Interview #20 Transcript – October 17, 2013
Participants: Claire Axelrad and Martin van der Roest

Martin van der Roest: Welcome. I’m Martin van der Roest with the Content Marketing Examiner where we continue to explore enterprise content marketing best practices. Joining me today is Claire Axelrad, who has an impressive background in working with nonprofits and some of the activities related to digital marketing. Claire, thank you for joining us today.

Claire Axelrad: I’m delighted to be here.

Martin van der Roest: Before we get into our conversation, tell us a little more about yourself and the kind of work that you’re involved in.

Claire Axelrad: I’ve worked for nonprofits for 30 years, in the trenches in both fundraising and marketing. My experience has brought me to a kind of religion almost, where I really feel that marketing and fundraising have to be integrated. And increasingly, I believe that marketing and IT have to be integrated. We’re in a brave new world—everything that we do and everything that we put out there has to be together; people see us as one nonprofit. I’ve been working with nonprofits with their marketing communications and their content marketing efforts so that they can develop really strong relationships with the people who make or break their continued existence. What I do is a lot of coaching, I’m coming out with a content marketing for nonprofits book, and I do a lot of e-courses on my website which is CLAIRIFICATION.COM.

Martin van der Roest: This is wonderful background for the topic we want to discuss today. As you may know, in the Content Marketing Examiner what we’ve tried to do is address content marketing in a structured fashion, what we call lifecycle steps. We start with goals, go into planning and this conversation is something I want to couch in the strategic planning portion of the lifecycle, being considerations that we want to address as we get into doing content marketing with a very specific focus on nonprofits.

When I think of nonprofits, I think of organizations that are struggling with balancing budget with key initiatives around marketing. Now the buzzword “content marketing” seems to be getting traction and people are recognizing it, but how do you fit that into the overall effort? What strategies and approaches do you recommend to get content marketing funded or activated as an initiative within a nonprofit?

Claire Axelrad: The first thing is that people have to understand that content marketing is not really a segment of their marketing strategy if they’re a nonprofit. It’s pretty much all of your marketing, all of your branding, all of your social media strategy. Most nonprofits when they talk about marketing, they mean “marketing communications.” They simply don’t do much market research or product development in the way that for-profit businesses do. In for-profit businesses, generally marketing drives product. But in nonprofit businesses, product and service tends to drive marketing, so we start from there. Content marketing is the heart and soul of all of your marketing. In essence, it’s a synonym for branding because your content defines you. It’s how you dress; it’s what you eat for breakfast. If your nonprofit was a car or a bike, it’s the one that you would choose. It’s how all of these aspects of your personality come together and how you deliver on your mission or on your brand promise in a way that aligns with your constituents’ desires and values. It really determines the kind of relationship that they’re going to want to have—or not have—with you.

It reminds me of Mark Schaefer, brilliant social media and marketing strategist of Grow, he wrote an article earlier this week that really resonated with me. It was about how content marketing is a “do-over” for sloppy social media strategies. I really, really agree with it; let me explain what I mean by that. I’ve been saying for a while that marketing and fundraising have changed more in the past five years than in the previous 50, and it’s because of the digital revolution. It ended business as usual, the way marketing has always been done is changed, but it’s taking a while for businesses, nonprofit or otherwise, to get it. They’re scrambling for new terminology and the first was “social media marketing,” and that was merely a nod to the fact that communication channels were dramatically shifting. Because suddenly the inside-out world of just broadcasting everything became outside-in. People were coming and finding us before we even knew they existed, they were finding us on the internet. The traditional types of marketing—print ads, newspapers—they didn’t work. TV ads could be ignored. So social media came in, but then social media has largely been a failure. You ask a lot of business CEOs and EDs if social media marketing has helped them and they’ll say, “No, not really.” I think that’s because they didn’t know what they were doing. They slapped up Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and started counting likes and follows and that didn’t get them very far, they didn’t get donations that way, they didn’t get sales that way so they thought, “This isn’t so great.” So they didn’t budget for it and that got them even less. A lot of marketers were hoping that social media was just going to blow over. So many nonprofit leaders have said to me, “Come on, Claire, don’t you think it’s just a fad? We’re not seeing any return on our investment with social media.” Again, this is silly; they’re not seeing a return because they didn’t know what kind of return they were looking for. So, enter “content marketing.” Now we have a new term, and with content marketing the goal is to create brand-related content that is so good, it’s better than anything else your constituent could be consuming. One of the things that really struck me in this article by Mark Shaffer was: “You might be able to fake a social media strategy by just checking a box, but you can’t fake a content marketing strategy.” Because you have to put some thought and effort behind the content for anybody to pay attention to it. You have to consistently create something that’s meaningful and relevant; something that your constituent wants or needs for any kind of content marketing initiative to work. So the goal of content marketing now, is the goal of what social media should always have been about, but few got it right. And that is simply creating great work that engages your constituents in a manner that leads to measurable gains (measurable is important) in awareness, action and eventually loyalty to your cause.

Martin van der Roest: I like the backgrounder there, especially the idea of not doing “random acts of marketing” kind of associated with social media, and hence, content marketing. You’ve opened up a piece I’d like to explore further, and that is, there’s been a bad taste in people’s mouths with social media. We’re now entering a new term with content marketing. I liked your point that it’s a synonym for branding, but given that content marketing sits on the heels of social media, people are still trying to understand what is the return, what do I get back? Touch on that a little more and how you might explain that to the executive directors of nonprofits–what is a reasonable return on activating a content marketing initiative?

Claire Axelrad: I think you have to understand that content is an umbrella term for all that you have to offer your constituents. In a way it’s a marketing abstraction, a mental model. It’s meant to describe anything related to creating stories that sell. Content can be your website pages, your blog post, your e-newsletter, or your Tweets; anything that you use to communicate your value to the world. It’s really the basic stuff that nonprofits have always done, writing appeals, case statements, grant proposals, newsletters, and annual reports. The difference is, as you say, you’re thinking about it really strategically so that you’d better attract and engage with your key target audience by creating content that they will likely respond to. We’re saying we want to make this measurable, so let’s start out with who is this content intended for? You don’t just write an annual report and send it generically to anyone. You can’t do that because if you don’t know who you’re writing to, how do you know how to write it?

It’s the old who/what/when/where/why. Who is it intended for? What does this audience care about; what would be useful to them? What do you want them to do when they encounter it? Do you have a desired action response for them? Do you have a call to action? If you don’t have a call to action, it’s very difficult to measure your return. You don’t really care if you got 1,000 more followers or 1,000 more likes because that doesn’t help move you toward your nonprofit business’s end goal. But if you do have a call to action—we want a number of people to sign this petition, we want people to send this post to their friends, we want them to send our annual appeal to their friends and we want to see how many of their friends click and donate on our annual appeal. Then you’ve got measures so you can say, “Oh, we did have a return on this investment.”

The “where” question is where is the audience found? Where do they hang out? Some of them are offline, actually, and some will be online. And then figuring out when are they best reached, when do you promote these things? And finally, why would they care about this content? Not budgeting it is like not budgeting for food and clothing to me.

Martin van der Roest: Yes, kind of the essentials. You’re segueing into an important topic here … who is the audience? In your experience, who is the nonprofit trying to communicate with, and maybe some quick highlights in terms of what are nuggets of messages that this audience is looking to hear or learn or know about?

Claire Axelrad: Typical marketing goals for nonprofits could be to grow the amount of people, clients that they are assisting. That would be number one. Number two, getting more supporters however support is defined, which could be donors, but it could be ambassadors, advocates, people who will share information, people who will recruit their friends, who will sign petitions, who will host events. Number three, they want to increase volunteer. Four, they want to increase earned income through buyers of their services—could be ticket buyers, patients in the hospital, students at the school. And finally, number five, they want to hit fundraising targets through donations. All of those kinds of goals can be easily tracked and measured. As content marketing evolves as a key marketing strategy in nonprofits, its goals need to move away from this very nebulous “generating awareness and engagement.” That’s where nonprofits go wrong, they say, “We want more awareness,” and that leads itself to very nebulous things like counting likes and follows which you cannot measure. The goals of your marketing strategy need to be better aligned with your business objectives. A lot of that is generating leads for people that fall into all these categories: leads for clients, leads for supporters, leads for volunteers, leads for buyers, leads for donors.

Here’s the way I think of it, content marketing or branding or social media all rely on figuring out who you are and who your constituents are. Both of those things rest on a few basic concepts. Number one, it’s a given that your organization is interesting, smart and value enacting. You’re enacting some value in the world whether it’s education, or health care, or social services, arts, something that people care about. Your potential constituent is also interesting, smart and value sharing. You’re trying to find the constituents, reach the constituents who care about the values you enact in the world. Then content becomes the interesting, smart and valuable way to connect these constituents with your mission and deliver to them on the promise you’ve made to enact the values that they hold so dear. Content that you provide has to be useful to the audience you’re targeting.

An example, you’re a child-serving organization. Think about when you make your content what might be useful to a parent of that child? Maybe they could use a tip sheet on how to get their kid out the door in the morning without a hassle. Maybe you serve seniors. A senior may need tips on how to make his home safer. Or you’re a theatrical organization. A ticket buyer might appreciate a video with a sneak preview of an upcoming play. You’re a justice-supporting organization. A supporter of legislation might value an easy, clickable contact sheet that shows them how to reach and how to persuade relevant legislators. Volunteers want to know how to sign up for a shift. It just goes on and on if you think from the perspective of what kind of content can we deliver that would be useful?

The other type of content that you can deliver is content that is inspiring, emotionally compelling, funny, rewarding in some way. The kinds of videos that go viral tend to be funny; they’re things that make people go, “Ah, I just have to share this!” So you have to think of what is your desired action response, what do you want people to do with this piece of content? If you don’t care if it just falls flat and nothing happens, then fine, you’ll get that wish. That’s probably not going to make you say, “That was really valuable, I think I’ll budget for that again next year.”

Martin van der Roest: You’re making an excellent point about understanding these components of messaging and the content that’s produced. One of the things that I’m hearing more about, especially for nonprofits, is they have budget constraints. How are they going to produce content? So they are turning to volunteers to help them with their content development. You made the point about the message that’s communicated, how it’s communicated and all the considerations that you put into it. So how does an organization that wants to leverage volunteers get this “everybody on the same party line” in the messaging? What kind of advice would you offer up in incorporating volunteers into the content marketing initiative?

Claire Axelrad: I have to tell you, that question scares me a little because a lot of nonprofits—this is what they do with social media too—they say, “Let’s get an intern to do it, or the youngest, lowest-paid person on our staff to add it to their assignments.” The reason it scares me is there’s no free lunch. You remember I said earlier that content marketing is the heart and soul of your branding, it defines who you are, it defines what you do and why you do it, why anyone would care about your mission. Whenever you relegate something to a volunteer, it usually means the nonprofit is not considering it as a top priority. The task ends up not being well managed. What gets done does, what doesn’t…oh well. The right hand does one thing, the left another. And this, frankly, is a branding mess.

What I think you can do with volunteers is to ask them to submit contributed content to you. Let’s say you have a blog, you can ask people to write articles for your blog. But you can’t think of this really as a time-saving strategy. I think of it more as a relationship building, donor cultivation strategy because, net/net, it’s still going to take you time to edit and massage and post this article. But it does serve other purposes like massaging the contributor’s ego, bringing in a new perspective to your voice, and possibly doing some of the heavy lifting for you when it comes to writing.

I also think you can ask volunteers to share content for you. You can ask people to email your appeals to their friends. You can ask them to Tweet your calls to action. If you have a Pinterest board, you can ask them to pin to your board. You can ask them to engage in crowd funding for you. This strategy is really along the lines of what Malcolm Gladwell talked about so well in his book, The Tipping Point, where he said you want to look for your mavens, your connectors, and your persuaders. We’ve been talking about this a lot in social media as “influencers.” If you can find people in your data base and start to notice who retweets your tweets and then you can start to build relationships with those people and specifically ask them to share stuff for you.

It’s really interesting because there’s been a lot of talk now about the nonprofit donor pyramid and how that’s really changing. I’m on to a fundraising question, but it’s really related to content because everything is related. We used to try to bring donors in at the bottom of the pyramid and then move them up to the top. That’s not working so well anymore, because people come into contact with your organization at many different places; they’ll be at the top and then they’ll be at the bottom, and they’ll be in the middle. We don’t want to just treat people at the top well because what about somebody who gives us $25 but is connected to 1,000 people who respect this person. If that $25 donor gets 100 people to give $25, they are perhaps more valuable to us than somebody up at the top of the pyramid.

Martin van der Roest: The point of getting volunteers to participate in the content marketing activity might suggest that it’s not that important, but you created some other perspectives of where volunteers could be valuable to the organization. Good insight. I like that.
Can you share a recent engagement where you introduced a content marketing initiative into an organization and how did it go? What were the approaches that were used, maybe speed bumps that you had, what you did to overcome it. Is there something you could share with us along that line?

Claire Axelrad: I want to go back and remind people what content marketing is; it’s really just a fancy name for making your case for support and telling your story strategically. If you don’t have a strategy for this you’re kind of in “wing and a prayer” territory and that’s why content marketing is becoming such a huge thing in the business world and why 91% of businesses use content marketing and why in the business world content marketing budgets increased by 26% last year. It’s not like a weird thing, but nonprofits are always a little slow to adopt what’s going on even if it’s right in front of their face.

I started working with a client—they’re my star client because they just started soaking up like a sponge and did everything we discussed. We started by looking at their website and the content that was on the website and it was not a strategically-made case for support. So we started to try to figure out everything we’ve just been talking about: what would happen if they ceased to exist, why would anybody care? And really talking about that and putting it up on their website. Then I suggested, “Why don’t you have a blog?” The blog is really the centerpiece of your website, that’s where you can put all your great content and you can put it up there consistently and regularly and start to have a reason for people to come back to your website on a repeated basis. They had their website, they had a fledgling presence on Facebook and Twitter, they were counting likes and follows for no apparent reason other than that they could. The content on their site was confusing and didn’t answer the reader’s “What’s in it for me?” question. We audited all their communications and we found the weaknesses, and the major recommendation was to focus in on a few key initiatives that would be relevant to their top identified constituency. We figured out what are the constituencies that are going to be relevant to you in generating income and for gaining momentum and action that is needed to sustain your mission. They were a justice-seeking organization, and we came up with lawyers, law students, law firms, legal aid organizations, and donors and potential donors who care about justice. We then crafted compelling content for three initiatives and they were essentially what I would call the turkey—the meat and potatoes, the main course. They were simple case statements, front and back, one side: this is the problem in our community, this is the solution, how we’re addressing it or would like to address it, and how you can help. Once we had that we could craft what I would call the dressing, the condiments, the gravy, the dessert. So we would have little pieces of that content that we could shoot off into other channels. We could add in videos, photos, stories that demonstrated the meaningful outcomes in each one of these initiative areas. And we added some fun stuff like contests where folks could name their favorite justice movie or favorite justice song and be entered to win a raffle, a water bottle that had their logo on it. We created content editorial calendar that included the types of stories and the other content that we would create and disseminate each month. We made it clear who would be responsible for creation of each of those stories, project management, launching the stories and following up, because part of a content marketing strategy is not just dropping bombs out there and letting them explode into nothing, you have to follow up with people, so who was going to be responsible for that? And what channels were they going to use and what would the organization’s voice be in different channels? They kind of had a sense of what their voice was in Facebook, and it was a little bit snarky, kind of fun. But they thought when they did their blog post, they needed to have a different kind of voice, so they started to figure that out and some really fun outcomes came out of it. They now have a regular blog, they post twice a week, they have contests on their blog, they have Pinterest boards, they have people pinning to those boards, and they have a strong LinkedIn presence where they’ve become a key influencer in a lot of discussions around the issue of justice. They’re leveraging their content across multiple channels, and they’ve made an investment in creating and curating worthwhile content that supports the raison d’etre for their existence. It’s a little early in the game still, but they have built their mailing lists and they have built their website and blog traffic and they’ve even built their online donations.

Martin van der Roest: That is a great case study. What were some of the goals or metrics that fell out of this process that represent today things that they do want to measure and track?

Claire Axelrad: They want to build their list, so part of it is just building the people who subscribe to their mailing list so that they have more people to try to raise money from. I would say that that is a huge thing for almost all the nonprofits that I work with. Many of them come to me just wanting me to craft a killer annual appeal for them, and then I find out their list has 300 people on it. It’s a shame, because it’s a great fundraising appeal, but nobody’s going to see it. So one of the things for them is just really building their list. The other goal is building the level of engagement of their people. They want to get beyond just token gifts; they want people to start to interact with them through their lifecycle. Some of doing the contests and seeing if they’re having more people involved in the contests, that enables them (when they go back to them to ask for an individual gift) to say, “Thanks so much for joining our contest, you had a great entry, I loved that movie too.” It’s a little bit of a way to get more information about people so that when you make your ask, it’s personal, it’s relevant, you know it’s important to this person.

Martin van der Roest: There’s the Peter Drucker expression, “What gets measured, gets managed,” and it’s something that I think is critical. So setting out these goals—the mailing list, the engagements, other characteristics—I think are critical. Is that something that in this case study that that organization embraced at the onset or something that evolved over time?

Claire Axelrad: As I say, they are my star client. They pretty much embraced it because they’re a very smart organization. All I had to do was say to them, “Does this make sense? You’re not measuring this, how do you know it’s working?” They kept saying, “Claire, everything you say is such common sense,” and I said, “I know.” I think a lot of people when it’s put to them, not in tons of buzzwords that make people’s eyes roll back into their sockets, but just, “Heck, why are you doing this?” Even before there was an internet people used to come to me and say, “We want a brochure.” And I would say, “Okay, why? What are you going to do with that brochure?” “We’re going to put it out there and let people know we’re having a workshop.” “Okay, where are you going to put it out? Who looks at flyers? Are they just going to be sitting in the lobby? Could you have a more strategic way of finding people to come to your workshop?”

It’s the same thing really; it’s just that now we have these new digital tools at our disposal that make it possible for us to reach outside of our inner circle in ways that were never before really imaginable. So I do think again, getting back to the influencers is one of the best things nonprofits can do, really pay attention to who might carry your message. For example, I worked at a food bank. We found that we had two groups of key influencers that you might not necessarily think of. One was foodie bloggers and they’re talking about food in a very different way, but they’re really connected to food and when you engage them, it turns out many of them feel that everybody should have access to food. Food is like where we live and breathe, so they would carry our message. The other was mommy bloggers who cared a lot about the health and welfare of children, so they would carry our message. If people stop to think about it–who out there might be really interested in what we do?–I think they could find their influencers. Then you can measure how many of your appeals or whatever you’re putting out there, how many of them are getting shared in the sense that they’re getting shared with the people you want them to be shared with. Then you can try to see are you getting traffic back to your website from some of these people, which means you have to budget to install some measurement tools, Google Analytics or something like that. And somebody has to be in charge of that which is why more and more when nonprofits hire chief marketing officers or directors of marketing they really need to look at people who have some digital skills.

Martin van der Roest: Good insight. We’re getting close to wrapping this up. Claire, are there any other comments or perspective that you want to lend on this topic before we close?

Claire Axelrad: You should have a content marketing check list. You should have a plan and there are free, down-loadable content marketing calendars. In fact, if you go to my website under “Help Yourself” there’s a blogging resource guide that has links to some of these free editorial calendars. And then, always try to find the right content hook by asking yourself before writing, “Is this content relevant to my audience, is it compelling enough to move someone to take an action? Does my title pull people in because there’s no point in writing it if no one is going to open it. And even if it’s relevant, does my audience want this, do they need to know this?”

The other thing that I don’t think enough nonprofits do is, they don’t operate as a newsroom. It’s important to pay attention to what’s happening in the world that relates to what you do. If there’s something that happens in the news where there’s a shooting in a school and you work with parents and kids, you can come out and offer your advice and show that you’re relevant to the real world.
And, leverage your content across multiple channels because it makes the investment worthwhile. Have the turkey dinner and that’s the main course, but add in all those side dishes. And don’t forget to monitor and evaluate as you go along. Content is a two-way street, it’s no longer this inside-out broadcast sort of thing, you’ve got to pay attention to what folks are resonating with because otherwise you’re not going to improve at all.

And finally, be persistent. It takes a while to build your content and build your platforms and build your audience. It’s work, that’s another one of Peter Drucker’s quotes that I like: “All good ideas ultimately degenerate into work.” I think I’m paraphrasing, but it’s work and it costs money and it’s not a miracle cure but it’s very powerful: the power of content marketing and telling your stories. Storytelling is at the heart of content marketing and storytelling gets people to lower their marketing defense systems—briefly—just long enough to get them to notice you. And once you’re noticed, your objective is not to blow it.

Martin van der Roest: This has been a delight. I definitely can sense a voice of experience and I think your comments have been very thoughtful and insightful, and I’m sure our listeners/readers are going to see it that way as well. Thank you for being a part of this today.

Claire Axelrad: It was my pleasure. I would end with the golden rule of content marketing: Always be helpful. If you’re not being helpful to someone, you’d better try something else.

Martin van der Roest: Thank you and this has been very, very helpful. That concludes this session. I am Martin van der Roest with the Content Marketing Examiner where we continue to explore enterprise content marketing best practices.

END OF INTERVIEW