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Nonprofits told to stand out, not stand back
Philanthropy Journal
Julia Vail | November 18, 2008

Katya Andresen
RALEIGH, N.C. -- During the Great Depression, no one wanted to spend their hard-earned money on replacing worn-out socks, says Katya Andresen, vice president of marketing at Network for Good in Bethesda, Md.

To capitalize on consumer frugality, one sock company began selling high-quality socks with a reinforced toe.

But because all the socks on the store shelves looked the same, customers could not remember which socks had the reinforced toe, Andresen said.

In a brilliant marketing move, the company began stitching the toes of the socks with gold thread, she said. As a result, Goldtoe socks, one of the leading hosiery brands in the U.S., was born.

"They figured out what was special about their socks and made it unmistakably obvious to everyone," Andresen said in her keynote address at the N.C. Center for Nonprofits 2008 Statewide Conference. "We need to show what our gold toe is."

Corporations have spent decades fine-tuning their marketing strategies and drawing in customers, she said. Nonprofits should capitalize on those methods to sell their missions to audiences, especially when a down economy makes donors more cautious.

"We don't want to be lost in a sea of 1.5 million nonprofits," she said. "We need to be very focused on standing out instead of standing back."

A good marketing strategy has three parts, Andresen said. However, most nonprofits only focus on the first aspect -- what they do well.

"That's not enough," she said. "People are going to be more and more selective about where they're donating."

Nonprofits should make an effort to expand to the two other areas of effective marketing -- what they do that's different than other nonprofits, and how this is important to the audience.

Milford, Michigan-based LandChoices, for example, marketed itself as a nonprofit dedicated to building sustainable communities, Andresen said.

But this slogan did not showcase how the organization distinguished itself from others, or what it did for its audiences.

In a bid to attract more attention to its cause, Land Choices changed its campaign slogan to "Supersize My Backyard," promising to provide more green spaces for the public to enjoy.

In part because of these and other changes recommended by Network for Good, the organization's revenue doubled from 2005 to 2006, and increased by more than half from 2006 to 2007.

"It said, "I'm here to make sure your children have a place to bike,'" Andresen said. The nonprofit took an abstract concept and tailored it to improving people's quality of life.

If nonprofits want to appeal to the values of their audience, Andresen said, they must first know what those values are.

The Aware Foundation, which aims to teach adolescents about wellness, was immensely successful in targeting its audience through a Web-based initiative, Andresen said.

The website, Teen Health Talk, did not lecture girls about what was "bad for them," she said.

Instead, it used a bright and visually-interesting format and addressed issues that appeal to teenage girls, such as boys and fashion.

The website asks visitors to refer their health-related questions to Dr. G, who sounds "more like a recording artist" than a physician, Andresen said.

The site received the Best Non-Profit WebAward from the Web Marketing Association.

"Getting a message to someone is like shooting an arrow," Andresen said. "It has to take aim and stick with them."

In order to get audiences to support a cause, it also is important for nonprofits to include a call to action in their messages, Andresen said. This call to action must be specific and feasible to prompt a reaction.

"People are much more likely to take a step if it's a baby step," Andresen said.

Finally, the message should include the promise of a reward for taking action.

"It doesn't have to be a hat or a coffee mug," Andresen said. "Some of the best rewards I see are just making people feel happy or good about what they did."

In making a play for audience attention, nonprofits should ditch the long speeches about goals, she said, and speak about the direct impact their organizations have on the community.

By letting audiences take part in fulfilling a mission, nonprofits can enjoy the success of companies such as Nike, whose marketing campaign has made a tremendous emotional connection with the public.

"They don't tell you how a running shoe is constructed," Andresen said. "They tell you about the sense of power you have when you run."

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