4 Ways to Listen In to Boost Action

There’s a proven way for your organization to start and strengthen vital relationships with the people whose support, loyalty, and actions you want—donors, volunteers, and even staff (too often overlooked here).

This approach is easy to learn and execute. And it’s something you do on a personal level all the time: Getting to know and understand others with whom you want to build a friendship—learning what’s important to them and how their days go. These insights enable you to focus in on what’s important or interesting to both of you, and how best to keep in touch via a commonly-used channel (social, mobile, text, mail) at the time that your folks will be most receptive.

Here are four proven methods of harvesting these priceless insights:

1) Launch a Marketing Advisory Group

Begin by identifying your target audiences and prioritize segments of each that share wants, needs and preferences. Then put together a marketing advisory group incorporating as many of these perspectives as possible—that way you’ll have the right person to turn to when you need her. In addition, this group will provide a solid diversity of opinion when you solicit input on a specific campaign or message.

Next, invite prospective team members to participate. If you don’t have people in mind that represent all the perspectives you need, ask program or other colleagues for recommendations.

Make sure to specify your expectations and to keep them modest. I recommend that you ask team members to help at most once or twice a month, asking for no more than 5 to 10 minutes of their time for each ask.

Put your marketing advisors to work in the way it’s most beneficial—that may vary depending on the task at hand. Ask a few of them for input on draft messages for the new advocacy campaign  and a few others for a critique of the draft mini-site for the campaign. Or ask all of them to complete a brief online survey to share their perception of the new program and the gap it will fill. Whatever your decision, make sure you ask with thought and don’t overburden your advisors. Most importantly, thank them frequently and often.

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.

2) Listen to Social Conversations

There’s so much being said online—about your organization, causes or issues, campaigns, and organizations you compete with for donations and attention—that you’ll learn a lot by just listening. By monitoring social channels for conversation on relevant topics, you’ll see what resonates and why, enabling you to better engage your people.

Keep in mind that with this kind of social listening, you won’t necessarily know who’s talking and how that person maps (if at all) to your targets. Nonetheless, if there’s a groundswell of conversation on a topic important to your organization, you want to hear it.

Social monitoring options range from free tools like Google Alerts to paid social listening services such as Attentive.ly that illuminate what people in your email file (donors, volunteers, email subscribers and others) are saying on social media and help identify who is influential to improve targeting and increase engagement. This early case study from Attentive.ly really caught my attention:

A few days after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), noticed a significant shift in focus on social media to the hashtag #Ferguson. They could quickly see that terms such as “police” started trending, nationally and among supporters in AFSC’s database (CRM).

AFSC created a saved search to see exactly who in its CRM was talking about Ferguson on Facebook and Twitter. Next, they invited those supporters to a Google Hangout that resulted in record-high participation and 74 donations. That’s incredible targeting!

3) Ask & Listen in Your Social Communities

If your organization has an active community on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other interactive platforms, you have a focus group ready to roll. Before you just ask, and ask, and ask again, prioritize what you want to know. Also, decide how to filter and weigh what you hear since your social communities may not map exactly to your donors and prospects.

Here are a few ways to use Facebook to get to know more about your people:

  • Since you can easily run your organization’s donor or email list against Facebook subscribers who have liked your page, it’s easier to map responses to your prioritized audiences.
  • Facebook’s Live Video tool is an excellent way to gather quick feedback on a draft logo, design, message, or email format (anything, in fact, easy to view via an online video) IF you have a huge and active following on Facebook.
  • Polling is super easy to set up and respond to.

4) Ask Folks as They’re Leaving a Program or Event

This technique is ages old but works well, as long as you ask just one or two quick questions. If your question is brief, ask verbally. If you want to gather names or have a couple of questions, then have pens and printed mini-surveys or tablets on hand for responses. If the event is online, pop up a quick survey before the finish.

BUT these insights boost actions ONLY when you…
Capture, Analyze, and Share What You Learn, then ACT on it

Keep in mind that what you learn about your audiences is valuable only when you log, share, and analyze it across your organization.

This process will position you to put your findings to work most effectively right now. Then go one step further to extend their value by adding these insights to supporter data. That’s your path to getting closer than ever with your people, and activating them to move your mission forward. Go to it, friends.

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How to Get Great Audience Feedback at Little Cost (Case Study)

There’s only one way to connect with your target audiences—those you need to engage to meet your marketing goals (and your mission): You have to use every means possible to get to know them.

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 can be 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.

The Challenge

However, at one point, Managing Editor, Heather Peeler found herself facing a real dilemma. 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.”

The Strategy

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 redesign, 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.”

The Results

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 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 your next e-newsletter or online survey or mention it at meetings and programs.

Make sure to specify your expectations and to keep them modest. I recommend that you ask for 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 response.

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.

Share Your Marketing Advisory Team Story

Do you have a marketing advisory team in place? If so, please share your story—what’s working and your recommendations for other organizations. Thank you.

Create Personas to Bridge the Gap with Target Audiences

Before your organization embarks on any communications planning or implementing a campaign, it’s vital to understand the wants, habits, preferences and perspectives of your base and prospects. That’s the only way to connect your nonprofit’s goals—be they building awareness about a new zoning issue that threatens the safety of children at a nearby school, raising funds for your just-launched capital campaign, engaging advocates to contact their state senators on a green space protection issue or motivating registration for a new parenting training—with what’s important to your audiences. Personas help bridge the gap.

Traditionally, personas have been used for design of computer hardware and software, particularly website usability. But over recent years, marketers like use have realized their value in creating relevance. After all, relevance rules!

Here’s how your nonprofit can put personas to work to strengthen relationships the folks you need to engage:

How Personas Can Help Your Organization
Connect with Your Target Audiences

Personas are hypothetical “stand ins” for your nonprofit’s actual audiences. They enable communications and fundraising folks (and that includes planners, writers, designers and others) to stand in their audiences’ shoes. They enable your nonprofit to launch campaigns to mobilize your supporters to move your key issues forward that are shaped around audience needs and interests.

You’ll find far greater success designing a communications plan or a program’s marketing message that works for a “specific person, rather than trying to plan or write for the hazily-defined needs of many or the typical demographically-defined audience segment.

Persona Is Not Just Another Word for Market Segment

…But that’s a common objection you may hear from the marketing traditionalists within your organization. Market segmentation — looking at how an individual has touched your org or issue, their age and income, zip code or educational level —  is a great tool for identifying the groups of people you are trying to reach, and why. But market segmentation can’t shape your marketing messages or choice of strategies.

Assume you know that 33% of women aged 25-40 are interested in supporting breast cancer research, and that messages and graphic design are key elements affecting their giving decisions. Well, that’s a good start. But personas add a great deal of richness.

A persona will enable your organization to craft the right campaign to reach Miriam, age 36, who wants to give to breast cancer today, but is concerned that she doesn’t know enough about how her money will be used if she gives to your nonprofit. She wants to be reassured by information showing how contributions are used.

How Do You Create Personas that Work?

Although personas are fictional, they must be defined with rigor and exactness. Ideally, they are based on some understanding of real audiences.

It’s easiest to create accurate personas if your organization has some idea of demographics and, even better, data on habits and interests. When you base personas on audience research, you’ll ensure that the personas truly represent your audiences.

But remember that personas can’t stand alone. Your nonprofit’s marketing goals must be the overall guide for your communications planning process. Personas are just one component of the diverse audience research strategies so crucial to the success of your nonprofit marketing agenda.

Learn about others here: Getting Great Audience and Stakeholder Feedback, at Little Cost (Case Study)

Taking in what audiences are saying about your organization is another useful, easy and affordable way to get to know your community.

What Does a Persona Look Like?

Here’s a sample persona checklist. Your goal is to create one persona that typifies each of the maximum of three segments (groups linked by common habits, wants and/or preferences) within each of no more than three audiences. That means a max of nine personas for your organization.

The precise details you’ll want to include depend on your organization’s marketing.

Are you aiming to increase use of a new health care clinic, motivating volunteers for your mentoring program or build the number of visitors to your nature preserve? No matter your goals, here’s what you’ll want to include in your personas:

  • What is the person’s first and last name, age, gender, face (find a photo online) and personal information?
  • What are a few details about the person’s life—an interest or a habit—that makes each person unique and memorable? When you start here, the hypothetical constructs spring to life.
  • How does this person spend their day?—Sketch out a brief outline of their daily work day or day at home, including specific habits, likes and dislikes.
  • What is this person’s work environment (if you’re trying to reach professionals, rather than individuals) including length of time in the job, professional development habits (if marketing programs such as training for social workers on public benefits), information- seeking habits and favorite resources, personal and professional goals, colleagues with whom the persona works most closely, etc.
  • Who does this person trust?
  • Where (or from whom) else is this person getting information about your issue or similar programs or services?
  • What are the person’s personal and professional goals in relation to your organization’s programs?
  • Who else is encouraging them to “do the right thing” (e.g. follow through on your calls to action for this person/group)?
  • Where are they in the Stages of Change about doing the right thing (from “I don’t see it as a problem” to “I can/want to do this now.”)?

Sample Persona –
Nonprofit Communications Campaign on Community Fitness

Context: A nonprofit is launching a new community fitness program and needs to promote it to community activists, politicians, and citizens, and to motivate their involvement. The staff needs to know what’s important to these audiences, so it can shape its messages, website and blog (a centerpiece of the campaign), brochures and events accordingly.

Challenge: This is the first time the organization is proactively communicating to motivate the launch of fit community programs. The campaign will center on a new blog and Web site, but the nonprofit doesn’t know how to design the site and parlay the blog to most effectively educate its diverse audiences and motivate them to act.The communications team just doesn’t know where to start.

Persona (short version): Introducing Frank Cummings, age 64, owns his own home in a moderately-priced area of an industrial-based community in Ohio. He is married, and has two children who now live in neighboring states. Frank took an early-retirement option from the electrical contracting firm where he worked for 19 years. Now he spends a lot of his free time working on his home and yard, and walking in the neighborhood.

Annoyed By…
One problem Frank has noticed as he walks is that the traffic speeds along his street (a connector between two arterial streets) are often well in excess of the 25MPH posted speed limit.

Frank has made comments about the high speeds to his city council representative, who is, with Frank, a member of the local Lions Club. But the council-person, while sympathetic, hasn’t done anything other than to suggest that Frank should lodge a complaint with someone at the city, or the police. Meanwhile, the speeding cars continue, and Frank feels unsafe as he walks.

Online Habits
Like some in his age group, Frank is a late-comer to computers and the Internet. He needed to learn to use a computer-based service mounted in his truck the last few years he was working, and struggled to keep up with the technology that seemed to come much easier to younger people in the firm.

Frank purchased a computer primarily to use e-mail with his children, but he also has used several programs such as QuickBooks and tax-prep software. His connection to the Internet is still through DSL so it’s not the fastest and Frank doesn’t like to wait around to see family videos on You Tube or other Web content.


  • Slowed-down traffic outside his house to increase walker and biker safety.
  • His neighborhood to be a safer and more enjoyable place to live.

How this insight into Frank strengthened the campaign: Once the nonprofit got to know Frank, and his persona peers, it was able to shape messages and communications to connect with these individuals’ wants, habits and values.

Messaging focused on safe biking and walking, rather than the need to follow traffic safety rules. Citizen campaign recruitment efforts focused on neighbor-to-neighbor messengers, postering and door-to-door flyers. The response was strong.

Craft Your Personas, Then Spend Some Quality Time with Them

I recommend you spend some time with your personas, so they become an organic part of your marketing and messaging perspective. Here’s how:

  • Cut-and-paste the core info in big type, plus the photo, into a single sheet for each persona. Print these out for all of your personas and place on your wall, door or desk. Surround sound of a different type!
  • Create a poster for each persona and bring the relevant ones in with you to brainstorming and planning meetings. This sounds crazy, but keeps the conversation more audience focused. Try it.

Readers, craft a set of personas today to re-shape your nonprofit’s organizational or program/service marketing plan or campaign. You’ll find it invaluable to get to know these folks, and to keep up the relationship.

How are you using personas and what do they add to your marketing and fundraising? Please share your experiences here.

P.P.S. Here are my tips on doing great marketing planning 90 days at a time. Add personas to this approach and you’re golden.

Use Audience Personas to Connect & Convert (Case Study)

Nonprofit Audience Personas

Thanks to See3 for sharing this useful case study, originally published on the See3 blog.

Learn more: Create personas to bridge the gap with your target audiences

Many nonprofits fall into the trap of believing that their audience is the general public, when the truth is that your supporters are much more nuanced than that.  By putting together a comprehensive profile of your audience, your nonprofit is better able to create personalized content that speaks to your audience and drives them to action.

An excellent way to narrow in on your organization’s audience is to develop audience personas. Audience personas are imaginary people that you create who represent your audience, based on real aggregate audience data. Each persona has demographic information that helps make them real for the viewer, including things like age, race, gender and even a name.

Additionally, since these personas are created based on information about your real constituents, you already know things about them—like what they read, where they work, what they like to learn about from your organization and what kinds of communications work best for them.

Recently, See3 partnered with Make-A-Wish Foundation of America to help the organization better understand its audiences and develop an organization-wide content strategy.

With this project came the task of establishing personas that the organization could use in telling stories that attract and retain a strong base of volunteers, donors and wish referrers. Once we brought the personas to life, they were featured in print materials—including a deck of cards, posters, and a flip book—designed to keep Make-A-Wish’s audience top of mind for its communications team. 

We spoke to Jono Smith, the Director of Brand Marketing and Digital Strategy for Make-A-Wish America, to understand why the organization decided to invest in content strategy. Though our conversation, we identified three essential considerations for every nonprofit developing its content strategy: 

Nonprofit Audience Personas

1. Push your organization to start telling new stories.

When you think of Make-A-Wish, what’s the image that comes to mind? Most likely, it’s the idea of a sick kid experiencing hope and joy in the form of a wish experience, most likely through an incredible experience like a trip to Disney World or Hawaii. 

This story framework is powerful, and it’s one Make-A-Wish has been using for the past 35 years successfully. However, Make-A-Wish experiences impact more than just wish kids; they have significant effects on the families, doctors, social workers and volunteers who are involved. But those impact stories weren’t getting back to Make-A-Wish’s supporters, and they weren’t helping the organization convert new supporters who weren’t as affected by the organization’s traditional messaging.

“We discovered a significant lack of personalization and segmentation in our brand messaging and storytelling, and personas were our response to that,” Smith said.

To help Make-A-Wish diversify its storytelling, See3 created nine audience personas to represent current and potential volunteers, donors and wish referrers. All of these supporters play a critical role in Make-A-Wish’s mission to grant wishes to children living with life-altering illnesses, and they all experience the impact of Make-A-Wish differently. By considering these personas before developing stories, Make-A-Wish is more likely to tell stories that speak to these audience’s needs, challenges and goals. 


2. Put your audience first.

“Most modern marketing organizations in the for-profit and non-profit sector today utilize some form of audience personas,” Smith remarked. “It’s a proven technique and, if you’re going to compete for donors, a strong competitive advantage.”

With so many for-profits and nonprofits investing in audience personas, Make-A-Wish knew it was time for them to do the same. Taking an audience-centric approach is nothing new to the for-profit world, but it can be hard for nonprofits to make this switch.

As do-gooders, we often think that talking about our organization’s accomplishments and the important work that we’re doing should be enough to engage our supporters. But stories that focus on the nonprofit often fail to drive constituents to action. It’s important to think about how the content you are creating provides value for the people who support your organization. Make them the hero of your story and show them how their contributions are essential to the work you’re doing. 

Nonprofit Audience Personas

3. Get your team on board.

To make sure these personas are effectively implemented across all 60 Make-A-Wish chapters and other affiliates, the organization provided training on the value of personas and how to use them in their daily work. 

“The initial response has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Smith. “This is a long time in coming, and people are excited to start implementing them and learning more about how to utilize them in their communications.”

This persona portfolio is just the kickoff of Make-A-Wish’s audience persona journey. Chapters will play a significant role in the next step by participating in a content strategy training program organized by See3. We know that their insights will provide rich insights in understanding target audiences and help to make personas even more relevant on a chapter level. We’re looking forward to partnering with many Make-A-Wish chapters to help them take their content strategies to the next level.

Learn more: Create personas to bridge the gap with your target audiences

Thanks to See3 for sharing this case study. Concrete models like this one are priceless in showing what’s possible and how to get started.