What is marketing… really, and where does it fit into your nonprofit?

Marketing… this word is thrown around and so often misunderstood. In the for-profit world it’s the lifeblood of most businesses and in stark contrast for many nonprofits, it’s the thing nobody knows what to do with. So, what is marketing and where does it belong in your nonprofit?

Here’s how I define it:

“Marketing is a field of expertise on the tactics of finding and engaging people who are likely to benefit from something your organization has to offer.”

The two approaches to marketing (pro-tip: you can use them both)

Before you start thinking about brochures or social media or advertising… marketing can be broken down into two main categories:

Inbound Marketing: This is when you aim to attract people who are already on a learning journey that could lead them to your offer or solution and engage them by offering help with their journey, thus pulling them into your organizations’ solutions and offers. Inbound marketing can be highly effective in retaining clients, participants, and donors.

Outbound Marketing: This is when you find people who may or may not be on a learning journey and you engage them by putting something in front of them that grabs their attention, and then you follow up with information that takes them to your offer. Outbound marketing can be highly effective in getting clients to take advantage of additional services you offer or turning clients into supporters.

Here are some examples:

BloggingDisplay advertising
Search engine optimizationRadio, TV, or print advertising
Earned social mediaSocial media advertising
Emails to lists where people opted-inEmails or mailings to a purchased list
Physical Mail to people who opted-inA cold direct outreach

Really great marketing plans tend to take into consideration both inbound and outbound, but may rely on one or the other more, depending on the situation.

What’s the difference between branding and marketing?

Branding is a big topic on it’s own, but in short, when you engage in branding you are going through a process of identifying what people need to believe or perceive about your organization before they are willing to take action with you and then you create messaging, visuals, and taking actions that imbue that perception. Branding might be about conveying that you are trustworthy or getting people to feel aligned with you. Marketing is about getting people to take action and to engage with your organization. So the two have a very symbiotic relationship, better branding, will significantly boost all of your marketing efforts and better marketing will leverage investments you’ve made in your branding and enhance your branding by giving it more exposure.

What can you use marketing for in your nonprofit?

There are three main areas that marketing can really help you with.
Filling your programs and services with right fit participants and keeping them engaged.
Increasing your base of supporters, including volunteers, donors, and grantors.
Attracting, retaining, and engaging your staff.

Where does marketing fit into your nonprofit?

I recommend thinking of marketing as a set of tactics that will likely be used in several departments of your organization. The most significant area where nonprofits are missing marketing is in their way of attracting people to their services. You should have a department or function in your organization that is accountable for enrolling the right fit people into your programs or services. Next, your fundraising strategy or department should be using marketing tactics to increase your donor base. Finally, your Human Resources department or function should be using marketing tactics. This is especially for nonprofits who are paying their employees below market wage.

A note on boards: Your board may use marketing tactics to attract and engage board members, HOWEVER, unless you are a 100% volunteer run organization, your board should not be accountable for “marketing”. I think a lot of boards have been left holding the marketing monkey because a board member who understands the importance of marketing or a strategic planner recommended that the nonprofit needed marketing to solve some issue for the organization. Since no one knew how to plug marketing into the organization itself, “marketing” got adopted by the board.

Marketing is a means to an end. If you hear people in your organization saying “We need marketing” try shifting to “We need marketing to (achieve a specific outcome).” Then find out what kind of marketing tactics are likely to work to achieve your goal. If you aren’t sure, talk to an expert who can point you in the right direction.

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