Will Your Nonprofit Messaging Survive the Story Wars?

  • by Christine Batta
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Just as the channels for broadcasting your nonprofit's voice become more and more accessible, actually having that voice heard—and then appreciated and acted upon—on the other end is becoming more and more uncertain. Have you ever deleted an email before reading it? Do you read every post your Facebook friends and Twitter feed have waiting for you? This evolving challenge for communicators is the premise of the marketing manifesto, Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the future, written by Free Range Studios co-founder and CEO, Jonah Sachs.

Sachs presents the tradition of human communication through storytelling as the key tool to help your brand shine through all the growing messaging clutter. He digs into the history of successful, socially-impactful communication from Pepsi all the way back to the dawn of word-of-mouth. Sachs believes that our traditions of storytelling are what bind us all together as humans. Because of this, you absolutely need to build an interesting, truthful and inviting story for your nonprofit brand to attract the audiences that will fight for your cause. Sachs also sends you into the Story Wars battle prepared with the knowledge that the story you've been using may not be as interesting as you think.

Seeing the War

Sachs begins his call to action by emphasizing the reality that "Today's media landscape of unprecedented competition between messages has made us all marketers (pg 3)." Yes, even nonprofit leaders. The first step to winning the Story Wars is being able to see the war you are facing.

The messages competing to compel a person to action are multiplying while the individual's attention for those branded messages is shrinking. In this way, nonprofits need to reevaluate stories they may have relied on to describe their work which may be very to-the-point, but generic, bland or boring. Facts, figures, and histories of social impact won't guarantee you brand followers unless your stories make the core values behind your successes clear.

In additional to attention, another human resource being fought for is passion. Happiness in consumer-driven culture is decreasing and people are looking for purposeful, cause-driven ways to spend their increasing passion for a meaningful life. But nonprofit causes aren't the only source for that fulfillment anymore.

For-profit companies now see that they can get a leg-up by marketing authenticity and social kindnesses. Sachs preaches for all brands, for-profit and nonprofit, to build engaging stories by living the truth of the good intentions they want to represent. According to late 19th century advertiser "Honest John" Powers, your marketing must: 1) be interesting, 2) tell the truth, and 3) if you can't tell the truth you must change what you're doing to live the truth. Nonprofits are already living the truth of social awareness, but if they don't invest in storytelling there could be a significant shift in brand investment away from nonprofits and toward for-profits that fulfill the same passions for good with their brand's story.

Understanding Your Weaknesses

Winning the Story Wars includes several chapters which advise you on how to build your brand's story, including common storytelling obstacles that brands face. Some of these weaknesses are categorized as the "evils" of marketing and unfortunately, nonprofit causes are not immune to them.

By researching effective communications, Sachs uncovers the common advertising tactic of building anxiety and then promising a magical solution to relieve that anxiety. These tensions are what makes dirty, unethical advertising still reach us. Nonprofits can be charged with using these fear tactics, too. Nonprofits can still create their monsters and magic answers in their storytelling which leave out the audience and fail to empower them as the hero.

Another marketing weakness is an illusion of invulnerability fostered by a sense of moral rightness. For example, BP's rebranding & do-gooder storytelling convinced its leaders that they were morally right. But their company practices were not living the truth and it caught up to them. Nonprofits fall more into the problem of living the truth but seeing themselves as invulnerable to needing to market their brand's story. Nonprofits that prop their cause up to speak for them instead of a living, breathing brand story are suffering from the illusion that good intentions automatically make you appealing and competitive.

Winning Over Your Audience

The best way to use storytelling to engage people with your brand is by making your audience the active hero. How do you make your audience see themselves as the hero? You need to pull them into a story with a protagonist, villain and conflict which present your core values and goals.

You also need to engage your audience as a realistic, empowered hero. If you tell your audience that they can be an implausible magician with the click of a button or a pair of hands in a day of service, you are losing on the chance to have them invest in transforming themselves into a true hero for your brand.

There are an enormous amount of nonprofits whose leaders probably could not sit down and agree upon their organization's story. If your nonprofit team struggles to agree on who your brand hero is and how they would act in a conflict, you'll be able to tell that your brand needs some serious attention.

For those who want to learn more, I encourage you to pick up the book and read it for yourself. You can also watch the great video Free Range Studio made about the hero's journey story model that any brand or cause can use to get its message heard.

Winning the Story Wars - The Hero's Journey from Free Range Studios on Vimeo.