The Case for Building a Marketing Orientation

For a very long time many in the nonprofit world held a view that mission trumps all; that good causes attract supporters based on the merits of the need alone and that marketing communications was at best a useful set of tactics but not an essential discipline that would strategically contribute to an organization’s success.

To some degree the technology revolution that has democratized communications and marketing has made this position moot. Today, nonprofits become known to their constituents and potential supporters largely through individuals’ own chatter on social web sites and viral word of mouth as well as through web sites and email before someone actually engages with you in person. The idea that mission alone, communicated from some “headquarters” megaphone, is all that is needed, is a laughably quaint notion that hopefully has been put to rest.

Still, many nonprofits while busy scrambling to adopt newer forms of communications have yet to realize that this digital band aid approach to marketing communications, when slapped on top of more traditional marketing communications methods is not an effective way to salve a wound nor grow a successful organization.

To fully realize the opportunity in front of us, more nonprofit leaders need to understand, internalize and lead their organizations toward a marketing communications orientation that is in sync with the cell-phone and PDA-texting people they want to engage and that leverages every part of their organization to do so. Leaders need to realize that communications is the most important thing they do and that the act of communicating is occupying more and more time and attention of the people they want to reach.

To get there leaders need to get into the heads and hearts of the people they wish were on their rosters but aren’t. A little observing, a little talking, a little research will provide some clear insights into how the people who matter to your organization think, communicate, make purchasing decisions, socialize, influence and are influenced, and work. You’ll learn how they spend their time, who they trust and listen to, what channels they use and those they ignore and what their preferred style of engagement looks like.

Once you have made this investment in learning, you need to pull your team together and commit to a new way of doing business that reflects what your target audience wants and that your organization has to offer. That is where the marketing orientation approach comes in.

To become market-focused and mission-driven means:

  • Creating a constant learning culture where everyone in your organization is seeking to better understand your audience, their shifts in behavior, and the things that influence them. It means being able to regularly evaluate and measure your efforts toward them. It means providing staff training on a continuous basis to assure that the latest methods and techniques are ones your organization learns and uses.
  • Putting marketing communications at the center of your leadership team with professionals who are charged with and supported by leadership to keep the organization focused on delivering messages and services your constituents want and that reflect your organization’s mission and vision.
  • Committing resources that will keep your organization ahead of the curve technologically. That means investing in the systems and the people who will assure that you can effectively target communications to key audiences; make their online interactions seamless and easy; allow staff to collect, access and manage information effortlessly.
  • Being disciplined and strategically-driven across the organization so that the tendency to go with band aid approaches becomes unacceptable at all levels within the organization. It means divesting your organization of entrenched, underperforming, unmeasured marketing communications efforts that create a drag on performance and sap energy.
  • Hiring at the level of professional skill needed to succeed for today and tomorrow. That means not taking the short-view of simply hiring a junior communications person to write newsletters when the real need is for a senior strategist who can lead change.

The shift to a marketing orientation is not without its fair amount of stress, cost, and difficulty. Yet, to continue doing business in a way that is haphazard and market tone-deaf, is a pathway destined for failure. Just ask Tower Records, KB Toys, or Waterford Wedgewood to name a few.

Gail Hyman is a marketing and communications professional who currently focuses her practice, Gail Hyman Consulting, on assisting Jewish nonprofit organizations increase their ranks of supporters and better leverage their communications in the Web 2.0 environment. Gail is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.