Public's perception of your group is key to marketing AT WORK


June 21, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

Most nonprofit leaders would agree that they have a ways to go in making their marketing efforts more effective. But there are some basic tenets of social marketing, an understanding of which will make the job a good deal easier.

Social marketing, a term coined by academician Philip Kotler, blends traditional marketing principles with those unique to nonprofit work. After all, selling hope instead of soap is a slightly different sport.

But both transactions involve an exchange. In the case of the nonprofit organization, the "buyer" must make a decision whether to exchange her valuable time or money to advance the organization's work.

Those people who are known in the industry as excellent marketers have internalized a few basic operating principles. They live and breathe them.

The first is that there is really no such thing as reality. By that ~~TC mean the objective, we-can-all-agree kind of reality. This notion goes back to the Psychology 101 story where a class of 300 students is listening to a lecture, when the door bursts open and an irate student confronts the professor about a grade. After a few seconds, the student shoots the professor, amid screams of hysteria from the audience.

Of course, the incident is entirely staged. But, asked to write their accounts of what happened, researchers find that there are virtually 300 different perceptions of the event.

The key word here is perception. In marketing, objective reality does not exist. But perceptions of reality do. What you perceive as reality is as real to you as my perception is to me, with a diametrically opposed view of the same event. This is important for nonprofits. For one thing, nonprofits must continually probe the perceptions of their target markets.

A marketing principle that I have developed over the years is that "tabula rasa," that favorite tenet of educators, is a myth. The mind is a blank slate waiting to be filled? Are you kidding? By the time a kid is able to speak, his mind is so filled with myths, bug-a-boos and misperceptions, it takes armor-piercing shells to penetrate it. Where does that leave us with adults?

Combining the first two principles, perception is reality and the mind is not a blank slate waiting to be filled, gives us what we need to start marketing a nonprofit properly. First, an organization must listen, question, probe and re-examine what its target audiences perceive it to be. Second, before messages go out to those markets (volunteers, donors, legislators, and board members, for example), the organization must learn what rich myths and misperceptions the markets hold about it.

I remember helping a youth organization conduct a study prior to embarking on the largest capital campaign in their state to date. In our interviews we identified three major myths that needed attention before the agency could educate large donors about all the good the organization does. As science eduction researchers have shown, people filter information presented to them based on the myths they have internalized.

First, we found that community decision-makers believed the organization did not serve girls (they served more girls than any other agency in the state). Second, they believed that the organization only provided recreation facilities (in fact, they provided the proven most-effective tutoring program in the state, among many other nonrecreation programs). And, third, there was a deeply held myth that the organization really did little for the long term to help kids at risk (program participants had significantly higher high school graduation rates, college attendance rates and career incomes than nonparticipants). Independent assessments of the organization conducted over two decades refuted each of these myths.

After a carefully constructed advertising campaign, follow-up interviews with community leaders showed they were startled into giving up these ingrained myths. We now knew the organization was ready to move forward with the messages it needed to deliver to raise funds and friends for the their kids.

Once these myths are combatted, marketing becomes a process whereby the organization tries to get the perceptions of all their market segments into line. Those perceptions should create a common reality that moves the organization forward in fulfilling its mission.

(Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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