Monday, January 4, 2010

Back to Business: Get the Message Out!

Welcome, friends, to 2010.  Here's hoping it's successfull and prosperous in many ways.  There, resolution number 1, completed.  New Years greeting, check.  Surviving the holidays, check.  Surviving the New Year weekend festivities with minor emotional and physical injuries, check.  Now onto more meaningful resolutions, such as; helping small businesses and non-profits figure out how to effectively handle their own public relations.

I posted an entry last week that dealt with pitch-timing and got some good response, thank you all who sent thoughts and feedback.  One of the main questions I received focused on a very short section in that entry dealing with an organization's message.  Many of you wondered exactly what a message is and how it can be used to help your pr efforts.  It's an excellent question and one that is perfect to kick off the new year with.

What is the message?

First, here's what the message is NOT.  It is not your mission statement.  While your mission statement may (and probably should) influence your message, they are not one and the same.  We'll get to an example in a minute, but before I get there, here are a few things you should know when putting together your message.

1.  Your organization will have several "messages" depending on what audience you're targeting.
2.  Despite having several audiences and messages that appeal to them, you still have to have one overriding message that encompasses them all.
3.  The message has to be meaningful to both you, your staff and to the public at large.
4.  The message must be simple, yet powerful.
5.  The message must be memorable.

Sounds easy enough, right?  You are probably sitting there thinking, "This sounds way more difficult that I thought it would be, Chris."  It may sound like upper level engineering, but it's not.  I'll walk you through it, and together, we'll help you put together a top-notch message for your organization.  Deal?  Deal.

Creating Your Message

First, think about your organization.  What does it do?  How does it go about doing it?  Most importantly, ask yourself WHY does your organization do what it does.  Let's take a non-profit for example.  Let's say this non-profit raises funds to help finance arts in public schools.  They may have a mission statement that goes something like; "Bucks for Bands is dedicated to raising money to aid in the funding of arts and music programs in lower income public schools."  That's pretty basic.  Most mission statements I've seen set out in black and white exactly what the organization is supposed to do.  In this case, the organization raises money to fund arts programs.  But is that the message?  In a word, no.

You might ask why and I'll tell you.  You see, a message isn't designed only to tell people what you do, but also why you do it, and sometimes how you go about doing it.  A mission statement tells people what you do, while a message tells people what you do AND inspires people to get on board with you.

Remember the entry about storytelling?  The Who, What and Where play essential roles in telling that story, but it's the How and the Why that makes the story interesting.  The same holds true for the message.  WHY does "Bucks for Bands" feel so strongly about their cause?  How do they raise money to help them meet their goals?  These are important questions that you have to answer when trying to convince folks to donate money or volunteer or generally support you.

Maybe the organization feels that arts is crucial to the learning process, teaching creativity and all that.  And maybe they have some very unique methods of going about raising money outside of bake sales and donor drives.  Let's assume these are both true.  Then the message might look something like this:

"We want to improve the overall level of education in our schools by supporting arts programs through time, money and cooperation with public schools across Colorado."   This isn't a completed message by any means, but it's a great start.  It tells people immediately why they are involved in their cause, and, even if vaguely, what methods they are trying to meet their goals.  Suddenly this organization becomes more attractive to people who, otherwise, might not have had any interest in laying down $100 bucks to help a kid buy fingerpaints. 

The message has expanded the audience.  Who doesn't want to improve the overall level of education in our schools?  Who doesn't believe that it takes more than just money to solve a problem?  Now, even those who might not have the cash to support, feel like they can be involved in some way to help a cause they also find important.

Business Messages:

Some feel that creating a message for a non-profit is easier since they tend to be more socially active.  This is a silly notion.  Creating a message for a business is just like creating one for a non-profit.  You still focus on the who and what, the how's and the why's. 

In some ways, it can be easier to put together a message for a small business for the simple reason that location is often much more focused.  For brick and mortar businesses, they can focus on an audience that is nearby.  For online businesses, the challenge becomes a bit harder.

Case studies - small businesses

Okay, so you own a sandwich shop.  It's nothing huge, but it's your world, and you believe you have some of the best sandwiches around.  Heck, that might even be in your mission statement; "To provide the best quality sandwiches available at an affordable price."  Or maybe you own a dry cleaners and your mission is to offer timely high-quality cleaning.

As a small business owner, you've gone through this process before.  You have a service, it's a service you believe people want or need, and and you believe you can deliver that product in a way that is affordable and better than most everyone else.  So, ask yourself WHY you do what you do.  Do you do it because you love your job?  Do you do it because you have a high skill in what you do?  Both?  List the positive things about your business.  Here's a list of the things I like to see in the businesses I frequent.

Highly knowledgable
Friendly and outgoing
Fast and timely
They listen to the customer

This is my list, but it's a good bet that, since I'm like most everyone else, most everyone else's list is going to be very similar.  Of course you can't put all of those things into your overriding message, but you can pick out the ones you're really good at.

Let's say your sandwich shop is very open to feedback and is very affordable and you have a great location.  And let's say that your dry-cleaning store has a very experienced and knowledgable staff, and is also very friendly and outgoing.  Now you have some basics to build your message on.

Step one - Focus on why you own your business
Step two - Identify the biggest positives of your business
Step three - Identify what makes you unique

Step four - Identify the audience you want to reach

Let's face it, the success of most small businesses hinge on the customers that live and work in the immediate vicinity.  Most likely, your primary audience is going to be these people.  You have to give them a reason to choose you over your competition in the same area.  That's why it's so important to figure out what makes you unique, something different than the others.

Back to the sandwich shop.  You love what you do, you feel like your sandwiches are the best around and you're local and affordable.  But just about every sandwich shop owner is going to say the same things.  What separates you from the others?  Do you specialize in a healthier kind of sandwich.  Are your ingredients different than what other sandwich shops use?  Do you bake your own bread?  Did you start up your shop in your neighborhood because you wanted to help it grow economically? 

Let's say you started your shop because you wanted to offer customers a healthier, more affordable alternative to sandwiches than Quizno's or Subway or the other local shops.  Now you have the meat of your message.  It might look like this:

"Pete's Sandwiches is a neighborhood, family run place that serves our community by providing food that is affordable for families and provides a healthy alternative to fast food."

Again, this isn't a finished message, but in this rough draft, the message says a lot.  It tells potential customers that you are family-oriented, that you are part of their community, that you understand the financial burdens they may face, and that you provide healthy alternatives they can afford.  Heck, your message might be something as simple as, "Pete's Sandwiches is proving that fast food doesn't have to be fattening and healthy food doesn't have to be expensive." 

The dry-cleaners may be unique because it uses a special formula or perhaps it caters to a specific audience such as high end clients with delicate clothing or everyday workers that need to look good to advance in their careers.  Their message may be, "Jerry's Cleaners uses high quality formulas to keep the business-person looking like a million dollars without spending a million dollars."  This message identifies who they are targeting and why they are a better choice than other cleaners, focusing on the high qaulity of their work and affordability.

These messages may seem like advertising slogans, and in a way, they are.  One just needs to look at the highly successfull Geico commercials to understand why a message is so important.  "So easy a caveman can do it" isn't so much of a pr message as it is an advertising gimmick, but it gets the point across nonetheless.  But Geico didn't stop with that one message.  They continued on to include commercials aimed at different generations of users.  Their lizard campaign, their famous spokesperson campaign, their recent film noir campaign, are all aimed at different types of audiences.  Taken together their message is clear, we are accessible to all types of people, old, young, stupid, smart, bad drivers, good drivers...in the end, Geico is easy to use, just try us out.  They don't focus on affordability, they left that market to Progressive who seems to have that area cornered.  Instead they went towards accessibility and ease, and it works.

Filling in the Gaps:

Now you have a basic message.  But it doesn't give the potential customer or donor the entire picture of your organization.  Like all entities, your business or non-profit is complex, probably way too complex to be boiled completely down into one or two sentences.  This is where the supporting messages come in.

In the above examples for the sandwich shop and dry cleaners, we put together a basic message for them.  But the owners have other, more specific goals or ideas, that may be attractive to specific audiences.  This is where the secondary messages come into play. 

The sandwich shop has already explained in its primary message that it is family friendly, affordable, healthy, community-oriented.  The secondary messages can play up a specific aspect of something in the primary message or it can address something completely different.  For instance:

The sandwich shop can address how it's healthy in a secondary message by saying something like:  "We grow our own vegetables to ensure the freshness and quality of our product."  or "We deal with only local farmer in an effort to support our local economy and ensure quality and freshness."  Both are equally good messages.  You then follow up this message with supporting facts, such as, what farms you deal with or how and where you grow your veggies.  These secondary messages are more like statements that expound upon your primary message. 

For the non-profit example, one secondary message could be, "Bucks for Bands utilizes local teachers and volunteers to provide free arts education whenever possible to enhance the student's learning experience." 

The dry cleaners secondary message could be, "Jerry's Cleaners draws upon its vast experience to carefully handle those hard to clean clothing items that mean so much to you, our customers."

Each of these secondary messages must have some facts to support the message, otherwise they're just statements with no meaning.  People will ask, and you should be prepared to answer them quickly and honestly.

The message isn't just about letting people know who you are.  It's about being prepared.  If you have your messages in place, complete with supporting facts, you will be able to answer any question thrown your way without hesitation.  Plus, when speaking to the public, whether it's through a media interview or online or face to face, you will be able to use your message to tell people about who you are, what you do and why and how you do it, in a clear and concise manner.

For another type of message design, go here.  This is called the message pyramid, and is used primarily when dealing with a crisis situation.  But it can also be used as a primary message builder.  

Using your message:

Okay, so now you have your message and secondary messages and supporting facts.  What do you do with it?  The first thing to do is memorize it.  commit it to memory.  Then start playing with it.  Figure out different ways to say exactly the same thing.  You won't always be able to say the exact same phrase every time you're face to face with potential customers or other shareholders.  Understand that while it would be great to be able to rattle off, verbatim, your pre-prepared message all the time, it's simply impossible.  Knowing different ways to say the same thing will help you come across as more more natural and personable, something potential customers really like.

Second, you have to start integrating your message into everything you do.  Your message, or some aspect of it, has to be on all of your collateral, it has to be on your website, it has to be inclued in quotes you give to reporters and in speeches you give to donors.  Everything you do and say that relates to your organization must have some aspect of your message in it.  This isn't as hard as it sounds and you'd be surprised at how often you probably do this already, without even knowing you're doing it. 

Third, practice using your message.  Practice throwing something from your message into every conversation you have about your organization.  This does a couple of things.  It helps you memorize it better, it will also help you become more natural at spreading your message without sounding overly scripted.  The less scripted you sound in conversation, the more trustworthy you seem.

Four, repeat, repeat, repeat.  Politicians have long known the secret to success is to have a strong message and then repeat that message until you can't repeat it any more, and then repeat it again and again.  Politicians like to say that if you repeat something enough times, it becomes truth.  While we're not in the business of lying, we ARE in the business of attracting customers, and repeating your message will do that.

When I used to dj, the jocks would get sick of a song after a week or so of playing a new hit.  But just as the jocks would get sick of a song, the public started to take notice.  Only after repeated plays would songs actually start to gain popularity.  It's not that the song sucked and people just warmed up to it, it's just that it took time for enough people to hear it to remember it, and make it popular.  Folks may not buy a song after hearing it once, they may like it, but they're not plunking down money to buy it right away.  But after hearing it over and over, it becomes something they are comfortable with, something they really enjoy, something worth buying.

A message is very similar.  People need to hear your message over and over.  It's not enough to just hit everybody once with your message.  It's like the old adage in advertising; It's more important that a few people hear your message repeatedly than to have a lot of people hear your message once.  When people go to your website, they have to see your message, then they can hear it in your interviews and discussions and they can see it again online. 

Writing your message and the secondary messages is one of the most important things you can do when putting together your own public relations or social media/marketing campaigns.  Just having a message will put you ahead of the game and most likely set you apart from your competitors who might simply have only a mission statement. 

Your message will give your organization a face, it will show potential customers heart and transparency and will give your potential customers accessibility to you and build loyalty, which is so important to success.  If you start with a strong message, you are already on the path to success in 2010.

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