As the debate rages on as to whether non-profits would be better off behaving more like for-profit corporations, it would be wise to keep in mind that the central reason most non-profits were formed was to serve the members, and in that aspect non-profits could learn a lot from their for-profit counterparts. If you were to substitute the word “member” for “customer” in much of the modern marketing and advertising literature, there is a deep mine of wisdom that non-profits could plumb in order to more adequately frame their value proposition, and find greater success in the ever-present quest to find, recruit, and keep members.
There is an obvious schism in the way corporations reach out to consumers. The two schools of thought – the “logical” and the “emotional” – are forced to co-exist, and if done properly, can work cooperatively to achieve their goal of building customer base and consumer loyalty. The “Logical” school, promoting features of the products, and the benefits thereof, using statistics, facts, information to make a “case” for their product’s superiority; and the “Emotional” school, in which images and messaging that appeal to some of the more base emotional motivators to influence purchasing behavior appear.
This can perhaps be seen most readily in the automotive industry, possibly due to the sheer volume of television and print ads for cars that pervade national media. In roughly half the ads, the manufacturers promote things like fuel efficiency, flexibility in seating arrangements, crash safety, popularity with consumers, cargo space, back-up cameras or parking assist, features that make it desirable to certain segments of the buying population. The other half feature imagery and messaging that promote how the car will make you look, feel, how it will make your neighbors envious, how you’ll be more popular or get more attention if you own one, how it will make your co-workers jealous, appealing to the base emotional drivers like need for recognition, elevation of status or popularity, vanity or need for acceptance.
In nearly all the non-profits we’ve worked with or counseled, the value proposition has been of the “Logical” variety – here’s the benefits you get from joining and staying a member. The other half, and some would say the much more powerful half based on some recent consumer research on buying behavior, has been left out in the cold, as if because they are a professional organization appealing to other professional organizations or persons, there is no emotional reward for becoming a member. This bloodless approach is unfortunately too typical of B-to-B marketing in general, but the ethos surrounding non-profits is so laced with the need to be taken seriously, many cannot bring themselves to voice the benefits of membership in any sort of emotional way for fear of being seen as weak, or needy, or heaven forbid, unprofessional!
By injecting some of the emotional component into their outreach approach, non-profits could certainly experience great success in their recruiting efforts, as they would find a much larger segment of the buying population would respond to their appeals. Even in a B-to-B purchase decision, there are one or more PEOPLE making that buying decision, people with emotions, feelings and attitudes that can drive behavior in a much stronger way than the typical “Franklin List” of pros versus cons of joining an organization. By taking a “business only” approach, membership marketers have sidestepped a huge driver of consumer behavior – the need to belong, for acceptance, for praise and recognition. Maybe they feel that the emotional appeal may not be strong enough to pry the dues check out of the fingers of hard-nosed business members, who need a business case to justify every decision. Maybe they’re uncomfortable using a more emotionally based appeal to reach their potential members because they can’t guarantee to “deliver” that type of benefit year after year. Whatever the reason, there would seem to be tremendous gains to be made by positioning their organizations emotionally as well as economically.
Maybe a look at another area of their operation would yield some insights – many non-profit, member-based organizations have a charitable arm or foundation of some sort, and the search for donors is often not only more aggressive and better focused than the member recruitment effort, but the appeals tend to vacillate between the logical and the emotional appeal, doubling the reach of the organization and driving donations beyond what the membership could logically support. Much can be learned from corporate marketing efforts and applied to non-profit recruitment and retention efforts. Sometimes its a case of simply looking over the backyard fence . . .