legibility and narrative pacing.
  • Print is a less ephemeral artifact – more curated, collectible and savored.

We believe that print remains a vital communications channel worth doing well for two reasons:

  • Some people – myself included – still find print the most pleasurable means of reading for information and entertainment.
  • Print has a lasting visibility and presence – on coffee, bedside, and waiting room tables – that online platforms can’t match.

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.

Raising Expectations

by Dan Woychick

One ordinary morning, a memo appears in your in-box.

We are embarking on an organization-wide, resource allocation review. Each department is required to provide benchmarks to evaluate the value and effectiveness of its work.

In other words, please justify your existence.

This is a conversation that I’ve been hearing a lot lately. It’s not an unreasonable request. Marketing departments should not be immune from scrutiny, or excused from providing evidence that their work is effective. However, as a colleague in higher ed noted when faced with this assignment: We can track the typical things – media coverage or Google analytics – but most of the indicators that we’re making good use of our financial resources are tied to other offices, like Advancement or Admissions.

Separation anxiety
There seems to be a common misperception among both for-profit and non-profit leaders that departments function independently of one another – that marketing’s impact, for example, can be separated from an organization’s overall goals.

Other than putting together a birthday card for an office colleague, isn’t the success of any marketing assignment inextricably linked to others’ goals? If the advancement office doesn’t raise enough money, then fundraising communications weren’t successful enough. If enrollment targets were missed, then admissions marketing must be improved.

I understand that anxious executives want reassurance and a way to mitigate risks – marketing is a mysterious line item in the annual budget. Unfortunately, it’s also often viewed as an add-on – more style than substance – and subsequently expected to show return on investment without the advantage of being considered an essential organizational function.

Roll up your sleeves
Imagine driving down the road when suddenly your car starts making a funny noise. Next, smoke starts billowing from under the hood. In a panic, you pull in to the nearest repair shop. You tell the mechanic, “I’m kind of in a hurry and I don’t have much money. Can you fix this?” The mechanic walks slowly around your vehicle, deep in thought. Finally, he fills a bucket, grabs a sponge, and washes your car. Did he solve your problem, or just make it look better?

Too often marketing offices are being asked to make the engine run better – to help an organization solve a problem or reach a goal – without ever having the opportunity to look under the hood.

Let me be clear: It’s not management’s fault that marketing is misunderstood. It’s ours. Until we can make a compelling case – using both objective and subjective measures of value and effectiveness – marketing will continue to encounter the resistance of low expectations.

State your case
Marketers are in the business of telling stories, but we don’t write fiction. Successful marketing is reliant on thorough inquiry, diligent training and practice, collaboration, and coordination of resources. None of that happens in a vacuum.

If you’re going to have an ROI discussion, do it within the context of organizational, not departmental, goals. Whether you’re trying to convince people to choose your service, attract donations, or inspire volunteers, the planning, strategy, and measurement take on a different tenor when each element of the enterprise is considered interdependent.

Before the lights dim, before the conductor raises the baton, a discordant blend of strings, percussion, and woodwind instruments squeaks and groans from the orchestra stage. It is only when the musicians begin playing in unison that we can appreciate their talents. That’s what marketing can do. If it’s not in alignment – and deeply involved – with an organization at its core, few measures carry meaning or insight.

What to measure
There’s a lengthy history of valuing scientific, left-brain thinking over the more intuitive right hemisphere of the brain. Increasingly, complex problems require the flexibility to integrate both ways of thinking.

Rather than counting web “hits” or desperately seeking more “likes” on Facebook, here’s one measure that should be tracked:

How much time and money is spent learning about your audience(s) – internal and external – so that whatever marketing materials are produced can be as targeted and relevant as possible?

As those numbers increase, so will the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

How do you demonstrate a return on investment?