One of the areas in which non-profit email marketing differs from its for-profit counterparts is that increasing audience for the purposes of spreading a message (as opposed to driving sales) can be a primary goal. The more people who hear about the cause you’re promoting, the more you are succeeding in your mission. The closest analog in the for-profit world might be brand-building, where the intent is to build awareness and not necessarily direct lead generation. Today, let’s explore an interesting and powerful idea in the world of awareness building.
In a fascinating and engaging TED Talk, MIT researcher Deb Roy illustrated that in the new digital world, some fascinating social structures are manifesting themselves that previously were unseen. Using television as the common content pool and social networks as the common commentary pool, Deb shows how a piece of content can not only get people talking, but get more people to it. Fast forward to about 11 minutes, 30 seconds into the video if you don’t have time to watch it all:
Ever been to an event where someone put a microphone too close to a speaker and an ear-piercing shrill tone stopped the whole room? That’s a feedback loop. That’s what Deb Roy is demonstrating in the video – that audience and content create a feedback loop in which content is distributed to a small amount of audience, which then in turn spurs discussion and additional audience, which then in turn creates additional content.
How do you apply this very complex concept to your non-profit email marketing? Deb’s talk illustrates this key concept of the feedback loop that nearly every marketer gets wrong. If you tune in to conventional wisdom in marketing, you’ll typically hear one of two schools of thought.
The first school of thought is that it’s all about your database, and nothing else matters. List size, donor database, Twitter followers, email subscribers – build the list or go out of business. Nothing else matters. Let’s call this the speaker in the audio example above.
The second school of thought is that it’s all about content. Content, content, content – create great content and the masses will flock to your door. Build it and they will come. Nothing else matters except great content. Let’s call this the microphone in the audience example above.
Both viewpoints address independent entities – the content and the distribution network. Focusing too much on either piece to the exclusion of the other is ultimately harmful to your efforts to build awareness and audience. A microphone without a speaker will never create a feedback loop, and vice versa.
You absolutely need great content, a compelling message that will resonate with people and help them understand why they should share your passion. Few organizations have done this as well as Love 146 has, as an example. You need something to say in that microphone.
You simultaneously need a distribution network that you can activate in order to increase the likelihood that your message is shared, that your voice is heard. The larger and more powerful the speaker is, the louder the feedback loop will be.
Your job as a marketer looking to create a feedback loop is not only to have a good microphone and a big speaker (good content and a large audience), but to bring them close enough together so that you can start a feedback loop.
Most non-profits send out an overly-long, poorly focused pile of news every month as opposed to targeted, focused, messages that highlight just one thing you want everyone to pay attention to. A newsletter is fine and useful for some part of your audience, but if your goal is to create that feedback loop, then use a targeted, focused email to activate as many nodes in the audience plane as possible all at the same time, so that the moment you speak into the microphone, you create that ear-piercing sound that gets everyone’s attention.
How do you get started? That’s the role of marketing channels like email marketing and social media – to bring audience and content together. You start by setting up the pieces, acquiring the metaphorical microphone and speaker:
- Create great content and a compelling message. Refine and focus frequently.
- Get an email list set up and collect subscribers as boldly as possible.
- Build out your social channels such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. and invite people on a regular basis to subscribe to your email list.
Once you’ve got the microphone and speaker, once you’ve got an initial infrastructure set up, bring the two together as close as possible with tight, focused messaging. Whenever you launch any kind of awareness campaign, the most important thing you can do is reach out simultaneously on every channel you’ve built and ask people to share your specific, focused message. Activate as many nodes as possible in the audience with your subscriber list, with your social networks, with a tight, compact message that helps everyone to understand what you want them to do: share your message.
As long as you’ve created the content, as long as you’ve cultivated the audience, setting off a feedback loop should generate the results you expect of a marketing campaign, that feedback loop that garners attention, awareness, and recognition of your cause.
Christopher S. Penn
Director of Inbound Marketing, WhatCounts