Messaging in the Age of Noise

Anyone likely to give to one nonprofit group probably also receives fifteen emails a week from organizations in the same wheelhouse. Especially when resources are tight, it can be hard to make yourself heard over the noise.

Between email lists, social subscriptions and the occasional direct mailing, people are increasingly hounded to help out their nonprofits. The Onion, a satire newspaper, lampooned the phenomenon last year in a video about a kidnapped nonprofit staffer whose many emails for help went unopened.

The 2013 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study reflects the same reality – email lists, Facebook likes and Twitter followers all grew over the past year, 15%, 46% and 264% respectively – but email engagement is down. Everyone’s shouting more, so it’s harder to be heard.

The problem boils down to being concise. Your subscribers want to pay attention – they did subscribe, after all – but the competition for a moment of their time is stiff, so you should use it well.

Take a look at these two telephone ads. The first is from 1922, touting the many functions of a Northern Electric telephone:

Telephone advertising of the past

The second is from 2012, advertising an iPhone 5’s myriad uses:

iPhone ad, 2012

These ads make the exact same claim, 90 years apart: “Our telephone does it all.” Where the first does it by listing the multitude of purposes to which the telephone can be put (including my favorite, “shelf”), the second gets right to the point. A smartphone has more potential uses than a Northern Electric telephone, but there’s no sense in listing them to an audience that’s likely familiar with them anyway.

A nonprofit’s audience is the same way. They know what the organization does, and they want to help, at least a little bit – but they only have a second to decide whether to trash the email or follow its call to action. Be brief.

Social Super Bowl vs. the $4 Million TV Spot

This past weekend, we all watched spellbound as Americans everywhere tuned in to the biggest perennial advertising event on television. In between bits of football, we collectively turned the volume back up to watch as brands from the tiny to the institutional threw millions of dollars down – a record $4 million per spot – for a chance to show TV’s largest single audience just how funny, relevant, clever and lovable they are.

When the dust cleared and the blog roundups finished commenting, though, what was left?

For that much money, you’d expect your audience to take away a pretty significant message. Increasingly, though, it seems Super Bowl ads focus on gags, special effects and flair without really trying to communicate.

One of the things a Z10 can't do

One of the things a Z10 can’t do

Although this year’s batch had the usual mix of funny, flat, fantastic and forgettable, there weren’t a lot of brands trying to tell us about themselves. Perhaps tellingly, one of my favorite ads this year was for the BlackBerry Z10 – a spot that focused on what it wasn’t saying.

In that light, AdWeek’s Six Questions video this week seemed especially relevant: they broke their usual format to ask, “Will the big Super Bowl spot ever die?

I think the most on-point comment in AdWeek’s video comes from Nissan’s Erich Marx, who points to social media spaces as the proving grounds for an ad. He’s implying that the strongest showing a Super Bowl ad can enjoy is to engage viewers offscreen and to capture their conversation online.

Erich is right because the best marketing is a guided conversation. To wit, two of the most successful pieces of advertising from this year’s Super Bowl weren’t even on television.

One, for the home carbonation device-maker SodaStream, managed to steal the show without even paying for airtime. In fact, that’s sort of the point – “If you love the bubbles, set them free,” says the ad, cheekily acknowledging the Coke/Pepsi blockade on soda as well as soda advertising, both on Super Bowl Sunday and in general. Commenting on not being allowed into the TV conversation created another one online: SodaStream netted 4.3 million views on YouTube so far.

The other most successful piece of the year also plugged itself into the social conversation instead of buying attention-time on the air. Oreo and ad agency 360i managed to steal the show by capitalizing on the unexpected power outage in the third quarter with their socially shared “You can

Oreo's fleet-footed ad

Oreo’s fleet-footed ad

still dunk in the dark” ad. The windfall? 16,000 retweets, 22,000 likes and 7,000 additional shares on Facebook – not to mention a well-shared Buzzfeed article and thousands of points on Reddit.

At about eight million dollars a minute, advertising should pack a pretty hefty punch. Certainly, there’s still an audience to be found glued to the set on game day, and plenty of people tune in just for the ads – but as with all marketing, the wisest path isn’t just to the viewer’s eyes and ears, it’s to their tongue (and social accounts) as well. Don’t just talk to your audience. Get them to talk.