Messaging

Guest Blog: Paul Davies of MARK Corporate Branding Talks Nonprofit Branding

Paul Davies is the President of MARK Corporate Branding. For over 20 years, MARK Corporate Branding has created magnetic brands for companies, causes and campaigns across the country. Here, he shares why branding is so critical and why it matters for nonprofits.

Broadly speaking, what is branding and why does it matter?

Branding is the ongoing process of shaping and controlling the perceptions an organization wants their market or audience to have of themselves.

This matters because perception is everything when it comes to promoting an organization and its cause. People are not inclined to donate money, contribute or be part of something they don’t perceive in a positive light.

Why is branding something nonprofits need to pay attention to?

Any change within an organization, or its messaging will immediately be noticed by its audience. As much as that change can be controlled so that it is perceived as positive, the better for the organization. Because change is inevitable, it should be constantly monitored. Often considering the limits on resources that many nonprofits experience, it can be very easy to neglect this area of communication. However, letting some “bad news” go unanswered in the media, for example, can have damaging long-term effects. Constant turnover of staff, from CEO to communications to marketing staff in particular, tends to erode at the consistency of an organization’s Brand. Change itself is not good or bad, it’s the perception of what that change means that has an effect on the success of the organization’s “Brand Promise” and therefore its bottom line. Managing that change so it has the best possible perception is key.

What are some branding basics nonprofits can start with if they’re new to the idea/concept? Or, where should they begin—what are the bare bones any organization needs in your opinion...

The one imperative, over and above anything else, is to have a set of Brand Guidelines. This is a document that addresses every perception generated by every touch-point the organization has with its audience. It’s the teams’ Playbook…The Book of Rules…the organization’s Bible so to speak. In it, the organization addresses strategy, messaging, the spoken and written word, every visual image that represents them, and in some cases even guidelines for hiring the ideal personnel. This document should then be made available to every employee, every vendor or subcontractor and even the general public.

Additionally, there should be a system of approval set in place for everything that pertains to communication between the organization and the public, and especially their audience. Without an ongoing system of checks and balances, the brand will slowly lose its strength and recognition.

What are some trends/ideas nonprofits can borrow from the world of B2B or B2C organizations?

Keep up with the times and don’t stagnate. Stay relevant. You don’t need to change your logo to do this, but you can update your colors, your typefaces and your messaging. Play close attention to your advertising specialties and your giveaways. Spending a little more for a perception of quality, or “hipness” can be well worth the expense.

Cosponsor events, associate your logo with events your audience will see or participate in. If you are volunteering, make sure your logo goes with you and the general public is aware of your service. Don’t keep it a secret. Take advantage of any opportunity to display your logo in the public eye. The B2B and B2C world is constantly promoting, selling, pushing…Overbearing and obnoxious sometimes, but effective.

How have you noticed the concept of branding evolving over your career?

Branding used to be a lot more of a “specialty” that very few knew how to execute, let alone well. You could count the amount of firms that were purely dedicated to branding on one hand. It was a specialty that was usually part of the marketing department in most companies, if it existed at all. It was not even on the radar for most nonprofits and was not taught in college either.

But as the subject was studied more, when budgets got tighter and the financial department began questioning the ROI of departments that didn’t contribute directly to the bottom line, then things began to change. Sales and marketing departments, communication departments and in-house design departments had to begin accounting for themselves and justifying their jobs! Now it’s a subject that everybody knows about, and has become a lot more sophisticated. It is also now a subject that is taught in more and more colleges.

What do you foresee in the future of branding for organizations and companies (and nonprofits).

I’m not sure if it’s wishful thinking on my part or a trend that is starting to play out more and more. The “Branding Department” now has a seat at the CEO’s table, in the B2B and especially in the B2C world. Most businesses will be far more conscious about how branding affects every part of the organization and its culture. Nonprofits for the most part are including this specialty as part of their marketing capabilities at least, and eventually will pay more attention to its benefits. I think that generally speaking it will be a part of every organization’s structure and be as important (or more) than it’s HR, sales and marketing or other departments. VP of Brand Communications will be a household title, and God willing answerable directly and only to the CEO!

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Are Your Communications Honoring Your Constituents’ Experience?

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Late last month, I attended the Mid-America Planned Giving Council’s Building Blocks Conference. A full house at the Kauffman Foundation, and the day did not disappoint. The first session of the day featured Karen Osborne, a crowd favorite for nonprofit audiences across the country. She captivated the audience with her presentation, “Getting to a Joyful, Inspired, Generous ‘Yes’ to Your Blended Solicitation.”

At one point, she asked the audience one of the biggest failures people make in listening to others. Being a little smug, I was expecting the answer “listening to respond” or something of the like.

But that wasn’t it. And her answer humbled me. She said one of the biggest failures in listening is immediately sharing a similar experience. A common one goes like this:

Pregnant Woman: “I’m going to be induced on Saturday night. I’m getting a little anxious.”
Other Woman: “I was induced, too. And the labor took 2,546 hours. Let me tell you about it.”

The reason this is a big fail? It doesn’t honor the other person’s experience. Instead, it pulls the attention from them to you.

It got to me thinking, though. How often does this happen in nonprofit messaging … that is, ignore the constituent’s experience? A LOT.

Here are some common ways communications, on screen or on paper, fall into this same trap.

Talking to longtime donors like they don’t know what your organization does. This is one of the most common ones I see. It usually involves pulling some well-written boilerplate from a brochure in a direct mail letter or email. Problem is, it comes off like you have no relationship.

Talking to major donors in a way that doesn’t honor their higher giving history. If someone has given $1,000, it’s odd to ask them for $15. Make simple changes in copy that tell your readers you know what they’ve done and inspire them to do more.

Talking to medical cause donors like they haven’t seen a disease firsthand. In most cases, there is a personal tie to this type of charitable giving. The copy needs to reflect what that is (if such data exists) or be written in a way that isn’t patronizing. “Imagine a world where XYZ happens … “ They don’t have to imagine … that is their world!

On the flip side, talking to donors as if they already know about a particular societal problem or challenge … and jumping right to your organization as the solution. Consider when a little background and education is needed. Define the problem. Then, platform for how you can solve it, with the reader’s help. This is critical in acquisition messaging.

In many cases, there are relatively simple fixes, sometimes just minor versioning, that can take a communications piece from offensive to effective. Think through your audiences. Imagine someone from each of those groups and review your communications through their eyes. Then, adjust as needed.

Optimizing Websites for Voice Search

Day or night, my cell phone is usually by my side. Though, it’s rarely used as a phone. Rather than track down a tablet or laptop, I rely on my phone for quick help with the name of a movie I saw 20 years ago, get an updated weather forecast, learn what to do about my dead lawn, and check out M&C’s Strutt With Your Mutt team page.

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Okay Google, how

do I make a donation?


With phone in hand, it’s easy to skip the typing and just talk. After all, Google Assistant is on stand by ready to help. Say “Okay Google” and ask a question. Or, ask Alexa, Siri or Cortana (Microsoft’s assistant). They’re all listening. ComScore, an analytics company, predicts in 2020, 50% of all searches will be voice searches.

When a prospective donor is asking for your nonprofit or inquiring about a good cause, you want to be mentioned.

5 Optimization Tips

There are numerous strategies for optimizing your nonprofit’s website and content for voice search. Don’t feel bad if you find it overwhelming. It is. And, it can be time consuming. However, we have 5 tips to help streamline the process and get you started:

1. Create content that talks back, recommends Betsy Rohtbart of Vonage in a recent Forbes article. A typical text search is 2-3 words. Voice search is conversational. Read your content out loud. Is it stiff and formal? Adding abbreviations and contractions will help.

2. FAQ pages cater to voice search optimization, according to Performics. A good starting point is to create a Q&A page written in a casual style featuring commonly asked questions by prospective donors. Include who, what, where, when, and how in constructing your questions.

3. Focus on long-tail keywords is a tip from Yoast. Weave into the website’s content conversational phrases, including focused keywords (a topic we’ve previously covered on the M&C blog.)

4. Infographics should compliment content not replace it. Bots crawling your site aren’t able to read the content on images. It’s important to give the image a descriptive file name and include keywords in alt tags. Otherwise, your creative visual messages will be missed with both voice and text searches. Search Engine Journal has additional tips for images and SEO.

5. Mobile-friendly design has an advantage with Google’s algorithm. Use a responsive design that automatically resizes images/videos and stacks content. Also, develop a writing style that includes headlines, a quick opening sentence or two, brief paragraphs, bullet points, and call to action.

When you are ready to talk structured data and how it plays into optimizing voice search SEO, give us a call. We’ll help.  

Susan Mertz is a Content Specialist at M&C. She specializes in website development, search engine optimization and enhancing user experience.