Get Outside of Your Echo Chamber

Creative Commons photo by David Shankbone

Creative Commons photo by David Shankbone

One of the first rules of effective communications is to know your audience.

No matter what you’re trying to sell, or who you’re trying to persuade, it's critical to both understand and speak to your key audiences.

But in a culture that has become toxically divided, is it possible that we’re becoming too good at targeting our most ardent supporters?

In politics, in business, in nonprofits, and on our Facebook feeds, people and institutions are incredibly adept at stirring up the people who align with them. As they do so, they are turning off massive waves of people who might otherwise hold similar values and ideals.

This approach can yield great short-term results — but it also carries a dangerous long-term cost.

For a politician who is fighting to win an election, playing to the base can help drum up support and enthusiasm — but it can lead to massive dissent once he or she gets into office.

For a nonprofit that is looking to capitalize quickly on a hot-button issue, this can help inspire folks to donate — but it doesn’t really help grow the donor base long term.

And for those of us looking to vent on Facebook or Twitter, it can feel satisfying to get folks to retweet and like our comments, but it can actually damage long-term friendships (which I’ve seen happen all too many times among some of my friends).

As communicators and marketers, Scott and I are passionate about helping organizations identify and speak directly to their core audiences.

But we’re equally passionate about helping them expand those audiences — to help them change minds and lead movements.

You can’t do that if you’re only talking to your base.

Whether you’re trying to change minds about important policies, expand your customer base, or win an election against an entrenched incumbent, you can’t accomplish your goals if you’re only speaking in an echo chamber.

Over the coming months, we’re working on projects that will require us to help our clients reach outside of their core audiences and convert new people.

During these divided times, this challenge is greater than ever before.

We’re excited to share what we’re learning as we attempt to conquer that challenge. We’re also looking for examples of others who are trying to communicate across the invisible — but very real — divide between our core audiences and the ones we need to reach.

Tell us how you’re communicating in a divided world — and what you’re learning as a result. These are challenging times and we all need to be in this together.

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Content Strategy: It's Not About You

Make your supporters -- not your organization -- the hero in your story. Flickr photo courtesy of Streetsblog & Streetfilms.

Make your supporters -- not your organization -- the hero in your story. Flickr photo courtesy of Streetsblog & Streetfilms.

We recently started working with a healthcare nonprofit that wanted to take a fresh approach to its communications and marketing content.

The nonprofit had seen attendance at its community events slip over the past two years -- and its fundraising revenues had declined.

After a quick review of its website, marketing materials, and social-media accounts, it was easy to diagnose a major reason why the organization had been struggling.

The nonprofit was positioning itself -- not its donors, or volunteers, or even its doctors -- as the central figure in almost every piece of communications.

In turn, it was failing to capture the imagination of the people it relies on to provide life-saving services in its community.

This well-meaning nonprofit had all of the right tools to successfully market its programs and solicit donations. It had a consistent and well-constructed content calendar, a segmented email list, and a top-notch CRM.

But its communications were falling flat because it was casting itself as the hero in its own story.

If your content isn't getting the desired result, it's likely because your materials are focusing too much on yourself -- and not enough on the people you're trying to reach.

The good news is you can fix this problem.

Here are 3 simple things you can do with your content to take the spotlight off your organization -- and place it on your supporters.

Tell Their Stories

Your donors and volunteers are extraordinary people. And, quite often, the story behind why they support your organization is inspiring.

Find ways to highlight these amazing stories in your communications.

Make a donor story the focus of your next fundraising email. Spotlight a volunteer on your blog. Share a photo of a supporter on Facebook and thank her for making a difference.

If you're producing content, make sure you're weaving stories about your supporters and volunteers into that content regularly.

This simple step will change the tone of your content -- and send a strong signal to your supporters that they matter!

'Because of You'

A simple phrase can make a big difference when you're talking about your nonprofit's impact.

Most nonprofits talk about the number of meals they've provided or the number of lives they've touched. But they often do so through their own eyes.

But consider the subtle, but important, difference that comes from changing this sentence:

"We provided healthy meals to 2,500 people in our community in 2017."

To this:

"Because of you, 2,500 people in our community had healthy meals in 2017."

Selectively injecting this phrase into your content can help take the focus off of your organization -- and place it on the reader.

Help Them Share

Your supporters are you best ambassadors.

A simple Facebook message or peer-to-peer fundraising ask from a donor or volunteer on your behalf can inspire their friends and family to take action on your behalf.

But many supporters don't know how to help.

To encourage them, think about creating content that shows them how they can take action on your behalf.

For the healthcare nonprofit mentioned earlier, we've been creating email marketing messages that show how they can use personal stories about their experience with the nonprofit to inspire their friends to contribute to an upcoming fundraising walk.

These instructional messages are helping these supporters think about their connection to the organization. In turn, they are inspiring walk participants to share touching stories about how the organization has helped them or a loved one.

Want to Learn More?

Join me at 1 p.m. ET on May 10 for The 6 Problems That Plague Nonprofit Content -- a live webinar with our partners at Nonprofit Marketing Guide.

I'll walk you through some of the common mistakes organizations make with their content marketing efforts. More importantly, I'll show you how to fix them!

Join us!

Communicate With Purpose: Understanding the Power of 'Why'

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Katie Sayer

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Katie Sayer

Organizations are often very good at talking about what they do.

But the groups that often have the greatest success connecting with donors, motivating activists, or getting media attention do not spend much time talking about their programs and services.

Instead, they are adept at articulating why they do what they do.

Nonprofits, for example, aren't just about providing meals or medical care or clean water. They are laser focused on showing people how their work can make a real and lasting difference -- and what they ultimately hope to accomplish.

Businesses, meanwhile, aren't just about selling products or services. The most successful companies are able to translate why those products and services matter -- and how they are improving the world.

If you're struggling to find your voice or having a hard time connecting with potential supporters or customers, it's important to take some time to think clearly about why you exist -- and then commit to ensuring that you articulate that 'why'.

The shift can be a game changer because while your ‘what’ may be interesting and informative, it’s your ‘why’ that can be truly inspirational – and spark people to action.

The Search for Purpose

There's a reason many organizations struggle to make this shift and default to talking about what they do.

It boils down to this:

What is easy. Why is hard.


It's easy, for instance, for the charity that provides meals to talk about how many meals it serves and the need to make sure its shelves are stocked with cans of vegetables and boxes of pasta.

But if you're looking to move people in a deeper way and advance your cause to achieve more meaningful results, it's important to move beyond just talking about the what (the cans and boxes) and being able to articulate the why -- purpose behind what you do.

Why are you working to feed people?

What is the larger impact of your work?

These questions require a deeper level of thought than the more simple question of "what do you do?". They prompt you to consider what motivates your staff, your donors and supporters. And, ultimately, these questions demand you get to the core of why your organization exists in the first place – and whether your collective actions align with your true purpose.

By taking the time to answer these questions, however, your organization can gain a clearer sense of its purpose. In turn, you have a much better chance to inspire people to take action on your behalf, change minds, and get attention for your work.

Weave Purpose Into Everything You Do

For the hypothetical hunger charity described above, digging deep to find out why you're providing those meals can lead to some inspiring discoveries.

For instance, it discovers that families that have access to regular, nutritious food are healthier, that their children are more likely to succeed in school, and that our society and economy is ultimately much stronger.

Helping families get good food helps improve our schools, our economy, and our society.

That's purpose!

But it's not just enough to know and understand that purpose.

You also have to know how to articulate that purpose.

Every day.

In every piece of written communications. In every fundraising conversation. In every board meeting.

It has to be front and center on your website, show up in every meaningful conversation on Facebook, and be a part of every pitch you make to the media.

Doing this requires discipline from your leadership and your communications team. It requires training your board and your staff. And it requires consistency.

But if you're wondering why some organizations are getting more media coverage, more donors or customers, and more support than yours, it's probably because they've taken the time to define their purpose -- and they have the discipline to make sure that purpose is embedded in everything they say and do.

When Am I 'On the Record' With a Journalist?

Flickr Photo by William Murphy

Flickr Photo by William Murphy

When preparing a member of your nonprofit’s team for an interview, you invariably spend time coaching them on what to say and how to act when the camera is rolling or when the reporter is scribbling notes.

But do you also prep them for what to do when the “on air” light is off or when the reporter closes the notebook?

If you aren’t, you’re overlooking a crucial detail — one that can lead to some unfortunate headlines.

That’s because everything that happens during that encounter — from the moment you say hello to the moment you’re out of sight — is considered on the record. In other words, every statement you make can end up being reported.

To be sure, there are times when you can mutually agree to go off the record (and we’ll get into the mechanics of going off the record in a future post). But unless you deliberately take that step, you should keep in mind that you’re “on”.

As a result, if you’re preparing a member of your nonprofit’s team for an appearance or interview, it’s important that you take the time to let that person know what that means.

Unfortunately, a seemingly private comment about a cranky board member or an off-color joke is fair game — and it could end up working its way into a story.

Claiming after the fact that you didn’t know that the statement was made off camera or after the formal interview doesn’t cut it. By law — and by practice — journalists assume that you know the rules and they are often looking for well-schooled sources to say something candid or off the cuff.

This shouldn’t scare you away from doing interviews. It just means you need to act and speak deliberately.

Here is some advice on how you should prepare for some common situations:

Meetings with print media journalists

When I worked as a writer for newspapers and magazines, I often unearthed some great information after I closed my notebook at the end of a formal interview.

Often, as a source and I would exchange informal chitchat and discuss next steps, the source — feeling more relaxed — would offer some interesting perspectives or anecdotes that added to the story I was pursuing or gave me an idea for another piece.

My practice would typically be to say “I’d like to use that, do you mind if I follow up or ask you more about it now?”

Almost always, the source would agree to share more information.

But even if the source didn’t want to share more, there wasn’t much they could do about what they had already said — other than refuse to take additional questions about it or attempt to steer the conversation in another direction.

When meeting with a print reporter — a term that, for the sake of this piece, includes those who write articles for newspapers, magazines or the web — there is typically a period of time before and after the formal interview where you exchange greetings and goodbyes.

Make sure you reinforce this point with your organization’s representative ahead of the interview — and let that person know that the entire conversation is on the record.

If the representative has concerns, offer some potential topics of conversation that they can bring up during these more informal portions of the interview — and discuss some things they should avoid saying or doing.

Television, radio and digital media

Recent history is littered with examples of politicians and celebrities who have gotten themselves in hot water for saying something that was picked up by a ‘hot mic’.

President Donald Trump, one assumes, likely wishes he had kept his mouth shut when he was engaging in “locker room talk” with Billy Bush on that Access Hollywood tour bus. Same goes for Robert Durst, who was caught on microphone talking to himself about his role in a high-profile series of murders during the taping of a documentary series.

The lesson for nonprofit communicators is simple — if you’re going on television or on the radio, assume that everything you say is getting picked up on a microphone, even if you’re not technically “on air”.

Even if the camera does not appear to be rolling or the radio segment has gone to commercial, you should assume the audio is being recorded and that anything you say can be picked up and used later.

Again, it’s important to emphasize this point to representatives from your organization who are not experienced with on-air interviews to be sure that they are aware of the ground rules and are well prepared.

Social media

Finally, it’s worth noting that comments you make on social media — whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or another source — are also “on the record.” Increasingly, media outlets are quoting statements made by individuals on the social networks in their reporting.

As a result, it’s important for officials at your organization to recognize this fact and to be careful about what they post and what they comment on.

If you wouldn’t want what you said on Facebook to appear in your local newspaper or on the TV news, it’s probably best not to say it at all.


Note: I originally wrote this post for Nonprofit Marketing Guide, where I serve as a regular advisor on media relations for nonprofits.