Photo of chocolate cake by humanitarian photographer Bryon Lippincott

Taking the M&M’s out of Nonprofit marketing

As a humanitarian photographer, filmmaker and marketer I spend a decent amount of time engaging with nonprofit organizations in their social media and website spaces. Over the last couple of years I have seen a marketing trend gaining steam that bothers me.

The trend is this, NGO’s and nonprofits are publishing more and more empty, soulless content that provides nothing more than pretty faces and hero images with nifty tag lines that are the equivalent of a parent feeding their child a steady diet of M&M’s and neglecting real food with substance.

The biggest complaint I hear from nonprofits is “We are not getting engagement on our social media and our website, we need new photos and a new video to attract attention.”

While on some, albeit small level it may be true that they need new photos and a video or two the reality is that they really need a different type of photos and videos. They need photos and videos that are part of, and that tell, a deeper more engaging story. You cannot give your audience a steady diet of empty calorie content and expect them to come back to you when they are hungry for a real meal. It doesn’t work that way.

The excuse most often given for publishing M&M content is that audience attention spans are shrinking. While it is true that you have less and less time to get someones attention, the reality is that you have to give them something to care about, something that breaks the mold and peaks their interest. Once you have their interest you need to provide depth.

Here are 3 ways to provide depth and engage your audience in ways that will last.

Go deep

You provide depth by telling deep, personal human stories that focus not on your organization but the people your organization serves. Make your clients and recipients the hero’s of your organizational story. Make longer videos that tell more of the story, the 3 minute rule for video is a complete fallacy, the majority of your audience will stop watching after 20 or 30 seconds. Those who continue to watch need and want more from you than M&M’s, they want a meal, they want to understand and interact with the story you are telling them. They want to engage with the issue on a deeper level. These are the people who will eventually become part of your tribe, that will buy-in to what you are doing and eventually support your work. The people who are picking up an occasional M&M from your table as they walk by will most likely only come by for M&M’s, so choose different bait to attract a different audience.

Allow your clients/recipients to speak from your stage

So often in the nonprofit sphere I see stories told about people, and how their lives are changed by an organization. While the information and story may be true, the reality is that we as an audience would much rather hear that person who is a client/recipient talk about their life, their feelings, and their relationship with your organization. Their voice carries the weight of authenticity, it brings credibility, it can be held up as proof that you are doing the work you say you are doing.

Drop the gimmicks and constant right hooks

Whether we like it or not our audiences come to us for entertainment. In the case of non profits,  people want to hear something that makes them feel good, that something is being done to make the world a better place. While this is a opportunity that we can use to generate interest it is important that we don’t squander it by becoming predictable and easy to tune out. Habits that fall into this category include, posting a similar type of content on certain days of the week, repeatedly asking for interaction on M&M content, (this one may offend some of you) repeatedly posting blanket prayer requests attached to empty content, asking for money frequently on social media.

Each of these things listed above turns down the volume of and reduces the relevance of the  message you are sending out. As soon as the audience begins to see patterns and they subconsciously begin to dial back their attention to it. Your content becomes something their mind expects to see and knows it doesn’t require engagement to understand. Once your audience can consume your content without engaging, you have lost the battle and lost their attention.

“But creating deep content takes a lot of time and resources that I don’t have!”

I get it, creating deep content is not easy, takes time, and can be costly. But the alternative is clearly not working, you can invest a little in M&M’s and really not see a return on your investment. Or you can save the money you were going to spend on content candy and occasionally cook a meal for your audience where they can sit down, and really engage with the hero’s of your work, your clients and recipients.