Welcome to the Marketing in the Wild podcast. I’m Julia from Stratos Creative Marketing, where we are obsessed with finding real-life examples of the good, the bad, and sometimes wild, in marketing.
Hey Marketing in the Wild friends. I’m so excited today. We have my good friend and colleague, Evan Cox. You all have gotten to meet a lot of StoryBrand guides, but this one is one of my favorites. He and I have worked on several projects together and are still working on a few projects together. So Evan, tell us about you where you are your business, and a little bit about you.
Evan: Yeah, thank you for having me on today, Julia. I’m in St. Louis, Missouri, where we’re expecting somewhere between 2 and 12 inches of snow over the next 24 hours. I don’t know why the forecasters are not getting more specific. It’s like happening now!
Julia: It’s because you’re in the Midwest, Midwest forecasters can’t do it.
Evan: They can’t, well, I know you’ve got the Wisconsin background, so they literally have said like between 2 and 12 and I’m like, it’s happening now. Like we should have a better feel, but I’m located in St. Louis. I work with a lot of small businesses, nonprofits, and churches, and have a background in actually working on staff at several nonprofits. And so that’s definitely been a focus for me know, we’re gonna spend some time talking about that today.
Julia: Yeah, for sure. Evan is somebody who I always go to for nonprofit questions. Many of you, if you’ve been following us, we have worked with nonprofits, used to work with nonprofits a lot more. But now sometimes we’ll refer them out to people like Evan who have a little bit more experience or have specialized a little bit more in it. But before we talk about that, Evan, how did you get into marketing?
Evan: That is a great question. I actually backed into marketing. If you talk to a lot of marketers, sometimes they’re like handed a role that leads to a marketing job. And I was no exception. Working on staff in a nonprofit as a project manager meant that you did everything, right? Your job description was one line, but what you really did Monday through Friday was everything. And so there continued to be a gaping hole in the world of marketing and no one wanted to touch it. And so if I was like passing out the to-do’s and nobody was doing them, I was like, well, I guess I better start figuring out, like, how do you build the website? How do you do this? How do you do the writing?
And so that was my entry. I backed into marketing. That was about 15 years and I’ve truly found out, oh, not only is it kind of fun, but I actually like it. And so I kept doing more and more of the work. And before you know it, here I am, StoryBrand certified and working on marketing projects day in and day out.
Julia: Oh my goodness, I came into it the same way. I don’t know if you know this, you probably do. But I also worked at nonprofits and I had to do social media, even though that wasn’t my job. And so that’s how I ended up in it. To all of our non-profit friends, we feel you — you’re doing everything.
Evan: You are. And do you want a cringey story to start off? I can give you a very funny, crazy story.
Julia: Please, please, please.
Evan: Social media was on our plate at this nonprofit, they were doing weekly studies with the impoverished and they were just given a packaged social media file to go with their curriculum. And so there was an intern that was just posting every Wednesday, they were going to do another curriculum night or something. And they just posted the graphics of that. Like having it approved, the way that we figured out that QA was really important to vet posts before they go live is one of them was a history lesson, some sort of history lesson, and the graphic had Hitler on it. I don’t know why. I still don’t know why, but it went live and I got a call from the CEO within like 5 to 10 minutes. And I was like, you know, we should probably vet things. So that’s like one tip right off the bat, no matter what industry. Proof everything to make sure it meets your standards before it goes out the door.
Julia: And make sure you have two eyes on it because one person might catch something that another person might not catch. So a great tip also, that would be awful. I would not want to be on the receiving end of that phone call. So tell me, what do you enjoy about working with non-profits?
Evan: So I think there’s several things. The first thing is obviously the mission, right? You get to figure out what do they invest their lives into. Because it’s not just that you do a 9 to 5. Almost every single, you know, director of boards or executive director that I talk to is investing significant amounts of time and energy into causes they care about. So I love that you not only get a window into what they care about, but the difference they’re making in the community or at large.
And then the second thing is there’s oftentimes a lot of consistency with best practices for businesses, but then there’s a lot of things that vary, right? We talk about like brand scripting and messaging, and one of the most common questions that we get in our private community of guides or that we hear on podcasts books talking about is, “What can I do at the nonprofit?” Right? I know sales, but they want fundraising. Is it the same, is it different? And so my background started off again, project management/operations, but then moved to outreach and then eventually to marketing and fundraising. So I moved around to all the different core functions of the nonprofit and figured out like, duh, they all need to work together. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. And so many times it just falls apart because different people are doing different things. And so it comes out of a shared love of oh, I’ve been there and all of my mistakes can probably help someone else get better.
Julia: For sure. I remember this reminds me of the last nonprofit that I worked at. We were running a program and it was one of the most successful programs in terms of fundraising for our nonprofit, but we could never get the marketing guy to make us what we needed to do the fundraising. And so that’s actually how I ended up doing a lot of it because I was like, I need a one-sheeter or a one-pager to explain what we’re doing. And he wouldn’t make it for me. So I was like, then I’ll just make it myself. But it is true, it does make it a lot harder if they’re not all working together and I can hear you approach it with so much empathy, which I think is really important.
Evan: And it’s not even intentional, right? In most cases, it may have been for you, I never was in a spot where most people were like, I don’t want to do that. It’s like marketing was already like loaded up with all the things and fundraising has all the quotas or like all the different things, but yet you’re like, oh my gosh, these missed opportunities are flying by at 60 miles an hour and if we don’t have collaboration, then it falls apart really quickly.
Julia: Well, you’re very gracious because this person actually did not want to do any of those things.
Evan: Benefit of the doubt, we won’t call them out! Do you want to get the name?
Julia: No, I don’t talk about them anymore. But anyway, tell me, I would love to hear a little bit about, you’ve already mentioned it a little bit, marketing being different for non-profits than for businesses. How is it different and how is it the same?
Evan: Hmm, that’s a great question. I think the similarities are in the fact that marketing and sales have to work together in the for-profit space and marketing and fundraising or development, depending on how you term it, have to work together in the same exact function.
You know, you think about Don Miller’s Business Made Simple airplane that a lot of folks are talking about. It’s the exact same thing for non-profits. Cause I’ve been asked like, okay, how does a non-profit do this? The reality is, it’s just a different segment, right? And so like sales and fundraising are some of the very same tactics, principles, and like styles of communicating. It’s just for different intentions and causes. So a well-run business best practice is going to be very similar to the way you see a well-run nonprofit.
The difference is going to be like if we talk brand scripting since we’re both StoryBrand certified guides, I did two brand scripts this week already. And one of them was for a for-profit company, right, where they had one primary audience that was who they were speaking to. They had individual products and services. But for the most part, one overarching audience. The nonprofit that I built a brand script for yesterday had five audiences. And none of them were the same. None of them were the same.
For them, they had donors, they had clients, like people that were directly affecting the community that they served. They had volunteers. They had businesses that use their services and then they also have, what was the other one that we talked about? Staff. So in the great resignation, they were trying to recruit some staff, right?
So the difference is for the business, you’re like, okay, the same audience. They just want different products and services a lot of times. For the audience of a nonprofit, a donor does not want the same thing that the local community wants. They want vastly different things. And so for non-profits, I think getting into the mindset of like budget constraints are really big. The way that you communicate are really important. And usually, you don’t have the same manpower. So like you’re fighting, sometimes an uphill battle is a nonprofit marketer or director trying to figure out how do we still get it all done? Because we’ve got five times as much loaded on our plate, on the marketing and messaging side. So those would be a couple of examples.
Julia: Right. Well, and then I can imagine, I also know if you’re messaging differently to your donors or your clients, or like the people you serve, that also plays out in all of your marketing collateral. It’s not just like, “Oh, we have different messaging.” It’s “Oh, well then how do we implement that on a website? Or how do we implement that in email?” Like you’re almost, to me, it almost feels like you have all these mini businesses per se, within one organization, because you have to make them all work together.
Evan: And we’ve talked about this before because we both lived at a lot. The difference for a nonprofit is they may still have a board like you would have a for-profit company, but shareholders are a board, but the alignment, and then also the amount of input from all of the stakeholders in a nonprofit, is very challenging if you’re sitting in the marketing seat or the fundraising seat, right?
You’re like, “I know we need a new website. We’re not speaking to any of our core audiences right now. How did a poodle get on the homepage? I don’t know how this happened.” So you have to work it back to create a proposal that goes through an approval process to five people. So it’s like the amount of investment of time and effort to get to the same result just because nonprofits are set up differently in many cases can make that really challenging. Unless you’re an innovative entrepreneurial non-profit, it’s usually set up with a little bit more red tape.
Julia: For sure. And even then like, having been in a nonprofit and I’m sure you experienced this too, you also, depending on how you’re working it, you also want to please all those people who are on that board because while a business might have a board, in the end, what they care most about usually is profit or what will make us the most money or most sales or something like that. But like you have said, a nonprofit board might have more at stake, whether they’re donors or whether they, I even worked with one where somebody on a board was the founder. And so they had much more of an emotional attachment and that’s a whole different navigation of we’re not just going to duke it out over what makes the most revenue or figure that out. We actually have to also respect people’s investment around it, too.
Evan: Absolutely. And the stakeholders aren’t always like hierarchy on the board. It could be that someone has owned this program for 10 years, and now you’re tasked with marketing it. Like in a business setting, a lot of times there are formal org charts where everything’s laid out. But if you are marketing on behalf of the specific program, but you don’t own that program, it requires partnership, instead of like, this is a strategy. I know it’s going to work, this is what you need to do. Collaboration in a nonprofit is even more essential between staff and volunteers.
Julia: For sure. I’d be curious, this is a little bit off-script, but what are some of your favorite marketing strategies to implement in a nonprofit?
Evan: That is a great question. I think email is probably underutilized across all spectrums, but especially in the nonprofit world. There’s this thing about fundraising that if you’re in the fundraising space, you’d definitely feel it, but almost all nonprofits at any level, have a weird attachment to money.
And I think that’s not the result of like non-profits being flawed. It’s humans and our psychology. I remember being in a fundraising development space where it was easy for the folks in that department to be like, “Okay, do you get that check? And then do you wait to talk to them again until you need more money? Is the relationship transactional? Do you talk about needing more money? Do you not?”
Every non-profit feels different because we’ve all been on the email list, especially at the end of the year where there is no tact and the nonprofit is emailing you like five times a day. And then the nonprofit that you may really care about is so worried about offending you or overdoing donor fatigue that you don’t care about anything they’re doing in November or December when you do have money. And so your attachment to that is really, really hard sometimes to see through which means things like email are underutilized.
I was working with a nonprofit last year that just was not doing a whole lot of email marketing because they were worried it wasn’t going to work and they had done some of it, but there wasn’t a strategy behind it. And actually just this week, we found out that we did targeted campaigns through the fall and the end of the year. And they over doubled what their goal was from last year, just because they talked to people, right? It wasn’t like they had this huge, robust email platform with dozens of emails. I think we sent out four emails over two months. And so if you talk to people, it’s amazing. If you just open up and share what your need is and what you’re doing, people respond to that.
Julia: Yeah. And I would say, and I’m sure you’ll agree with me, hopefully, because we’re both a big proponent of nurture emails, that the rest of the year, the nonprofit doesn’t necessarily have to be asking for money, but sharing stories or something like that.
One of my favorites, it’s actually not a nonprofit, but it’s a social entrepreneurship venture where they are using business to care for women in China who are coming out of trafficking and they’re teaching them work skills. And while still respecting the privacy of these women, they can tell the stories of transformation. I haven’t bought from them for a little while, but I’m still on their email list because I love reading these stories and I want to not forget who they are the moment that I need something from them.
Evan: And at some point you’ll need something else, right?
Julia: Yeah, for sure.
Evan: So my wife used to go to target three or four times a week. And so at some point when you want them, they’ll show up in your inbox.
Julia: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah, that’s awesome. And so you’ve shared a few examples, but what’s one example of a great nonprofit marketing in the wild, whether it’s one that you worked on or one that you admired from afar?
Evan: A few come to mind. This is probably the one that everybody talks about, right? Charity Water. They do a great job. I think what I love most about them is they’re very entrepreneurial. We talked about that earlier. So they’re not afraid to try new things. They were the first ones to actually like implement, “We’re going to dig wells and then have monitoring systems so that you can see in real-time if it’s actually working or not.” Which is a big risk, right? That’s a gamble. But I love that in like five to seven years, they ramped up programs like that and are innovating.
What I also love and I don’t know the whole story, if you deep dive into it, I’m sure you’ll find a lot of details, it is a nonprofit, Preemptive Love Coalition. They went through, I think, a pretty hard transition with their founders and staff. Most nonprofits are really concerned and they go through a hardship season like a program didn’t work or they’re changing founders, we don’t talk about it because it’s not like people are buying products. They’re giving donations and they’re worried about the impact. I have gotten at least three emails from their board that says, “Listen, here’s exactly what happened. Here’s exactly what we’re doing to rectify it.” And I don’t know, like all the details of like what went down, but I do know that most folks are not going to go above and beyond to share transparency with what’s happening. So if nonprofits get into a space of being open and sharing. I think that can really make a big difference.
Julia: For sure. And I think that, to your point, a transition like that can actually feel like it makes it less stable, but the transparency as the stability of “Okay, somebody is handling it,” I don’t have to worry about it because if they were hush-hush about it and then people find out about it, then it does create this sense of insecurity. But by being upfront, they’re instilling confidence in the organization. That’s awesome.
Evan: I think there’s a lot of organizations that are doing that well. Rescue Freedom is also in that human trafficking space. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but they do a lot of work with women in multiple different countries. He’s been featured on the StoryBrand podcast with Don Miller before.
So there’s a lot of groups out there that are doing really well on a big scale, but like that non-profit that I just mentioned about the email marketing campaign, they have a really small group of very supportive donors. And they serve a pretty small group of clientele. And so a lot of donors come to me saying or a lot of nonprofits saying, “Oh my gosh, we don’t have the donors that this big XYZ nonprofit does.” But if you start small, it’s really incredible what you can do. You’ve told me about your email list before that it’s not hundreds of thousands of people, but you get lots of folks getting tons of value and traction out of that. And I think a big takeaway is you don’t have to be big to make it work. You just don’t, you just have to be really thoughtful.
Julia: For sure. In one of the non-profits that I worked with before I became a StoryBrand guide, I had just read the StoryBrand book, loved it. And so I brand scripted them. And for those of you who aren’t sure what a brand script is, it is basically a messaging guide or a messaging framework.
And so I walked them through it without being a guide. Don’t tell StoryBrand. And we had a six-week campaign that we did the social media and the emails for it. They also only had an audience of like 2 to 300 people on their email list. Hadn’t been emailed in forever so half of them were probably like dead emails and they also live in a tiny town with maybe one stoplight in Wisconsin. So very small scale, they’re a food bank. And in six weeks they normally, their end-of-year fundraiser normally produces $10,000. And in six weeks we raised $20,000. It was awesome because really, it was just changing the messaging and it’s the same group of people. Like maybe even less people, but it was just simply repositioning them to, in this case, being the guide to the donors of like, “Hey, you have money to use, or you want to help the community. Let us help you help the community.” And that was just a really, really cool experiment and a case to prove your point, that you don’t have to have huge numbers. You just have to have very, very clear messaging.
Evan: You do. And I think about like the biggest gaps are those low-hanging fruit items. So like the nonprofit that may be asked for money at the end of the year, but forgets to talk to folks through like the first four months of the year. And so there are lots of different frameworks, just like StoryBrand to figure out how do you talk to donors. But the one that I have fallen in love with the most is that when someone gives, you thank them, right? Like you start off with some sort of like a handwritten note or a phone call, whatever you can operationally fit into your timeline. And then you mark it either in your CRM, if you’re like super professional or you just keep a spreadsheet, which I’ve got a template in case anybody wants it, but you can just mark like three months afterward, follow up and report back on what they gave, too. Like they gave $30. You used that, ideally, you would know, to help with whatever your project is. And then you send a photo or you call and let someone know this is exactly what happened.
Because most folks never get to the reporting stage. They maybe get thanked and then they get asked again. But if you can report back, you’re proving that they did something that mattered and that primes the pump to be able to ask with authority. Not like asking to say, “Oh, do you want to give again?” But it’s like, no, you just did this, it was amazing. This time again, is this something that you’re interested in? And it creates a flywheel of being able to do that and then follow up and thank, and then just keep moving through that system. But most donors don’t get that. They get haphazard communication.
Julia: Well, and I really like your point on sharing what happens afterward? The results. I think that donors want to see the fruit of their donation in some regard, and sometimes you have to be really creative. Like this nonprofit that I worked with, the food pantry, they did like lunches for kids. They obviously can’t violate confidentiality about these kids, but they can share, “Hey, this is how many lunches we provided. This is how many kids are being fed.” Even things like that are super important so that donors know that their money’s not just going into a pot. I think that’s really important.
Evan: And a lot of fundraisers like in that space, or if it’s like an executive director, make the mistake of building a relationship around money, which is very transactional and doesn’t result in donors who really care about your mission on another level. One of the folks that was in like my cube of donors loved horses and my sister, shout out to Kendall if she’s listening, she’s not, she would never listen. But in case you do, she is training for the Olympics to be an equestrian. And so I spent tons of time talking with that donor about the fact that my sister also loved horses. I didn’t know much, but I knew enough to talk intelligently about it. So we built a relationship around horses and then the nonprofit I was working at did disaster relief. And when California got hit with wildfires, it was actually in her community. So when she reached out, she was scared because her horses didn’t have anywhere to go. And she gave based on the fact that she knew that we were serving in that area. So it all comes full circle if you build a relationship.
One person liked dolphins, I don’t know why I’m talking about animals, but one person loved dolphins. We spent 20 minutes on the phone because she wanted to talk about the fact that she could see dolphins from her window or something. But build a relationship around something other than money so that you can have something to go back to so that it’s not just about money.
Julia: I love that. I was also thinking about just creativity around fundraising, too. I think about, I think it was World Vision that started selling like cows, like where you could like buy a cow virtually, digitally, and then that’s how they would, the idea is that then they placed like a cow in a home, like not in a home, but like in a somebody’s farm.
The idea is if you bought a chicken, then they would be providing a chicken for a family. And my grandparents were farmers and so they were obsessed with this idea because it was something tangible in their world that they were also being able to provide for somebody else. Realistically, I don’t know how World Vision handles their money. I imagine it all goes into a pot and then it gets distributed however it needs to be, I don’t know, but it’s still that idea of this creativity around fundraising that, and I realized that that’s a little bit more transactional, but it’s not simply asking for money. It’s creating this story around fundraising, too.
I will say as a kid, it’s the worst present that you can get on Christmas, that somebody donated money on your behalf? It was very selfish of me, but it was a sucky Christmas present, but they would donate animals on our behalf as our Christmas presents. And I think that that’s another really creative way to market because it creates conversation points with other people. And especially for such a big organization that maybe can’t reach out and talk about somebody’s horses personally, they’re still making like an impact that people can talk about.
Evan: And every nonprofit has some version of that, right? It may not be selling cows, but for another nonprofit I talked to at the end of last year, they were helping folks in the middle east and they were actually having those folks create cards, right? And then they were able to distribute those cards for a donation to go back to the cause. So even that might start to feel like, “Oh, are we getting into business territory and not nonprofit?” There’s still a lot of creative ways that you can help support that. My neighbor, we just moved, runs a nonprofit here in St. Louis that I care about deeply, we’re getting ready to launch this website in a couple of months. And so it’s been really fun to walk through the process, but they sell coffee. Like they’ve partnered with a local roaster and they sell branded coffee so that you can actually go online and support the mission and then get coffee at the same time. So there are creative ways to figure out how can we keep this sustainable without having to, every single day, call 20 people and hopefully get some sort of donation, cause that’s not sustainable.
Julia: None in the long-term for sure. No, absolutely not. Sweet. I have loved this conversation. Before we wrap up, I would love to know what tips you might give non-profits as they try to market themselves. We’ve talked about a few, like creating good messaging via StoryBrand or something else, like clear, clear messaging. You mentioned emails being underutilized. The “thank you,” you talked about that. I think that’s a really good tip is making sure that you think people. Are there any other quick tips that you might give to any nonprofit people who are listening, anyone who runs nonprofits?
Evan: Oh, there’s so many things that come to mind. The first one that we’ve talked about is re-imagining what marketing actually is. And for so many folks, I think even in the faith-based sector, because I do work with some folks in the faith-based sector, maybe folks who are averse to this idea of should we market, is that wise use of our dollars? Is that a wide use of our time, is marketing really needed? And I think marketing can be sleazy and some people’s minds did that thinking about just like, oh, it’s the car salesman billboard. I can think of two or three that are in my city. But really marketing is all about creating tools and tactics to start new relationships.
And if you can start new relationships, then you can get more folks involved and engaged and making a difference for the cause you care about. And so reorienting how you think about marketing to actually invest in creating a marketing budget. We talk about sales funnels and a lot of nonprofits are like, well, sales is out the door. Well, call it a marketing funnel, but the principles can still apply, but use some form of engagement to make it really clear about what you do and for you and I, most of the time it starts with messaging and the words designed on a really nice, compelling website. Even if it’s one page to get started, something that is very clear about what you do and who you serve.
Julia: For sure. That’s awesome. Evan, I really appreciate you, your friendship, also your expertise in this area. Thank you for joining us. If people want to find out more about you, where can they connect with you?
Evan: That’s a great question. First of all, I appreciate you having me on and everybody that’s listening probably is already a huge fan of you and the team. So like, I don’t have to pump you up too much, but if you’re not on the email list and you just like randomly found the podcast somehow, make sure you get on Julia’s email list and follow them on socials because they practice what they preach, where a lot of marketers don’t.
I would say the easiest way is evancoxconsulting.com/resources. I’ve got some free guides and tips for nonprofits on how do you get started. So that would be the place I’d recommend after you visit your social accounts.
Julia: You can visit Evan’s first. It’s okay. Perfect. Well, thank you, Evan. We really appreciate you around here, so thank you.
Evan: Thanks, Julia!
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