When your communications plateau, think like a clock restorer
In the hit podcast S-Town, listeners follow the story of John B. McLemore, an eccentric genius living in rural Alabama. John is a horologist, someone who specializes in the scientific study of time. He has a deep expertise in making and fixing elaborate clocks.
Most clock repairers approach their work tactically—they can manage to get an old timepiece working again by tinkering with a couple of its parts. The clock might start ticking like new, but it probably won’t last too long. By contrast, the best, most sought after horologists, like John, are able to gain an understanding of the whole apparatus—reviving the full machine back to life as originally designed.
The majority of nonprofit communicators approach their work tactically—like clock restorers who tinker with a few pieces at a time hoping to get the machine ticking. Many nonprofits hit plateaus with their communications efforts because they approach their work in this fashion. They tend to work on “one-off” projects as needed, rather than envisioning their organization’s communications as an interconnected system that should be optimized to reach its goals and support the mission. This might mean working on a new brochure without thinking about how it relates to the website or managing social media without considering how these platforms fit into their broader goals for engagement.
More nonprofit communicators need to be able to think like expert clock restorers: able to see, build, and fix the whole machine. Approaching communications as a strategic mechanism comprised of interrelated tactics takes effort and investment upfront, but generates stronger results in the end. The website, emails, social media, and print collateral should all be part of an ecosystem of efforts that reinforce and support each other.
Math For America (MƒA) is a great example of the benefits of building an integrated communications machine for recruitment purposes. MƒA’s fellowships for public school STEM teachers enable educators to hone their skills, collaborate with peers, and access leadership opportunities—all on a generous stipend. But ad-hoc marketing—a brochure, flyer, or email here and there—for their programs wasn’t filling the pipeline with qualified teachers. They had hit a plateau in recruiting qualified educators even though their program was almost too good to be true.
Limited expertise in marketing theory and strategy meant that staff were creating promotional materials (ads, brochures, flyers, etc.) tactically instead of strategically. Limited knowledge about their audiences meant that Math for America didn’t know how they were being perceived by teachers or what was holding back candidates from applying (and which benefits would motivate them to).
After researching to uncover what the opportunities and barriers might be from the educators’ point of view, we worked with MƒA to build an informed and motivating machine for their communications efforts. After a year, Math for America’s fellowship programs went from being under-enrolled to over enrolled. They saw a 358%(!) increase in applications for their Master Teacher Fellowship. And because MƒA’s communications team began to think of their marketing as a machine, they shifted away from tinkering with the tactical toward strategic approaches that offer a far greater return on investment.
If you want to see greater results from your communications efforts, take time to assess (or build) your communications machine. Your best bet is to approach your work like a clock restorer specialist—methodical, strategic, and looking at the whole picture. Chances are you’ll have to tackle some big questions first and put more time in upfront to develop a strategy and plan that is uniquely designed for your nonprofit’s goals and audiences. But it will pay off in the end.
Are your communications efforts hitting a plateau? Take a look at the whole machine.