Category Archives: Content strategy

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While nonprofits may be hampered by a lack of resources, just as debilitating they often remain true to outdated models of gathering and presenting information.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.

Doing Better By Doing Less

by Dan Woychick

The phrase “less is more” is often associated with the famed Modern architect, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, who believed that simplicity and clarity are necessary for good design. One thing we can say with absolute clarity is that today’s nonprofit marketing professionals are expected to communicate with more people in more ways across more channels than ever before.

Last month, I wrote that a comprehensive content strategy is necessary to prioritize the ongoing requests for your time – the antidote, if you will, for the epidemic of reactive, tactics-based decision making that is threatening our sanity and effectiveness.

Rather than grasping at straws or acting arbitrarily, a content strategy helps plan for the creation and publication of all your marketing communications by answering questions such as:

  • Who is responsible for creating the content?
  • Which content gets published where? Why?
  • Does the content reinforce our key messages?

In order to answer those questions, you must know your business and marketing objectives, understand your audience’s needs and expectations, and be able to prioritize accordingly. While this may make things more difficult initially, it should simplify your life in the long run.

Here are a few examples of nonprofit organizations that found more success by doing less.

New delivery methods
Pamela Fogg is the design director at Middlebury College. Last fall, she and her marketing team were charged with facilitating more contact with prospective students throughout the admissions cycle. They were also looking to improve yield – the conversion of applicants to enrolled students.

Image of Middlebury College e-blastMore printing and mailing was not an option. In fact, the marketing team decided to eliminate the granddaddy of student recruitment, the viewbook. In its place, they developed a series of e-blasts, sent to prospective students about every six weeks. Featuring a seasonal campus banner image and three stories that were being produced for the website regardless, the e-blasts also included helpful admissions links and links to the college’s social networking sites.

“By sending these out, we felt we were engaging our students more throughout the admissions process,” said Fogg. The proof is in the numbers. “Our applications were the highest ever.”

To help with yield, the college set up a site for admitted students that featured five new videos. “The videos were created to showcase our DNA … strengths that were featured in our last viewbook. Those are pretty much the same themes that guide the editorial content we share in all of the e-blasts.”

When admitted students visit campus, the videos play in a loop in the admissions office. Additionally, the college launched Murmur, a collection of personal audio stories. Visitors can use their mobile phones to hear short stories at marked locations all over campus. Results? The college saw a whopping 25% increase in yield.

The entire effort was part of a cohesive communications strategy characterized by frequent, consistent, and relevant content, with smart distribution that leveraged existing assets. “Everything we do gets repurposed, and those videos proved to be valuable fundraising tools as well,” added Fogg.

The changes also had a powerful effect on the bottom line. “The financial downturn was one reason not to spend over $100K on the viewbook, but we also had a better web presence than in previous years. We wouldn’t have done one without the other,” Fogg explained. “We essentially went from four print pieces to one small piece in under two years, resulting in less printing costs, less mailing costs, and less staff time.”

Changing a communications culture
Cammie Croft has been a pioneer in bringing government communications into the 21st century. Originally a member of the Obama administration’s new media team that revamped the WhiteHouse.gov site, Croft recently became director of new media and citizen engagement for the Department of Energy (DOE). Think you’ve got a challenging work environment? Try tackling outdated technology, antiquated rules, layers of bureaucracy, and serious security concerns.

The Energy Department is expected to support cutting-edge research, advance clean energy, and reduce the dangers of nuclear and environmental disasters, but that was far from evident on the old Energy.gov website. Croft’s team needed to rethink how a massive, decentralized department would create, publish, and coordinate its content.

Image of Energy.gov websiteBefore moving a single pixel on the Energy.gov site, several months were spent challenging assumptions, building relationships, and setting up systems and processes to handle the new workflow. The DOE team was able to save money by consolidating several outdated websites onto the same Drupal platform used by the White House. Croft established a centralized publishing team to promote the department’s activities and goals and engage its audiences. Team members specialized by subject area rather than media channel to create greater staff versatility.

Research identified two primary audiences. Unlike most existing governmental sites, the DOE wanted to reach ordinary Americans directly. Additionally, the site needed to continue serving niche audiences – specialists involved in energy policy.

The content strategy outlined what types of content would reside on the new site, where it would be located, and how to provide the context that would make it accessible for the general public. “We want to help people understand why energy matters, and what impact it is having,” said Croft in a recent interview. “The key is localizing the data and making it easily available.”

Incremental improvements
With one thing habitually leading to another, websites always seem to become more complex over time. Because website design and production tends to be iterative in nature, with readily-available analytics and usability testing, they are also prime beneficiaries of a well-planned content strategy. In other words, you don’t need to start from scratch – or tackle an entire site – to benefit.

Image of SUNY Oswego admissions landing pageAfter finding success with a simplified landing page in support of an admissions marketing effort, the State University of New York (SUNY) Oswego decided to tweak its new admissions home page. The amount of copy was reduced dramatically, based on analytics that showed contextual links were largely ineffective, and the design focused on a short video and a handful of key links. According to Tim Nekritz, director of web communications, the change represents “the continuing evolution in how we handle web content.”

Chas Grundy, while working as Notre Dame’s director of interactive marketing, helped the IT department streamline its website. With over 4,500 pages, the department couldn’t manage the amount of content they had, which led to inaccurate, outdated and redundant information. “Over several months, we used analytics, user testing, and other research to cut content down to under 1,000 pages,” said Grundy. “In shrinking the website, they reduced the number of people needed to maintain it.”

Similarly, after a merger of two departments at Ithaca College, a comprehensive audit and the resulting content strategy helped reduce the number of pages on its Financial Aid site to 1/3 the previous amount. Besides reducing ongoing maintenance, the better-organized, more intuitive site slashed the volume of phone calls from frustrated families and students.

Simplify, simplify
By doing too much, it is difficult to do anything very well. Adopting a content strategy represents an opportunity to focus your messages, reduce your workload, and increase your effectiveness.

How have you simplified your marketing communications? I’d love to hear more examples.

The Bleeding Edge

by Dan Woychick

There’s been an explosion at the factory on the edge of town. At the regional hospital, emergency room personnel maintain radio contact with the paramedics en route, bracing for the arrival of a half dozen injured workers. Successful medical treatment is reliant on ER staff correctly identifying and attending to the highest priorities first. This is what’s known as triage.

Every day competing priorities explode on the desks of non-profit marketers, yet it’s the rare organization that has the knowledge and discipline to focus attention on its most effective communications efforts. Instead, most professionals scramble from one thing to the next, unable to confidently make decisive choices or commit the time necessary to do each job well.

How did we get here?
As they say, the first step to getting healthy is acknowledging the problem. Not a single person I’ve ever met disputes the current state of affairs, nor asserts that this is the preferred way of doing business, yet nothing changes. In fact, it seems to be getting worse. So, what’s the next step?

If we can’t get beyond acknowledgement, then maybe we can attempt to understand the forces conspiring against behavior change. I’ve observed frequent variations on the following themes:

  • Everyone else is doing it. It’s one of the oldest excuses in the book – the argument that we’re only mimicking behavior seen elsewhere – but it didn’t impress your mom, and it’s not a good enough reason to do things today.
  • It’s the latest thing. Ooh, shiny! Whether it’s a fascination with new technologies, attention deficit disorder, or boredom with the same old tactics, the allure of the next new thing is undeniable. Getting results, however, can usually be attributed to spot-on strategy, not a trendy tool.
  • We don’t know what works. It’s difficult to isolate the effects of one thing on an integrated marketing effort, but far too many decisions are made without any information – or any plan to measure the results of our efforts.
  • We don’t know what our audience prefers or expects. At first glance, what they want is everything … for free. We act as if everyone is anxiously waiting for our up-to-the-minute news, opinions, and flash mob videos. What would happen if people had to opt in instead of opt out of your content delivery? Don’t forget to ask.
  • Fear. Advertisers and the media are highly skilled at amplifying feelings of inadequacy – your breath stinks, your life is boring, and no one will ever love you. Did you hear 16 universities have great new Google+ brand pages?!? Take a deep breath, treat reports of your imminent demise with skepticism, and chart your own course.

Adopt or adapt
It’s often difficult to accept our limitations, it’s so … limiting. The ability to make a clear-eyed assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses is an incredible advantage when it comes to focusing time and energy.

A start-up company doesn’t begin by operating on a global scale. A novice hiker doesn’t attempt to tackle Mount Everest. And a single musician, no matter how talented, can’t match a symphony orchestra’s depth of sound. Each, on its own, is capable of great things, but it would be foolish to suggest they are capable of the same things as someone with greater resources and expertise.

Can non-profit organizations, notoriously understaffed and underfunded, afford to be early adopters in marketing communications? Does it make sense to rush to produce the next great smartphone app, dive headfirst into multiple social networks, or add new distribution channels when ongoing commitments are barely getting produced? Something’s gotta give.

There’s no shame in staking out a more deliberate strategy of agile adaptation. Let others be trailblazers in technology – or marketing communications – and aim to be a smarter second (or third) to market. It’s a model that’s worked pretty well for Apple Computer, among others.

Making better choices
Intensive training and hours of practice helps emergency room doctors and nurses make dozens of rapid-fire decisions on the spot. More significantly, these medical professionals have a crystal clear filter through which to weigh their options – which patient outcomes will most benefit from immediate attention.

For marketing communications, that filter is a comprehensive content strategy. Content includes all the text, graphics, video, and audio you produce. Content strategy, as defined by Brain Traffic’s Kristina Halvorson, is “the practice of planning for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” Without a clear strategy, every decision is made piecemeal, without consideration for how it supports business objectives and meets your customers’ goals.

In order to begin planning, and then executing, your content strategy, you need:

  • Analysis of existing content. Who creates it, where does it go, who maintains it, and what goals is it intended to address? Understanding your current situation is the key to designing a better way.
  • A plan to measure results. If you’re going to fail, you need to fail quickly and learn from the experience. Making the same mistakes over and over again is an expensive way to do business.
  • Audience insights. Numbers won’t tell you everything. There’s no substitute for listening to the people your organization is attempting to serve – through web usability testing, surveys, focus groups, phone interviews or casual conversations.

You also need good writers and designers, disciplined thinkers, and leaders who help colleagues understand and stay true to the organization’s marketing communication goals. But you already have that, right?

A glimmer of hope
The current non-profit communications model leaves many professionals feeling like a hamster on a wheel. By cultivating a more contemplative, less reactive way of doing business, handling the onslaught of requests for your time and attention can become less arbitrary. Just remember to polish your diplomatic skills before telling a co-worker their project is not a high priority!

There’s a lot to be said for knowing your audience, knowing their expectations, and knowing what you’re capable of producing well. Next month, I’ll look at a few examples of organizations that actually improved their effectiveness by doing less – or at least doing things differently – thanks to the guidance of a clear content strategy.

Until then, please share your examples here.

Related content:
The Terrifying Truth of New Technology
Make Sure You Measure Up
Confessions of a Twitter-Phobe

A humorous look at project prioritization:

Dilbert Comic - pointy-haired boss outlining next year's "areas of focus"

There Are No Shortcuts

By Dan Woychick

Some problems are so common to the human condition that we’re predictably intrigued with promises of easy solutions. You’re telling me I can eat all the Oreos I want, and still lose 10 pounds in 30 days? Sign me up! Earn up to $5,000 working at home only a few hours per month? Sounds good!

Marketing professionals fall into a similar trap when they fixate on short-term tactics and the latest trends – things that often seem too promising to ignore – at the expense of a well-planned, long-term strategy.

Whether it’s social networks, QR codes, or online publications whose pages magically flip like their paper predecessors, none will ever be a substitute for the more difficult endeavor of creating high-quality, relevant content and delivering great experiences and service.

Maintain a balance
To clarify, this is not an anti-technology rant – everything new is bad – nor an argument in favor of foot-dragging on innovation. Heaven knows, there are more than enough committees perfectly capable of killing good ideas.

It’s just that the initial question often seems to be: How can we use [insert tactic/trend here]? When we should be asking: What are we trying to do? And what are the best ways to achieve those goals?

We need to balance the temptation to hop on the latest bandwagon against forces that delay decision-making or change. As John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, once said, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” In other words, execute without hesitation, but have a plan first.

Know your audience
If you’re driving after dark on an unfamiliar road, you wouldn’t hesitate to use your car’s headlights. It would be crazy – and dangerous – to proceed otherwise. Yet, some  organizations recklessly steer their marketing based primarily on assumptions or scant anecdotal information. It’s always better to shine a little light on the situation, then budget time and resources accordingly.

Be remarkable
There is an oversupply of ordinary in the world. Honestly, what can you do that your competitors can’t or won’t do? What makes you so special? If you can answer that question – better yet if your customers can answer it for you – you’re well on your way.

Spending time only on what’s quantifiable (likes, clicks, followers) is the easy part. Having the vision and leadership to act on what’s important – more likely to be operational issues than your latest tweet – is significantly harder. Hey, if it was easy, everyone would be remarkable!

Earn trust
Staying attuned to your customers and continually rewarding them is a daily grind, not a quick fix. Done well, over time, you’ll earn their trust. And then we can start matching tactics to strategic goals.

Related content:

Death to the QR Code

Is Social Media a Waste of Time?

Flip Books: Weighed, Measured, and Found Wanting

Don’t Wait for Perfection

By Claire Napier

The web is an amazingly flexible medium that can be updated at a second’s notice, yet many people seem to forget this when launching a site. A website needs to be functional and well designed when it is unveiled, but waiting for perfection is a trap that can delay a launch indefinitely. Here is how to avoid that trap.

Set realistic goals
Websites often get delayed because the scope of the site is too big to execute given the manpower. Don’t plan for content that no one has time to write or interactive features no one has time to build. Distinguish between functionality and features that are necessary and those that are simply nice to have.

For example, many organizations struggle with how to integrate social media into their website. While social media is an attractive feature, it adds little value if no one has the time to sustain it. Instead of setting up blogs, a YouTube channel, and an account on every networking site, determine how many channels you realistically have the time and passion to maintain. One well-maintained social media channel will be more effective than half a dozen that are not.

Not all problems can be avoided
Sites can be delayed by endless hypothetical questions. A common one I hear is: What if members of my audience are using a dial-up connection or an outdated browser? Yes, it’s possible that someone will want to access your site on Netscape, but frankly the number of people fitting this profile is statistically insignificant.

Be as thorough as possible when planning for the ways different people will be accessing your site. Make sure it is easily accessible from multiple browsers, screen readers for the visually impaired, and for smart phone users. However, it is impossible to prepare for every scenario. Inevitably, some people will encounter a few bugs.

Encourage people to report problems by including a link to your webmaster in the footer of your site. If enough people have the same problem, they will identify where the site needs improvements. Don’t waste time worrying about hypothetical scenarios. Wait and troubleshoot the real ones.

Embrace the web’s flexible nature
You may think your site won’t be perfect until that interactive slideshow is finished, or until you have time to write a great blog. Get over it. Don’t delay releasing new content or a more user-friendly interface just because a few bells and whistles aren’t ready. In fact, adding features at a later date can be to your advantage. New features draw the attention of search engines and give users a reason to return to your site after the redesign.

A good website is always evolving. Regularly adding new features and content should be the goal, not a reason to delay launching. If your organization’s website is perfect when you launch it, you’ve waited too long.

Chasing the Pitch

by Dan Woychick

In baseball, anxious hitters often swing at pitches out of the strike zone. In many organizations, communications staff may feel pressure to chase an audience with similarly unsatisfying results.

What we’re seeing today, often in pursuit of younger consumers on the web and in social media, is not unlike the “gold rush” mentality that met the dawning of the internet era. Many businesses knew they just had to have a website. They weren’t really sure why they needed one, or what to do with it once they had one, but doggone it “we’ve got to get our website up!” Questions about strategy could wait until tomorrow.

A decade ago, in downtown Minneapolis, the city leveled a block of decrepit properties and replaced them with a garish Disneyesque mix of entertainment-focused businesses intended to bring suburbanites into the city. The problem was in the premise that people who are afraid of the big city – those who don’t normally come downtown – would change their behavior because a Hard Rock Cafe just opened. The project has been a colossal failure.

It’s always a good idea to keep your primary audience in mind when mapping out your communications strategy. While it’s perfectly valid to produce materials that are targeted at a broad demographic, the narrower the focus of your communications the better. This website is aimed at 18-25 year olds. That article is aimed at people who like to read 4,000-word stories. This invitation is intended for our friends with deep pockets.

Know who you are. Misguided attempts to broaden your appeal can backfire. Not only will you be disappointed in the response, you may alienate your devoted fans in the process. Sticking to a strategy with a tight audience focus will help you keep your eye on the ball.

Churn Baby Churn

by Dan Woychick

A communications specialist at a Midwest university told me recently, “We’re putting out fires on a daily basis. Our department has six people to serve 15,000 students and we have no time to think strategically.” Sound familiar?

While too many organizations chase after the latest communications trends, adding ever more tasks to overworked staff, precious few seem inclined to ask: Why are we doing this? Or, better yet, should we be doing this?

Plan to make choices

Marketing should not be viewed as an all-you-can-eat buffet. If some is good, more must be better. It takes considerable discipline to take a step back and evaluate what is working and which activities are just distractions.

Practicing restraint requires having a plan – a communications strategy that defines objectives and target audiences, and sets priorities for the key messages and media channels used to reach them.

Economy of time

If time is currency, you don’t want to spend yours – or worse, your audience’s – foolishly.

In Kristina Halvorson’s excellent essay on The Discipline of Content Strategy, she writes: “Until we commit to treating content as a critical asset worthy of strategic planning and meaningful investment, we’ll continue to churn out worthless content in reaction to unmeasured requests.”

Do fewer things well

The benefit of taking time for strategy is that it encourages action with a purpose. It also allows staffers to shed activities that have been less effective, freeing up time to handle more promising ventures. The only downside to business as usual? Occasionally having to say “no” to colleagues. Or bosses.

By measuring your marketing efforts through a communications strategy, you’re more likely to provide valuable content that your audience cares about. And you can let the fire department handle the fires.

Related Content:

3 ways in which low quality content can damage your business