Content Marketing: Key Strategy for Non-profits

One of the areas I have not discussed in my blogs is the growth of content marketing, especially as it relates to non-profits. For those of you who are not knowledgeable about content marketing, I will use the definition from a very reliable source. According to the Content Marketing Institute, “content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience—with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

Non-profits try hard to plan online content to connect with the right audiences. This concept of creating content to engage with your audience is nothing new, but nowadays it is becoming more important to achieving online success.

While 92% of nonprofit professionals use content marketing, just a quarter of those professionals believe they are effective. They reportedly each use, on average, 11 different content marketing tactics, with in-person events, social media, online articles, electronic newsletters, and videos being the most common.

Non-profit communication is changing-and not just because of social media. Thanks to content marketing, instead of simply keeping donors up to date, non-profit communicators and fundraisers are directly tying more long-term goals to communication and seeing great results. You can use content marketing in many different ways — the goal is really up to you.

Many people advocate content marketing as a way to grow your mailing list or to drive traffic to your website. But those are really just tactical uses of content that should lead somewhere else, like attracting new program participants, or keeping current volunteers engaged, or diversifying your individual donor base, or getting the media or decision makers to call you for your perspectives. And all of those desired outcomes require that you position your nonprofit in those people’s minds in certain ways.

How you use content in your marketing is what connects the dots between someone signing up for your mailing list or visiting your website and then eventually turning into a donor, volunteer, participant or advocate.

There are a number of ways you can use the content you create to position your nonprofit to meet your goals. Content marketing can position your nonprofit as a helpful friend, a trusted authority, an influential thinker, a reliable performer, or as an innovative change maker.

Content marketing means using your existing content to attract people to your cause. Putting out irresistible content can encourage people to connect with you because they want to know more. But when you’re just keeping them up to date with a newsletter or asking for money with an appeal, you’re not giving them anything, so your message can seem like an interruption.

With so much emphasis on “finding your target audience,” “identifying your target audience,” and “messaging for your target audience,” it can be hard to rethink who you’re talking to and why. Instead of focusing on your supporters and their demographics as a “target” to be aimed for and an “audience” to broadcast at, think of your supporters as your partners. Although it’s still a good idea to segment the people you’re communicating with, it’s important to think of them as people who are interested in dialogue. By engaging in content marketing and truly informing supporters, you can develop a back-and-forth conversation that encourages regular communication and lays the foundation for a lasting relationship.

The more you participate in continuous dialogue with your supporters, the greater your chance of becoming a favorite cause. If donors put you at the top of their list, you’ll reap huge rewards: more donations over time for bigger amounts and more regularly. And how do you remain a favorite cause? You keep communicating!

Some 60% of Business to Consumer marketers plan to increase their content marketing budget this year according to a study by the Content Marketing Institute and MarketingProfs. But it’s not enough to just create content anymore; success lies in creating content that engages your audience and motivates them to spread the word.

So the search for non-profits is on for a “formula” that gets people sharing, and any brand or cause that succeeds is worth learning from.

The most recent success story is the ALS ice bucket challenge. If you somehow haven’t seen it here’s how the challenge works: People post videos of themselves dumping buckets of ice water over their heads to raise awareness and donations for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease); they then challenge friends to dump water on themselves or donate $100 to the cause.

Now you would probably think that this is very silly but ALS Association collected $5.7 million in donations within two weeks in the USA. The Ice Bucket Challenge in Canada raised $16.2 million for research over a year. More than 260,000 Canadians contributed to the challenge. The campaign is raising awareness and funds to fight a debilitating disease. It’s also a great case study for content marketers looking to capture the attention of their audiences. ALS societies will invest $10 million in ALS research and $6 million in programs that deliver support to Canadians living with ALS. The Canadian government will match the research funds dollar for dollar, taking the total investment to $20 million.

So what have we learned from the ice bucket challenge. Here are three things this particular phenomenon can teach us about content marketing according to Lauren Covello who manages content marketing at Ripen eCommerce, a full-service digital agency that specializes in building custom marketing and development solutions for online retailers.

  1. Its unique, simple, and just crazy enough

Who doesn’t want to see their friends getting “tortured?” The ALS #icebucketchallenge feels like a good-nature clip from America’s Funniest Home Videos or a prank pulled on YouTube. But it’s done with the user’s consent, it is extremely entertaining to watch, and it has a great follow-up message.

Along with its lightheartedness, the #icebucketchallenge is also very simple. Bucket, ice, hashtag, post. No entering, no email, no external sites. Low commitment is extremely important if you’re trying to get a large number of people involved.

It’s also a new way of “going viral.” Instead of one piece of great content being shared over and over, each video is viral within that participant’s immediate circle, and the videos are linked by a simple, memorable hashtag. Instead of becoming a meme, it began as one.

And who had this brilliant idea in the first place? The originator of the campaign wasn’t some evil marketing consultant on behalf of the ALS Association. It was started by Peter Frates, a former Boston College baseball player living with ALS.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from this ice storm is that people like to interact with people—not organizations.

  1. It hits both ends of the sad-to-happy emotional spectrum

Although ALS is nothing to laugh about, it’s hard getting people to share content when the air of a campaign is all doom and gloom. People want to be a positive force in their community, and they like to have fun.

Some people are comparing the challenge to a modern-day bake sale. Do cookies and brownies have anything to do with refurbishing your local religious institution or raising money for a school baseball team? Not really, but they get people excited to help out.

And, in the end, when you’re freezing cold and drenching wet, you are still left with the warm feeling that you made a difference. Not a bad emotional mix for a 10-second video.

  1. The call to action is fun and free

Although donations are encouraged, there is no part of this campaign that demands users buy or give up personal information to participate. The only thing it stipulates is “pour water over your head or donate.”

Theoretically, that approach could have backfired tremendously if everyone participated but no one donated. However, it seems “just raising awareness” can be enough: The ALS Association reports a 1,000% spike in donations to the national office in the 10-day period up from $14,500 (during the equivalent period a year earlier) to $160,000.

A Final Lesson

Unfortunately, as hard as we might try, the vast majority of our content will never approach virality. Only 6% of Upworthy posts have reached 100,000 views, and only 0.42% have surpassed 1 million, according to the viral content experts at Upworthy.

Virality is hard. But content marketers can look to examples like the ALS challenge to create and promote content that their audience will appreciate.

So, the final lesson for marketers is this: The trick isn’t to copy or mimic a great campaign; it’s to learn from it and incorporate the lessons into future ideas.

The #icebucketchallenge is fun, it’s for a good cause, it has perfect timing, it doesn’t feel corporate, and it’s new.

So if you are a non-profit not taking full advantage of content marketing you may want to look at you marketing or communications plans and increase your involvement in innovative uses of content marketing.


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