18 years of nonprofit marketing insights: your questions answered

It’s Counterintuity’s 18th anniversary! To celebrate, we’re taking a look back at the most frequently asked nonprofit marketing questions in a special episode of That’s What C! Said.

In this must-listen episode, you’ll discover:

How can I execute digital marketing on a tight budget?
Learn how to create a strategic roadmap that aligns every marketing initiative with your core objectives, ensuring every dollar counts.

What should my marketing budget be?
Find out why the traditional 5% to 15% rule isn’t always accurate and how to prioritize affordable, phased strategies to avoid “funding to fail.”

How do I better differentiate my organization?
Get actionable tips on crafting a distinct brand identity and strategic positioning to effectively communicate who you are and reach the right audience.

How can I stand out in a crowded digital space?
Understand why creativity is key to increasing visibility and impact, and how to make your marketing efforts eye-catching and memorable.

How do I keep up with changing digital trends?
Discover the importance of continuous monitoring and adaptation in your digital marketing strategy to keep your campaigns relevant and effective.

Tune in now to get inspired and equipped with strategies to take your marketing efforts to the next level!

P.S. Have a question? Send it our way — we’ll cover it in a future episode!

Lee Wochner:
Hi everybody, we at Counterintuity are approaching our 18th birthday. Yep, on June 1st, Counterintuity will be 18, old enough to vote and old enough to borrow the car. In those 18 years, we’ve gotten about 11 billion questions from people, some of them about my taste in music and theater, but the vast majority about marketing because that’s what we do. So we’ve been collecting the ones that are most frequently asked, the most frequently asked questions. And we thought that I’d do a solo cast to share our thoughts about a number of them. So we’re going to go through as many of those as we can get through in a little period of time. And these are responses put together by the marketing team here at Counterintuity. So here goes, in honor of our 18th birthday on June 1st, 18th birthday as a marketing agency, answering as many frequently asked questions as we can on this episode of That’s What C Said.

Jaclyn Uloth:
Welcome to the podcast that lightens the tension when things sort of get hard…That’s What C! Said, the Counterintuity podcast, featuring interviews with leaders and doers who have helped to make our world a better place through their actions — and especially through marketing, communications, and embracing change. Here’s host Lee Wochner.

Okay, first question. I have a tight budget and limited staff. How do I execute effective digital marketing? So, and people ask variations of that question, obviously. There are actually two questions in here, two minimum, tight budget, limited staff. How do I handle that and how do I execute effective digital marketing? Those are two questions. But I can answer both with one word. Strategy.

By developing a clear strategic roadmap that aligns every marketing initiative with your nonprofit’s core objectives, you help ensure that every action contributes meaningfully to your goals. And yes, I read that, but that’s the right answer. So I’ve talked here before about operating with strategy and operating without strategy. And without strategy, it’s hard to know where to go and what to do. And yes, I realize I’ve said that plenty of times on this podcast, and yes, so have our guests. And yes, I too would like to just dive into things. But first, you wanna make sure there’s at least eight feet of water in that pool, right? So in my own experience of diving in to start a nonprofit back in 1990, holy cow, I can tell you that personally, that just diving in wastes a lot of money and more recklessly loses a lot of time, a lot of life force, yours and the people you work with and the other people who care about whatever issue you’re addressing. So a little thinking and strategy in advance saves a lot of heartache and sets you up for greater success. And now I know that, which I rejected, I think, in 1990. My other thought about the budgeting aspect of this is going to come up in response to our next frequently asked question, which we’re now going to.

Question number two, how much of our budget should go to marketing? If you do a Google search asking how much of a nonprofit’s budget should go to marketing, the answer you’ll probably get is 5% to 15%. I know that because I did that search. And generally, for many years, many, many years, the rule of thumb was 20% of your budget should go to marketing.

But like so many things found on the internet, and I know this is shocking to hear, these things aren’t true. Here’s how much you should spend on marketing. Whatever it takes to achieve what you’re trying to achieve, and still brings back more money than you spent. I realize that’s not the one size fits all answer you were probably seeking. But that’s the real answer. The real answer is don’t spend too much and don’t spend too little.

Spending too little is known as funding to fail. We funded this, this little tiny amount, it wasn’t enough, we weren’t able to achieve what we wanted to achieve, so it was a bad idea, a bad initiative, and you have funded it to fail. We have a client doing really important work, especially because we know the life-changing and sometimes actually life-saving work they do, we’re ultra careful with their budget. So we’ve worked with them to prioritize what they should do into phases. What can they do most easily and most inexpensively to gather momentum? And so that’s a strategy that I might recommend to you. So phase one won’t cost much and builds upon their current efforts. Phase two will require more time and money and starts to add new things and so forth.

One thing that we feel strongly that they’re going to need down the road, they actually need it now. I just could not bring myself to ask them to budget for it now, given other imperatives at their nonprofit. And so we’re developing a workaround for now to get them by. We’ve deliberately organized things into affordable action steps that will help them grow and do more. So my answer to how much of your budget should go to marketing is this.

How much can you dedicate now to things that will actually move you forward? And if those actions generate more revenue, can you set a new budget then? Because you can always go get more resources, more people, more funding, etc., but you can’t get more time. And so the worst thing to do is to wait. You should take immediate action. You should determine what you can do now with the resources you have and how you can get to the other resources that you need. The other thing that I always tell people in regard to this is not to have a lack mentality. So a lack mentality is, well, we don’t have this, so we can’t do that. If you really need to do something, you should ask yourself, how can we do what it is we need to do? And that immediately reformulates it into an action-oriented enterprise. If we wanted to do this, how could we do that? And sometimes the answer is, we could do less of that and still do it. We could do some of that. We could ask people for the money. We could cancel something else we’re doing so that we would have the time and money to do that, etc. But when you say immediately, while we don’t have this, therefore we can’t do that, you have locked yourself out of action. It’s always better to be forward-looking and pragmatic.
Number three, people don’t know who we are or what we do. What’s the answer? Strategy. And there’s that word again. And I’ll bet you can see where this is going, although I promise you that not every answer is going to be strategy.

You want to craft a distinct brand identity and strategic positioning that differentiate your organization, helping your message more deeply influence donors and volunteers. That’s a fancy way of saying communicate quickly and effectively who you are and then figure out how to spread that out. So this again is a twofold answer. First, you need to reveal who you are in your positioning, like tearing the wrapping off a gift so you can see what’s inside. But you also need to make sure that the gift got to the right person.

To do those two things, you need to figure out, as an example, what’s the gift, who’s this gift for, where do I find that person, how do I get them to open it, and so forth. You would not just run out and buy gifts and then try to figure those other things out. And so that, again, is why you need strategy. We call that strategy marketing strategy. Yes, you could buy gifts and go out into the streets and hand them out.
I’ve done that on many of Christmas Eve actually in troubled areas of town. I’m serious about this. I have felt very fortunate in many ways in my life and I like to spread a little joy on Christmas Eve. But that isn’t a great approach for spreading the word about who your nonprofit is and what it does. So it’s better to take some time, think about it, ask your constituents, your supporters, the people who donate to you, the people who volunteer.

Ask them what you’re about. And we covered some of this in a solo cast end of last year, beginning of this year, that’s on our website and still available. Everyplace Fine podcasts are available where we talk about planning. So there’s some great action steps there about how to reach out and get some information and get a third party look at who you are. But to spread the word, you have to determine your identity and your positioning. And then, A plan of how you’re going to communicate that. Let’s see, what number was that? That was number three. Here’s number four.

How can I increase visibility and impact in a crowded digital space? And not just digital, by the way, although that’s where most of your marketing is gonna be. And this gets down to the varied opinions of just how many marketing messages each of us sees every day, I don’t know, 2,000, 80,000, whatever the brooded about number is of how many messages we get. So how can you increase visibility and impact? Creativity.

You’re going to have to stand out. Graphically, yes. And in your message too. And quickly. So just this morning, we told a new client, very nice people who do amazing work, that their tagline isn’t strong enough for 2024. It doesn’t immediately say what they do. And people on their phones or their tablets or their laptops are too itchy to stop and figure it out. If you have to stop and figure out what this tagline means, then it doesn’t mean anything to most people. So whatever you’re trying to tell people, you’d better tell them at the top succinctly, and that’s generally a tagline in digital marketing. And you’re better off making it eye -catching. And that speaks to graphic design, speaks to your fonts, your colors, your logo, all sorts of things. And I will tell you a little anecdote.

I’ve been visiting an area of Los Angeles repeatedly since 1988. That’s when I moved here from the East Coast. I grew up in New Jersey and ate at the same restaurant that I still love, visited the park that I really admire, all these cool little shops and everything. And then we were asked to do a project some years ago and we found out that that’s East Hollywood. I’m like, that’s East Hollywood? That’s East Hollywood. We never thought of it as East Hollywood. So what we did was, because we were hired to help people understand it was East Hollywood, we came up with eye -catching banners and eye -catching logo, kind of catchy phrases, and put them up around the area. And then recently at a function, I met a young couple who lives there, and I said, you live there. Do you go to this restaurant? Yes. What is that area? And they said, East Hollywood.
It’s East Hollywood because it’s now been branded as East Hollywood. Before that, it seemed to have been on a need -to -know basis. So that created visibility and impact in a physical space, now that there are banners all over that say East Hollywood and that catch people’s eyes. You can do that digitally as well. So make it eye -catching, make it sound good, make it offbeat. And beyond that, then you need, and here it comes, you need a strategy.

A strategy for developing and leveraging strong, consistent messaging across select digital platforms that ensure the right message reaches the right people. If it looks like the same old, if it doesn’t land, if it doesn’t ring in someone’s ear, take another swing at it. It’s gotta be clever. Number five, we’re not getting the response we used to. What can we do?

Check your gauges, note what they say, track the fluctuation in readouts, make some changes, check again, et cetera, et cetera. In other words, continuous monitoring and adaptation will help you stay ahead of digital trends and maintain long -term sustainability and effectiveness. So we know for a fact that some digital campaigns and some agencies will set it and forget it.
We know the latter about some agencies setting and forgetting it because over the years as we’ve taken over some campaigns from previous agencies, we’ve seen that there have been no changes made since World War II. They never check back in or they check back in infrequently. Well, life and the internet change every nanosecond.

Believe me when I tell you this, the internet has changed radically from just last Tuesday. All the platforms have rolled out changes. People’s behavior has shifted around holidays and the news and whatnot. And for sure, the content is different today from just last Tuesday. So whatever it is you’re doing online in service of your marketing, you cannot set it and forget it. It’s not one -time marketing. You should constantly monitor and constantly change and adapt, which should be fun, fun, because you can be creative. You can amp up your results. You can stop doing the things that don’t work anymore, because now that you’re measuring all of this and looking at all of this, you go, well, why the heck am I doing this? This over here gets no result. I’ll stop that. I’ll either make it better or I’ll just stop doing that. And then this over here is growing a little bit. What if I put more time and money and attention over there?

So it’s fun, you get to be creative, you get to try things. Emails alone, you can do A -B testing. You know, send 25 % of the list this message, send another 25 % that message, whichever one does better, send the rest, the other 50 % to the winning contender. I’ll give you an example, a couple of examples of why you need to check out on check things. The one is,

I taught at University of Southern California for 10 years. I taught graduate level writing, by the way. And I was a student there. So I have a decades long association with University of Southern California. And I had a student telling me, I was complaining about parking, and I had a student tell me, well, you could park over on this street. And I said, well, there’s no parking over there. And he said, yes, there is. I said, excuse me. I’ve been coming to this institution since 1988. He said, no, there’s parking there.

So that night after I left the campus, I drove that way and there’s all sorts of parking over there. Parking that wasn’t there in 1988. So what do you know, things changed and I never looked again because I just assumed, stupidly, that parking was done. Parking had been set in my mind and it was done. Just this week, I’ve cleaned 18 boxes of paper files out of my life. 18 bankers boxes of files. Now I store most things digitally. Not the brilliant kid art of my children’s youth that I’m keeping. They were brilliant kid artists, trust me. But you know, I didn’t think about it and this stuff accumulated 18 boxes. So think of what you could stop doing once you notice it’s making no impact anymore.

Think of the things that have gotten cluttered up in your marketing that have no value. And then think of what better you could do with that time and money. Pretty astonishing. We’re running a little low on time. Let’s see what else we can get at while we’re here. Quickly, how can we build stronger relationships with our donors? Well, this is about constant communication. The key is providing regular, authentic, personalized communications that emotionally tie in with donor support with tangible impact. We have a client, they have incredible stories. They’re not always so heart moving, heart wrenching as they should be. So if you, you know, people act on emotion, I think we all know that. So the first thing is, you’re putting out some content, you need to communicate regularly so they hear from you.

And really, you should tell your story in a way that will grab them. How can I better manage our marketing efforts with limited time and staff? Well, we kind of covered that one. But again, prioritize strategic planning. Ask yourself how you can speed up your content creation, because content is key. And use tools and automation. AI will give you a good first draft. AI is not creative but you can manage campaigns effectively and it’s a great way to marshal some resources and also to get kind of a brainstorm with yourself. So let me touch on this AI is not creative thing. AI takes a whole bunch of different inputs and aggregates them and gives you likely response. So it’s kind of like an echo chamber. It sorts and echoes a little bit. It doesn’t create.

in the way you might think. And so it’s not useful in a lot of the ways you would like, but it is useful in prompting new thinking. And so I recommend AI to use AI in the way that Carl Jung used tarot cards. So I don’t think tarot cards predict the future and neither did Carl Jung. Carl Jung believed that tarot cards help you think about things and make associations that you hadn’t realized you could think about.

and make associations with. And that’s kind of what AI does. So AI can definitely provide a role for you here. And then with regard to the other part of the question of how best to marshal your time and resources, I guess my answer would be to marshal them carefully and figure it out in advance, which goes back to write a plan. A couple more. How can we get media attention for our cause? Well.

You’re gonna spread a lot of content. You may hire a publicist, develop a PR strategy, but the baseline that you can do without a big expenditure on PR, although it’s a worthy expenditure, the baseline is creating compelling stories and content and putting it out and getting seen enough that maybe PR reaches out to you.

How can we modernize our technology to improve our marketing efforts? Wow, this is a huge, huge question. There’s so much out there. I think that that question starts with what is it you’re trying to do? This morning with another client, we recommended that they stand up a podcast and we can help them with that if they want. Podcasting costs very little. I mean, the resource expenditure is very low.

The time and effort involved is relatively high. But talk about spreading your message out and connecting you with a network. I mean, think what you get just from getting guests. So those are technologies, podcasting technologies that did not exist 20 years ago. There’s a whole host of things that did not exist 20 years ago. Integrated marketing, marketing automation, CRM systems. Your CRM is really important whether you’re using Constant Contact, which is just for email or EMA or MailChimp or something, or whether you’ve got a big integrated system like Salesforce or HubSpot or a nonprofit version of those. There’s data analysis software. This is such a complicated question. Seriously, it goes back to what are you trying to achieve and develop a bucket list. I think we have time for one or two more. What can I use my Google grant to accomplish?

So there are some restrictions on Google grants, Google ad grants. They do make these available to nonprofits. It costs nothing. We have a number of clients who have Google grants. We manage some of those for them. You can inform and educate the public by attracting new visitors. It’ll help you build an audience. You can attract new subscribers to newsletters. You can sell tickets.

If you’re in the arts or have an event, you know, performances, events, webinars, you can recruit volunteers. You can advocate by galvanizing grassroots activism, getting people to sign petitions, contacting elected officials. You can drive in -person actions. We certainly see shelters use those to prompt people to adopt animals, which is something I have done. Both of our dogs are rescue dogs.

So there’s a lot that a Google Ad Grant will support. There are some restrictions. It takes a little bit of time to set it up and run it and correctly get it managed. But absolutely, if you don’t have one, pursue getting one. Because you heard there’s a whole list of things you can do with it to create awareness and get you some volunteers and help you sell some tickets to your events.

Let me pick off another one or two. Our revenue is flat. We just aren’t growing. What should we do? So this falls under the heading of stuck, stuckness. And at some point in our lives, each of us is probably stuck in some small way. And sometimes you see companies, organizations that are a little stuck. It happens. So I think the best thing, to do immediately is get the people who care the most together and have a conversation. What are we actually doing for people? Why you people who are here for this meeting, why do you care about this and collect all that information? Why do we care? Okay, what are we trying to achieve? What are we trying to solve? Now that we know we’re working on that, what are we actually doing about that? And I would dive right into the feelings. We all agreed to have this meeting because we’re a little stuck.

Why do you feel that way? Well, our number of volunteers isn’t going up. The amount of donations is not going up. The number of donations is not going up. It just feels like we don’t have enough momentum. And what you may find from that sort of great honest conversation is that there are some things you’re doing that aren’t relevant anymore, and there are other things that you could be doing that you should be doing. And sometimes,

You’re trying to do far, far too much. And we all want to save the world, right? Well, first of all, we don’t all agree on how to save the world. But it’s great to see physical results. So recently, here on this podcast, I talked about how excited I was to sponsor, to be part of sponsoring 100 trees in a park here where I live. And my family and I bought one of those trees and other people did too. And I drive by and I see the trees every day.

really makes me happy. You want to show some results. And you want to, in this session you do with people, either in person or virtually, of key stakeholders who really care, you’re going to collect the successes because if there’s one thing I’ve discovered about nonprofits over the years, we don’t acknowledge our own successes enough. We work really hard. We want things solved. We want to make a positive impact. And we just glide right over all of the successes that we’ve manifested.

And that’s emotionally draining. We need to recognize our successes so we can feel good and go manifest more. And we also need to know what they are so that we can go manifest more. Well, gee, we’re good at doing this. We were not so good at this. I was part of a fundraiser last year for a local nonprofit that I really believe in the work. And it was completely misaligned from the mission of the nonprofit.

The board chair wanted to do it. He’s a good guy. Very few people bought tickets. Almost no one showed up. Those of us who did, I think, had a fine time, but it fell flat. And it’s because it wasn’t closely enough aligned with the organization. It seemed a little odd for them to be doing this. And so it was not a great fit. So that’s something one could stop doing as opposed to the thing that really has turned people out that has been a success.

Do those and you capture those stories by getting the people together who really care and sharing them and furthermore it’s useful and helpful to get a third party an outsider to facilitate those things because when you get a facilitator she or he has no personal emotional ties to the past of this but they they really of course believe in the mission of the organization and they want to help it achieve more. So if your revenue is flat, you’re going to have to take a good long look in the mirror and see what’s actually there being reflected back. All right. Well, I think that’s enough for today. It’s been really great spending a little time with you. I hope that’s been helpful. We’re going to do this again. We’re going to be always collecting frequently asked questions.

If you have something you would like us to answer, please send it in. We will answer it on our social media. We may do another one of these. I think we will. And thank you for your time. We know there are 92 ,000 nonprofits in the spiritual space alone. I found that out this morning in researching that for a client. So who knows how many total podcasts there are, but we know that you have only 24 hours in a day. So thank you for spending 30 minutes of it with us.

Jaclyn Uloth:
Thanks for listening! We’re glad you came. That’s What C! Said is produced by Lisa Pham and engineered by Joe Curet. It’s available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts. Please like and follow the show. Visit Counterintuity.com to sign up and learn more.

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