Monday, March 24, 2008

Taking A Lesson From Starbucks

Starbucks recently waded into Web 2.0 with its new offering The site is designed to allow Starbuck's customers to post, share and discuss their ideas about the company and its products.

I spend a lot of time on this blog encouraging my readers to find ways to do exactly what Starbucks is attempting to do here. In an interactive world, it's critical that both corporations and organizations find ways to have conversations with their constituents in a meaningful and transparent way.

The Starbucks site, however, serves as a somewhat cautionary tale. By creating a online "suggestion box" without also imposing a clear structure, Starbucks risks missing out on hearing clear, focused comments from its users. The site is already being criticized for being "unwieldy" — with "lots of wayward ideas ... suggested [and] repeated numerous times in various categories." Some commentators have said "with so many ideas flooding the site, it makes it more difficult for Starbucks to listen and to follow-through on the suggestions."

The question to ask here is what exactly Starbucks was trying to do. It's often not enough to simply ask for feedback. Generally speaking, people that don't work at your company or organization don't spend that much time thinking about your business/cause unless they've had a very personal experience - whether negative or positive - with it. Asking for general feedback might solicit their individual story, but it probably won't generate much constructive insight. Instead, do your own homework. Create structured questions that can be thoughtfully answered by your supporters - and generate suggestions that can truly benefit your organization.

If your organization has a blog or a newsletter, ask your supporters one question each month and then report back the following month with the best 3 answers/suggestions. Be specific. Ask whether your organization's messaging could be updated for a multicultural audience. Ask what your organization could be doing to reach out to a neighboring city. Ask how to get young people involved as volunteers during their summer break.

Creating a conversation is only helpful if everyone stays on topic, and if you can hear what everyone's saying. If you make the effort to begin a conversation with your constituents, be sure to do so in a way that benefits them, as well as your organization.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Google For Non-Profits

This past week, Google announced a new suite of tools for non-profits.

While I've posted about how non-profits can use Google's shared tools before (here and here), this new announcement is exciting because it shows how a non-profit can use all of Google's tools in an integrated way.

Here's a list of all that Google offers - most of which are completely free to use:

Free Google-hosted email, customized for your domain

Collect donations online and process them for free, with no monthly, setup, or gateway fees

Create and edit documents online and collaborate in real time with staff and volunteers

Organize schedules and publicize events with shared calendars

Understand how people find and interact with information on your website

Google Grants
Reach and engage your supporters through free online advertising

Broadcast your cause to the world's largest online video community

Publish instantly and keep your supporters informed and engaged

Maps & Earth
Give life to your cause by illustrating its global context

Drive traffic to your website and interact with your supporters more often

Communicate easily to staff or volunteers and encourage discussions among supporters

Picassa Web Albums

Create shared photo albums

Google Alerts
Get an email alert each time something new is reported about your sector or industry

Enjoy -

Buliding Your Brand

Unfortunately, I've found over the years that most of the non-profits I work with don't think too much about their own brand. Most are too focused on the day-to-day tasks associated with their agencies to worry about whether their organization's brand is where it should be. Branding, they assume, is for people that sell things - not people that are trying to make the world a better place.

In my experience, the opposite is true. Your organization's brand is your only asset. It's the only thing that matters. Without a strong brand, non-profits have nothing else to offer. Your brand is the only reason for anyone to ever donate money or time or effort to your cause. Without a strong brand – one that effectively communicates what your organization does and why it does it – there's simply no point.

This is an opportunity to take a lesson from the for-profit sector. As tastes, norms and expectations shift, companies are scrambling to find ways to keep up with their own consumers. Marketers and brand managers are gravitating to a new definition of brand. Paul Isakson over at Space150 has recently offered this definition of brand in a recent presentation:
Brand = What people say, feel, or think about your product, service or company

The key takeaway from his presentation is that your brand is earned by making your audience's life better. For-profit companies do this by creating products that make people's lives more efficient, or more fun. Non-profit organizations can do this by making people's lives richer, more rewarding, and more connected.

It seems like an obvious idea, but don't make the mistake of taking it for granted. It requires that your organization examine the entire experience of being a donor, a supporter, or a recipient of your services. Is the donation experience simple and straightforward? Is the impact of each donation clearly explained? Is the community created by your organization's services able to connect to one another?

Does each person who interacts with your organization leave with a clear sense of brand? To find out, take the time to draw a map of each experience noted above. If it's not ideal, what steps are needed to make it better? And is there really anything more important your organization should be doing right now?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Free Is The New Currency

Jake Brewer over at The Realist Idealist wrote a post about a recent cover story in Wired Magazine by Chris Anderson entitled “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business.”

Brewer summarizes the article this way:

Though Andersen focuses almost entirely on the application of “free” for business (i.e. how Ryan Air can sell you a ticket for $20 and still make money, or how Comcast gives a DVR away, or how you can get a free cell phone, or…you get the idea), his underlying premise should theoretically extend beyond it. That premise: As an entity or commodity (eg bandwidth, storage, phones, processing power etc) goes digital it inherently moves ever closer toward being free.

And then he asks an interesting question: How does this concept apply to the social sector and global issues like hunger, homelessness, or HIV/AIDS?

It's a fascinating question - and one that's worth some discussion. The underlying element, in my opinion, is that free is the new currency in business because value flows from credibility. Since the internet has shifted credibility into the public, rather than the private, arena, establishing credibility now requires massive public exposure - which can only be done without charging for access.

An expert (Jeremiah Owyang is a great example) now establishes credibility in his/her field by giving away expertise in the open market. Once credibility is established, dollars follow from those who wish to consult privately with the guru.

For non-profit organizations, the question is how to similarly establish credibility in the public arena - and derive value from that credibility.

For example, if your non-profit could establish itself as the undisputed expert in the public arena for - say - distributing resources to the homeless, who else might find that expertise valuable? Couldn’t you offer that expertise to private buyers looking to do the same outside of your organization’s reach? NGOs and city governments pay consultants for those services now - why not pay your organization for its insights and advice?

When you're thinking through your organization's communications strategy, how much have you thought about the value of your experts and in-house expertise? Could they fit into the revenue model of your agency? What are you doing to link their market value to your own? How much freedom have you given them to establish credibility for your organization within their sphere of influence?

You might be surprised to find that by giving your expertise away for free, it suddenly becomes much more valuable.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why Your Non-Profit Organization Should Have A Blog

I was asked by a colleague this morning for some examples of non-profits that use blogs well.

Britt Bravo over at NetSquared has such a great list - complete with explanations of what they're using their blogs to accomplish - that I simply referred them to her original post.

I'm excerpting a portion of her list below - which matches 10 different reasons to blog with good examples of each - but if you have the time I highly recommend her original post. It really is worth the read.


1. To report back from an event or conference
Example: Patricia Jones, manager of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's Environmental Justice Program, is blogging from the Fourth World Water Forum on the UUSC blog, Hotwire

2. To involve staff and take advantage of their knowledge
Example: The Walker Art Center's blog contains postings from art center staff and others describing recent and future community programs and educational information about exhibits at The Walker.

3. To involve volunteers and document their work
Example: The surgical volunteer staff who do reconstructive surgery all over the world for Interplast, upload posts to the blog from their worksite. Example: The Urban Sprouts blog is written by one staff member and one volunteer.

4. To provide resources and information to constituents
Example: AARP's blog is an online resource for a variety of aging issues such as retirement security, health and volunteering.

5. To provide resources and information from constituents
Example: The Best Friend Network allows its supporters to create blogs around animal and animal adoption issues that they care about. Example: NetSquared's blog is a community blog that anyone can post to about resources, events and information related to how nonprofits and NGOs can use the social web for social change.

6. To give constituents a place to voice their opinion
Example: Ann Arbor District Library System Uses a blog for the front page of their site. Library users can ask questions and make suggestions about library news, announcements and events in the comments of each post.

7. To give constituents support
Example: March of Dimes' Share Your Story blog allows families with children in NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) to share their experiences with one another.

8. To create the media coverage constituents want

Example: When the men accused of murdering Gwen Araujo, a woman they beat, bound and strangled after they discovered that she was biologically male, went to trial, the Community United Against Violence decided to use a blog to document the trial. Because many of CUAV's volunteer bloggers were more knowledgeable about issues such as the trans-phobic tactics that were being used by the lawyers, they were able to address many issues that the mainstream media missed. The blog also kept people informed during the second trial, when media coverage had diminished, and eventually drew attention to the trial when the blog got news coverage.

9. To give constituents the power and tools to create change
Example: Human Rights Watch doesn’t have a blog, but specifically offers RSS feeds of human rights news to supporters so that they will blog about human rights issues.

10. To reach potential donors
Blogs are not replacements for paper newsletters or e-newsletters, they are an additional way to reach a certain audience. Check out the stats from this article entitled, "Blog Readers Spend More Time and Money Online."

Non-profits And The Long Tail Theory

If you haven't read the The Long Tail, you should.

Here's the basic idea, according to Chris Anderson, the author:

Traditional retail economics dictate that stores only stock the likely hits, because shelf space is expensive. But online retailers (from Amazon to iTunes) can stock virtually everything, and the number of available niche products outnumber the hits by several orders of magnitude. Those millions of niches are the Long Tail, which had been largely neglected until recently in favor of the Short Head of hits.

When consumers are offered infinite choice, the true shape of demand is revealed. And it turns out to be less hit-centric than we thought. People gravitate towards niches because they satisfy narrow interests better, and in one aspect of our life or another we all have some narrow interest (whether we think of it that way or not).

The Long Tail theory is an economic one, but it has relevance for the non-profit sector as well. I've posted about this idea before, arguing that the new Distributed Funding model made possible by the internet is likely to undermine the major donor bias most organizations currently have.

The idea came up for me again today when I ran across this excellent post by Shabbir Safdar. In the excerpt below, Shabbir does a great job of reiterating why the theory of the Long Tail is so important in the non-profit sector:
What does this mean for public relations, public affairs and non-profits? The expectations of the public are changing. To develop an audience, you are expected to publish and talk about your work constantly... Organizations that don't publish are finding it very difficult to engage their audiences when their opponents and competitors talk to them all the time.

"Does this mean I need a blog?" a nonprofit executive recently asked me. No, it means you, or someone in your organization needs to write something almost every day about the work you do to further your mission. The "blog" is just the vehicle you use to post it. Perhaps tomorrow it's an e-mail list, and the day after it's a posted URL on Facebook. The day after it may be a postcard.

What's changed is the expectation. Today's public expects more out of the organizations they give their attention, loyalty, and money to nowadays, or they withhold it.
The question is, now that your long tail of supporters can easily find and connect with you, how do you keep that group of passionate, committed people engaged with your organization?

You talk to them.

Most of my non-profit clients publish a newsletter, and one or two fund raising letters throughout the year – not enough for a real "conversation" with constituents, and not a good way to reach people that aren't already part of the organization's base of supporters. In this new age of infinite access – via social networking, distributed funding, and non-traditional publicity – organizations are under pressure to keep information flowing at an unprecedented rate.

Organizations that are able to effectively create a platform for an ongoing conversation with anyone in the world who's interested in what they do – one that's able to reach deep into the long tail – are going to significantly better positioned that those who don't.

What is your organization doing to engage donors, volunteers, and supporters in conversation?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Using Experts To Get Publicity For Your Non-Profit

When planning your organization's media strategy, don't forget to take advantage of the passionate and informed people you have either on staff, on your board, or in your pool of active volunteers. Take the time now to identify potential experts, and approach them about formally serving as a spokesperson for the organization when appropriate.

[photo credit; Mai Le]

Journalists need to be able to quote experts when covering controversial topics so that they can objectively represent both sides of the controversy. Since the journalist must remain objective, they need to find others who can provide thoughtful opinions on their topic. A recent Guidestar post notes that:
Developing experts within an organization and creating platforms from which they can provide their opinions is vital to securing lasting media coverage. A nonprofit should always have a few experts on hand to discuss the organization's objectives, explain the cause or point of view on a particular subject in detail, and provide support to sponsors and donors.

Profiling key spokespeople on the organization's Web site or in widely available expert databases gives reporters easy accessibility to these experts. If your expert can respond to something that is currently in the news, consider sending out a media advisory alerting reporters to the availability of the spokesperson and his/her position on the topic.

If your organization has access to such experts, here are some suggestions for expanding their role in your publicity efforts:
  1. Make sure your local press contacts know your experts exist, and can reach them easily on short notice. Help your experts contact reporters that have recently written articles in their area of expertise and either praise or criticize their work. Provide your experts contact information - highlighting their affiliation with your organization - for the reporter's future use.
  2. Be sure to have media-ready bios (short statements outline the experts qualifications and background) and photos (a high resolution shot taken against a neutral background that shows the head and shoulers) of each expert ready to go - preferably as part of your online or printed press kit.
  3. Consider helping your experts build up a set of written pieces available for journalists to use as reference material by asking your experts to write a guest column in your organization's newsletter, or an informative article that can be featured on your organization's website.
One note of caution: Be sure your experts are able to stay on message for your organization at all times. If your expert is likely to say something damaging during a live interview, consider limiting them to written interactions with press, or work with them in a series of "role playing" type exercises to get them comfortable in the role of spokesperson for your agency.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

What Is Social Media?

I ran across this definition of social media today from Erica O'Grady:
Social Media is NOT about technology or Web 2.0 applications. Social Media is Word-of-Mouth or Community Based Marketing that leverages technology to enable conversation.
I couldn't agree more. So many of my non-profits clients shy away from my recommendation to use social media tools (a.k.a. "social networking tools") to communicate with their constituents because they're afraid of new technology.

As Erica's definition above confirms - it's not about the technology. It's about the conversation. When the technology can make the conversation easier to have - and allows more people to be involved in it - then it's the best tool for the job.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

PR 2.0

The idea that the web has moved away from a one-way conversation (corporate web sites, newspaper articles online, etc.) and towards a multi-layered conversation (users creating and uploading their own content, reviewing products and experiences, and commenting on articles published by traditional media sites) is fairly well established at this point. Generally, you'll hear people call this shift "Web 2.0."

Sarah Lacy's upcoming book Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0 is destined to be the definitive work on this idea.
When her book hits the shelves in May, it's likely to make a lot of non-Silicon Valley types examine exactly how this technological shift impacts the world around them.

For those of us in PR, the shift has been happening for quite a while. Brian Solis fixed the term PR 2.0 in the lexicon when he began a blog of the same name in April of 2006, and Todd Defren has been monitoring the impact of the new web on the communications industry from his vantage point at Shift Communications for the past several years. Of course there are hundreds of other pundits and commentators as well - far too many to mention here.

The point is, they're all saying the same thing. More and more people have stopped simply receiving information and have begun to actively create it. More and more people now get their information from sources that didn't even exist 5 years ago.

My own information habits have changed drastically over the last few years. My morning hours are now spent absorbing information via blog readers, minute-by-minute updates from both industry leaders and personal friends via Twitter and Facebook, broadcast news delivered via TiVo, and radio news delivered via podcast. At no point do I interact with traditional media in any way. And the same is true for most of my peers.

For the PR industry, this poses a particular problem. Since we're in the business of feeding information into an existing distribution structure, what happens when the structure shifts? The answer: We must shift as well. And fast.

While it used to be sufficient to send a standard press release to a set of wire services - now both the release itself, as well as the distribution mechanism, are in flux.
  • Social Media Releases - Not all content creators are journalists. Journalists are trained to tell stories. Bloggers, pundits and analysts are much more interested in tracking industry changes one fact at a time. Traditional press releases are designed to tell the whole story at once. Social media releases just list the facts, key quotes, and critical issues.
  • Social Media Optimization (SMO) - Just as search engine optimization (SEO - which I posted about earlier this month) is a critical component of any web strategy, optimizing your publicity efforts so they can be easily spread by supporters using social media sites is now critical as well.
If your publicity efforts are stuck in Web 1.0, now is the time to make a change. Otherwise you might find that you're still communicating, but no one's listening.