To the Point: The Great Debate: Which Channel Is Best?
There’s a lot of debate in the blogosphere and elsewhere these days regarding the efficacy of different fundraising and marketing channels. It goes something like this: “Is direct mail dying?” “Will social media kill e-mail?” “Will mobile rule the marketing roost?” “Should I tweet … or blog?”
This conversation is something of a boxing match between traditional direct marketers and those who revel in new media. The goal is to win the fight and determine which channel is best. While these conversations do make for good sport — I admit it … I’ve catalyzed and participated in quite a few — they’re not terribly helpful. We need to reframe the debate.
A more fruitful dialogue about how to advance the sector’s marketing efforts should focus on these key questions. Only then should we discuss channel match.
Who are we, and what do we do?
After working with hundreds of nonprofits over the years, it’s obvious to me that many of them still have a difficult time articulating exactly what it is they do. Regardless of what you call it — an elevator speech, a case for support, a reason for being — it’s missing. Take the example of a homeless shelter. Directors must ask themselves, “Are we housing the homeless? Are we doing workforce development? Or are we a key force for welfare reform?” Hint: Unless you’re a big social-service agency, the answer is not “all of the above.” Why? Because as small businesses, most nonprofits have to get realistic about their capacities and goals. They also have to do an environmental scan to see what other people are doing and where they best fit. Until they can articulate their true value as organizations, channel discussions are a moot point.
Who are our stakeholders, and what do they need from us?
In addition to defining organizational identities and determining relevance in a larger ecosystem, it’s also critically important to ask questions about the people your organization serves. This is both easier (feedback can be instantaneous and costs less to acquire) and harder (there is a lot of noise to decipher) in the Connected Age.
Regardless of how you gather information about your donors, members and advocates, you must make time to listen to the marketplace. Here is where a conversation about marketing channels and tools begins to be useful.
For example, the Latin American Youth Center in Washington, D.C., serves (you guessed it) youths. It uses social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to listen to what young people are saying. Some of this research has yielded important information about gang activity that is then relayed to school administrators and police. While it’s hard as marketers to “get outside” and listen to our constituents, it’s critical if you’re going to stay relevant.
How can we meet more people where they are?
More specifically, what can we do today, tomorrow and the next day to meet more people where they are, and get them engaged and connected with our cause?
The answer to this question has to do with finding the “sweet spot” between the goals of your organization and the desires of your audience. It’s this overlap that should be the focus of all your marketing efforts.
Now, we can talk channels. For example, if you find that your major donors are increasingly moving online, your best bet is to get your online program in shape. On the other hand, it would be foolish to abandon your direct-mail efforts if the majority of your donors are still offline.
Asking the right questions is really important to building a sound marketing, fundraising or communications plan. Unfortunately, the question, “Which marketing channel is best?” is not the only question you have to ask. It’s not even the first. Better questions include, “Who are we as an organization?” “Who are our constituents?” And “How can we connect with the people we cherish and meet them on common ground?” FS
Jocelyn Harmon is director of business development at Triplex Interactive (emailforimpact.com) and keeper of the Marketing for Nonprofits blog (marketingfornonprofits.org). Reach her at email@example.com