June 13, 2018

Why is it so hard to raise awareness?

Sarah Durham, Big Duck’s CEO, unpacks her blog post, Eight ways your attempts to raise awareness will likely fail.


Sarah: Welcome to the Smart Communications podcast. I’m Sarah Durham. A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece that keeps coming back. People keep writing and talking to me about this piece. So I thought I would just unpack it for a minute in the podcast.

The blog was called Eight Ways Your Attempts to Raise Awareness will Likely Fail. And I wrote it in September of 2016. I’ll link to it in the show notes. I wrote this piece because I had noticed that, over many years, I’d seen a lot of organizations launch really interesting campaigns to increase visibility, or recruit people into their programs, or fundraise. Really smart, creative ideas but somehow they just didn’t work. They didn’t achieve the results they wanted to achieve.

And so I started doing a little bit of investigation about why that was. And what I found was that there were often, in most cases, eight reasons why they had failed. So I’m going to unpack those here and I’m going to link to the original blog in the show notes, which adds a little bit of other context to this conversation.

The first reason many attempts to raise awareness will likely fail is a failure to set goals and measure progress. And in some ways this is kind of about shiny object syndrome. That somebody gets enamored of a new channel or tool. They get excited, for instance, to produce a video and make something really beautiful and exciting about their organization. But they haven’t gone into any kind of thought about who’s this video trying to reach. What action do we want them to take? How will we know if people are actually watching the video so that they can produce something that’s going to be as effective as possible and measure the results? So if you want to overcome this, start with the end in mind. Begin with the end in mind. That’s a quote by Stephen Covey. And really think about, if you were really successful at this thing that you’ve got this idea about, what would it look like? What kind of metrics, qualitative or quantitative can you use to track if you’re making progress?

The second reason your attempts to raise awareness might fail is a failure to put strategy before tactics. And again, this comes in when people get enamored of doing something a particular way. They get excited about using a social media channel or engaging a new vendor whose work they’re inspired by. We’ve had a number of organizations contact us and say, so and so said they’d give us a great discount on subway ads. So we want to run some subway ads. Can you help us develop those ads? Well, advertising on the subway is a tactic but the question is, what’s the strategy? Why do that? What would that help you achieve? What’s the path that that sets us out on? So try to resist the temptation to start with the channel or the outcome and go back and think about the approach that you want to take to reach that target market and achieve the result.

Third failure is the failure to grab attention. And we often find that the organizations that aren’t afraid to use humor, or controversy, or be big and bold are more successful here than those that are so concerned about potentially putting somebody off that they won’t go out on a limb creatively. There are some terrific examples. One of my favorites was a 2008 video that Sarah Silverman made on behalf of an organization called The Great Schlep, which was to try to get people in Florida to vote for Obama. Really, really kind of shocking and controversial language at the time. But that video spread because it got attention and it actually reached the target market and had the desired outcome.

Fourth failure is the failure to connect and inspire. In part, this is about making sure that your attempts to raise awareness connect on some emotional or human level. That they aren’t just sort of your organization reciting facts about who you are and what you do. One example of this that I really love is the “Love Has No Labels” campaign, which the Ad Council created. These are the kinds of campaigns that bring a tear to your eye. But importantly, I think that your audiences have to see themselves in the campaign. They have to feel an emotional connection or a sense of identity that it’s theirs not yours.

The fifth failure is the failure to convert. Every campaign you do should have very clear calls to action or CTAs that make it obvious to the audience what action you want them to take. If you’re doing a public service announcement or a video, at the very end you should say, for more information, or to make a donation go to X. And ideally, that should take them to a place where you can track the number of people who came, like a dedicated landing page. And where you can capture their email address or other contact information so that you can convert them into people who follow your organization. The holy grail, really, is list-building here. We want to make sure that we’re growing a robust list and once we have an email address or another way to communicate, we can start to proactively message out to these people and move them up our ladder of engagement.

Six is the failure to engage. So you’ve perhaps run a compelling campaign and you’ve gotten my email address. What do you do with that email address? How do you get me to take an action? Too often, I think, non-profits focus on raising awareness as if raising awareness itself is the goal. But awareness isn’t the goal. It’s the action we want people to take that is the goal. We want them to change their behavior, change their minds, participate in a program, make a donation. So focus on engaging people in conversations and in actions that move them towards the ultimate desired action. And oftentimes it’s useful, once you’ve got an email address, to drop those people into a welcome series. It gives them some easy actions they can take. Something they can read. Something to share. Something to sign, a pledge. These kind of small actions help prime them to take larger actions on behalf of your organization.

The seventh failure, is the failure to sustain your focus. This is particularly the case if you’re trying to run a campaign that’s got a lot of moving parts or that goes over a long period of time. Sometimes the teams that develop campaigns have a lot of momentum in the planning stage and the creative phase. But actually the pedal hits the metal once you launch. Once your campaign goes live or whatever the initiative is, you’ve got to stay focused. And particularly with digital campaigns, you’ve got to look at the numbers, look at how people are engaging in social media or other areas online, and sometimes pivot or adjust. So your team has to give the same amount, if not more attention, to this work and focus on it just as much after it’s live and through its duration as it does in the planning and creative phase. So don’t forget to allow the resources and the time to do that.

Finally, the eighth failure is arguably the best one. And that’s the failure to celebrate. So often, we talk about, in the non-profit sector, how under-resourced teams are. That if we just had more money, more people, more time, we could do so much more. And at the end of many projects, sometimes it’s kind of the natural way the conversation goes to end up feeling badly that you couldn’t do more. It would have been great if we could have done this, or could have done that. But I think it’s really, really important that you celebrate your successes. Every project you do, at the very least, is a learning opportunity. It’s an opportunity for you to build your chops, to learn new skills, to see what works, to see how your community responds. So give yourself the opportunity to celebrate the lessons learned and celebrate your achievements so that next time, you’ll get stronger and you’ll build your resiliency to stick with it.

I hope that these eight reasons will give you some good food for thought in your efforts to not only raise awareness, but to actually get your target audiences to take the desired actions that that awareness leads to. Good luck.