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Focusing on the Right Audience to Build Your Brand
When looking for new audiences it’s hard to know where to start. Your next great supporter seems like they could come from anywhere. But what if there was a way to narrow your search?
Of course, you want everyone to connect with your work, but building a brand is about focus. And building a thriving organization requires focusing on the most important audience first.
By using the AMIE process, you’ll learn to research from the inside out to find the right Audience, Message, Image, and Experience for your organization.
As the president of Iris Creative Group Inc., Beth Brodovsky works with nonprofit leaders to focus their audience and move them to action. For 25 years, Beth and her team have developed nonprofit branding, marketing, and fundraising communication. She runs Nonprofit Toolkit, training programs to grow in-house marketing skills on staff, hosted the 200-episode Driving Participation Podcast, and speaks on nonprofit marketing nationally.
For more information, go to https://iriscreative.com
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: This is Hugh Ballou, founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation, where we help leaders build synergy through a vision to provide value to others in the nonprofit world. This podcast is targeted toward nonprofit leaders and faith leaders, everybody, people running a business, people who are philanthropists wanting to do good in the world. If you’re running a nonprofit, on a board, or support one, this is for you.
Today, we are going to talk about some very important things in the area of marketing, but it will be more specific than that. I will let our guest today talk about that. Beth, tell people about yourself and what you do. What is your passion for your work?
Beth Brodovsky: Thanks so much for having me. I am thrilled to be on your show today. I love how you talked about your work and your audience.
I am Beth Brodovsky. I am the president of Iris Creative. I love this work of branding. I was actually trained as an illustrator and ended up managing and finding my way into design. I then became an art director. Ultimately, through all that work I did, I got some clarity around how the strategy behind what you do is so important. You can create beautiful work. You can have lovely things and beautiful graphic design. If you haven’t really thought about why you exist as an organization, why you do what you do, and how to connect what’s valuable about what you do with an audience that is excited to help you thrive, it’s tough. You will struggle as an organization. It’s hard to make those first funds, it’s hard to make bigger funds if you don’t have a group of supporters that are central to your work and excited about seeing the things that you do. You need to exist in a way that maybe is different than a different organization that needs to exist.
Working with organizations to help them clarify what the word “unique” really means when it comes to them, and how to translate what’s unique about them to find the right people to be there to support them, is my favorite thing.
Hugh: Let me give you some statements, and you tell me which of these three are myths.
Beth: Oh Lord.
Hugh: 1) “Hey, I don’t need a brand. People know what I do, and it’s doing work for good.” 2) “I have a beautiful logo. I don’t need anything more.” 3) “It’s expensive. I don’t need to be spending money on branding and marketing.” Which of those are myths?
Beth: All of the first one, that you don’t need it. It’s so funny when people say to me, “I don’t need it because we have a lot of supporters.” I heard a consultant say to me once, “If you are not marketing, your organization becomes what other people think it is. It becomes what shows up at your door.” If you’re not getting what you want, and you’re not clear on telegraphing what you want, then you are beholden, and you are limited by what other people think you are and what they think you’re capable of and what they think you need in order to do what they want. If the “they” in that is not the right they that wants to support what you truly need to have happen, you’re going to become misaligned. What you want to achieve, what you want to do, isn’t going to be able to happen because it’s not going to be supported by people who want the same things that you want. They will want what they want; you will want what you want. You will end up trying to steer a boat in two opposite directions. Your brand is about finding that clear space of which way we want to steer this boat.
Hugh, you were talking about vision. I often say that your mission statement exists to say, “This is what we’re doing today to solve this problem,” but your vision statement is that future thing that says, “Here is my red umbrella. Come rally around me. Follow us for this.”
Your brand is the glue, the bridge that connects your mission to your vision, your marketing. All those things that happen on the other end, you might be running an event. You might be doing your annual appeals. You might be sending out a newsletter. So often, what we see is the executional communications of an organization get completely disconnected from your organizational goals and strategy and vision of what you’re trying to do. You get so caught up in here are the tasks that we need to do today. We need to get people to come to this event. We need to get people to give us money right now.
Marketing and even fundraising can be very executional. A lot of things have to happen. We end up narrowing our vision, looking down, and getting the things done. At the end of the year or three years, you come back to say, “We’re going to do another strategic planning retreat.” You will find that you didn’t get as far as you needed to because there wasn’t that mapping, that clarity around your brand, your strategy, your positioning, your clear reason why you do what you do.
Hugh: These are all very strong leadership traits. If we’re a leader, it’s up to us to build the systems that other people can play into. We have it in our brain, but have we created the systems so that everybody understands- You said a lot of important things. Those are areas that we skip over, and later, we create confusion. We wonder why there is confusion. We blame other people when in fact it’s what we set up by not creating the system for people to be very clear on your value proposition.
It even goes back to us going into implementation mode when we start a nonprofit. We haven’t done the clarity of looking at the alternatives. In business, you would call it competition. In nonprofit, it’s the alternatives, so we can define our work is truly needed. We can also define what is distinctly different about us.
In our strategic planning process, in SynerVision, we call it a solution map. Where do you want to be? How are you going to get there? We define the alternatives, what problem we’re solving, and what is unique. That is our unique value proposition.
There is a place you can move us forward to then create the brand. There are different facets of brand, like the brand image and brand promise. Talk a little bit more about how you take what we have prepared in a strategy and move it into clarity of brand.
Beth: That’s so important to talk about. So often, when we see a strategic plan, there will be a bullet list on strategic brand that says, “Branding. We need some branding.” I have been talking a lot with strategic planners lately because I wanted to know, “What does that mean in this context?”
Very often, people that work in nonprofits do valuable, meaningful work, but many people who are responsible for marketing in nonprofits don’t come from a marketing background. There is nothing wrong with that. We are all on the journey, learning about communications. It can be especially hard when there are these jargon terms like “branding” to know what does that mean?
What I have found in the work I have done for 30 years is that when someone says they need branding, it typically falls into one of three buckets. One bucket is brand awareness. You want everyone to know about you. You want more exposure.
The challenge with brand awareness is that you still need to say, “What do we want people to be aware of us for?” Just having people know that you exist is great, but it’s really step one. You have to ask yourself, “Once we have caught their attention, and then?” How do we prove to people that we’re the perfect people to solve the problems that they want to solve?
I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as an audience of everyone. Even when you, Hugh, talked about this organization, this work you do, you said, “We target these groups of people. Everyone could be interested in this. There is nothing in this that is against everyone.” Of course you want as many people as possible to be exposed to this content and listen to it. Maybe some volunteers. I call this people who are in the center of your circle. If you don’t capture the attention of those people in the center of your circle, you might have trouble thriving as an organization. You have to prioritize the people who you need to thrive over the people that you would like to have.
What happens a lot of times in marketing without a branding framework, without a strategic eye on your marketing, is we end up diverting our attention and our energy to everyone. Imagine you have a target in front of you. You’re shooting at that target, but instead of aiming at the middle of your target, you’re aiming at the outside edge of the target because you want to get everyone. What actually happens when you do that though is you are more likely to miss the target entirely. You’re so broad, you’re so wide, you end up having to speak in generalities because you want everyone from the media to the government to volunteers to constituents to low-level donors to high-level donors.
I often say you market like there is a sale on commas. If you’d like to give us $10 or $5 or $1 million, we’re the perfect organization for you because we’re perfect. We can’t exist through hope marketing. Wouldn’t it be great if we got on Oprah? Awareness is a deep need we all feel. We all want to be known and seen. Getting that awareness and being able to capitalize on it is deeply benefited by having some brand clarity. That’s one thing people think about.
The other thing people often talk about when they say “branding” is things I would call brand identity, the window dressing, the visual aspect of your brand: your logo, your business cards, sometimes your website. People will often call all of these things our branding: your colors, graphic design, how things look. It is absolutely a factor of branding, but it’s the graphical side.
The purpose of your logo, your website is to capture people’s attentions and build recall, and help people remember you for the right things. Help people understand you and value you. It’s a visual hook to tell people who you are.
The third kind of branding is strategic branding. That is the piece where you figure out all of these things.
Our process that we use is AMIE. It stands for Audience, Message, Image, and Experience. When we talk about brand identity, we are typically living in the space of Image, your brand image and how that looks.
Sometimes, people will then say, “We know we have problems with our image, but weed to improve our messaging.” The thing I always want to respond with is, “To who are you messaging? Who are you speaking to?” If you don’t understand the values, the things that are important to the people you’re speaking to, how are you going to help them care about you and eventually take the actions that are important to you?
E is Experience. We often think that we have done all this strategy. We have figured out who our audiences are. We are now beautiful. We have a great, new website. We are done branding! But you’re not. We have to remember that every interaction we have with people, every program that we have, every event that we create, is building up people’s experience of who we are, the brand itself. Even though we do branding, the actual brand lives in the hearts and minds of your constituents. It doesn’t actually exist other than how people internalize what you’re saying to them.
The branding process is about figuring out what’s best about us. What are we magically great at? What are we better than anybody else at creating in the world? Who is an audience that really is going to help us get there, who really wants to do the same things we want to do? That space for those two things intersecting is where you start finding your brand.
Hugh: That’s a lot of data. This stuff hasn’t changed. It’s become more important now than before. People will pass you over because they will make assumptions, “Oh, you don’t need money,” or you are doing something they don’t support. They are making up a narrative because you haven’t been clear.
Beth, you talked about the AMIE process: Audience, Message, Image, and Experience. Those are really four important pieces. I can’t tell you how often people say, “We have our branding done. It’s the colors and logo. Isn’t it great?”
Beth: Yep, I hear that all the time, too. I also hear, “We totally know our audience. They are millennials.”
Hugh: Talk a little bit about the necessity and methodology of doing the research to determine your audience when you start out.
Beth: It’s great working with nonprofits. One of the awesome things about working with nonprofits is you have data. You have wonderful databases that track not just who has shown up but what they have done.
The place that we always start is asking this seminal question: What do you need people to be doing in order for you to thrive as an organization? What do you need people to do in order for you to thrive? That can create a huge list. We call that list “desirable actions.” We run an exercise. We start off most of our branding projects with what we call a stakeholder session. We bring in representatives of all of your different audiences into a group to workshop and extract out the key things that we need to know. One of the things we look for are what are the desirable actions in you organization that allow your work to thrive? We end up with a huge list. Then we stop that, and we go over and say, “Let’s talk about all of your audiences.” We end up with a list of 15-20-30 audiences.
We look at all of this. The desirable actions can be anything from people liking your social media posts or getting $1 million from a donor and anything in between. Then we look at our list of audiences. We go back to those desirable actions. The question I ask people is, and remember, this is branding, not marketing. In marketing, we will take lots of actions to get people to do the things we want them to do. Branding is what’s at the heart? What are the guideposts we are creating? To begin to find the perfect audience we want to look for, we say imagine a world where you can only have one of these things. Which one of all of these actions would you pick? If you could 10x or 100x it, you’d be gold. People hate this exercise. It’s torture because all of the things that you do are important. It’s unbelievably helpful because it helps get you clarity.
The other mistake that a lot of people make when they go into branding is they brand based on what they want versus what they need. It’s very easy for branding to fall into the realm of the marketing people or the volunteers because it’s pretty and fun and cool, and forget that the point of all of this is to allow an organization to thrive. Part of an organization thriving means that you have the funds that you need to service the work that needs to be done in the world. That’s what you need. We need to make sure that if we’re going to repoint a north star toward your strategy, if we are going to be putting together this glue, this bridge between your mission and your marketing, we have to make sure that it points toward the things that will align you to thrive.
We anchor ourselves in what you need people to do. What actions do they need to take? We go back over and look at this whole list of audiences. Who are the people right now who are taking these actions? You now have databases. Maybe for you, it’s your major donors. If you could just get more $10,000 gifts, you’d be great. Maybe if you could just get more people to show up at this big event you have. It could be anything. We look at what’s an important action to you. Who are the people taking that action now? Over and over again. They are your lovers. Those are your lovers. They are great.
Then we look at the people who are maybe not quite lovers. A little bit outside of that. Maybe they are not taking that action as often. Maybe they are starting at the same place as someone else. They are your likers.
What it’s so easy to forget is that there are lots of people in your organization who have taken some actions. Before we start saying, “We want new people or different people, or we want people totally outside,” think about the marketing effort, the money, the time, the thinking that has to go into finding people out there on the interweb, out there in the world. Finding them, capturing their attention, and moving them from the outside of the target all the way into the middle of the target, the lover.
Now think about the people who are kind of like your lovers. Maybe they haven’t done this important action six times, but only three times. You’re not really paying attention to them. Imagine if you could then understand what your lovers deeply value and what your likers also value, and take those values and say, “Ha! Now we know what our people care about. How can we find our likers on our list? How can we look deeper into our list and maybe out there in the world for people who share those same values but maybe show up in different demographics and look differently?” You have all this data. If you just start by looking for what are the important things you need people to do for you to thrive, and start researching those people, you will be off to a great start.
Hugh: That was so helpful. It’s like we just had a whole course on branding.
Beth: I’m teaching one of those right now.
Hugh: You didn’t need to tell us what your passion was because we can feel it.
Beth: Thank God you’re doing a transcript because I know I’m a fast-talking Northeasterner.
Hugh: Yeah, she’s in Pennsylvania. It’s just about as hot there as it is in Virginia.
Beth, your website is IrisCreative.com. The banner image says, “Turning Engagement into Action.” People can contact you there. What else will people find there?
Beth: They will definitely find a lot of examples of our work. On our About Us page is a document called the AMIE Process. If people are more interested in hearing about the strategic way AMIE works and how we think about it, they can find that there.
Not everyone is at a stage where they can bring in an agency like ours to help them out. You will also find a link to our other site called NonprofitToolkit.net, which is a site where we run classes and courses for people who are working in marketing at nonprofits. You can feel like a pro in every part of your job. If you came from another area, another profession, or this is new to you, or you are right out of school, or marketing changes so fast, and it’s not maybe the full-time thing that you do, we teach all kind of things.
Right now, we are in the middle of a course on branding. We have a course called The Foundations of Nonprofit Marketing. For me personally, it’s very interesting to help people keep up with this work and grow their knowledge so that they can help their organizations better. We have three live courses left to do of this branding course. It’s all being recorded, so it will be available on download. The courses that are already run are available on download.
Hugh: Great. When you are on the main Iris Creative, you go to training. There is Learn About Brand Development course. It takes you to the Nonprofit Toolkit, which is a great resource because like you said, there are many reasons people can’t always do the full consultancy. You offer people some other information, which is really helpful.
You talk about how you evaluate your audience, and you choose where to focus. As nonprofit leaders, we are social entrepreneurs, but we tend to be distracted by shiny objects and all the brilliant ideas that we have and the things we need to be doing. There is an acronym for FOCUS: Free Of Clutter and Unnecessary Stuff. Basically, you want to hone in on what are the most important pieces? When you said, “People hate that exercise,” sometimes what we hate the most is what we need the most.
Hugh: We don’t do all of this, so part of what we help people in SynerVision learn to do is find really good people, and learn to delegate. There are other people with really good gifts that want to fulfill their passion, which is your passion of helping other people.
Sometimes we see all of the good we can do, and we want to do everything. We want to tell people everything. That’s not in our favor. You talked about what’s the most important audience that you need? Those are your donors, the funders of all sorts, your stakeholders who will help you deliver what it is that you’re delivering to fulfill your mission. We might find this audience too limiting, and we need to go to a second audience. Do we wedge into that audience and have a following, and then do a second audience? What is the timing on that?
Beth: It depends. I always hesitate to use super corporate terms, but in the corporate world, there is a term called a persona, which is basically a made-up, pretend person. It’s a description of a representative person of an audience. These days, in a world of trying to be equitable, that can be a little bit challenging. The way I look at it is when you can look at someone as opposed to looking at them, “I know our audiences. They are millennials.” I often joke I have two millennial kids. One is a Navy veteran, married, owns a house, has two children. One of them spends 50% of his time on my couch. They are not all the same.
This is why I think it’s so important to look at who is helping you thrive right now. You can’t just say, “It’s a 72-year-old white woman. We need to find more 72-year-old white women, or we have so many of those that we need fill in the blank something that looks, feels, or acts totally different than that.” You could end up with such a huge disconnect between what your current audience wants and what this new hopeful audience, what you think they want. The people who are helping you thrive right now drop right out in your search to focus on something new and different. They think, “You want something totally different than we do, so you clearly don’t care about us anymore. We are going to take our millions and go home because there are other organizations.”
The way I have come up with a methodology to prevent that from happening is you start out here with behaviors. We talk about demographics when coming up with a persona. It’s getting beneath all of that to these values. What do your lovers care about? What makes them get up in the morning? What do they care about in relation to your organization? Also, what do they care about as people? What problems do they have? What keeps them up at night? What do they wish for in the world? What do these people deeply care about as human beings? When you can see where those people are as your lovers, and then figure out where they are as your likers, we then recommend creating two emerging personas.
Like you said, Hugh, if I say, “These are your people,” that’s restrictive. What I find is if you have someone taking this high level of action, you go down to your values. Then imagine you’re sliding across the values, you’re then communicating with a new group of people, maybe a different demographic, age, racial background, rural versus urban, behaviors. There are other aspects of their persona that are new or different or in a place you want to move your organization. If they have a core group of shared values, then from a branding perspective, you can then start communicating from a shared center. All your communications will function like spokes on a wheel coming out of a strong central hub. You can act like the same organization everywhere.
Not everyone has the capacity to do segmented marketing in every place that you do it. For example, I posted something on LinkedIn the other day. I closed out of a Zoom meeting, and a pop-up showed up at the end. I don’t know if anybody else is noticing that they do this pop-up advertising. The first pop-up I saw was, “Hey, get 50% off our webinars.” As a brander, my first reaction was, “I have been a webinar customer for four years. You don’t know that?” Don’t they have the capacity to know? I spend all this money with them, and they don’t even know that I’m a webinar customer.
When you ignore the things that you should know about people in the world where there is technology, that is the reaction. What? What do you mean you don’t know me? When you can communicate from a place of knowing, Zoom should have the capacity to figure that out. Not all nonprofits have those tools or capacities.
When you are communicating from shared values, you can speak to more different demographic or behavior graphics from this same place of values. It feels less like that. It feels less like, “Why are they saying this to me?” It prevents you from feeling like- I’m sure a lot of you in marketing feel this way: You’re filling up one bucket, and another bucket, and another bucket, and they are all disconnected. Somebody will walk into your office, a volunteer, who says, “We don’t have anything for” some random group out there they have decided we now need to target. You end up dropping everything you’re doing, racing over, and coming up with something perfect for this group that’s out there. It’s all disconnected. You end up getting exhausted.
Many of you, as I lovingly call you, are /marketers. You are the development director/communications director. You only have so much time. You only have so much capacity. But you have to remember, so does your audience. They only have so much time and bandwidth for you. The more central you can stay in speaking to their values, it will allow you to find people that look different and are different but care about the same things you care about.
Hugh: What you have heard is there are lots of options. Start by going to IrisCreative.com, and contact Beth because as you see, she is a wealth of information and has a lot of- It’s almost like this is what you shouldn’t do in order to have success first with a segment. Yes, we’re successful. Yes, we’re doing well. Yes, we’re getting money. But what if you put your mind to this? How much more of each of those things could you accomplish? Could you lower the stress in your life if you created systems around that?
Beth, you have given us a lot to think about today and a lot of really useful information. What do you want to leave as a closing thought with all the information you have given us? What is the most important thing for people to think about now about branding?
Beth: What branding means, and this is what people sometimes resist about it, is if we want our brand to be perfect for some, you have to be willing to be completely wrong for others. As nonprofits, that can be very hard because you’re doing good work, and you want to be perfect for everyone. You can be okay for everyone in marketing, but branding is about making very difficult choices to narrow that focus, so you can get deeper in with a core group of people who truly care about you, support you, and make the things you want to have happen in the world happen. It’s very tough to do that by saying, “Do this thing. Please pay attention to us.” By being willing to become narrow and make choices, it is surprising to me how much that will help you deepen the relationships with the people that are most interested and capable of helping you get where you want to go.
Hugh: Wise advice. You can take that money to the bank. Beth Brodovsky, thank you for being our guest today.
Beth: Thank you so much for having me.