I was part of a team conducting a focus group for a large nonprofit client. The focus group comprised representatives from the financial sector, a target audience this particular national nonprofit was most interested in cultivating through its messaging.
One or more of the messages we were about to test had the words "partners" and "partnership" in them, which we thought were no-brainers. After all, they are simple, easy-to-understand words that convey affiliation, cooperation, collaboration, alliance, all the good stuff, right?
As the messages came up for the group's reaction, two bankers immediately raised their hands.
"In our industry, the words 'partners' and 'partnership' are loaded with legal implications," said one. "We don't mind being recognized as 'working together' with the organization, but we'd rather not be identified as 'partners,'" said the other.
Had we allowed our client to go public with the original messages, chances are the impact that they might have had on their intended audience, namely potential financial sector funders, would have been the opposite from what the organization was hoping for.
The lesson learned: It's not about how your message is delivered but rather how it is received that makes all the difference.
Fact is, most organizations shoot from the hip when it comes to talking about themselves. They don't pay enough attention to the messages they send out and often have no idea how those messages are affecting the very audiences they are seeking to reach.
Gain Control Over Your Messages
Gain control over your messaging process by creating a "messaging package," namely by compiling the core messages you want to convey to your target audiences. The purpose of your messaging package is to help everyone affiliated with your organization stay on message.
What follows is a simplified version of how to get started.
Step 1: Come to internal consensus about what you want to convey about your organization through your messaging. These messages may include your organization's core cultural values, the kinds of programs and services it provides, how it provides them, and so forth.
The best way to come to consensus around these messages is to conduct an internal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. The goal of this introspective analysis—which gets best results when conducted by a knowledgeable, objective third party—often goes beyond messaging and allows an organization, perhaps for the first time, consciously to identify and promote its strengths, address its weaknesses, leverage its opportunities, and prepare for any threats it may perceive.
Keep in mind that whatever messages come out of this process need to reflect your organization's story, not its fairy tale. For example, if one of the strengths you identify is that your organization is a good steward of public funding, make sure that that's the case, without exception!
Step 2: Conduct external research. Through focus groups, surveys, or informal conversations, learn what your target audiences want to know about your organization. Are their current perceptions of who you are and what you do accurate? If not, why not, and how do you need to alter your messages to gain their attention, recognition, and understanding?
Step 3: Draft your messages. Use what you have learned through your internal SWOT analysis and external research to draft a messaging package that contains all the messages you believe are true and accurate about your organization and that will resonate with your target audiences.
Step 4: Test your messages! Before going public with your messages, be sure to test them. Remember, I may enjoy working with your organization, but I might not appreciate being identified as a partner.
Step 5: Make sure everyone affiliated with your organization knows what your messaging package contains. The goal of every organization should be "to stay on message." Otherwise, if everyone affiliated with your organization is sending out different messages, your audiences will be confused.
To understand who you are and what you do, people outside your organization need to receive clear, consistent, and concise messages. A messaging package can help you do this—and take a lot of the stress out of talking about your organization as well.
Larry Checco, Checco Communications
© 2010, Checco Communications
Larry Checco is president of Checco Communications and author of Branding for Success: A Roadmap for Raising the Visibility and Value of Your Nonprofit Organization. Larry is a nationally recognized public speaker, workshop presenter, and consultant on branding.