At Cosmic, we are big believers in the idea that social impact organizations need to invest in digital marketing. While the idea of marketing runs counter to many in the sector, modern social impact leaders understand its value. At its core, social impact marketing is something that has been happening in the space for a very long time. It’s just been reframed as creating awareness or conducting outreach. You grow awareness by broadcasting your message to audiences primed to receive it and take action. That’s marketing in a nutshell.
Today, you have the tools at your disposal to be able to stand out in the crowd and raise awareness of your cause and your organization by using the same marketing techniques that businesses employ. Getting the attention of funders, supporters, and advocates is critical to operating a sustainable organization. But what happens once people take notice? Are you ready to build on the success of your marketing efforts?
Start with a Strong Marketing Foundation
Many organizations make the mistake of jumping into digital marketing without a solid foundation to take advantage of the results. You need a few foundational pieces in place before you spin up your marketing efforts. Without them, you’re likely to struggle with making the most out of the opportunities that present themselves when you market successfully — or even know if your efforts are paying off.
Before you invest in showering your contact list with email, social media posts, PR, and other forms of awareness outreach, be sure that you have what you need in place to leverage the power of today’s marketing platforms.
Root Your Organization in Marketing
Think of your marketing like a tree with each marketing channel (social media, email, newsletters, PR, paid advertising, content marketing, etc.) as roots. Tree roots reach out to find water and nutrients that keep the tree alive and healthy. They allow the tree to grow the strong branches people can see. For your organization, the branches are your products, programs, and services. Without a strong root system, the tree is weak and branches wither, break, and fall away. It’s strong roots that help a tree weather storms.
Digital marketing is the root system that connects your organization with the things it needs to be healthy, strong, and sustainable — funding, partnerships, and community support. Without them, you face losing your programs and services.
People new to social impact marketing often focus on the branches — the parts that people can easily see. But If you put all of the weight on the branches, they’re going to collapse under the weight.
You need that root system. Strong. Steady. Firmly planted. Here’s what makes up the roots of a social impact marketing system.
Your brand is more than your logo or wordmark. It’s your reputation. Your approach to the change you work to achieve. A promise you make to your supporters, funders, and advocates, and much more.
Brand building should be a central pillar of your overall success strategy. In the attention economy, your brand is what your supporters rally behind and promote when they are advocating for you.
An established brand is trusted. When you have a strong brand, potential supporters (and funders) are more likely to place their trust in you and invest in your organization. When your digital marketing attracts potential partners, being a brand they can count on improves the chances of building a mutually beneficial relationship.
A solid brand foundation is vital to keeping people’s attention once they have taken notice of you. Make it central to your digital marketing strategy. Keep in mind that your marketing and brand building efforts are intertwined. Successful marketing connects more people to your brand. Building trust with them allows you to continue to market to them effectively.
You must be clear about your organization’s niche in the social impact ecosystem and express your position and differentiators as part of your digital marketing. If there’s uncertainty as to whether you’re an advocacy, direct services, government policy, or activism organization, people are going to question your effectiveness and strategy for creating change.
Set this cornerstone of your social impact marketing by defining and leveraging your niche. Doing so helps you stand out, attract supporters and funders, and provide your staff with a clear sense of purpose and direction. Giving people and funders new to your organization a full picture of your organization’s place in your cause ecosystem helps them decide if they want to invest their limited funds in you.
We cannot overstate how important it is to express your differentiators in your digital marketing efforts. Most cause areas have multiple organizations operating in them. Why should someone invest in your organization when there are many others to support? Making yourself stand out is necessary to achieve success in today’s attention economy.
Be bold. Get noticed. Be different. Potential new funders are going to want to know that they are making a safe investment, but if you seem to be like every other organization in your space, you’re not paying off your marketing efforts by giving them something unique to get behind.
Your Theory of Change
A strong Theory of Change should be central to your brand/business strategy. Much like your niche, it should be unique to your organization. For social enterprises like BridgeCare, it comes across in the value statement on their homepage, “Modern Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions for government agencies and organizations working to build an ECE system that works for everyone.”
We often include a distilled version of the Theory of Change on the About page of nonprofits such as the Constructive Dialogue Institute, “We work with institutions across the education, for-profit, non-profit, and public sectors to help them communicate across differences and build inclusive cultures. We translate the latest behavioral science research into educational tools that are evidence-based, practical, and scalable in order to equip students and professionals with the skills for constructive dialogue.”
Knowing and expressing your Theory of Change is a crucial component in the foundation of your digital marketing. It’s your how of change making. Potential supporters, advocates, activists, and funders need to understand your plan for addressing the needs you have identified. They will demand to know how you intend to accomplish your goals within your niche. Be sure you have this clearly identified in your messaging before you embark on a digital marketing campaign.
It may seem obvious that messaging is central to social impact marketing and communicating your Theory of Change. But we’re not just talking about the copy that goes on your social media posts and NPR ads. Sure, those are part of your efforts, but they should be based on established brand messaging that’s focused, thoughtful, and well-defined. We break down Overall Brand Messaging into five components:
Brand Story - Why your organization was founded, how it has changed since its inception, and what it is doing today
General Messaging - Simple, declarative language distilled from all other messaging that describes what your organization does and who benefits from your work
Core Message - The default minimum description of your organization
Elevator Pitch - A short, casual, and jargon-free description of what your organization does
Social Media Bio - Used to describe your organization across platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn
Formally delineating your messaging allows for unified communications across your organization. It doesn’t mean that everything you put out in your digital marketing sounds “canned.” It means that you know the ideas you want to express and agree on the voice and tone of your communications, understand the nuances of messaging to different audiences, and know who those audiences are.
No marketing strategy is complete without a detailed messaging foundation. Before you spin up your outreach campaign, know what you are saying and to whom.
Fundamentals Steps to Building a Robust Marketing Machine
When putting your marketing strategy together, you’re creating a machine that constantly generates momentum. Marketing without a firm content strategy, call to action (CTA), engagement, and technology foundation is like running a car engine that’s attached the frame and driveshaft with duct tape. With enough tape, it might work at low speeds, but if you build up speed… it’s going to come apart.
Each of the following components need to be in place before you can take advantage of any momentum generated by your next (or first) marketing push.
Develop a Content Strategy
Before you launch into social impact marketing, you need to determine your internal capacity and capabilities for producing content. Determine content contributors, and devise a cadence for everything from social media posts to thought leadership articles, newsletters, videos, and more. An engine runs most efficiently when it runs at its optimal speed. Not too fast. Not too slow. The same is true of your content creation. Set a realistic editorial calendar with hard deadlines you can consistently meet.
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating — having irregular content on your site is worse than releasing no content at all. An inconsistent content pace can easily be seen as organizational disarray and ineffectiveness.
Prior to setting your marketing campaign in motion, line up your content creators (hint: they may not all be on your staff), determine which formats and platforms are within your skillset, and set a rhythm that works for your organization.
To fund a sustainable organization, your content strategy needs to be integrated into your marketing strategy. They work together year round to maintain awareness and create an ongoing revenue stream.
Determine Clear Calls to Action
You don’t want to hit send on your upcoming email blast or enewsletter release without being certain what action(s) you want your supporters to take when they finish reading it. Contrary to what you might expect, the highest priority call to action (CTA) might be something other than donate — in fact, it probably should be. You should be providing your supporters with multiple ways to get involved. We often build Digital Action Centers to accomplish these goals. An action center can encourage people to receive action alerts, sign a petition, attend a local or state public comments meeting, email elected officials and government bureaucrats, attend a march or protest, and much more.
When you are preparing your marketing materials, determine how the CTAs will encourage supporters and advocates to maximize their involvement. This will help you build community, grow awareness, and increase engagement.
Develop an Engagement Pyramid
Your supporters should feel like they’re partners in creating the world you both want to live in. When you interact with them, understand that they believe in your cause and know that it is important to them. They want to be actively involved rather than feeling like an observer.
Also be aware that people have limited financial resources. As much as they might want to increase their donations, it might not be possible for them to do so. What you want to do is increase engagement. In the social impact field an engagement pyramid is a construct that allows you to define how someone can move from non-awareness to interest, participation, and even leadership. One of your marketing goals should be to advance people up the engagement pyramid.
If you think of leadership as joining your organization — think again. Your supporters can lead by hosting a fundraiser, organizing phone banks, driving fellow supporters to events, and encouraging friends, families, and like-minded individuals to join your movement, support you, and taking other meaningful actions.
When someone connects with your organization for the first time, you should provide them with a path to increase their engagement over time. Supporter engagement is a long-term strategy. Have a plan to sustain people’s attention once they take notice of your organization through your marketing campaign.
Modernize Your Technology Stack
Today, you have powerful online platforms that you can utilize as part of your digital marketing campaigns. As you elevate your marketing strategy, take a close look at the platforms you’re using to be sure that you’re the ones you’ve chosen are best suited to serve your needs today.
Be certain that you have a digital hub at the center of your marketing. This may be a website that’s customized for your needs and includes informational and educational content along with media and CTAs. It may be a constellation of platforms that consists of a website for evergreen content, a stand-alone digital media hub, and an action center.
However you configure your digital hub, be certain that you’re taking advantage of the latest website technology to provide digital experiences that grab and maintain attention. A modern technology stack can even help lower your organization’s carbon footprint.
Examine the donor and engagement platform you’re using (if any) to be sure that you're getting the information you need to move people up the engagement pyramid. And speaking of information, check your data collection and analytics tools. To know if your marketing is paying off, you need to be able to measure progress and change. Keep in mind that in the past few years, established channels like email have been disrupted and may require a new strategy.
Build Atop A Strong Foundation
As you can tell, there’s a lot to set up before you put your digital marketing strategy into high gear. But if you start with deep strong roots, you’re creating the foundation your organization needs to flourish, grow, and move your mission forward.
Set up for success by putting yourself in a position to get the most out of your marketing — before you spin up a marketing juggernaut. With everything in place, you can see what works, what doesn’t, adjust, and turn your marketing engine into a high-performing machine that attracts and retains the funders, supporters, and partners you need to build a sustainable organization with the resources you need to make a difference.