Step-by-Step Guide to Successfully Marketing Your Nonprofit Event

 

We recently helped the Colorado Nonprofit Association promote an event for their Leadership Development Series. The results were outstanding! Not only did we attract more than FOUR TIMES the typical number of attendees for a Leadership Development event, we SOLD OUT the event four weeks early! (Read the case study here.)

So how did we do it? We are going to share our secrets in the form of a step-by-step guide in hopes to help your organization do the same.

Step 1: Plan an awesome event that serves your target audience.

The key is to think beyond what your organization needs out of the event, and focus on the most important detail – the people who you want to come. Plan an event that not only aligns with the brand of your organization, but one that your target audience actually WANTS to go to.

How to put this into action:

When you are brainstorming your next event, ask:
– Why would my target audience want to come?
– How will this event serve my target audience?

There are several good reasons. It could be for fun, networking, to learn from a well-known speaker or to learn about a hot topic in your industry – just to name a few. The key is to remember that your event isn’t just about your nonprofit organization; it’s about your audience too.

Example:
In the case with the “Change the Story, Change the World” event that we mentioned above, we had a hot topic – the secrets of using storytelling to move audiences to action – and a well-known speaker, Andy Goodman.

Sidenote: The event evaluation survey found that a surprising number of attendees – 83 percent – had no previous knowledge of or about Andy Goodman prior to the marketing for this event. I was surprised because I have been following Andy Goodman for years, but it shows that a hot topic can be just as influential as a well-known speaker.

 

Step 2: Kick-off with a marketing planning phase

Don’t let yourself get so wrapped up in planning the logistics of the event, that you forget the important piece of actually promoting and marketing the event. Unfortunately, “build it and they will come” does not work here.

This step will help you overcome these common problems with event marketing:
1) too little, too late and
2) inconsistent and ineffective marketing resulting from jumping straight into executing various tactics ad hoc.

Starting with a planning phase for your marketing will save you time in the long run, and set you up for success.

How to put this into action:

The key is to:
1) take some time up front to answer some key questions and
2) plan according to the answers.

 

Step 2A: Brainstorming Meeting

Get your team together for a 1- to 2-hour session. Assign someone to take good notes as you answer these questions.

 

1. What are our goals and objectives for this event marketing?

In other words, how will you measure success of this marketing? Make sure your objectives are specific and measurable. In the example of the Andy Goodman event, ours was to have 300 attendees register by April 16th (one week before the event).

 

2. What do we know about our target audience for this event?

  • Who are they?
  • What is their mindset about our organization and this event? (This makes sure that you identify any strengths to promote or plan for any hurdles you will need to overcome.)
  • What are they looking for out of an event like this?
  • What questions will they have? What factors into their decision about whether or not to come?
  • What concerns or hesitations might they have?

 

3. What do we know about our competition for this event, and what sets our event apart?

  • Are there similar events that our audience will be invited to? Will they have to choose?
  • Why should they choose our event? What makes it unique? What makes it better?

 

4. How will we motivate our audience? (aka marketing strategies)

For this step, knowing 1) your target audience and 2) what action you want them to take, what are the best ways to motivate them to do so?

In the case with the Andy Goodman event, it looked like this:

  • Write copy that answers, “Who is Andy Goodman and why should I care?”
  • Write copy that answers, “What will I learn and how will it benefit me?”
  • Encourage early registration by offering a chance to win a VIP meeting with Andy Goodman.

At this point, your time will likely be up and your brain might need a rest. So schedule a second 1- to 2-hour meeting for planning.

 

Step 2B: Planning Meeting

Get your team together for another 1- to 2-hour session. Make sure you have your notes from the first meeting handy, and assign someone to take good notes as you answer these questions.

 

5. How will we deliver the message to our audience? (aka marketing tactics)

This is where you’ll start outlining the various mediums or platforms to reach your audience. For example: Save the Date postcard, Email blasts, Facebook posts, information on the website, etc.

To help you decide what tactics are appropriate, think about your target audience and answer:

  • What opportunities do we have to reach them?
  • Where do they spend their time?
  • Where are they looking for information?
  • Who do they know and trust?

It’s important to have an integrated approach, and not rely too heavily one or two tactics. So don’t put all of your eggs in the Facebook or Email buckets. For ideas of what tactics to use, check out our article outlining components of an integrated event marketing campaign.

 

6. What should the timing look like?

To answer this, follow this line of thought:

6A: Considering the nature of this event, how far out should we start promoting this event?

To make this decision, consider:

  • How much time does our audience need to plan for and attend the event? If you expect them to travel and get a hotel, or if they need to mark out several days on their calendar (for a conference, for example) they’ll need more time than if you are inviting them to a 2-hour event in their hometown.
  • Where is the sweet spot for starting the promotion? You don’t want to start so early that when they see the initial promotion push, they don’t want to plan that far out and start ignoring your messages. But you don’t want to start so late that their calendar is already booked.
  • What else is going on? Holidays? Summer vacations? Events from your competitors?

In the case of the Andy Goodman event, which was April 23, we started planning and writing copy behind the scenes in November and December, but we waited until February 18th to launch the promotional campaign. This was 9 weeks before the event, and right after President’s Day, which is a popular vacation time for folks.

Timing Tip: The rough ballpark to kick-off the promotional campaign is typically 3 months to 6 weeks, but it really depends on specifics of this event. Often times, full conferences start promotions 6 or even 8 months out, and smaller happy hour events might only give attendees a 2 to 3 week notice.

 

6B: Now that I know how much time we have, what are the appropriate phases of the campaign?

For the Andy Goodman event, we planned four total phases – three promotional and one follow-up.

We knew we had an ambitious attendee goal (300 compared to the 75 that typically comes to a Leadership Development Series Event – so 4 times more than the usual). Also, we knew that we struggled in the past with a lot of people waiting until the last minute to register, which makes for a very stressful and chaotic couple of weeks leading up to the event.

As a result, we planned phase 1 to come out of the gate strong, with the goal to have at least one-third of our seats filled within the first two weeks. So phase one was focused around a special offer – Register by March 4th (2 weeks) and be entered to win a VIP meeting with Andy Goodman. This phase was a great success! We had 21 register in the first day, and 165 by the end of the phase one. We exceeded our original goal and ended up having 55% of our seats filled by the end of phase one!

Phase 2 was about general promotion with the goal to keep being top of mind with our audience.

Phase 3 was planned to be a “don’t miss out on this exciting event” push – but we didn’t get there. We sold out by the end of phase 2!

Phase 4 was post-event promotion – talking about the event by sharing photos, videos and stories, and thanking attendees for coming and for their support.

 

6C: Now that we have outlined the various phases and what is driving them – outline timing for each of your specific tactics.

Here are some basic guidelines of best practices for various mediums. But keep in mind that this can vary depending on the total length of your promotion, your specific event and audience.

  • Direct mail – once or twice throughout the campaign (typically a Save the Date and then an invitation)
  • Email marketing – Once every 1 to 2 weeks
  • Facebook posts – Once or twice a week
  • Twitter posts – A few to several times a week

 

7. Who is responsible for what, and by when?

It’s important to outline roles and responsibilities. Make sure you take into consideration how many hours per week each individual on your team has to dedicate to executing this campaign. If they have less time than what your plan requires, decide how you will fill this gap. (You either need to include additional team members, outsource to a consultant, or cut back on what is included in your marketing plan.)

Then assign responsibilities and key dates. Make sure everyone has a clear understanding of the expectations.

 

Step 3: Write a message map.

How many times – when you need to write an event promotion email, postcard, tweet or Facebook post – do you find yourself staring at a blinking cursor? Or have you ever found yourself stuck in this loop of typing out a few words, thinking “that’s not right”, deleting, trying again, and repeating… over and over? Have you ever struggled with a lack of consistency between what you and the rest of your team is saying to promote the event?

Don’t worry. You are not alone, and there is a solution – write a message map.

This may sound like an unnecessary extra step, and you might want to argue that you don’t have time for that. But I guarantee that going through this exercise upfront – in one focused effort – will save you hours of time and headache throughout the promotion of the event.

 

How to put this into action:

Start by reviewing your notes from the brainstorming meeting. You want to be thinking about your audience, what they care about and the questions they will be asking, as well as any challenges you may encounter.

The process of writing a message map is taking all of that insight, marrying it with the information about your event, and writing key messages that you can use throughout the campaign. This approach makes sure that your messages are audience-centric, not internally focused, which is key to a successful marketing campaign.

A message map is typically 1 to 3 pages in length. It could be a table/grid, or a running list of key messages. How you set it up is less important than what you put in it.

A message map will contain:

  1. An overall core message. This would be the highest level, summary statement about the event. (Think elevator pitch.)
  2. Supporting key messages. These will address what your audience wants to know and what will motivate them. (This is where the answers to #4 above – marketing strategies – come into play.) You can include various versions to allow for flexibility with the length and space that each communications platform will allow.

I typically start by writing the supporting messages first. Then, I go back and write the overall core message later. Writing them in reverse is easier for me because I already know what the supporting messages are, so I don’t feel the need to say EVERYTHING with the core message. You CAN NOT say everything with the core message.

When you are finished, your message map will serve as a foundational document of key messages that you and your team refer back to time and time again throughout the marketing and promotions of the event. It ensures that your messages are consistent, and it saves you a ton of time! (Don’t forget to share this with the team, and make sure everyone is on the same page about using it!)

 

Step 4: Design eye-catching, consistent campaign materials

You’ve got your plan. You have audience-centric messaging. Now it’s time to bring it all to life through design of the materials. Design matters for these key reasons:

Design determines your audience’s first impression.

People see design before they read words, and they make judgments and assumptions based on what they see. So make sure the design sets the right tone, and engages your audience to actually read your message. Does your campaign look professional or amateur? Does the event look fun or boring?

CNA_WebPortfolioB_blog

Postcard – mailed out during phase one, and handed out during meetings and workshops throughout the campaign until it sold out.

 

Design helps cut through the clutter.

Your audience is inundated with messages every waking minute of every day. Design is key to getting your audience to stop and take notice.

Let’s look at social media, for example. According to SocialBakers.com, 87% of the most engaging posts on Facebook are images. Here is an example of a graphic we created for the Andy Goodman promotion:

CNA_WebPortfolioFacebook

 

Consistency in design helps drive action.

The marketing rule of seven states that the majority of your target audience has to hear or see your message 7 times before they are motivated to buy or support you. Throughout the campaign your audience will get your email, then see your post in their Facebook feed, and then receive a direct mail piece. By having all of these pieces consistently designed, they build upon each other and drive action.

Here you can see how the design elements for the Andy Goodman campaign translated into the online registration page and email:
CNA_WebPortfolioWebsite2

CNA_Email_Blog

 

If you have design skills, great. If you don’t, get some help by outsourcing this. (We’d love to help.)

 

Step 5: Actually implement the plan.

I know, that sounds silly. You’re probably thinking, “Duh!” But I’ve seen it time and time again; an organization will spend a significant amount of time and money planning, and then fail to put pieces in place to actually make sure the plan gets carried out. So it’s an important step worth mentioning.

How to put this into action:

To help ensure that this plan actually gets implemented, figure out an internal process that works best for you and your team. This solution could include a variety of things:

  • Add key tasks and dates on your calendar with reminders
  • Write and schedule social media posts in advance with tools like Hootsuite (Here is a great article to get in-depth guidance and tips about social media scheduling.)
  • Be disciplined to review the marketing plan every Monday morning and add tasks to your weekly to-do list accordingly
  • Have weekly status meetings if you need them

Just do whatever it takes to make sure you translate things from the plan into a format or process that actually keeps the plan in motion.

 

Would love your comments!

Do you have additional tips and tricks to share? Have any feedback that would help serve the nonprofit professionals reading this? Please add them in the comments. We welcome the conversation.

 

Like what you read, but need a little more guidance?

We are available to consult with you for as little or as much as you need. We can simply sit in a brainstorming meeting and provide extra value. Or we can lead your team through this process. Give us a call or shoot us an email to start a conversation about what this could look like.

Jami Fassett

Jami Fassett

I am a brand strategist passionate about using my time, talent and 12 years of experience to help people and communities. That is why I started Up and Up Creative, to help nonprofits use the power of branding to reach more people, raise more money and do more good.

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