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The general public is not your audience

More often than not, nonprofits tell me they want to use communications to  reach “the general public.” And, I’m quick to respond, “The general public is not an audience!” Since we are not Coca Cola or Nike or H & R Block, we will NEVER have enough resources to market to the general public. So, throw that audience right out the window. The key to our success lies in how targeted we can be.

Once you know what you want to accomplish (your goal), then you have to think about who you’re trying to reach. Who can make a difference on your issue? Who will donate money? Who can impact policy? Who will get involved? This “Who” is your audience.

If we are trying to organize a neighborhood watch group in the Edgewater neighborhood, our target audience is likely adults (maybe parents and homeowners) in the Edgewater community. Secondary audiences might include the alderman, community group leaders and others in that community who are influential and can help organize a watch group.

Once we’ve decided to reach parents in Edgewater, we can think of all sorts of messages and tactics to reach those parents. For example, parents are at schools. What can we distribute at the schools to get in touch with parents? What should those fliers say to pique their interest?

Are their neighborhood school events we can attend to meet parents in person? Do those parents read the local Edgewater blog, the “Edgeville Buzz,” and if so, can we try to place a story in the blog about the need for a neighborhood watch group and how to get involved?

Knowing your audience is important in the social media world, too. If you’re trying to reach parents in Edgewater, maybe you start using hashtags in your tweets such as #edgewater #schools and #parents. Maybe you search on Facebook to find out if any of the local schools or community groups in Edgewater already have Facebook pages where you can share information about your campaign.

What you probably don’t need to do is contact Channel 7 or the Chicago Tribune. Although those outlets do reach millions of people in the Chicago area, the threshold for news is higher and it can be extremely time-consuming to place a story there. If you know your target audience and you know specific places to reach them in Edgewater, you’ll probably have better luck focusing on community-based gatherings, papers and online outlets to get your story out and reach your target audience where they’re already at.

So, the next time you plan to embark on a communications strategy, remember, the more targeted you can be when thinking about your audience, the more success you’re likely to have making sure the right people, rather than a whole bunch of people, hear what you have to say and take action.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to develop your organization’s communications plan, contact me ( to find out if a custom training is a good fit for you. Or call our main number 312-369-6400 to learn more about upcoming trainings.

What nonprofits can learn from LeBron James (guest post by Jennifer Lacey)

Photo by Keith Ellison on

Last Friday, a Google search of  “LeBron James Media” produced 108,000,000 links and 1160 related articles. On there were 10,857 stories posted.

If, during the past two weeks, you lived in the forest with no phone, internet, television or interaction with other human beings, you might have missed the story. Here’s what happened: James dominated the 24-hour news-cycle with his impending free agent decision. When it was all said and done (after a well-publicized hour-long special on ESPN), James’ career decision had been given the attention of a world-changing event rather than the simple business process it began as.

What are the lessons behind the LeBron James PR show?

Steve Buckley, at the Boston Herald, drew on lessons from Vince McMahon of WWE fame, to help explain James’ media mastery.

McMahon, an impresario who turned a regional dog-and-pony pro wrestling circuit into what today is known as World Wrestling Entertainment, has known for years that it’s easy to bypass the meddling media middle men and bring your product/message directly to the public. All you need to do is set up your own network, and then use it as a stage on which to play out all your story lines, plot twists, interviews and “breaking news.”

While nonprofits can’t set up their own media outlets, they can deliver their stories and issues to the public directly through available technology. By using social media applications, nonprofits cut out the “middle man,” taking the heart of an issue to a local (or worldwide) audience.  Rather than waiting for a press conference to be covered, nonprofits, like James, can take control and tell their own stories by tying them to a timely news peg.  Write your press releases with flair. Know your story, conflicts involved, and be transparent. Know who your sources are and be prepared to rise to the occasion when pitching reporters or when they come looking for you.

It’s true that James owns a PR company that’s focused on creating an iconic image of James, and it’s also true that most nonprofits will never have the star power of a famous pro basketball player to entice the media. But, nonprofits can tell their own stories and be clever and creative about using the range of tools now available to talk directly to their audiences.

Lesson: First, control the issue. Don’t allow the issue to control you.

James’ media strategy did have its critics. Phil Rosenthal at the Chicago Tribune wrote the outcome would have been better if James’ communications team had seized control from the start.

If James and company had been on top of this, his Web site would have tracked his whole courtship process. He could have kept an ad-supported video diary, including behind-the-scenes video of meetings with franchises.

Of more importance from a business standpoint, fans would have been invited to register to vote for their team and receive updates through e-mail and Twitter, creating a valuable marketing database.

Just one problem: James has owned the domain since 2002 but hasn’t done much with it until recently. Until Tuesday, James also had not used Twitter to address the public directly. So much for a New Media offensive.

Do any of these missteps sound familiar? Has your organization attempted to use social media tools in the past, only to fail to put the necessary time into the endeavor because of busy schedules? Perhaps constant Twitter, Facebook, and blog updates are just too much to juggle when you’re already swamped trying to provide services to a community or support to your colleagues.

But don’t underestimate the importance of tending these tools. Posting regular online updates about your organization’s journey, creating a digital archive of past articles on your website, or asking clients for input could give you a powerful platform to engage your audience and keep them coming back.  In other words, use your work to create brand recognition.

Lesson: When given an opportunity to connect, don’t hesitate.

LeBron’s decision to wait to give his answer until his ESPN event was also seen as a big public relations failure by some.  Michael Flood McNulty of wrote:

LeBron James created a publicity circus unlike any other Thursday night — this was his choosing, not the media’s so don’t blame the messenger — and he humiliated his hometown fans in the most public way possible…

LeBron James alienated a lot of people tonight. Actually, alienated is the wrong word. He stunned and hurt a lot of people tonight.

What’s one of the first rules of communications? Who’s your audience and how can you reach them? Whether you’re trying to educate a specific group about an issue you’re working on or you’re trying to get people to take action, how you say it and when you say it and the channel you use to convey it are so important.

Lesson: Don’t forget your audience. Be thoughtful of what they need to hear your message.

Audiences: Making a Connection (Guest Post by Robyn Stein)

Robyn, is a marketing and communications consultant for non-profits and can be reached at

Robyn is a marketing and communications consultant for nonprofits and can be reached at stein.robyn

Robyn and I met a few years ago at the TrueSpin conference, Jason Salzman’s biennial gathering of nonprofit communicators in Denver (more about that at the bottom). In October over NYC-diner toasted corn muffins and coffee we discussed that the basic rules of communications adapt well to the online world–as Robyn demonstrates in thinking about audience, and how to segment or subdivide those we seek to reach into smaller groups, the better to connect with them.

How do you identify and then reach the audiences, niches, microgroups you are trying to attract to your campaign, your issue, your organization?”

It used to be formulaic. You could buy a list of 25-35 year olds, send a prospect mailing to a specific zipcode, target the readership of a local, regional or national media outlet, buy an ad in an appropriate publication. Not any more. Now there’s a dizzying array of techniques available enabling us to reach an exponentially larger audience. When did it become so complicated?

The quick answer is it happened when our inner audience screamed out for attention individually and collectively. It happened comparatively slowly during the dotcom surge; it sped up when palm pilots were the thing. It hit lightning speed [literally] when our Blackberrys and iPhones could load 100,000 apps including the ubiquitous Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

Today, real time is actually real time and quick is an understatement. So how do we connect to the audiences we want to engage? Read the rest of this entry »


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