What happens when your product is a message, and the goal of that message is to get the community, investors and the media to believe in your cause and ultimately support you? Whether the product is gathering donations, collecting signatures or signing volunteers up there is just as much of a need for marketing as any good or service. Just as any product it must have value to the consumer, but what if the value is not tangible or has no guarantee of being accrued? How do we get people to believe in what we are trying to do? (Hint: Start a conversation, and read why it’s important here)
These are the challenges that nonprofits, coalitions, government programs and other cause –based entities face. Challenges surrounding business strategy, brand positioning, market research and other marketing dilemmas are constrained by factors such as limited budgets and resources, public opinion, uncertain sustainability and unique marketing success measures.
Limited Resources and Unique Success Measures
Cause-based organizations often have very limited budgets, which can tend to mean that marketing initiatives get pushed to the bottom of the list. One factor contributing to this trend is that marketing efforts cannot typically be measured by traditional means such as ROI. Marketers in nonprofits, for example, might have to get creative about how they measure their success. They might monitor their website and social media traffic during a campaign, or inspect sign-up rates on petitions and volunteer lists. These can be good indicators internally, but what happens when the organization reaches out to investors or the government for an increase in budget or resources? Proving that marketing initiatives have been successful in order to secure more capital for marketing efforts can be hard to sell based on these unique measures, particularly in a new or start-up organization.
Success among many cause-based organizations is rooted in positive public opinion and public support. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, for example, is a program developed for voluntary adaptation into state school curriculum. Public support for this program was imperative in making it possible, as government, teachers and parents had to show their support in order for it to be initiated at state level. Common Core has somewhat of an image problem, with negative views from many parties, some who don’t even know exactly what it is. This negative publicity creates a complete barrier between supporting and opposing parties, leaving out room for compromises.
This effect of public opinion plagues many cause-based organizations, and leads to solutions derived from questions like: How does the messaging sound to multiple parties? What are areas of our cause that matter to society at large? How can negative opinions be prompted into effective discussion to better the cause and message? While public opinion and constructive criticism or praise can be very different things, the message that a cause-based organization takes to deal with it is very important. The role of marketing in this situation should be to act as a middleman between the organization and the community to sculpt effective and brand cohesive messaging.
The sustainability of cause-based entities is often either unknown or pre-determined. The unknown time frame makes marketing efforts difficult. For example, a political candidate during the primaries does not have a definite time-frame on how long their campaign efforts will last for. In this event, the politician and the starting campaign team don’t know how long they will actually have to work for, since it is all determined by the voters. So the problem then becomes how does the marketing team create a plan when they don’t know how long they will be planning for? Short term objectives are often guided by long term objectives, so not knowing the exact long term goal can mean that marketers have to improvise and plan as they go. While this isn’t exactly a textbook strategy, it is real life marketing. One thing that helps guide marketers in this situation is determining the overall brand identity and message and sticking to it, crafting messages around it along the way.
Marketing for nonprofits, coalitions, government programs and other cause-based organizations can result in marketing headaches. Funds are tied up or dwindling, success measures aren’t cookie-cutter, public opinion is tearing down your carefully crafted message and you aren’t sure if anyone will even care about your cause in two years. It’s not all bad news though, because cause-based organizations are important to many groups of people, and can have a real effect on society and major social, political and environmental change. The work matters, even if it comes at a higher cost for marketing.
Have you ever worked on a marketing strategy for a cause-based marketing? If you have, what are some issues you have experienced in the marketing department? Or if you have not, are these issues something you have dealt with? Leave me a comment and let’s start a discussion. You can also Tweet me your experiences with the hashtag #MyMktgStory at @akannakeefe.