Here’s a highly-effective, low-cost, moderate-effort strategy one organization used to get to know its audiences and improve its program at the same time:
The Back Story
Foundation News and Commentary (FN&C), the former flagship publication of the Council on Foundations (a major membership association of foundations), had a subscriber base equally split between foundations and nonprofits. It was one of the premier publications of the nonprofit sector.
As we all know, reaching and meeting the needs of two somewhat diverse audiences is difficult. It is tough to be specific enough to address issues that are segment-specific while general enough to cover areas of common interest. Foundation News and Commentary did a great job.
However, at one crucial point, Managing Editor Heather Peeler found herself facing a real challenge.
The FN&C staff was eager to make some significant changes to the magazine, on both the content and design sides. Peeler recalls, “We were planning on doing a number of new things with the magazine – including re-design, possible content additions and more. When considering what changes to make, I realized that it would be a great help to have a group of readers that I could turn to and check in with on their current passions and needs, both at the time of the major changes and on an ongoing basis.”
Peeler decided she’d act on this idea and incorporated a call for help in the next online and print issues of FN&C. It read:
“LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD READERS: Foundation News & Commentary is putting together a Readers Panel to help the magazine through a re-design, test out a new resource directory, and more. Panel members should be available to answer questions, preview new services and share their opinions. The time commitment is no more than a few hours per quarter. And as a “thank you” for their service, panelists will receive a 15% discount on all Council publications.”
Peeler reported that response to her invitation was strong. “We had more people than we could use who expressed interest in participating and even had a waiting list should replacements be needed. We established an ongoing dialogue with the group and involved participants via survey, phone and online no more than one or two times a quarter so that it wasn’t burdensome for them to be involved.”
Peeler continued, “We worked hard to choose a panel that’s representative of our readers — online (an abridged edition available at no charge to non-subscribers) and print subscribers, all types of foundations and nonprofits, from CEOs to program staff and assistants.”
FN&C put the advisory panel to work beginning with an online survey on the proposed editorial line-up for coming months. The panel conveyed their interest level on various topics, from 1 (“red hot”, I can’t learn enough on this topic) to 5 (snore). Peeler and her colleagues found the panel’s input to be an invaluable ingredient in finalizing content decisions.
What Lay Ahead for the FN&C Readers Panel
Peeler and colleagues then tasked the FN&C advisory panel with testing the usability (efficiency and ease of use) of a planned online buyers’ guide. Results were collected via an online survey tool, supplemented by one-to-one calling as needed.
Peeler can’t speak strongly enough about the value of having the panel on board and comments that, “although it took some work to get this set up and rolling smoothly, the group was a hugely valuable addition to our staff.”
Launch Your Own Advisory Team to Improve Programs, Increase Marketing Impact and Build Loyalty
FN&C’s development of its Readers Panel is a powerful practice for use in your organization. By launching your own marketing advisory team, your organization will gain an understanding of perceptions of the organization and its programs and services held by the very people you need to connect with.
You can put this input to use in evolving programs and services and as the essence of your marketing plan. There’s no better source for learning what’s most important to your audiences and even the language that they use to describe these elements.
With this knowledge, you will connect more strongly with your audiences and be more likely to motivate them to act. But that’s not all: the benefits extend to increased audience loyalty. Peeler recalls that “people really wanted the opportunity to weigh in and support our effort.”
Audiences do want to be involved with an enterprise that they care about, and are generally flattered to be asked for input. When you do so, you’re not only getting great insights, you’re strengthening your relationships with key stakeholders.
Build Your Own Marketing Advisory Team
I urge you to start thinking today about how your organization can put a marketing advisory team to work.
Begin by identifying your target audiences and segments of each that share wants, needs and preferences. Then design a team that includes as many of these perspectives as possible — that way you’ll have the right person to turn to when you need them. And you’ll have a base of comparison when you solicit all-team input on a specific campaign or message. That’s incredibly useful.
Next invite prospective team members to participate. If you don't have people in mind that do represent all the perspectives you need, add an invitation to participate to your next e-newsletter or online survey. Make sure to specify your expectations and to keep them modest. I recommend that you ask for your team members' help just once or twice a quarter and expect them to give no more than 15 to 30 minutes of their time in each instance.
I urge you to try it for six months, refining the program over time to be of greatest value for you and least burden for your marketing advisory team. When you do, I promise you’ll know, and connect with, your audiences better than ever before.
is a free e-update, published twice-monthly by Nancy Schwartz & Company, copyright 2010 by Nancy E. Schwartz.
The Getting Attention blog
offers pithy, punchy insights on the world of nonprofit marketing and communications, and how you can do it better, and you can get posts delivered to your email box or blog reader.NANCY SCHWARTZ & COMPANY
Helping Nonprofits Succeed through Effective Marketing