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Guest Blog: Chris Clarke — Talking to our audience, instead of our selves

Chris Clarke is Habitat for Humanity International’s senior vice president of marketing and communications. Clarke’s responsibilities include promoting and safeguarding Habitat’s messages and brand and raising awareness of the role shelter plays in helping low-income families build strength, stability and self-reliance.

Last week, I was standing in a long line at a busy local breakfast haunt, when the guy behind me leaned forward to ask if there was something I might recommend he try.

Over the few minutes of conversation that followed, I learned he was visiting Atlanta on business, was not from the South and thought he’d like to try grits, but was not so sure if that was a good idea. We spoke pleasantly for a few moments, and then were both on our way.

I share this every-day kind of anecdote not necessarily to encourage you to broaden your culinary universe or try grits (I’m actually not a fan), but rather to illustrate something about context.

I expect the same kind of thing happens to you all of the time. Conversations like these occur at ball games, school plays, restaurants, places of worship, stores, museums — anywhere two or more people gather for a few moments. And almost always, your dialogue begins with what you inherently know about one another because of where you are at the moment.

When the “conversations” that we have as professional communicators occur via our websites, collateral materials or through other forms of media like videos or social, it’s sometimes hard to have that same sense of context. Without something to help inform that same sense of breakfast-line context, we run the risk of telling a general audience too much too soon and reflecting our own interests and agendas instead of theirs. Our readers are in line seeking a recommendation for grits, but we’re talking about the ball game. Or ourselves.

In today’s channel-rich, information-available world, our chance to make our message stick is often just a fleeting moment. When we are fortunate enough to capture someone’s attention or to find ourselves on their immediate menu of interests for whatever reason, we — whether in the for-profit or nonprofit world — have to be exceedingly mindful of their context. What can we tell them in 140 characters or less that will be meaningful and hopefully will lead to more conversations, deeper engagement and a lasting relationship?

For Habitat for Humanity, we have determined that our best first message to convey in that valuable, fleeting moment is this: Families in your community and around the world partner with us to build strength, stability and self-reliance through shelter.

For far too many years, we have been far more complicated than that in our communications materials. When it came to our messaging, somewhere along the way we made internal stakeholders majority stakeholders. And as a result, we were telling too much too soon and often talking around or over the interests of the very people most likely to more deeply support our cause.

For us, the real wake-up call came about two years ago when a very prestigious consulting firm was providing us with pro bono help to create a digital strategy, and their first bit of feedback was, “We can’t help you until you help yourself. You have to get control of your message. You have to be more articulate in helping your audience know why they should care about what you do. You are well-known, and that is a great gift — but you are poorly understood, and you really need to remedy that.”

Thanks to the support of one of our generous donors, we were able to access precious dollars to perform quantitative and qualitative research to learn more about individual attitudes toward philanthropy, Habitat and charitable decision-making. What we found has led us to the simple, profound message I shared above and to a new messaging and creative platform constructed specifically to reach people where they actually are in their relationship to us and their understanding of our work.

We believe the most important thing for us is to help general audiences more immediately understand why we do what we do, instead of continuing to try to tell them right off the bat all the details of how we do what we do. Our goal is to focus on (and filter our largest messages for) our “why” while always making sure that we have clear calls to action that create paths for people to follow. We believe this can work to create a better foundation for continuing relationships – ones that individuals can self-direct based on how much they already know and how much they might want to know over time.

It will be a challenge. We will have to struggle with our own habits even as we work ever harder to understand our audiences and learn to think about where they are in their Habitat journey before we begin to talk. But it’s work that we must do, and we are encouraged at the ways in which our network of local organizations across the U.S. and around the world are already embracing the new approach.

We truly feel that, by better harnessing our messaging as an organization, we can better harness the ever-evolving technology tools at our disposal to share our vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live. We all live in that same landscape. So what’s your version? How is your business, your cause, your brand approaching audiences to advance your goals?