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It's not about you

The most common mistake that organizations make is to talk about themselves: "Who we are, what we do, why we need your help."

Marketing means trading places. Successful marketers achieve their goals by fulfilling others' desires. Yes, you need an identity, a face, a voice and a stance. To that extent, all that stuff about branding make sense.

But once you're in character, give your audience the starring role. They don't care how tall you are. They care how tall you make them feel.

You can sell the best widget in the world, or be able to solve global hunger, and it won't matter unless you jump the counter and deal from your audience's point of view. Do they want your widget? No, they want you to solve their problem.

It's their story, their drama. You need to echo their questions and deliver answers they value, through people they know and trust.

This role-reversal can be a stretch for social-change groups whose members have gone through a radicalizing episode or a conversion experience. They assume everyone else must follow the same path they followed to a new relationship with the world. They may feel that only one path is "authentic" and, to reinforce this sense of authenticity, they may insist on using certain jargon or demonstrating their commitment in ways that actually, even purposefully, exclude others.

It can also be a reach for public agencies that have a monopoly on a service or are forced by budget pressure to ration it. Business metrics of marketing "success" don't really apply. Neither do "customer satisfaction" surveys. Instead, ask the community what human problem the service is supposed to solve. Is it coming closer or falling further behind?

The antidote, for all organizations, is to listen more then you speak. To ask questions instead of making declarations. To give, rather than beg. To open as many different kinds of doors into your issue as you can and to keep the thresholds low.

Remember, you're speaking with your audience, not to them. Act like your audience on their best day. Give them the facts and tools they need to feel more powerful, more effective, more connected. What feels authentic to them? What's credible?

If you can trade places with your audience — the discipline of marketing — it's not about selling or selling out. It's about listening and being heard.

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