With LinkedIn in an e-mail promotion today now offering opportunities to publish reflections to share, I took the challenge and posted the following:

Title: The BIG ‘C” for non-profits: Effective Communications

A major challenge for all non-profit organizations (and I’m pretty sure for all groups beyond) is communicating with its network of members and followers (and the community beyond, potential members).  In this short attention span society we live in today where everyone is bombarded daily with so much information from all sides, how can a passionate group get through with that all important message?

Facing that issue myself with several groups, some national in scope, the challenge remains the same no matter the size or cause.  My current thoughts on this challenge are as follows:

1. Who are the intended audience?  This is the first and most basic question that will certainly influence the content and distribution methods of the group’s messages.  Without this foundation answer, or forgetting that target over time, will undermine an organization’s effectiveness in maintaining connection with its members and its resultant strength and purpose.

2. How to get the message in front of that audience?  With so many technology options available at all different costs of money and effort, the target audience may be key to making such choices.  E-mail and web based resources wouldn’t work for a largely non-connected audience, as one example.  Hard copy, mailed (expensive to produce and distribute!) material may still work for some but most groups today are converting to the more efficient electronic document with its added features of no-cost color and live links to expanded content, videos and engaged feedback through surveys, not to mention the cost efficiency of every increasing postal mailing and outsourced print/mail services. In my own recent experience that change resulted in a $12,000 annual expense reduction to just under $400 a year, but that was only the surface benefit as you will see later.

3. How will we know success? If we can’t measure results, how can we know what is working and what isn’t, a key to refining efforts to consistently improve results over time?  Many electronic tools, like Constant Contact, make tracking traffic and engagement reporting easy, but even then, is the reader actually reading and acting on our messaging?  OPENs and CLICK-THROUGHs, while easily reported, are not the same as tracking responsive action.  Be prepared for some disappointment when you see those reports on readership.  My personal experience was a mixed blessing, seeing what was better than an industry average was very disappointing in seeing only about a third of the audience even opening the e-mail and only a third of that linking to the intended electronic newsletter.  But at least we now knew that fact.  Previously a very expensive distribution of hard copy may have been ignored and discarded, suspected but we didn’t have any facts.  Another organization spent a year asking readers to renew their free subscription to a bi-monthly very expensive glossy magazine to find only about 10% actually acted upon that request.  They redirected those funds to improving their electronic messaging resources, putting out the same information but without that major expense.  It’s very hard to address a problem you don’t know about.

4. What actions are we driving for?  While content may be interesting, typically messaging is intended to be more than entertainment for most organizations that have a serious ’cause’ behind their mission.  The purpose of most messaging is to move the reader to take some type of action.  The question then becomes have we conveyed what it takes to catch the reader’s attention enough to drive them to act on the recommended ‘take home’ action – or did we maybe forget to close with that ‘call to action’, leaving the sale unsold?

5. What opening topic line will motive the reader?  With so much competition for a reader’s attention, the third question behind defining the target audience and how to distribute the message, is what will it take to get the receiver to stop and actually open and then read the message.  The art of the attention grabbing subject line or article title is key, a phrase that will be uniquely of interest to the intended audience.  That “lure” must go beyond what we feel is of interest, instead, be looked at from the reader’s view and that may be a very different subject/phrase.  I’ve found a good source of learning that skill is to watch ‘best practices’ of highly skilled and well-funded sources focused on large audiences such as daily stories and videos on MSN, AOL or Huffington Post who face the same readership challenges with some well refined examples to follow.

While “the BIG ‘C’ ” often refers to Cancer, for organizations I feel that that big C is the challenge of Effective Communications, an ongoing issue that deserves our focus and efforts if we are to accomplish the purpose behind our ’cause’ with this non-profit group.

For me, this is definitely ‘a work in progress’ for which I am searching hard for answers.  I see the same for almost all organizations, so I don’t feel alone.  But it’s obviously a complex issue that deserves our attention.  Hopefully my reflections shared above will motivate others to share how they are addressing the issue in their own environments so we can all learn from each other and benefit our audiences with more effective communications and engaged follow-up action, in turn making this world a better place to live.