Charities spend millions of pounds spreading the word about their work, but are they getting the most out of their communications? Andy Hillier asks four experts to reveal ten trade secrets
The latest UK Civil Society Almanac from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations estimates that voluntary sector organisations spent £3.2bn on fundraising and publicity in 2010. Overall, this represented 8.8 per cent of their income. With so many charities vying to tell the wider world about their cause, trying to get your charity's message out to potential donors and supporters can be a challenge. So how do charities make sure that their communications campaigns reach their target audience and have the desired effect? We asked charity communications experts for their top tips.
1. Do we need to need to bother?
The first question that any charity embarking on a communications campaign should ask is "why bother running one at all?" Peter Gilheany, director at Forster Communications, says that charities need to interrogate their reasons and ask how the campaign will further their work.
Brian Lamb, a communications consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board, says: "It's amazing how many people leap into campaigns thinking they need to let people know about an issue, but without asking if it is really a communications campaign."
2. Set specific goals
It can be tempting for charities to set themselves lots of general goals for their communications campaigns, such as improving awareness of their work or increasing donation levels, but they should really set themselves specific, measurable targets. Estelle McCartney, director at Champollion, a communications and PR agency that works with a range of charities and foundations, says: "Be clear about what you're trying to achieve. For example, is it about changing public behaviour or raising awareness?"
McCartney recommends setting key performance indicators at the start of the campaign to help monitor its effectiveness.
3. Identify your target audience
Charities should never think of communicating to 'the public'. Instead, Lamb argues, they should always think of specific audiences that they want to reach with their campaigns. "If you do that, there's much more chance that you'll focus the message on who will receive it," he says.
Gilheany believes that charities should think about separating their target audience into two groups: the "end audience" and the "intermediate audience". The end audience is the group of people that a charity ultimately wants to reach, and the intermediate audience is the group that can help it to reach the end audience. "If charities want ministers to change a particular policy, it can be best to try to communicate with constituency MPs first," says Gilheany.
4. Understand how your audience communicates
Charities will often have their default methods of communication, but they really need to think about the best ways of reaching their intended audience. Gilheany points out that there's a tendency for charities to use social media for lots of their campaigning work, but he cautions against a one-size-fits-all approach. "If you really interrogate the audience and how they communicate, you might actually discover that they don't use Facebook or Twitter," he says. "You might be better using community notice boards on local high streets, for example."
Champollion's McCartney says charities need to find out where their target audience is getting its information from. She asks: "Are people most likely to be online, or reading the tabloids or specialist journals?"
5. Don't rely on facts and figures alone
Too many charity campaigns use facts to communicate their central message, argues Lamb. But he believes that charities are in danger of drowning people in facts. "We sometimes think that the facts are going to switch people's values or change behaviour immediately, but facts alone will not win your argument," he says.
Instead, charities need to back up their campaign messages with a strong narrative, such as personal stories that tug at the heart-strings of the audience. Lamb adds, though, that it's important for such stories to fit the audience's own set of values. "One reader might see a feckless poor person and another might see someone who wasn't given the right support at school," he says. "There's no use having a narrative that will clash with someone's value base."
Caroline Gibbs, head of planning at The Good Agency, a communications agency whose clients include WaterAid, says: "You need to come up with a proposition that's compelling for the audience."
6. Only shock when absolutely necessary
Lots of charities use shock tactics to get their message across, but they could be doing more harm than good to their cause. A study conducted by OnePoll in 2011 found that only 11 per cent of respondents felt that charities needed to use shock tactics to get their message across.
"The more that you try to create a sense of shock out of something that isn't shocking, the more the public feels manipulated," says Lamb. McCartney says: "Using shock tactics might work in a disaster scenario, for example, but we'd try to deal with difficult issues in a sensitive way that can be supported by evidence."
7. Communication is a two-way thing
The growth of social media means there are more opportunities than ever before to get your target audience involved with campaigns and provide feedback. Gilheany says charities need to make the most of this opportunity. "Communication has to be a two-way thing," he says. "You need to get your audience involved because they will help to amplify the reach."
McCartney says that the rise of social media means the public wants to be talked with rather than talked to. "It's no longer a case of you broadcasting your key messages at them and hoping that they get picked up," she says.
8. Be creative
Trying to get your cause to stand out in a crowded market can be tough, so it is important to think creatively. The Good Agency's Gibbs says: "There's an orthodoxy in charity communications, but you do have to think harder and smarter if your budget is small. If you want to break the mould, you have to take a few risks."
Help for Heroes, the charity for injured military personnel founded in 2007, shows what can be achieved with relatively limited resources, she says. "It has built its brand largely on the back of relationships with celebrities and media partners rather than spending huge amounts on media campaigns," says Gibbs.
9. Tell people how they're making a difference
There's a tendency among charities to forget to thank people for their help or say how they've made a difference. Gibbs says: "The comedian Alan Davies joked that once you've given to a charity, the subtext of any subsequent communication is that whatever you gave the last time, it wasn't enough."
She says that charities have a tendency to "bombard people with demands", but don't tell donors and supporters where their money has been spent and the change it has made.
10. Review and evaluate
Charities need to make sure that there's the time and money to evaluate the success of campaigns at key stages. This is often overlooked in the day-to-day management of a campaign, says Gilheany.
He says that charities sometimes get lots of coverage or support for their campaigns and everyone seems really pleased, but when they evaluate their impact, they appear to have had no effect. "You need to lift your head up from it all and ask what is working and what isn't."
Finally, don't be inflexible about your campaigns, either. "If it's not working, change it," says Gilheany.
Caroline Gibbs, head of planning at The Good Agency. She has 15 years' experience working on a variety of brands, including WWF and Cancer Research UK.
Peter Gilheany, director at Forster Communications. He has spent 16 years in charity marketing and PR, including spells at CSV and The Giving Campaign.
Brian Lamb, communications consultant, chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board and author of The Good Guide to Campaigning and Influencing.
Estelle McCartney, director at Champollion. She has been in political communications and PR for a decade, working across a range of issues, from climate change to the Olympic legacy.
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