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Content Marketing for Nonprofits

Content Marketing for Nonprofits

By Steve Smith

Improved community engagement is within your reach if you develop a plan, follow some important guidelines.

The world’s most successful nonprofits share one particular trait: They are all good storytellers. But what enables them to be so good, so prolific, so well engaged with their communities? I’m willing to bet they all have a documented content marketing strategy (CMS) and maintain an orderly, disciplined, syncopated rhythm in their storytelling. Within a very short time, strategic content marketing has shed its “arts-and-crafts” reputation and evolved from a “nice to have” to a “must have” element in any nonprofit community engagement strategy.

Why is storytelling so important? It’s been proven that authentic, original stories about genuine human experiences win the day. They are remembered long after marketing messages or dry statistics are forgotten. They are hard to beat for making an emotional connection. And we all know that an emotional connection is required to compel our fellow human beings to take action.

If nonprofits are to capitalize on the donor-rich environment that is forecast for 2021-2022, they must embrace content marketing and original storytelling.

A good example of the importance of the emotional connection is a story my team recently developed about a medical device. The contributors of the story – all clinicians – did a great job of providing data to be sure all the scientific “boxes were checked.” What the story lacked, however, was something to warm things up and convey the human side of the story – a real-world demonstration of the value of the device from the patient’s or family’s perspective. 

Why was this so important? At the end of the day, the story wasn’t really about the medical device; it was about why the device was developed and put to use in the first place. What was the patient experiencing? What could have happened if the new device wasn’t used and how would that have negatively affected the patient’s quality of life? When you put all of this in place, it sets the stage for an emotional connection to be made. Now the reader understands how the use of that device impacts the lives of the real people behind it. The reader comes away with a positive perception, predisposed to take action – to make a donation, find out more, attend a live or virtual event, or any number of actions.

Related topic: Can the Inbound Marketing Concept be Applied to Nonprofits?

A documented strategy is a must-have

A strong CMS can take your nonprofit organization to new levels of community engagement. What does that mean? It means more people discovering you, developing a greater understanding of your mission, and taking more of the actions your advancement plans require. The result is better, more cohesive branding, sustainable improvement in fundraising and more.

The term “content marketing” is certainly vague and far-reaching, encompassing all of the content you publish in hopes of getting some results back: Feature stories, social media posts, blog posts, email campaigns, videos, case studies and white papers, op-eds and the like. This content, when crafted and managed well, produces results by positioning the originator as an authority, a thought leader, and a trusted resource. These tactics must include authentic original storytelling and are crucial to the success of the modern nonprofit. In fact, research from the Content Marketing Institute found that almost all nonprofits use content marketing in some way, but only about a quarter of those organizations say they had a documented CMS. 

Can you get along without one? Sure, but it would be like embarking on a long journey with no means of navigation, and little understanding of why you’ve undertaken the journey in the first place. 

Think about it. Has your nonprofit been doing the same thing year after year – the same annual gala, golf tournament, year-end appeal, etc. – and expecting different results?  No doubt the returns on your efforts had been diminishing, even before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted everything. 

With all the competition for donors’ attention and support, you can’t take awareness for granted. Ask yourself, how much more support could have been gained if potential donors had a better understanding of your mission and some tangible examples of its impact? 

Supported by your team, maintained as a living document

In order to be successful, the CMS must yield buy-in from all corners of your organization – executive leadership, development, marketing and communications, operations, compliance… everybody. Without this level of buy-in, developing and sharing your stories becomes much harder than it should be, resulting in wasted time, missed opportunities and poor overall results.

Your CMS should be developed along the guidelines we discussed in our previous post: Your Nonprofit Content Marketing Strategy: What Should Be Included?

A documented strategy that has buy-in from all corners of your organization will yield several tangible benefits:

  • Improved efficiency in the storytelling process, from conception through publication
  • No time wasted repeatedly explaining the plan to multiple administrative contributors
  • Active participation from a group of “fans” 
  • Elimination of guesswork in the planning and budgeting from FY to FY
  • Clear alignment between content creation and advancement/fundraising goals
  • Easier to anticipate, schedule and budget for design, photography, stock image requirements in advance
  • A clear “map” of your content distribution channels – publications, blogs, websites, social media platforms – and what different channels are to be applied to different product or service offerings or departments

Nonprofits should think of the Content Marketing Strategy as the complement to their Case for Support. The two, if aligned, are a powerful combination punch for community impact. They should go together like Fred and Ginger, or Butch and Sundance.

Both provide an understanding of the problem your organization exists to solve, the reason that problem exists, the cure (your organization’s work) that will solve the problem, and the consequence (what will likely happen if the problem is not solved). 

Let's talk about your Content Marketing Strategy. Contact us for a consultation

Align content marketing with advancement goals

Increasing brand and mission awareness is certainly a worthy endeavor. But if it’s your only goal, you may be challenged to explain how awareness ties into an outcome that your leadership team, private-sector partners and donors care about.

And just saying, “Our content marketing increases brand awareness,” isn’t going to cut it when annual budget time comes around. 

Instead of setting something like brand/mission awareness as THE goal, think of it as one step toward a business goal. And what’s the business goal of content marketing? To drive profitable action.

It goes to the very definition of content marketing:

Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.

To be useful and measurable, content marketing goals must be specific – and match a meaningful goal that your nonprofit is working toward.

Your nonprofit can be a content engine

Think of your entire organization as a newsroom, with your director of advancement as the managing editor. Determine what types of stories and topics will support your plans for growth, then prioritize and schedule them. 

My approach, perhaps a by-product of my agency background, is to work with story briefs. A good story brief will outline things clearly for all decision makers in the editorial process: What is the scope, the “30-second elevator speech” of the story. What products or service lines does it support? What key messages will be conveyed to the reader? Is there a perception management issue the story is intended to confront? What are the key “takeaways” you’d like the reader to remember after they’ve finished the piece? 

Once this is determined, you can identify the contributors for the story. We call them contributors for a reason. They bring facts, perspective and balance to the story. They add to the journalistic feel of the story. They sometimes say things that are unconventional, unexpected and colorful. When they do, it makes for storytelling that is much more engaging than self-serving brochure copy. For a short story on a highly focused topic, say 600-900 words, perhaps a single contributor is all you need. But for a longer feature story with more “moving parts” it would not be unusual to have three or four contributors, each interviewed and quoted.

I have always cautioned clients against “talking to themselves.” And that’s just what you’ll be doing if you don’t take this journalistic approach to your storytelling. Think about it. Almost anyone can write brochure copy. True storytelling takes a degree of skill. Which brings me to my next point.

Hire good writers 

Sure, your marketing director is a pretty good writer. But this is no time for “pretty good.” This is game time. You need to knock it out of the park. Make an emotional connection that brings tears to their eyes. If your marketing director/manager/coordinator isn’t the kind of writer who can do that, then you need to – with apologies to a writer named Ring Lardner Jr. who wrote the screenplay for the film “MASH” – bring in “the pros from Dover.” 

In a series of recent blog posts, three of my writing partners – a highly experienced advertising copywriter, a former journalist and a science writer –each made the case for hiring good writers. These people are more than capable; they’re gifted. They know how to hit all the strategic message points, gather information from contributors and put it together so that it engages, connects and makes for a damn good read. 

The science writer can put together a story on a highly technical scientific topic and make it understandable for normal folks like you and me, without “dumbing it down.” The advertising copywriter (who also may have worked as a cab driver or bartender) knows how to make an emotional connection with the reader. Former journalists, who sometimes call themselves “recovering journalists,” use their backgrounds as print or broadcast media reporters to gather stories quickly, efficiently and accurately, with confirmed sources, lots of facts and a journalist’s economy of words.

Getting back to that marketing director, what if he or she really is a great writer, but budget and staff reductions have made it impossible for them to find the time to write? Outsourcing the work to proven, talented professionals is an attractive option.

Related topic: When and why do you need a science writer?

Do you need to reinvent the wheel?

An existing content platform can often be re-imagined and re-introduced. Case in point: Journey magazine, the content platform that Consonant Custom Media re-introduced for the Dattoli Cancer Foundation. This publication began as a plain vanilla, two-page newsletter. Like that restaurant with the best food in town but a location that makes it impossible to find, it was not living up to its potential.

After careful and thorough planning to determine the new editorial profile and development strategy, the publication was retooled and re-launched. Page count was expanded, from two to 16. The CCM creative team gave it a classy new flag and expert layouts worthy of the content the pages conveyed. Real stories about prostate cancer survivors, new research discoveries and technological advances were added, with original photography to complete the storytelling. And to be sure it would stand out among other publications, foundation director Ginya Carnahan, an Accredited Public Relations Professional, suggested the “new” Journey be published in “digest size” (6.25” x 9.25”). A new print/mail/digital distribution profile broadened Journey’sreach.

Our efforts paid off in several ways:

  • A substantial increase in donations (fundraising more than doubled)
  • A new level of excitement among internal and external audiences
  • Increased sharing via social media platforms
  • An award from the Florida Public Relations Association
  • The digest size made Journey stand out in donors’ mailboxes

All of these add up to huge ROI potential. Not planning to launch a major content platform? One simple way to improve the one you already have is in the area of staff and physician bios. Here’s a news flash: They don’t have to boring! 

Maintain your brand voice

And what about your voice? Nonprofit leaders with marketing knowledge will understand the importance of maintaining their “brand voice” but what if you have several different people writing new content?

An Editorial Style Guide is a great tool to be sure that your voice and tone are carried through every single one of your content channels, by everyone who writes for them. Not to be confused with a Brand Guide or Graphic Identity Standards manual, this document governs your editorial style. Because it doesn’t have a direct effect on the visual manifestation of your brand, it’s often overlooked, but it is well worth the effort. The primary benefit is that it gives everyone the same guidebook to follow when writing, editing and proofreading content.

Smart content marketing asset management will pay dividends

Another important advantage of a strong CM program with a documented plan can be achieved through strong asset management. While you’re busy crafting and sharing stories, you’re also accumulating assets – photographic images, videos, infographics and more – that can all be repurposed for enhanced cost-efficiency. So it goes without saying that your content marketing program will become more cost efficient as it matures.

With original photography, for example, we always request unlimited usage rights for our clients, so they can repurpose images created for their publications in other ways (in their own marketing of course) and thereby amortize the cost of the work over multiple projects. There’s certainly nothing new or “game changing” about that, but it’s worth mentioning, and worth including in your documented CM strategy. 

Creating and maintaining your content calendar

Unless you’re working completely on your own, every member of your team needs to be on the same page with what content is being created, and where and when it’s being published. It has to be done on a regular, ongoing basis. That is precisely where content calendars come into play.

A content calendar as a shareable resource that teams can use to plan all content activity and visualize how your content is distributed throughout the year. We’ll just go over a few of the broad strokes here, and cover this in more detail in a separate blog post.

To schedule content creation and distribution accurately and consistently, consider using one of the many – and I do mean many – content calendar applications that are currently available. The shear number of them is an embarrassment of riches: StoryChief, Google Calendar, KanbanFlow, ContentCal, Flow-e, GatherContent, Trello, BrightPod, DivvyHQ, Asana, Airtable, Monday, NewsCred, Skyword, Content DJ…the list goes on and on, and on!

Let me bottom-line this for you. What’s the single most important thing to remember when scheduling content? Plan ahead. The farther ahead you plan, the better positioned you will be to produce a consistent flow of content.

 

About Consonant Custom Media

Consonant Custom Media provides content marketing and storytelling for hospitals, health systems, nonprofits, foundations and others who want to make more meaningful connections with their communities of interest. 

We create original content that is truly consonant, or in harmony, with our clients' brand values and drives profitable consumer action.

Clients use our original content strategically, to reach specific objectives in perception management, physician relations, service line development, sales and donor development. 

Contact us for a consultation


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