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Achieving Relevance: Understanding and Connecting With Constituents

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Know whom you serve, and why they care.

Much more than just "your customers" or "your audience," your constituents are all the people for whom your work is meaningful—the internal and external populations whose interest, participation, and advocacy are important to your stability, growth, and long-term success.

Many of these people know you through your products, programs, and services—or because they're staff or volunteers—but some know you only through how you communicate and through the reviews, posts, tweets, and comments of others.

Whether you're a for-profit or nonprofit enterprise, your goal is to have relationships with your constituents—to move beyond transactions. But as your organization evolves and engages in more areas of endeavor (it's rare for a business to do one thing these days), the challenge is to start and nurture more relationships than ever before.

Doing so successfully requires that you have two-way conversations with your constituents—dialogues. It's not enough to push out communications from headquarters. To have conversations that are meaningful, you need to know who your constituents really are. You need to learn what they care about, what moves them, what keeps them up at night, how they like to be communicated with, and what your value to them is—or could be.


You're Not Monolithic; Neither Are Your Constituents

Like your organization, your constituents are not monolithic. They're complicated and multifaceted. And while articulating who you are and what you provide is very important, it's only part of the equation.

Organizations that are successful at maintaining varied relationships are skilled at understanding the individual brands of their different constituents, and at determining the corresponding "ways in" that meet people where they're coming from. The most fruitful conversations are based on shared values and expectations.

Find Your "Way In"

Who are the different groups you must successfully engage? What is it they care about? What do they stand for? What do they want to accomplish? What about your organization will burnish their personal brands?

As discussed in "Gaining Insight Through Research," research, observation, and listening are important. Quantitative research (and looking at your records) will tell you what customers have done in the past. Qualitative conversations with important stakeholders are a great way to uncover the essence of why people are—or may come to be—engaged with you.

If you're a for-profit business, ask your customers why they do business with you and what would be missing should you suddenly disappear from the market. Ask your lapsed customers why they've gone in another direction. If you're a nonprofit organization, ask your board members, current donors, and volunteers why they give their dollars, time, and energy—and why they don't give more. Talk to members and program participants to find out why they're involved and what you could do to bring them even closer.

Don't shy away from what's real, warts and all.

All organizations should talk to their important internal constituents, too, both to engage them further in shared goals and to draw out what they know about external constituents. An eye-opening exercise: Ask your customer service and other front-line people which questions they fear the most from customers. You'll quickly find where you need to do some work...

Across all your internal and external sleuthing, strive to find the points of emotional connection.

The answers you'll hear will surely vary from person to person, but you'll likely find a handful of common threads to help you group constituents (and organize communications) by what they care about and value—a much more useful segmentation than knowing whether they're soccer moms and drive SUVs.

Identify the five or six high-level reasons why people engage with you. Try to determine the core values of the people in each group. What is it they wish most to achieve? What is relevant or urgent for them? These are the "ways in" to your organization.

Consider a mutual fund company. Registered Investment Advisors have different needs and expectations than do broker/dealers, or institutional customers, or retail customers and prospects. Each group interacts with the company a different way, for different reasons, and has different expectations as a result.

The same is true in the nonprofit world. While a majority of a symphony orchestra's constituents are engaged because of the music, there's likely a significant population who care more about the social opportunities that a night out at the symphony provides, or about the symphony's education and outreach efforts, or about the performance space and its maintenance.

To most effectively encourage relationships, communications should be "tilted" to address the specific needs and values of each sub-group, providing them with the "ways in" that speak to what they care most about.

Where Are They?

Once you've determined the "ways in" to your organization for different constituent groups, it's important to also consider their distance from you. Constituent-focused communications must meet people where they are.

Knowing where people are in this common sales continuum will help you tune your messages and materials to be more effective:

awareness > comprehension > participation > loyalty > advocacy (marketing) and/or support (nonprofit development)

People at different distances from you have different information needs. You need to engage long-time customers/patrons differently than you do new or potential customers/patrons.

Article Series:
Branding in the Age of Social

Your customers—your communities—have new expectations. They want to (actually!) interact with your organization. They want to know what they want to know—when they want to know it. And, as always, they want to know, and feel, how your organization and its brand align with their personal brands and values.

Achieving that alignment has always been critical to effective brand-building. But it's not enough to design a new logo, snappy tagline, brochures, and website (it never was).

Brand-building in this social age—social branding—goes beyond social, or even digital, media. It's about deliberately aligning your and your constituents' expectations and values, not just in communications but at the core of how your organization sees and organizes itself, how it behaves, and how it delivers on its core purpose.

In this article series, we'll outline the seven pieces of the social branding process and how each step can work hard to maximize the connections between not only you and your customers but also the connections between your customers and their trusted friends and peers (in other words, to maximize "social capital").

The series culminates with an online seminar in April, "7 Steps to Take Your Brand Social... and Still Be in Control," where you'll learn how to evaluate and develop your strategy for building your social brand.

Tamsen McMahon
Director of Strategic Initiatives
Sametz Blackstone Associates

Back to the symphony example: you wouldn't send an introductory, overview piece to a long-time patron; nor would you want to send a request for a five-figure gift to someone who's only attended one event. To do so would risk alienating both types of constituents—possibly forever.

Similarly, a long-term, for-profit customer is likely looking to learn about a specific offering, not "about us." But someone who is casting about for a partner does want to know about your history and values.

These examples are obvious, but they illustrate the importance of understanding, and acknowledging, the span and nature of your constituents' distance from you when developing a brand-focused, relationship-building communications program.

Getting Closer

By understanding the brands of your constituents—what they care about, what they're out to achieve, how your brand can advance theirs—and by being sensitive to the different distances people sit from you, you can find opportunities for dialogue where constituent interests and values intersect with yours, and offer "ways in" that feel personal and relevant for constituents old and new.

The goal, of course, is to close the distance between your organization and the people whose interest and support matter most—to both influence thinking that translates to action on your behalf and build a corps of engaged advocates, inside and outside your organization, who will spread the word.

* * *

Understanding who you are, where you want to go, and the needs and values of key constituents are critical components to building your brand, but are not, in themselves, sufficient.

In our next installment, we delve into how to build a brand foundation—and then, subsequently, building on this foundation and what we've learned about constituents, we'll give guidance on how to construct a flexible, memorable messaging structure.


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Brandon Walsh is manager of strategy at Sametz Blackstone Associates (www.sametz.com), a Boston-based brand-focused communications firm that integrates strategy, design, and technology to help evolving organizations navigate change. Reach him via brandon@sametz.com, 617-266-8577, and @calmstock.

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