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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reaching Out With Power!

Ahh, it's almost springtime, baseball is in the air, the cold, miserable days of winter are, seemingly, behind us.  It's these times when our minds wander.  We begin to think about phoning it in for a day, hitting the slopes one last time, hosting a barbecue and volleyball in the park, taking the family for bicycle outing.  But, alas, work beckons and so we hit the office, perhaps still daydreaming about enjoying the glorious weather outside.

Spring and summer are great times of year for small businesses and non-profits, if you can capitalize on the activity and energy of your constituencies.  One of the best ways to tap into all this energy is to host an event, preferably an outside event.  Something fun, something that will be a draw to your regulars and attract others who might never have heard of you before.

Don't look now, but you've just stepped in a big pile of public relations.  I know, I hear you.  "But how is a picnic considered public relations?"  Patience, grasshopper.  First, think of all of the outdoor events you go to during the course of your spring, summer and fall?  There are community gatherings, parades, civic events, holiday activities, the list goes on and on.  Now think about how many new products and services you are exposed to while you're at those events.  New restaurants, new drinks, new services, they're all around you.

We also know that nothing trumps face to face, one on one meetings when it comes to customers, donors and others who impact your bottom line.  You can look someone in the eye, shake their hand and make a genuine human connection without a computer, television, radio or newspaper coming between you.  Face to face meetings drive customer loyalty and are more memorable.  Plus, it helps put a human fae on your organization, making it more relatable to potential customers, donors, volunteers, etc.

What we're talking here is an element of public relations called community outreach, and it's perhaps the most powerful tool you have in your PR arsenal. 

All the news coverage in the world will only go so far when it comes to truly capturing customer loyalty.  You might draw a lot of interest, but that kind of interest goes away fairly quickly when not backed up with other forms of social media or public relations effort.  Simply put, people forget what they read and hear and see in the blink of an eye in today's fast paced world.  But back up a news report or magazine article with a community outreach appearance, and suddenly your organization begins to gain in name recognition and credibility.

How it works:

There are multiple reasons for choosing to do a community outreach event.  It could be part of an image makeover, a follow up to a media blitz, an educational event, it can even be used as a crisis management tool.  Regardless of how many different reasons there are, there are really only three ways to approach any community outreach effort from a logistics aspect.

1.  Participatory
2.  Self-orchestrated
3.  One on one

Let's start with the least time-consuming and least expensive of the two; Participatory.

In Denver, there are several large events that take place all year long, starting in January and running all the way to the last week of December.  Each one is a great opportunity for small businesses and non-profits to get out and press the flesh, meeting as many people as possible, getting the word out about you and what you do.

However, not all events are good fits for all organizations.  For instance, if you're a non-profit specializing in education funding for the arts, a Fourth of July picnic might not be the best place to set up a booth.  It wouldn't be the worst idea in the world, but you'll be surrounded by families enjoying the height of summer.  Schools and funding aren't necessarily at the top of their priority list at that time.

However, the Parade of Lights in December might be a great place to be since it's a parade that features many local high schools.  Events in August and September are also a great place to start.  How about the annual Taste of Colorado event?  Would that be a good idea?  Perhaps, but an even better event would be the People's Fair or Cherry Creek Arts Festival since it features arts and crafts and music from around the region.  You'll be dealing with a crowd that is either involved in the arts, or has a passion for the arts.  People who understand the value of funding for arts in public schools. 

You'll get a lot more bang fory our buck by participating in events that are somehow linked to what your non-profit or small business does.  Taking part in pre-existing events can be real boon to you on a number of fronts.  Here are some of the positives of hosting a participatory community outreach event:

1.  There are a vast number of different scheduled events taking place throughout the year.
2.  Find two or three that have close ties, philosophically, to your organization
3.  You don't have to worry about the set up, licenses, permits or other logistics
4.  You don't have to spend the money on logistics, security, licenses, permits, etc.
5.  Much of the marketing is handled by the promoters of the event.  Anything you do on top of that is a bonus.

Here are some of the cons:


1.  Registration and booth fees can be expensive, depending on the particular event
2.  You have little to no control over your placement at the event
3.  You may get lost in the shuffle of a large event, lessening your return on investment (ROI)

For small businesses and non-profits, the best strategy is to find smaller events that take place within a few miles of your organization and share philosophies or goals similar to yours.  Smaller events tend not to be as expensive to take part in and you're less likely to get lost in a crowd of other booths, businesses and organizations.

Self-Orchestrated:

The self-orchestrated event is exactly what it sounds like.  It's an event hosted by you for a select audience.  These can be highly successfull and, as the name suggests, places the focus of your event squarely on you.  One of the big mistakes I've seen clients do over the years when putting together a self-orchestrated event is that they don't accept help when it's available. 

Part of being the host of an event is also being able to decide who to partner with.  Partnerships for larger events is not only helpful, it's absolutely vital.  Local banks, other organizations with similar goals and philosophies, even local media outlets are great partners to have when hosting your own event. 

This may sound like a contradiction, but you should seek out partners when putting together a self-orchestrated community outreach event.  In the end, the responsibility still lies with you, as does the control.  But teaming up with other organizations who perhaps have some experience with self-orchestrated events is always a good idea, at least your first couple of times.

Here are the positives to handling a self-orchestrated event:

1.  You have control over the event, including entertainment, goals and partners
2.  The focus is on you, your organization and your goals and philospohy
3.  Any success adds credibility and recognition directly to your organization

Now, some of the cons:

1.  Depending on the size of your event, it can get expensive, particularly if you need to purchase permits, licenses, pay for entertainment, food, alcohol, insurance, etc.  This is where having partners can greatly reduce your overall investment in both time and money.
2.  Any failure directly on you and your organization, moreso than any partners or other participants.

Clearly this is a high-risk-high-reward type of situation.  If your event is a success, then you get all the accolades.  If it is a failure, it falls squarely upon your shoulders.

So perhaps we need to take a moment and look at how you define success for a community outreach event.  Whether it's one you sign up to be a part of, or one you host yourself, you have to have a goal in mind.  For some it may simply be to spread your name to potential new customers, donors or volunteers.  But for others, there may be a more focused goal.  Perhaps to help remake your image or to spread a specific message.  Knowing WHY you want to host or participate in a community outreach event will help you choose the right venues, the appropriate entertainment and the correct partners. 

For a lot of organizations, the closest they get to community outreach events is participating in industry trade shows.  These are fine, but they might not meet your goals.  In the end, however, the strategies don't differ all that much.  Regardless of what your goals are, you want to get noticed.  You have your own reasons why, but the bottom line is, you want people to notice you, listen to your message, take an interest in your organization on some level.  You also want people to remember you after they've left the event.  Here are some tips to help you catch the attention of event-goers and help them remember you after they've gone:

1.  Be visible.  Even if an event places you in a corner, next to the port-o-potties, take advantage of wherever you are and get people's attention.  Play music, play video (always a winner, people will always stop to watch a good video) have a microphone and interact with passers-by.  Whatever you do, make yourself visible.


2.  Have a clear, concise message that will stick with people.  You only have a few seconds to get through to event-goers.  Your slogan or message should be, again, visible, easy to understand and they should know exactly what you do immediately after reading it. 

3.  Have collateral.  This is a fancy way of saying, have business cards and pamphlets.  But everyone has those items.  Try and make your collateral stand out in some way.  For example there is a company in Denver that specializes in small business education.  It is called "SEEDS".  The first time I met the owner, he handed me a business card, which was a seed packet for peas, with his information on the front.  It stuck with me.  It's memorable.  You don't have to give away cameras, or big screen TV's to be memorable.  Something simple but creative does the trick as well.

4.  With that said, give people a reason to find your booth.  Raffle off something enticing.  People will go to great lengths to get something free, or to find a great deal.  This is why silent auctions tend to be fairly successful.  People can support a cause or business they like and at the same time, get something of value.  There's a reason why radio stations have give-aways, and businesses have sales; they work.

5.  Don't sell.  Remember, this is an opportunity to meet potential shareholders and get your message out.  People will take interest if you're interactive, asking questions, listening, making small talk.  You want folks to want to learn more about you.  If you make a hard sell to them, it will likely turn them away and leave them with a bad taste in their mouths.  Approaching them with respect, and treating them like friends instead of just customers will leave a big impression on them.

A few final notes:

Remember your visuals.  It can be a series of photos, it can be a video, heck, it can even be a clown (well, maybe not a clown, but you get the idea).  People are drawn to visuals.  Give them something to watch or participate in, and you'll get them to your event, or your booth.  What you do with them once they get there is all on you.  But if you have a passion about your organization, it will show and it will rub off on those who come to see you.

One final thing.  Timing is very important for any event you take part in or host.  If you know you'll be taking part in an event, or if you've scheduled an event on your own, make sure to tie it into some kind of media relations effort (contacting news rooms, pushing for pre-coverage of you or the event) or a social media push.  You still have to let people know that you'll be out there in the community, meeting folks and talking up your organization.

It's a lot of hard work, either way to you go about it, but the returns can be enormous, perhaps the best return of any of your PR or social media efforts.  But, again, it doesn't work unless you include those other two efforts as part of any community outreach event you are involved with.

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