funding sign for nonprofits

How can nonprofits benefit from Inbound Marketing?

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For purposes of this blog post, when I refer to nonprofits, I’m not talking about large universities or regional hospitals with a dozen satellite campuses. Most of those operate as nonprofits, but they do, indeed, have large, well-established marketing departments. Their use of inbound marketing would be the subject of another post.

Rather, I’m talking about local nonprofit agencies, the type that are often affiliated with the arts or some type of social service agency. Every town has them.

Over the past 20 years, I have served on the boards of several of these NPOs. In the early years, none did any real marketing. No one on staff was charged with marketing because there was no money allocated for it. These organizations believed that marketing was beyond what a nonprofit should do. “We direct all of our resources to serve our clients,” was a refrain I heard over and over again.

I tried to drag as many of these organizations into the 20th century as I could. I was aided by a new wave of newly minted marketing majors, fresh out of college, who wanted to work in the public or nonprofit sector. These young people understood that marketing is a legitimate business function that every organization needs. They understood that marketing obtained entirely pro-bono often times wasn’t effective.

Progress has come slowly

In the last five to ten years, I find more and more nonprofits that have embraced marketing fully. What that means is that they have an employee (or more) responsible for managing it, and they have a budget line for it. What’s more, most of them have some understanding of whether their marketing is paying off or not.

Economics is the mother science of marketing, and economics is all about the allocation of scarce resources. So the smarter nonprofits are the ones that know they are competing with many other organizations for scarce resources, like donors, dollars, volunteers and members.

CEOs of nonprofit agencies wrestle with the idea of marketing. Intellectually, they understand its importance. They even understand that they need marketing services if they are to survive and grow. Yet they are wary of its lack of measurability and the uncertainly that surrounds it. “We tried advertising once, and it just didn’t pay off.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from a board member or head of a nonprofit.

If you’re one of these CEOs, you might find comfort knowing that for-profit businesses share the same concerns. They, too, have seen the response to traditional marketing decline, and they, too, are concerned about the imprecise nature of marketing – that so little of it seems to be measurable.

These reasons are precisely why you need to educate yourself about inbound marketing. Everything that happens online is traceable, and every action can be measured. What nonprofits need is the training and software tools to embark on the path of inbound marketing with confidence, knowing that they will be able to calculate its return on investment.

In order to gain all the advantages inbound marketing offers, NPOs need to completely rethink their marketing strategy. They need a new paradigm to consider, one that will stand long-held assumptions on their head. Those with the courage to explore this new world will find rich rewards.

Blogging and social media publishing and creating more content on their website will vastly expand their reach and their website traffic. These tools will generate leads in whatever form the nonprofit is targeting. These leads could be donors, volunteers, members, program participants or any number of personas – but each will have a value to the organization.

Lead nurturing email campaigns conducted through permission-based email marketing will nurture these leads until they become comfortable enough to make that first personal introduction. (Chalk up one newly acquired stakeholder, created online without paid advertising, but through the attraction of inbound marketing.) And a full package of analytics will let you track and measure every action and outcome.

Of course, inbound marketing is not free. There are software costs, training, and implementation expenses involved. But these are a fraction of what agencies will spend on other forms of marketing. And for once, nonprofit organizations will have marketing capabilities far more sophisticated and effective than they ever thought possible.

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