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As we celebrate our 15th anniversary, we’re publishing a series of articles about how our business has changed over the years. This month’s article focuses on the evolution of nonprofit marketing, and marketing in general.

“Marketing is all about understanding, designing, communicating, and delivering value,” says Alexander Chernev, Professor of Marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, in his co-authored article, “How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?” He continues: “This is the foundation of marketing strategy and has not changed with time. What has changed are the tools that companies use to create value. Data analytics, automation, and artificial intelligence are very powerful tools in managing value, but they are just tools. Without a sound strategy guiding their use, they can become a distraction from a company’s core mission.” 

The foundation of nonprofit marketing and marketing in general, has always been about creating value for the customer. But how organizations deliver that value has shifted significantly. The changes in nonprofit marketing over the past 15 years, fall within two major categories: marketing messaging and marketing tools.  

Nonprofit marketing messaging and philosophy  

When Brighter Strategies was formed in 2008, nonprofit marketing focused on the organization and its programs and services. Messages centered around some form of the following: “We’re a great organization, and here’s what we do.” During the past decade and a half, marketing has evolved to focus instead on the customer or client and their stories in the following ways.  

Customer in the driver’s seat.

According to Philip Kotler, Professor Emeritus of Marketing at Kellogg, and Chernev’s co-author, organizations have evolved their brands to become symbols of their promise to deliver a specific benefit that addresses a particular customer need. No longer are programs and services divorced from these needs; rather, customers’ needs drive the creation of programs and services. The guiding marketing philosophy adapted accordingly, and communications now reflect customers’ unique identities.  

The power of storytelling.

Storytelling is one recent marketing trend that depicts customers’ identities and needs through powerful and relatable narrative. Rise Together, the nonprofit working to prevent addiction and promote positive mental health for youth, brings together stories from young people around the world who share their vision of what a better future can look like. Through user-generated content and storytelling, The Future Is Youth marketing campaign showcases stories from the target community and spotlights a variety of customer personas. 

An emphasis on diversity.

Nonprofits are embracing diversity more than ever before, and this trend has impacted the many ways organizations communicate to their customers and the stories they tell about their brands. Marketing messages today are for a more diverse audience, and the voices communicating an organization’s values reflect a diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and neurodivergence.  

Expectation for thought leadership.

Finally, nonprofits are more accountable in 2023 for setting an example as thought leaders. Customers care deeply about supporting organizations with values that reflect their own. Executive directors face greater pressure to take a stand on social and cultural issues. For example, after the death of George Floyd, many nonprofit leaders took to social media to share how their organizations support social justice and are actively anti-racist. Fifteen years ago, nonprofits were hesitant to be so vocal for fear of offending funders; today silence is offensive. Nonprofits now look at global events as inflection points to share their philosophy, platform, and voice about issues important to their mission and customers.  

Nonprofit marketing tools and modality 

During the past 15 years different modalities have erupted to support this new guiding philosophy. In 2008 annual reports were the pinnacle marketing piece for many nonprofit organizations, produced as small print books. With the onset of digital marketing, the annual report gained an online version. Soon organizations offered their annual reports online only, with a few print copies for special donors and board meetings. Today, annual reports are optional even online. 

The annual report is one example of a traditional marketing tool that has experienced significant change during the past 15 years. Most marketing modalities have followed suit as digital marketing has replaced many traditional marketing tactics and free content is accessible to consumers everywhere. Below we’ll consider how new tools have disrupted marketing practices for the nonprofit sector. 

The many faces of digital marketing.

Digital marketing includes any of the digital channels an organization uses to promote their programs and services. For example, websites, social media, search engines, and mobile devices. With a push toward more customer-centric messages, email marketing has become segmented for various end user personas. Digital content increased exponentially in the past decade. Nonprofits now rely on content promotion and search engine optimization (SEO) to get their ideas, products, and services in the hands of their target audience.  

A look at social media.

The evolution of social media—one form of digital marketing—could be an article all to itself. Fifteen years ago, organic social media (any social media activity without a paid promotion) was important; today, paid social (social media advertising) is the only way for organizations to get noticed. LinkedIn is the one exception, where organic social might still turn heads in 2023.  

Many organizations are using social media creatively to market their programs and services. Recently Social Tees Animal Rescue, a foster-based nonprofit organization in New York City, used the social media dating app Tinder to create profiles of abandoned puppies looking for a new home. When a user was matched with a dog, they were sent a message with information on the organization and details about getting involved including options for fostering or adopting a puppy. This campaign resulted in nearly 3,000 matches for homeless puppies.  

Artificial intelligence.

Fifteen years ago, nonprofit organizations sent all their emails to all their customers. Since then, the rise in artificial intelligence (AI) had revolutionized customer analytics and marketing automation. AI provides rich information about who is opening emails and how to segment an audience accordingly. Generative AI (which has stolen the spotlight recently) is still very new, and organizations are considering how to use this tool to write content with more impact and create more efficient marketing processes overall.  

Too much data.

With AI and analytics comes lots of data. As organizations collected mounds of detailed information about their customers, data privacy concerns arose. The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDRP) in 2016 transformed the rules for marketing and communications. Today most organizations are erring on the side of Canada’s data privacy laws to ensure compliance with broader and stricter global data guidelines. With abundant free content and customer privacy concerns, email software has evolved to add spam filters and organization algorithms, making it harder for nonprofits to get communications in the hands of their customer.  

Looking ahead in nonprofit marketing

Years ago, nonprofit leadership enlisted the help of marketing only after developing a product. Today the marketing function in many organizations has begun to partner with stakeholders to design and implement programs and services. With value and purpose guiding communications, marketing experts can provide insights to shape program development from its onset. Marketing messaging and marketing tools will advance even faster in the coming years, and nonprofit leadership must continuously seek insights from marketing to communicate the organization’s purpose more powerfully to the customer. 

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