October 18, 2019
To Nab Attention, Sharpen Your Niche

By Joseph Barbato

Your phone rings, and the caller says he’s with the American Red Cross. He’s a stranger, but you know something about him already. He’s with a credible and praiseworthy organization that’s done good work helping victims of disasters from hurricanes to the terror attacks of 9/11.

If your caller was from the New York Public Library or the Mayo Clinic, you’d know a bit about him too. You’d feel comfortable taking the call. These are institutions that have won public recognition and trust.

What do people think when you call? Do you have to explain what your organization does? Must you do so at length? Does that trouble you? It should.

Not every nonprofit can be world renowned. Few are. But when you reach out to talk to the movers and shakers who matter to you, you don’t want them to say, Huh? If they do, you have a problem. You need a higher public profile. And getting that profile is hard unless you have a specific niche.

Your niche is that highly focused corner of society where you do your thing. The Red Cross saves lives. Amnesty International safeguards human rights. The Getty Museum showcases great art. Well-known organizations generally do one thing very well. That one thing may have many components. But it forms a secure and overarching niche.

If your organization’s work has a scattershot quality—if it does a little of this, some of that, and a few things in particular—that’s not surprising.

Organizations evolve and add new programs over time. Often their growth is opportunistic – not strategic. They may drift from their missions, wander down tangential lanes, and find themselves engaged in activities that, well, don’t really fit their main purpose.

I’m reminded of a client that served the health information needs of Latinos across the country. That was a pretty tight niche in itself. But as time passed the group expanded its programs in response to new opportunities. They began offering classes on employment, housing, legal, and other issues of concern to their audience.

All organizations do it. But each new initiative took the health group further and further away from its central purpose. Now, they have to explain why they do certain things.

If your organization is at such a point, it may be time to refocus your niche. Sometimes that means hiring marketing consultants or even changing your name – a major step. At other times, however, you just have to look at your programs and determine which really matter – which ones are making a significant contribution. Maybe some should be folded into others.

Fortunately, most organizations don’t need a complete overhaul to sharpen their niche. They just have to trim a few loose ends to get sleek and simple – and memorable.

When you have a well-defined niche, good things happen. The next editor you call will already know exactly what you do. His only question will be what great story you’re bringing him about that.

Hone your niche. It will grease the skid for your publicity successes.

Take Inventory

What does your organization do? I mean really do? Chances are, you think you know, but don’t.

Sure, your membership brochure outlines some key program areas. But your website and annual reports talk about new directions. And your newsletter keeps reporting on events that depart from your traditional offerings of just a few years ago.

In today’s society, change occurs at the speed of an instant message. Quite possibly, so much has changed about your organization –as you try to accommodate the evolving needs of the people you serve – that you’re not really talking to the media about who you now are.

Given a big budget, you could do an entire branding exercise, including focus groups and in-depth research to identify your particular hook. Without doubt, that sort of expensive undertaking can help. But you can hone in on your group’s identity just as easily by taking a few simple steps.

A relatively simple one is to engage a small group of trusted board and staff members in the process of taking inventory (if you can recruit a public relations expert, pro bono, all the better).

This group of a half dozen or so people serves as an investigative team. Their aim is to examine all aspects of your organization’s activities and pinpoint the outstanding services that define its main role and contribution to the field.

Their tasks include:
  • Reading key printed materials of the past few years. What is the organization saying about itself in its annual report, newsletters, and press releases? What would an outside person think are its main strengths?

  • Visiting a range of the organization’s programs and talking with participants. What’s special about the programs? How do participants benefit? How do the programs touch their lives?

  • Interviewing key staff and board members as well as outsiders, including foundation heads and corporate donors, who know the organization well - asking each to describe what comes to mind when thinking about the organization. What do they admire about it? Why?
I’ve engaged in this process with many clients, and the results are often surprising. Some discover that their current printed materials describe one conception of their organization – the idealized (and near-obsolete) one of yore. Further, on-site program visits reveal new directions that have changed the group’s identity considerably. And interviews with key figures sometimes show that the organization isn’t touting its real strengths.

I remember listening to the divergent takes on the work of a Washington, D.C. think tank from two of its board members. One thought the group’s policy papers were having a significant impact in shaping the nation’s energy policies. The other lamented the think tank’s inconsequential efforts to shape policy, but was excited about its role as a catalyst for the broad energy community. As it happens, serving as a catalyst for others through seminars and conferences had in fact surpassed the group’s direct contribution to policy making.

Failure to recognize what your organization does best can limit your ability to tell your story. If you lack a clear understanding of what matters, what is a journalist to think when you come calling?

This article is excerpted from Joseph Barbato’s book, Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves, published by Emerson & Church. For more information, visit www.emersonandchurch.com or call 508-359-0019.

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