To better understand why good nonprofit communications should include content marketing as a media relations strategy, let’s talk about how we got here in the first place. How have we reached a time and place in which consumers’ control over the flow of information has significantly raised the bar on what actually counts as information? Understanding content marketing means understanding our target audience’s — and even our own — behavior.

Where is the content marketing trend coming from?

As we discussed in part 1 of this series on content marketing for nonprofits, when it comes using content marketing for nonprofit communications, it’s important to protect this new approach from your own instinct to pitch, sell, ask or call to action.

Why do you need to dial down the ask?

Because your donors have heard asks so often that they’ve stopped listening. They’re overwhelmed, they’re tossing out appeal letters unopened and they’re avoiding your calls. The open rates on your email newsletter is probably in free fall. When you make thank-you calls, you get voicemail 90% of the time.

Nor are your marketing efforts attracting people to you as much as you’d like. When you publish terrific success stories about your clients on your site and then check your traffic stats on Google analytics, what do you see? For most organizations, it’s pretty depressing.

If you have one of those tools on your website that lets people share blog articles on social media platforms, you probably have lonely zeroes in most cases or a single digit number reflecting that only you and your marketing colleagues have shared the article.

Nonprofit communications strategy can use content marketing to bring up those sharesI’ve been there! In fact, that image is from a blog post on one of my own sites. It’s hard to get people to share your content.

As I discussed before, the best case for content marketing is probably looking back at you in the mirror. If you pay attention to your own behavior as a shopper when you need something and your own movement around the internet, you’ll see a basic pattern: You are tuning out the ads and tossing out the junk mail unopened. You purchase from the companies that have been helpful and have established trust with you.

And what you share with others is probably what is helpful and meaningful to you and your friends and colleagues rather than what is meaningful to the seller.

After all, when was the last time you were checking out the website of another nonprofit, saw a really awesome appeal letter from the executive director and said to yourself, “I’m going to share that on Facebook”?

Content marketing is a response to those evolutions in consumer behavior. All of us, whenever we need information or have a financial decision to make, have more control relative to the seller than we did a generation ago.

    • We skip the ads.
    • We put up ad blocker software.
    • We mistrust the ads we do see more.
    • We turn to Google to educate ourselves about the products or services we’re interested in before ever letting the seller know we’re in the market.

That’s leading companies to look for other ways to build a connection with us and gain our attention.

Software companies in particular, especially startup companies that don’t have advertising budgets to begin with, have been successful building their user base by sharing highly valuable research and insights as a way to communicate authority and expertise. Over time, this method has steadily gained traction among other kinds of organizations.

Now companies are using high-quality content to educate their prospective customers, because they don’t know who those customers are. Nonprofit communications efforts can benefit tremendously by employing the same media relations strategy. After all, like the startups who use this tactic to compete with large established companies, nonprofits are also usually working with limited resources.

Enough about the WHY. WHAT is content marketing?

Content marketing is a way to reach your target audience with content that matters to them, while also supporting your long-term marketing goals. I like to define content marketing as a process by which you:

    • figure out what your customer or your target audience needs and
    • figure out a way to deliver that.

That’s it. Take an attitude of “Give and you shall recieve,” do some strategic thinking, do some implentation planning and go. By getting clear on what your target audience needs, you produce content that they read and share and that they remember you by.

The fundamental characteristic of content marketing is utility or usefulness. If it’s not useful to the reader, then it’s promotion or sales.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Using content marketing shouldn’t be a knock on traditional marketing, advertising, promotion or sales. All of that is still necessary where you can be sure it is working, and you have to promote yourself effectively. So don’t bother with any consultants or nonprofit marketing agencies that tell you content marketing is a silver bullet and that everything else is a waste of time. It’s part of an overall strategy.

But to use content marketing effectively, it’s important to understand how it uses a different mindset from traditional advertising and promotion.

You know content marketing when you see it if you try this mental exercise:

    1. Find a piece of material you’ve recently produced. Anything: an article, a blog, an email.
    2. Strip out the name of organization or brand presenting it.
    3. Strip out any call to action (Buy now. Give now. Learn more here, etc.)
    4. Look at what’s left and ask yourself, “Now, would this still make sense and would it still be useful to the reader or the target audience?”

In many cases, the answer is no, either because there was nothing really useful to the reader to begin with — it was just promoting your brand or what your organization does — or because there’s not much left.

But if you strip out the brand name and the call to action and it still makes sense and offers something valuable to the reader, then you might be a content marketer.

From there, it’s just a question of when and where you can effectively put a little bit of self promotion or a CTA back in without undermining the connection you’re trying to create with the target audience. Sometimes the answer is to tread very lightly, and sometimes you estimate that you’ve earned the right to ask for their attention to a promotional message. (This all depends on where they are in the “buyer journey,” which we’ll get to in a later article.)

What are content marketing goals of a good nonprofit communications strategy?

You might see the term inbound marketing sometimes in the same context as content marketing. The general idea of inbound is to get people to come to you. This is in contrast to going out (outbound) and interrupting them with your message. Advertising is outbound, and so is direct mail. So are those planes that fly over the beach advertising happy hour specials.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But you can imagine how someone who comes to you is more likely to engage than someone you interrupt. Content marketing is a way to intrigue and attract the target customer. Generally, the goal is to use highly valuable information to start building a relationship that over time can turn into a sale or charitable contribution.

In marketing communications, the long-term goals generally will be to support or grow things like:

    • brand awareness
    • engagement
    • loyalty
    • acquisition
    • fundraising
    • advocacy

The short-term goals of individual pieces of content will generally be centered on communicating your expertise, authority and helpfulness.

Another way of putting it is this: you want to show that your organization is a thought leader. You want to generate an interest in partnering with you, whether that is donating used furniture, sponsoring your event, remembering you when they are discussing planned giving with their financial advisor or inviting you to be part of a program collaboration.

It just makes sense

When you view taking a content marketing approach to your nonprofit communications in light of your own behavior as a consumer, the philosophy behind it usually clicks pretty quickly. Content marketing for nonprofits is an effective media strategy because it provides what we — as consumers, as donors, as individuals looking to be part of meaningful partnerships — are looking for: interesting and useful content.

Have you seen the rest of the Give to Get series?
Part 1: Why Content Marketing for Nonprofits? Because It’s a Perfect Fit
Part 3: Let’s Get Honest About Your Nonprofit Marketing Strategy
Part 4: How Nonprofit Branding Using Content Marketing Can Get Results
Part 5: Your Nonprofit Blog is Not the Same as Content Marketing
Part 6: 5 Easy Ways to Create Great Content for Your Nonprofit Website

Robert McGuire

Robert McGuire


I have a vision of a content marketing agency that consistently produces standout material aligned with my clients’ business goals.

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