What is marketing, anyway?

On the first day of my Nonprofit Marketing class at the Evans School, I ask my class of super-smart graduate students the following question: What is marketing?

Is it an art? Is it a science? Is it its own discipline? Or is it a sub-set of another discipline, e.g. sociology or behavioral economics or some such? I assign this piece to get their brains percolating.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no definitive answer. If you look up the definition of marketing, you get:


  1. the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.


  1. advertise or promote (something):
    “the product was marketed under the name “aspirin.””

    synonyms:sell · retail · vend · merchandise · trade · peddle · hawk ·

    • offer for sale:
      “sheep farmers are still unable to market their lambs”
    • US
      buy or sell provisions in a market:
      “some people liked to do their marketing very early in the morning”

Helpful? Meh. Only a tidge. Mainly it reinforces the perception among nonprofits that marketing is a yucky activity, slimy, not something values-based, mission-driven people would want to do. Buying, selling, advertising, promoting? #Yuck

I offer this as an alternative definition specific to marketing in the nonprofit sector. Marketing is:

Strategically using resources to make sure as many people as possible
have the opportunity to create good in the world.

If you love what you do, if you’re passionate about your mission, why wouldn’t you want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to join you, to help you, to work with you, and for you? To create as much good in the world as possible?

By the way, by “resources”, I mean time, talent, passion, volition, and, yes, money. The intangibles–passion, enthusiasm, values–are a massive asset for nonprofits. And one that–in our super-charged, always-on, gotta-get-on-the-social-media-bandwagon–is often overlooked.

Marketing is a means to an end. It is a vehicle to advance mission. To raise money, engage volunteers, attract board members, promote programs. Advertising, social media, websites, brochures, annual reports, events–all ways to create more good in the world. Nothing yucky about it, if you think of it that way, now is there?

Post Readability Stats: Reading Ease: 53.2, Grade Level: 8.6

Back to School with the 1,2,3 Marketing Tree

It’s the first day of school in our neck of the woods. Time to get back to the basics. Claxon’s 1,2,3, Marketing Tree gives you the basic steps for your organization to inspire action and engagement (i.e. market itself) in a way that’s simple, effective and fun. Yep, yep! Find out how in this quick video.


1, 2, 3 Marketing Tree from Claxon Marketing on Vimeo.

Do you have a MAP (Marketing Action Plan)?

humor, map, road map, focus, strategySay what?! You don’t have a MAP? You’re playing with fire, my friend. Fire.

Resources are too tight and your vision too big and awesome to not know how you will use marketing to specifically and strategically help you out.

That’s why I created a Marketing Action Plan (MAP) for do-gooders–people who work at nonprofits, foundations, associations and other institutions of good repute.

The MAP has specific questions, explanations and a checklist to keep you on track. It is simple, straight-forward and requires very little time to make very big progress.

Download it and see for yourself. It’s free. What’ve you got to lose? (Aside from your way, of course.)

A tip from Bruce Lee

If you haven’t ever seen a Bruce Lee movie, stop reading this post and go watch one. (I’m a big fan of Enter the Dragon.)

Aside from being highly entertained, you’ll see the benefits of being at once fierce and fluid.

Bruce (we’re totally on a first name basis) encouraged people to “be like water”. Water can take on almost any form, but it always remains true to its essence. Whether it’s a crashing wave, a small pond, or a tiny droplet, it’s always water.

In the fast-paced world of mission-driven marketing, you want to be like water. You want to be crystal clear on who you are and what you stand for, while being able to fluidly adapt to new opportunities as they come along.

Be like water, my friends.



Don’t train for a marathon by biking

goals, strategy, tactics, marketing, messaging, leadership
Make your training support your goals.
At the risk of stating the obvious: when you’re training for a marathon, you run. You run a lot. You run so you’re ready for the marathon. So you’ll achieve your goal.

You don’t bike. (Aside from a little cross-training perhaps.)

If your goal is to retain donors, pick tactics that will help you connect with current donors. Don’t get distracted by engaging new ones.

Ditto for volunteer engagement.
Public awareness.
And any other goal you have.

Don’t do the equivalent of training for a marathon by riding your bike.

You’ll never get to the finish line.

5 Steps to a Funective* Brand

Here are a few brand questions to ponder:

  1. Should we have a live receptionist or an automated phone system?
  2. Should we have offices with doors or open cubicles?
  3. What type of coffee should we have for staff and guests?
  4. Should we offer incentives for taking the bus or biking to work?
  5. Which paper should we use for our letterhead and business cards?

Sure, these are questions about administration (a), office space (b), purchasing (c, e) and HR (d). Your answers to these questions reveal much about your organization, however, and should directly–and consistently–reflect your brand.

Here’s that I mean: if you’re an organization working on childhood literacy and value being approachable, friendly and transparent, you’d have a live receptionist and an open, kid-friendly floor plan. If, on the other hand, you’re a domestic violence shelter, trust and discretion would be closely-held values and you might opt for an easy-to-use phone tree with confidential voicemail and offices with doors.

And this is why brand matters. Because a clearly defined brand makes it easy to make decisions—work for, donate to, volunteer for, advocate on behalf of, stay involved in, buy from…tune out. It’s hard to tune out an organization when  their words, visuals and actions consistently and compellingly say, “This is what we believe. This is what we stand for. Join us if you stand for this, too!”

By following the 5 Steps to a Funective Brand (fun+effective=funective…in case you were wondering), you can create an irresistible and enduring brand. Put another way, you will make it easy for people who care about your cause to find you and engage with you. And who doesn’t want that?!

This is a brand new tool so feedback is welcome! Was the process funective for you? How can we make it better?



Seth Godin in Seattle

Seth Godin, June 24, 2011 | Photo by Kathy E Gill (@kegill)

Seth Godin’s brain processes information at warp speed. Today, members of his tribe–myself included–got to see his brain in person. Well, we didn’t actually see his brain because that would be icky, but we got to see his brain in action. Meaning he answered questions for 2 hours straight.

The questions ranged from personal (e.g. how do you produce so much quality content every day?!) to thought-provocating (e.g. from Lara Feltin, Co-Founder and CEO of Biznik who asked about assets and freemiums). Here were some of my favorite quotes and take-aways:


“Find music for your listeners, not listeners for your music.” In other words, bring as much value as you can to people who are already engaged with your organization, rather than chasing after people who may or may not be interested. Susan Howlett and other fundraising thought leaders have been pounding the ‘retention’ drum for quite awhile. Seth would definitely second that.

“Let’s slather some Facebook on that.”  This was probably my favorite quote of the morning. Facebook is huge and nonprofits should be using it to its full advantage. However, Facebook isn’t a silver bullit. Yes, you’ve heard this before…but have you ever thought that maybe you’re using Facebook as a scapegoat for a poorly designed (or not done) marketing plan?

“You can’t build a brand on-line. You can build the privilege of getting someone’s attention.”  Seth is all about permission marketing. This is in sharp contrast to interruption marketing (think TV ads before DVRs and mute buttons), which was how all those mad men made bank. Permission takes time, yet it is enduring. For mission-driven organizations constantly worried about cash flow, this can be a tough pill to swallow. However, if you’re focused on bringing music to your listeners, it makes a ton of sense.

If you were there, what stuck out for you. If you weren’t there, anything you wish you could’ve asked Seth?

Leaders & Doers

At today’s Tune-Up Tuesday meet-up, leadership came up again and again. It’s one thing to set strategy and it’s another thing to implement the strategy. Marketing strategy is decided by leadership (usually) and marketing implementation is done by managers, coordinators, assistants, etc. (usually).

The thing is once you start implementing you put the strategy to the test. And sometimes it doesn’t pass the test so you need to revisit. And this is where it can go sideways.

For the one doing the implementation (a.k.a. the ‘doer’), they need input/buy-in from leadership. But it can be nigh onto impossible to get their attention if it’s not ‘strategy season’.

So what’s a doer to do? Make a specific, actionable suggestion for how to course correct and show exactly how it ties to organizational goals.

Example: Our fundraising goal for the year is to increase our median gift size from current donors. However, our Facebook objective is to acquire new donors. Given our limited resources, I suggest we adjust our Facebook strategy so that we deepen relationships with current donors rather than attract new ones.

Be concise and specific. Be clear on which changes require leadership sign-off and which ones the doer can venture forth and figure out. Role clarity is key.

Related note: The more your organization uses social media, the more you should be open to failure. It takes a lot of tinkering to figure out what works. If you’re afraid of failure, you won’t tinker. If you don’t tinker, you won’t figure out what works. Permission to fail is one of the biggest gifts a leader can give.

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?