I want you to think back to the last arts or cultural event you attended.
Maybe it was a gallery opening or a theater production or a museum exhibition opening or a symphony concert. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is why you attended it in the first place. I would imagine that unless you were dragged to it by a friend or spouse (unlikely if you’re reading this blog), you went because you enjoy it.
You went because the arts, or at least that particular subject matter/medium/artist/piece, means something to you. It moves you in some way and you get something personal out of attending. Am I close?
Now think back to the last donation you made. Why did you do it? Was it because you think that the organization does good, important work? Was it because you want to see them continue to do this important work? Of course.
You attend or donate because that event or nonprofit is aligned with what you value in life.
The same is true for all of the donors and patrons of the nonprofit you work for. The reason they were ever affiliated with your organization is because what you do resonated with them and reflected their personal values. And yet, so many arts and culture nonprofits don’t do a great job at syncing their messaging and marketing with the values of their supporters. Don’t make that mistake. Especially since it’s a relatively easy one to avoid with just a bit of planning and legwork.
Here are my top 5 suggestions for ensuring that your messaging speaks directly into the hearts and minds of your patrons and donors, making them into lifelong fans and supporters:
Continually ask your audience for their “why”
Everyone has a “why” that underlies their devotion to any particular thing. If someone is a die-hard symphony supporter, maybe their “why” is that they got involved in music as a kid and it was a refuge for them from a crappy home life. That, in turn, could make them very devoted to supporting music education programming because they intimately understand how it can change lives for the better.
This is just an example, but the point is that you need to get to the heart of your audience’s “why” in order to understand their values and use it in your messaging. And you can’t do that unless you ask. My recommendation to you is to create opportunities to directly ask patrons and donors what they love about your programming and why they choose to be involved.
You can ask in surveys (hint: ask at least a few open-ended questions), in social media polls, via blog posts or social posts, or in a variety of other digital ways. But you should consider getting more personal, too.
If you have the manpower, try assigning staff, board members, or volunteers to be present during an event so that they can greet patrons and strike up a conversation. Give them a notebook and ask them to write down insights and patterns from these conversations. It can be a gold mine of information.
Dig deep to find out exactly what resonates
Whether you send out a survey or assign someone to have face-to-face discussions, I want you to dig deeper than the typical audience development questions. You often see queries like “please rate your experience of this event on a scale of 1-5” or “do you intend to come to other events?”. But this is pretty superficial and it won’t help you get to the heart of your audience members’ “why”.
Instead, I want you to ask things like this:
- Why do you attend events?
- What first drew you to our organization?
- What do you love most about ___________?
- Why do you think ____________ is important?
- What kinds of programming do you think are most valuable for our community? (maybe give some examples of your programming here)
- What compels you to give to a nonprofit organization?
- As a donor, what kinds of information do you want organizations to provide and how do you want to see them use the money?
Segment your audience for greater personalization
The funny thing about asking deep questions of your audience is that you are going to get a million different answers even while you start finding common themes. This is because we are all different and have had different life experiences that inform our perspectives. On the surface, that can be maddening because you’re probably racking your brain trying to figure out how to create a cohesive message for your marketing from all these disparate threads.
My advice is to stop trying to create one, cohesive message.
Effective marketers have known for years that strong marketing comes from segmentation, not cohesion. What this means is that you will end up having groups of audience members. These groups will each have a different “why”, different priorities, and different ways of viewing the world and thus, your nonprofit’s work. And this isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, this is an opportunity.
Start creating separate marketing messages, imagery, and methods to cater to each group instead of trying to create one message that hopefully appeals to all the groups. Doing it this way may mean a bit more legwork to craft the marketing pieces, but it also means you won’t be watering down your messaging and the pieces you send out will seem like they were tailor-made for each individual who sees them. They will speak to those groups’ values seamlessly and without ambiguity.
This type of messaging will ultimately pull them closer to your nonprofit, increasing their loyalty and their willingness to engage, buy, donate, and keep coming back for more.
Reflect their language back at them
When you start creating messaging aimed at each of your audience groups, you should pull out the survey results, social media and blog comments, and any notes you have on face-to-face conversations. You will most likely see common phrases, words that get repeated often, and trends in the way your audience talks about your organization and its programming.
Take these same words and phrasings and inject them directly into your marketing pieces. Doing so will drastically increase the chances that your audience will connect with it. You see this in grant writing, too. Many professional grant writers will take the language a funder uses in their application questions and inject it back into the narrative because it shows that you read the question, understood it, and made the effort to build an answer around it. The same principle holds true in marketing and fundraising. And you know what? It works.
A/B Test literally everything to sort out the winners from the duds
Regardless of which phrases you choose, which images you select, how many audience groups you create, or which marketing mediums you use, you should be A/B testing all of it.
If you’ve never heard that term before, A/B testing refers to the process of taking two variations and testing them out to see which one is more effective. More importantly, A/B testing is the best way I know to refine your messaging and make absolutely sure you got it right.
For example, let’s say that you want to send out an email to a segmented audience group with the goal of getting them to buy a ticket to an upcoming event. To A/B test this, you would create two emails, both meant for this same group, and then send 1 email to half the group and the 2nd email to the other half. Each email might contain different key phrases or even just different subject lines. A/B testing these emails would mean looking at which email was opened more frequently and/or which one enticed more people to buy a ticket.
If you A/B test enough marketing and fundraising pieces on the same groups, you will start to see trends and this is where you can really gain traction. There will be patterns in what works, what they respond to best, and what falls flat with them. This should inform future marketing efforts and shed further light on which messages resonate with their personal “why”.
Ensuring that your messaging is aligned with your patrons’ and donors’ values can be a bit of a process. I’m sympathetic to the lack of time and the abundance of stress most nonprofit professionals already face. I’ve been there.
But I’ve also personally seen the payoff for efforts like these, too, and they’re so worth it. In the end, it can streamline your workload and even increase earned revenue streams, giving you more resources to work with for a better return.
Who wouldn’t want that?