I’d like to continue our discussion about the matter of researching, accumulating, and synthesizing the data that goes into defining your organization’s marketing message.
After all, it’s far better not to take anything about your audience for granted; your efforts will always be more successful if they’re based on verifiable facts rather than conjecture.
I don’t just want to send you off to start digging haphazardly, making what you can of your findings. Research, like anything else, works best when it comes with a plan.
This is my method, which I use for my clients, for gathering and assimilating this most essential raw material:
This is kind of a pre-step, a bit of mental preparation that I think is necessary in order to ensure that you approach the work of researching from the right perspective.
If I asked you whom you’d most like to target for fundraising, it wouldn’t surprise me if the answer were: “Everyone.” It probably goes against the grain to limit your options. After all, compassion is for everyone. Generosity is for everyone.
You might think that if we’re handling your messaging the right way, the end result would be that you can bring in and convert a broad, diverse cross-section of donors to your cause. Why leave anyone out?
If you’re trying to save the rainforest, you’re not going to use the same pitch on environmental activists that you would on people whose lives or livelihoods are threatened by the ongoing damage. For the former, you’d want to talk about the principles you stand for; for the latter, you’d want to get into the personal impact.
Putting these ideas together in the same video would mean that neither of these audiences would feel that you were speaking directly to them, that you understood their concerns and that they could trust you to offer a solution.
I preach a similar doctrine when it comes to choosing a program or aspect of your organization to promote: You can’t talk about everything all the time. A single, clear goal gives people something to rally behind: Save these children or Cure this disease. It’s immediately apparent what you’re all about, which makes supporting you an easy decision.
The more detail and complexity you add to your message, the more work you’re asking prospective donors to do — work for which they may not have the time or the energy. Rather than making your organization more appealing, you’ll have put barriers for participation in place. That’s the last thing you want.
The intent here isn’t to place limitations on your marketing ambitions. It’s to remind you that it’s preferable, and frankly way more effective, to take on one target at a time.
When I find a client trying to cram as much as possible into a single video, I’m reminded of someone piling their arms with groceries, struggling to balance them the whole way between the car and the front door. Unless you wanted those cucumbers to end up all over your driveway, you’d have been better off making more than one trip.
Once you recognize the benefits of choosing a specific focus, the question becomes: How do you decide what to tackle first?
There are various approaches to choosing a direction for your marketing plan. In most cases, I recommend that you let past successes guide your future actions.
What I mean by this is that if you’re looking for the key to effective fundraising, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. You probably already have some particularly strong supporters.
Once again, don’t assume you know the answer. It’s possible that you stumbled onto a winning formula though luck and circumstance, and you won’t be able to guess the elements that brought it about. But if you can find out what needs, interests, and desires your top donors have in common, you just might be able to recreate that magic on purpose.
All that being said, there are other rationales for choosing your starting point. Sometimes you have a project that’s suited for one particular audience, giving them a reason to grow. But outside of those external considerations, I’d say that looking at what’s working for you gives you the best idea of what to keep working.
At this point, now that you know which demographic you’ll be looking at, you’re ready to start asking questions. What do they like about you? Why do they stick with you? Is there anything they would change?
These questions, and any others you can come up with, are designed to dig deep and get a true sense of how your work is understood by those who value it. To really refine these excavations, I often ask follow-up questions that reframe what I’ve already asked to see if it gets a different response.
If someone tells you that they like a certain characteristic of your organization, ask them: “What if we did that a little differently?” Offer them an example of what you mean. Ask: “Would that change how you feel?”
What you’re doing here is testing the boundaries. People can’t always give you the most precise answers on the first try. It’s on you to sharpen and hone their responses until you’re sure that they’re as accurate as they can be.
I advise you to both record these conversations and take notes on them. The notes make it easier for you to capture an overall impression and to organize the information; the recordings are there so you can go back over them and revise your report based on the nuances of tone and context.
If you’re doing this right, there’ll be a lot of data to sift through at this point. Get yourself a comfortable seat and a cup of coffee because you’re going to be spending some time getting acquainted with these responses.
Your goal is to look for commonalities: Is there some quality or motivation shared by your supporters? Do they express any collective concerns?
Put forth a theory and then go back and test it against the data. See how well it’s supported or contradicted. Keep playing with it until you’re confident that the idea you’ve hit on really captures some crucial factor that moves and motivates your donors. Don’t just isolate the idea, but also the terminology that seems to resonate most among the people you interviewed.
And that’s it. You’ve cracked the code. You should of course continue to collect data as you move forward; it’s important to be open to shifting and refining your message in response to what you learn. But your first draft is complete.
You should be able to describe this core idea, whatever it is, in no more than a sentence or two. It’s the most simplified, pithy version of your message, something that speaks clearly and directly to the heart of the matter. If it takes more than half a minute to say, you haven’t perfected it yet. Keep boiling it down to its essence.
When you have it, write it down in bright letters and pin it to your wall where you can look at it every morning. It’s going to be the foundation of your entire marketing campaign.
Let’s recap. To conduct your research, follow these steps:
Through comprehensive interviews and data synthesis, you’ve now distilled the key elements of your appeal. From now on, when you interact with donors, or prospective donors, this is your starting point: the fundamental reason they care about your work. From there, you can ask yourself: What stage of the funnel has this person reached? How should I present my message to meet them where they’re at?
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