Brand Building: An Authentic Approach to Growing a Fierce, Loyal, and Supportive Community

Has your social impact organization fallen into the transactional marketing trap? Is your approach pushing supporters away? What if there was a better, long-term way to attract and retain them?

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If you’ve been paying attention to recent trends in social impact content and campaigns, then what we’re about to describe is probably unfortunately very familiar. As you scroll through your inbox, you see a message from an organization you support. The subject line reads “URGENT! WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT!”

You open the email, only to be bombarded with more fake urgency around hitting an important fundraising deadline and how you, and only you, can make that happen and you just have to donate RIGHT NOW OR ELSE the organization will fail miserably and the entire world will come crashing down. 

Once contained to political campaigns, these exact tactics and fake urgency messaging is becoming more and more common for social causes. And there’s a good reason why. 

This urgent, fear-based messaging WORKS. It works really well, actually — in the short term. But it comes at the cost of donor fatigue and people unsubscribing from organizations they care deeply about; ones that are doing genuinely good work and creating important impact.

Unfortunately, these organizations all fell into the transactional marketing trap. 

There’s a Better Way for Social Impact Leaders to Approach Marketing 

The antidote to transactional marketing is a long-game approach: brand-building. 

Brand-building is supported on a foundation of respect, honesty, integrity, and value creation for your community. And when you embody a brand-building philosophy for your social impact content and campaigns, you’ll build a fierce and loyal community of advocates and ambassadors for your mission. 

Let’s look at why this shift into transactional marketing is becoming more common, different transactional marketing traps, the problems they create, and how to take a brand-building approach to your marketing.

Why Transactional Marketing Has Become More Common

Although it might feel like transactional marketing is everywhere, it hasn’t always been this way. Organizations used to take a much more brand-forward approach to marketing. And although there’s always been different forms of transactional marketing at play, they were usually supported by larger brand-building strategies.

Organizations Used to be More Brand-forward with Their Marketing

That all changed when more and more of our interactions with brands started happening through digital platforms and channels. 

Suddenly, marketers had exponentially more data and metrics providing detailed insights around which campaigns, messages, and approaches to their marketing were converting and driving engagement with their audience. 

Marketing has Become More Data-driven & Analytical

This had been the holy grail for marketing since before the Mad Men era of big advertising. You’ve probably heard the famous quote by John Wanamaker who once said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

So all of this data and metrics is great, right? Not entirely. 

Over time, marketers have become hyper-focused on these metrics. A/B testing every element of their campaigns. Optimizing every step for conversions, donations, and sales. 

But this has all gone way too far. 

Today, our digital culture feels like navigating a precarious maze of transactional marketing trip wires and booby traps. Because the marketer’s dream has morphed into a supporter nightmare, the experience and relationship we have with most brands today feels transactional, extractive, and sometimes even straight-up dishonest.   

Social Impact Brands have Become Part of This Growing Problem

Facing the challenges posed by the attention economy, we’ve been trained to focus primarily on short-term performance metrics at the micro-campaign level. 

But we’re losing sight of the larger trends. Public trust with philanthropy and social impact brands are downGiving is down across the board. Conscious consumers are growing skeptical of the authenticity of impact-driven brands and marketing.

Transactional Marketing Actively Drives Away Your Supporters

When your social impact marketing isn’t approached from a brand-building philosophy, you’re not just missing out on growing and activating your community of supporters — you might be actively driving them away. 

Luckily, there’s a middle ground between complete trust in brand-building and this transactional marketing tradeoff. You can approach your marketing from a brand-building perspective and still use these new tools and technologies. And when you find this middle ground, the true power of brand and technology shines most brightly. 

Transactional Marketing Traps and the Problems They Create

Now that we’ve covered some reasons why transactional marketing is a growing problem in and out of the social impact space, let’s break down some of the common transactional marketing traps we see, why they are so problematic over the long term, and approaches to addressing each one. 

1. Fake Urgency

As the extreme example of fake urgency we described earlier, communicating a sense of urgency is a very effective way to drive action from your community. People want to step up and help out when it matters most, and when something big is on the line. 

When you have a truly urgent need or call to action, by all means, share that with your community. 

But when everything is urgent, all the time, it waters down your message. 

As a result, your community will quickly begin to question if your appeals are truly urgent at all. Then, when you do have an authentically urgent need, you’ve lost your credibility and opportunity to elevate that ask or call to action above the noise you’ve created by your own doing. Fake urgency, at its core, is a dishonest practice and rightfully damages your brand reputation. 

Use urgent messaging for campaigns that truly have urgency. Describe the stakes. Let people know how and when their contributions are used to address the pressing matter. This builds credibility and provides opportunities for you to authentically engage with your audiences.

2. Fear-based Messaging

Fear is a strong human emotion, and one of the most powerful psychological shortcuts to driving action. And fear-based messaging is a very common transactional marketing tactic used to capture and convert attention in social impact content and campaigns.

But just like with fake urgency, when you oversaturate your content with fear-based messaging, it ultimately starts to hurt your brand reputation and relationship with your community. 

It’s ok (and important) to talk about the problem you are working to solve. And educating your community about this problem in new and creative ways is a great content strategy. But if you do this from a fear-based approach, without balancing that with optimism, hope, and stories of progress, you’re ultimately telling a story counter to your goals.

If your audience only hears about how big the problem is and how it’s growing, they aren’t learning how your organization is creating positive change and meaningful impact. You look like you aren’t doing your job. 

People want to support organizations that are making a true and tangible difference. Make sure your content doesn’t lean too fear-based and communicate the opposite message. In fact, leaning into positive messaging can do more to keep your supporters engaged.

3. A High Give-to-Ask Ratio

Have you ever donated to a nonprofit, or purchased from a social enterprise, only to be asked to donate or buy again right away? 

Just like any brand, you ultimately need to deliver true value to your community. That value can show up in many ways as a social impact brand. 

The ultimate goal is to deliver value in the form of measurable impact for your mission. 

There are small but powerful ways to deliver value along the way. As a social impact organization with learned experiences and expertise within your category, you’re uniquely positioned to provide valuable insights and lead the conversation with your community. From stories of impact, to educational content about your issue area, to trends and opinions from your team that communicate your point of view, you have many opportunities to provide valuable content to your audience. 

Of course, you need support from your audience. From donations, to purchasing products, to sharing stories, to spreading the word, to taking action, activating and engaging your community is a critical element to your social impact strategy and operating model.

The big idea here is to pay careful attention to your give-to-ask ratio. Just like any healthy relationship, you have to reach a mutually beneficial and respectful balance and an equal exchange of energy and value. Generally, we’re big fans of targeting a 3:1 give-to-ask ratio in your content strategy.

For every four pieces of content distributed to your community, the primary focus of three should be on giving value to your community and just one primarily focused on asking for support. This ensures that the overall experience of your supporters feels valuable and balanced.

4. Truth-bending & Misinformation

Although this is most common with political campaigns, social impact brands aren’t immune to it. Of course, straight up misinformation is dishonest and never worth it in the long run. But there are more subtle traps to watch out for here too. 

Exaggerating your impact, or taking credit for work or progress that was a collaborative effort are more common forms of truth-bending that we see. Fake urgency falls under this category as well. Performative campaigns and appeals, where the focus is on the appearance of impact but isn’t supported by a substantive or measurable plan or strategy is also widespread. 

Another less discussed form of this is hiding your failures, or sweeping lack of progress or impact under the rug. Setbacks happen, and being transparent and authentic about them with your supporters is an opportunity to communicate your determination to press forward against these challenges.

In today’s culture where information and truth are democratized, it’s more important than ever for brands to act with respect, honesty, and transparency. Brands who embody this philosophy stand out and earn loyal support from their community. 

5. Transactional, Low-effort Content

Sometimes we all feel like we’re just feeding the never-satisfied content machine. Hitting a certain cadence. Having a presence on all the different channels and platforms. Including every little thing that happened this month in the monthly newsletter. 

Creating and distributing content is only half the battle.

If you’re putting out low-effort, uninspired, dull content, you’re basically just checking off the boxes instead of realizing the true potential for effective brand-building through content-focused marketing.

Look, you’ve got to start somewhere. And consistency is critical for your content marketing to work. But you owe it to yourselves and your community to ensure that you are generating content that’s truly valuable, inspiring, creative, and effective. Otherwise, you’re just adding noise to the ever-growing stream of low-value content and wasting everyone’s time and energy. 

When you consider it this way, producing low-value content is a disrespectful action that can tarnish your brand over time. Adding to the noise is contrary to succeeding in the attention economy. Instead of flooding the zone with a high volume of low-value, low-effort content, provide high-value content at a more reasonable pace. Your supporters, and their noisy inboxes, will appreciate it.

6. Unethical Storytelling

By now, you’ve probably heard plenty of people preach the benefits of impact storytelling as a cornerstone of your content strategy. And there’s a good reason for it. Effective storytelling, rooted in human connection and emotion, is a proven strategy for capturing attention and growing support for your movement. 

But even storytelling can become transactional, or even extractive, if you aren’t considering how you are approaching it with your community. Often, when helping people who are facing hardships, struggles, or societal inequities, the stories that you share are highly personal, emotional, and even traumatic. And beyond that, these stories aren’t yours. They don’t belong to you. 

When you’re asking individuals affected by these hardships to use their stories in your marketing — even individuals you may have directly helped — it’s your responsibility to do so ethically. 

Human-centered, emotional storytelling is a powerful and important pillar of your content strategy. Just be sure to approach it respectfully and empathetically with your audience, or you risk becoming transactional and extractive — even if that’s not your intention. 

Start by acknowledging that these stories are not yours, and that they have value. If someone agrees to share a story, they’re giving you something of value — and that value should be repaid. This might be a financial reimbursement, or other forms of value exchange from your organization.

Consider building expertise and training for your team for trauma-informed approaches to soliciting stories from your community. Sometimes even the act of telling these stories can retrigger or perpetuate traumatic experiences. 

Activate Your Brand-building Approach

These are just some of the common transactional marketing traps that we see. Once you’ve learned to be on the lookout for them, you’ll start to see just how prevalent they’ve become in our digitally-driven culture. 

Before you post your next message or plan your next campaign, remember to take a moment to pause, reflect, and honestly answer these questions:

Is this approach building my brand and providing value for my community? Or am I thinking about my marketing and my mission transactionally? 

To move away from transactional marketing and practice effective brand-building, you have to know your values and culture, understand your core community, expand your horizons, market with empathy, and continuously co-create your brand in partnership with your supporters. This is the path to building a deeply loyal community that rallies behind your mission, champions your cause, and takes action on your behalf. 

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