Four Practices Nonprofits Can Learn at an Airport

The humble, utilitarian airport gets little respect. But, airports offer a surprising number of lessons for nonprofit organizations trying to get audiences to understand and embrace their messages.

Here are four ideas I picked up on a recent trip.

1. Offer shortcuts

Picture of a moving walking

The people who read, view and listen to your messages are not unlike travelers.

In a big airport, if you are stuck needing to go from one terminal to another in short order, there is probably a tram. Persons with disabilities can ride on a golf cart. You might get a breather for a shorter distance via moving walkway. Or, if you are feeling more leisurely about your layover, you can walk.

Just like travelers, your audiences will appreciate options that suit their needs for the particular circumstances in which they find themselves.

For some people on some days, that’s a gorgeous print magazine with 3,000-word, in-depth articles. But, if you are not providing that content in an easier-to-grasp mobile app, those in a hurry—or those who just prefer mobile apps—will pass.

2. A little pragmatism can go a long way


How happy would you be with an airport where you couldn’t find the restrooms? Sometimes people already know what they are looking for. They just need you to show them the way.

Among the things I appreciate about airport signage, is that the signs are big, and include not just clear words but clear graphics.

No one tried to be overly creative with fonts and colors on these restroom signs but they are  spot on for what they need to do. Note the placement and the contrast. Also, there’s repetition from different angles.

Think about what your audience will be looking for. Then boldly put that message where they would expect to find it (you’ll need to do some testing).

This is particularly important for your call to action. If you’re doing your marketing right, than people will look for ways they can get involved and help. You want them to join your organization, make a gift, sign a petition, whatever it may be, make sure they won’t miss that when they seek it out.

3. Let them in on the fun


This interactive advertisement was getting lots of attention, and not just from kids. Whenever someone touched the big red umbrellas, they dispersed into hundreds of tiny umbrellas. It was unexpected, surprising and compelling—the digital equivalent of turning down a country road and slipping your arm out the window to ride the wind.

How often do your communications include a sense of wonder, whimsy or fun?

Do they make people smile, laugh, reach out to touch, or want to share it with someone?

Consider adding in a chance for audiences to interact with your brand story in a fun way. New medias are making that more and more possible every day. Think augmented reality, instagram photo contests, a twitter retweet challenge, text to vote, etc. Though the concept is the same even if you don’t go digital.

4. Offer refreshment


The best airports have lots of options for food and drink in lots of places. People have things to do and places to go. But they will always drift toward what gives them energy back.

For nonprofits, what you have to offer can be just as welcome as a refreshing drink or a bite to eat. Show how your organization makes a difference and offers ways for people to be a part of something larger then themselves.

Just like a whiff of freshly baked muffins reminds passersby that they are hungry, your messages need to communicate that your organization does good in the world and that being a part of it feels good.

A bar chart is too abstract, photos from your last gala could leave people feeling inadequate, and talking in aggregate about the people you serve can make their problems seem overwhelming. You need emotional content that shows the real impact of your organization’s work.

Just like a food court beckons to someone who hasn’t eaten all day, let your audience know that getting involved with your organization means they can help in a tangible way. And refresh their weary souls in the process.


Print: It’s not dead yet

There are times when a few pieces of paper so soundly trump digital; it’s not even debatable.

Not so sure about that? Watch this short video: Le papier.


Okay, that video might have gone a bit overboard. But there is a weight and substance to paper and ink, that cannot be entirely dismissed. Yes, I mean that literally and figuratively.

If you had to guess (and for fun, let’s just say that you do), would you say that more print magazines were killed in 2012 than were killed in 2011? And, as long as you are guessing here, would you say that 2012 saw more launches of new print magazines or new digital magazines?

If you guessed that fewer print magazines folded in 2012 than in 2011, you were correct. In fact, it wasn’t even close. According to

  • Only 74 print titles folded in 2012; 142 died in 2011

And as far as new launches, print is still king. The online database of U.S. and Canadian publications also found:

  • 195 print magazine titles were launched in 2012, compared to 181 the year before
  • 32 digital-only magazine launched in 2012, compared to 58 in 2011

These numbers show an upward trend in print from 2011 and a downward trend in digital. Most likely, the trends reflect the difficulty commercial publishers are having in making a profit online.

However, there were also 24 print titles, most notably Newsweek and Spin, that went to a digital-only publication (29 did this in 2011), reinforcing the belief that print is dying.

In last week’s Upstart Business Journal, Samir Husni, the director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi also know as “Mr. Magazine”, attempted to answer that.

He said the reason big players like Time Warner are ditching print is not due to unprofitability but rather bloated management hierarchies that care more about personal wealth than taking care of the product.

Mr. Magazine also noted that 2013 opened with the launch of 66 new print titles in January.

Meanwhile from the nonprofit side of the fence, many university alumni magazines are sticking with print as one of the primary and most successful tools for keeping alumni feeling connected to their alma maters and for bringing in support.

Direct mail is similarly robust. The return on investment for direct mail is between 11 and 13 dollars for every one dollar invested. By contrast, non direct mail’s ROI hovers around five bucks, according to the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Here’s my take away: when people get a quality magazine (or even a quality direct mail appeal?), it is more likely to be received as a welcome gift. Email, maybe not so much. Going online to read? Again, not the same draw as that nice paper product they sent you.

Bottom line, despite the popular belief that print is dead, this is not the whole story. Now, pass me some paper.

Are you the Next Twinkie? Creative Destruction for Writers

We are entering a period where the slow, the inflexible and the bureaucratic, will find themselves extinct in record numbers, according to Chris Zook in his Harvard Business Review blog.

Zook asks if it is just another example of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction; an expected and profitable culling of businesses, enterprises—and people—that can’t keep pace.

Are we all that close to going the way of the Twinkie?

Image of a Package of Hostess Twinkies

It’s a little frightening to contemplate. Especially when it seems like your seasoning as a professional writer might be more comfortable camping out on the cozy little cottage side of the lake than the pull up the stakes and move out this afternoon, rustic tent sites.

It’s no secret that technology has dramatically changed the way people communicate, so when creative destruction talk surfaces, it is easy to assume that’s what it’s about.

Sometimes I feel like Drew Barrymore’s character in “He’s just not into you” who, while trying to decipher the success of a recent date, complained so heartrendingly: “And now you have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It’s exhausting!”

Image of cell phone text with computer screen of facebook, twitter and Linkedin open

Zook says that probably isn’t what is holding you back.

He believes organizations aren’t innovative due to slow cycles of decision and adaptation. In other words, it may not be a keeping up with technology thing so much as the general ability to adapt to rapid changes at all.

Nothing gums up moving forward more quickly than a bunch of unproductive complexity whether it’s in processes or decision-making.

Put simply, leaders need to find ways to focus and simplify their organizations.

What does this mean for communicators?

Focus your content.

Look for three or four things you can clearly articulate that your organization has that others don’t. Apple’s comeback in the late 90s began with the simplification of their product line down to just four products.

That’s no accident, Zook points out.

Apple’s comeback also was about a renewed focus on the user experience. They made industrial design a strategic tool and a marketing point, not only for the computer industry but also for everything! They modeled success by only making a few things, but making them really, really well.

Apply that lesson to your messages. Before you start worrying about how many tactics you can take on or which ones you should creatively destroy, make sure you’ve got messages that people want and can easily grasp.

Stress your organization’s strengths: the niches where you do things better than your competition.

And don’t try to push too many messages at once. Concentrate on the pillars of your brand.

There’s nothing slow, unresponsive or out of date about that.

Who’s Afraid of a Little Evaluation?

If producing spot-on, graphically appealing, dynamic messages is the cherry on top of every professional communicator’s list of things they love to do, measuring results is the pit inside it.

But as Yogi Berra once said:

You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”


If you want to claim you are a strategic communicator—and what communicator doesn’t—showing a relationship between your efforts and your organization’s success is essential. Once upon a time, communicators might have gotten away with saying their goal was to produce XYZ communication on time and under budget. But this implies that the purpose of communication is simply to exist. And it’s not.

The purpose of your efforts is to affect your organization’s mission—whether it’s selling more widgets, gaining more members or curing cancer.

When you start to look at measuring what matters, process indicators can help you learn how internally efficient you are, activity indicators can tell you how much communicating of what types of messages you did and relationship indicators can tell you something about the ongoing level of engagement you have with key audiences.

But the real sticking point lies with results indicators. This is where you hope to show that your communication efforts helped your organization to achieve its goals and objectives.

For most communicators, especially those of us in nonprofit organizations, establishing a direct link between your communication products and the organization’s achievements is messy if not impossible. You can point to easily attainable social media metrics like Klout scores. But you don’t want to just measure what you can measure. For example, tracking lots of website hits is a great way to assess whether people came to your pages, but it doesn’t tell you if their visits were of any strategic value.

UMagazinology blogger and John Hopkins magazine editor, Dale Keiger, nailed it when he wrote: “This month’s most overworked meaningless statistic: Number of mentions something related to the school received on Twitter. Nothing says you’ve assumed your rightful place in the upper tier of the world’s academies of higher learning like 1,547 retweets.”

To combat this, you can go down the road of surveys, personal interviews and focus groups. Certainly there are instances when the time and expense for these kinds of evaluation tools can and should be justified. Even then, when it comes to showing cause and effect, communication efforts are more likely to influence attitudes or merely trigger the conditions in which a behavior or action can occur, than to be found directly responsible.

Directional alignment may be your answer.

Caroline Kealey, in her recent Communication World article “Real Value”, suggests that it is enough “to show that your communication efforts have been directionally aligned with other factors that collectively led to the achievement of a corporate goal.” She believes that an alignment of factors can imply a plausible causal connection.


My department is involved in fundraising. So, a primary goal of all our communication strategies is to boost the number of gifts and givers. But the influence of a myriad of other strategies, from gala events to informal visits to countless hours spent on building one-to-one relationships, play their roles at the same time. According to Kealey, this is nothing to worry about. She believes communicators can make a compelling case that communication has contributed to organizational success with a well-presented set of directional alignment indicators.

In other words, we probably won’t ever be able to say that our communications caused a donor to make a gift, but we can probably make a case for the more we do X (say, communicate how our organization makes a positive impact on the world), the more we see Y kinds of results (say, donors who make inquiries about funding our programs).

But that doesn’t mean all of your measurements must be quantitative. Qualitative efforts such as the tone of an event or of media coverage, can point to communication success too.

As author and social media expert Philip Sheldrake says in another Communication World article “A Measure of Influence” (Yes, the January/February 2013 issue themed around Measuring What Matters was chockfull of great stuff!): “Reputation management does not actually mean managing reputation and brand management does not actually mean managing a brand. They mean actively attending to the business of influencing and being influenced such that the resultant beliefs or opinions held about us and our products are conducive to our achieving organizational objectives.”

Or as Albert Einstein once said:

Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Sadly, most communicators spend nearly all of their time and energy executing communications. A very small amount of effort goes into planning and of that almost none of the planning is spent on developing performance indicators. I believe this is primarily because we communicators are not particularly drawn to accounting. And traditional evaluation can start to look like a whole lot of bean counting in a hurry.

But, perhaps it doesn’t need to be so complicated, or onerous. Look at your organization’s mission and set a few simple result indicators to help you learn whether you helped it move the needle.

Evaluation does matter. Done right, it guides our efforts, helps us justify our results and gives us a place to start for the next trip.

What’s your opinion? Do you think directional alignment indicators would be enough for your organization to acknowledge a link between communication efforts and your organization’s accomplishments? Could it be enough to help you define and assess your strategy?

Infographics: A scenic overlook for readers

When you’re cruising down a curvy highway at 75 miles an hour in the middle of a long trip, it’s nice to come upon a place where you can pull over for a break.

Anyone in marketing is aware of the demands on people’s time. No matter how fun new media can be, it also adds to the relentless onslaught of information everyone is trying to process. As a result, communicating more rapidly through visuals has never been more important.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I work on a print magazine. Within such a conventional vehicle, it is always a struggle to come up with the right combination of text and graphics to communicate our key messages.

So I always do a “flip test” before putting any publication to bed. Basically I take a final look to see if someone in our target audience didn’t read a single word but simply flipped through and glanced at a few things, would they still get the big picture?

Because I work with an incredibly talented art director the answer is always yes. Invariably, he’s already done a fabulous job with art directing our photography and creating compelling and visually appealing design. I try to do my part with edgy headlines, captions, subheads, pull-out quotes and so on.

But it seems like it is time to step up our game to really engage our increasingly information-fatigued readers. To go beyond the flip test and actually get more of them delving in, really understanding and becoming advocates for our institution.

Recently, that led me to infographics.

What is an infographic?

The best way to explain an infographic is with an infographic.

This is an infographic on infographics from which states: “Using Lego blocks and photography we wanted to show that a good infographic is simple and requires very little text.”


What is an infographic?

Is this just a trend?

Major publications have featured infographics for decades at least in the forms of pie charts, bell curves, Venn diagrams, bar graphs and the like, as well as in-depth, complex illustration to communicate information that would be unwieldy in text form.

In fact, the concept is anything but new. You could argue that the earliest humans invented infographics when they drew on cave walls.

But infographics have been repurposed in a social media context as profound, creative and absolutely fascinating ways to visualize data.

Where does writing fit in?

While infographics clearly put graphic designers and artists in the lead, the need for good writing and editing will still be an important component. offers this advice on infographics:

“Edit, edit, edit. Your infographic tells a story, and like any story it benefits from a careful editing process. The end result should be a clear narrative that flows logically from beginning to end.”

So if you were starting to think this infographic stuff has little to do with writers and editors, think again!

Any successful marketing communications should follow a simple three-step process: entertain first, engage second and educate (or sell) last. Done right, infographics can do all of that, becoming a universal language for telling a story with one look.

But that doesn’t mean that clarifying the purpose, researching the content and operationalizing the concept won’t require a good writer/editor.

I liked this infographic on renewable energy by Carrington College which illustrates using a lot more text, but still in a fun, colorful way. Just like the one above, they provide the code to make it easy to share/embed their infographic on your own site (And, that’s a good tip for encouraging your constituents to share too.)

Renewable Energy - Infographic

[Via: Carrington College's Renewable Energy Degree Program]

Need more convincing to give infographics a try?

The status quo approach can be a difficult life preserver to sacrifice when one is afloat in a vast, cold ocean, unsure of a new tactic.

Consider that according to Customer Magnetism an internet marketing agency, high quality infographics are 30 times more likely to be read than text articles. Social media experts will tell you that infographics in websites are way more likely to be shared than text. The growing popularity of visual content platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram pretty much confirms that people crave eye candy.

While I know better than to concur with the seemingly popular notion that no one reads anything anymore, I’d have to put on a pair of coke-bottle-thick, rose-colored glasses to believe that people will read everything we put out.

Where to start

Lest you think as a mere writer that you’d have to employ a new graphics team to use infographics, there’s plenty of inspiration on the web as well as plenty of tools for creating your own infographics. suggests the following for your toolkit:

Many Eyesbuilds infographics based on your data, or on public datasets.

HoHli produces charts with the flexibility to customize their look and feel.

Wordle word cloud generator. You can see an example from yours truly on the about page of this very blog.

The web is also a great place to find tips on creating the best infographics.

But before you go there, you should begin the process with a rough outline of what you want to present. Infographics should answer questions, provide compelling data, or demystify a process. And while an infographic can poke fun, the content must be researched and fact-checked. Not to mention, that you need to know your goal–which should not be simply to produce something cool.

So, that’s what I’ve learned about infographics. My next step is to gain more experience. Let me know what you’ve tried and especially any inspiring examples you create or come upon.

I’ll report back on my progress in a future blog.

I don’t know about you, but giving my audiences and me a chance to pull over to enjoy a scenic overlook sounds pretty good right about now.

Imagination is Everything

I have a lot of magnets on my refrigerator. Most of them are from family vacations. A few predate the family vacation stage of my adult life–surviving a dorm room, several apartments and two houses. One of those is a quote illustrated by the graphic artist Mary Engelbreit.

One of my refrigerator’s most vintage magnets.

It reads: “To imagine is everything. To know is nothing at all.”

A faculty friend came to my house one time and was clearly offended by the sentiment. On the surface, she had a point. All educated people—and this friend has Ph.D. after her name afterall—certainly want knowledge to be everything. If it were, it would illuminate a clear path to success. Learn a bunch of stuff; achieve fame and fortune, right?

Would it help if I told you that the quote originated from Albert Einstein?

Clearly, knowledge is less powerful today than ever. Most of what you know is stagnant and based on the past. And knowledge can get in the way of being open to new ideas and reaching new heights, which was Einstein’s point I am sure.

Late last week I attended a workshop with the best workshop title I’ve ever heard: The Do it Yourself Lobotomy. Catchy, huh? I had a lot of work to do that day, but I just couldn’t miss out on it.

Tom Monahan presented the DIY Lobotomy. No, not the pizza guy; the creativity guru.

The lobotomy was all about learning techniques to separate your left brain from your right, and moreover to arrive at creative ideas by directing your brain to go in new directions. It was heady stuff, no pun intended.

He gave a simple and very useful definition for creativity.  If it surprises you, it’s creative. So, if you are trying to come up with something creative, knowledge is the devil.

New ideas are found in the unknown, not the known. The secret is not to know, so you begin to wonder. And break out of rigid thought patterns that lead you to predictable outcomes.

My favorite technique from the workshop was the “law of large numbers.” He demonstrated how forcing yourself to generate more and more ideas will use quantity to get to quality.

That doesn’t mean that bad ideas are good. It just means that you have to generate a lot of trash to get to the really good ideas. We tend to only let out ideas that we think might be good. But when you self-impose a ridiculous quantity requirement and add in some deadline pressure, the creativity-stealing censor inside you tends to shut down.

With dozens of teams working around the workshop room, it became obvious that the teams with the most ideas had some of the worst ones, but also all of the very best ones. Less wasn’t more. More was more!

All this, doesn’t mean knowledge is nothing. Because in the end, all new ideas are just old ideas put together in an unexpected way.

So when do you get your best ideas? Maybe the correct answer is: you never know!

Make Every Word Tell

An old friend showed up in my office the other day. Or at least it felt like it when I walked in to discover a gently used, third edition copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White sitting on my desk one morning.

Good old Strunk and White! Turned out a colleague had been cleaning her office and thought I might like to have it. She was right. I had the same book nestled next to my Webster’s Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus for years. Until 2008 when the glue on the binding so completely disintegrated it became nothing but loose pages. I can’t believe I’ve lived for this long without a replacement.

I flipped right to my favorite part: page 23, rule 17.

Omit Needless Words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

E.B. White, who would go on to become one of America’s most influential essayists, was a student in William Strunk’s English class at Cornell in 1919. White has this to say about rule 17:

There you have a short, valuable essay on the nature and beauty of brevity—sixty-three words that could change the world.

I couldn’t agree more.

A magazine I edit came out this week. Picking up a copy, can I find needless words? You bet I can. Try as I might, there are still what now appear to me as glaringly useless adjectives when I could have shown instead of told what was what. A point is belabored in one piece. There’s a quote that should have been summarized. Strunk makes it all so clear.

I find solace in White. The man who immortalized himself with Charlotte’s Web and contributed to the New Yorker for six decades wrote:

I have been trying to omit needless words since 1919, and although there are still many words that cry for omission and the huge task will never be accomplished, it is exciting to me to reread the masterly Strunkian elaboration of this noble theme.

Whew. I can breathe again. And keep striving to make every word tell.

Stunk had informally published The Elements of Style for his students. White, after exalting the book and his former professor in his New Yorker column in 1957, first updated and edited the book in 1959 in partnership with publisher Macmillan and Company. It was so well received that he updated and edited two more editions in 1972 and 1979. White’s stepson, Roger Angell, provided a foreword for a fourth edition in 2000 and an illustrated version appeared in 2005.

To say that The Elements of Style is an important book would be a monstrous understatement. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Time Magazine called it one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.

Yet, it has its distractors. According to Wikipedia a Boston Globe review of the most recent edition called it an “aging zombie of a book…a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 70s taboos and 1990s computer advice.” Maybe the reviewer should have stuck with the third edition like me.

“The Elements” was required reading when I took Hope College’s advanced expository writing class in 1983. By then it had already sold millions of copies. According to a Today Show report on the book’s golden anniversary, more than 10 million copies had been sold since 1959.

Mark Garvey published Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in 2009. I didn’t know that until today. I’m thinking about starting my 2012 Christmas list with Garvey’s book at the top.

So when you run across Strunk and White, where do you land? Someone delighted to see an old friend? Happy to welcome in two seasoned English lovers, eager to reconnect with a favorite rule? Or do you view it as aging zombie hodgepodge?