In this recent post, we discussed what a successful marketing implementation partnership between a nonprofit and an agency looks like, but implementation only accounts for about 50 percent of the work we do at Prosper Strategies. The other 50 percent is devoted to what we call “strategy.”
What is marketing strategy?
Strategy is a nebulous and often misused term, but in our world, we define strategy as deliberate decisions made over time that support and advance an organization’s mission. At Prosper, we’re most concerned with helping our clients make deliberate decisions about how they position themselves relative to other similar organizations, how they show up in the world, and how they reach, educate and engage their stakeholders in order to get them to take actions that support the organization’s cause. That is marketing strategy. And in our world, it often gets codified in a plan of some sort.
What is marketing strategy partnership?
Marketing strategies are even more difficult to develop than they are to understand, which is why many nonprofits look to partner with agencies like Prosper Strategies for help making their most important strategic decisions related to marketing and developing the plans that codify those strategies. When a client comes to us looking for a marketing strategy partnership, we first spend a great deal of time getting to know them, learning about their goals, and digging into whether our expertise is well-suited to help them solve their problems and make the decisions that need to be made. Then, if we’ve determined it makes sense to move forward, we typically structure our strategy engagements as short-term projects that last anywhere from three months to a year. The most common types of strategy partnerships we engage in include:
- Brand Strategy
- Messaging and Positioning Strategy
- Marketing Planning
- Campaign Planning
- Crisis Communications Planning
At the conclusion of every strategy project, we aim to leave an organization better than we found it. More specifically, our goal (no matter what type of strategy we’re developing) is to ensure our clients are at least one step closer to achieving their visions as a result of the work we do together.
But for that to happen, there are certain prerequisites required to make a strategy engagement successful. Here’s what a successful marketing strategy partnership looks like (and how to improve your chances of success if you embark on one).
A Successful Marketing Strategy Partnership Begins With a Strong Relationship
Strategy work is intimate. It requires that an organization and the agency or consultant they’re going to partner with get to know each other deeply, and this begins in the process of figuring out whether the two are a fit to work together. To ensure the success of a new strategy partnership, look for an agency that doesn’t “speed through” the sales process, but rather takes the time to ask you deep, probing questions that make you think about your strategic challenges in new ways. Then, open up and answer honestly. Your strategy partner won’t be able to be fully effective unless you pull back the curtains and let them in on the honest truth about your organization, even the messy parts.
In your initial conversations with a potential partner for your strategy project, you should assess more than just the agency or consultant’s strategic ability. You should also assess how it feels to work with them, similar to the way you’d assess cultural fit when hiring a new team member. You’re going to need to trust the agency you hire to help you make big decisions that could shape your organization for years – maybe even decades – to come. You’re unlikely to be happy with the outcomes unless you genuinely respect and trust the agency or consultant you hire.
A Successful Marketing Strategy Partnership Centers Around Research
Research is the cornerstone of strategy work, whether you’re going through a rebrand, developing new messaging, or creating a marketing plan. All of these sorts of strategy projects begin with research, and point back to that research often to guide decisionmaking.
If you want to set your strategy partnership up for success, look for an agency or consultant that has experience in both qualitative and quantitative research. Ask them how they might use tools like surveys, focus groups and interviews to better understand your challenges and guide their recommendations. Then, be willing to invest the time and money it takes to do research properly. The recommendations and plans that come out of your project will be far more sound if you do.
A Successful Marketing Strategy Partnership Involves Strong Recommendations
While research is important, it will only get you so far. A successful marketing strategy partnership should leverage research to uncover key insights, and then use those insights to make strong recommendations that guide your way forward.
What kind of recommendations are we talking about? That depends on the type of strategy work you’re engaged in. In a rebrand, we might begin by making a strategic recommendation about the attributes a new brand needs to emphasize, which we discover through a variety of different types of research. Then, we might make a recommendation from a shortlist of new names or visual identity options, and pair those recommendations with suggestions for brand messaging. In a marketing planning engagement, we might begin by making a strategic recommendation about marketing budget your organization needs to allocate to reach its goals, and follow that with a recommendation about the tactics best suited to advancing your goals within that budget.
The important commonality here is that we’re not just presenting our clients with research and findings. We’re using that research to determine what the best decisions are for the organization to make next, and we’re making strong recommendations that move our clients in the right direction.
A Successful Marketing Strategy Partnership Requires Openness to Change
If you haven’t already picked up on this, let me say it plainly: a successful strategy engagement is going to push your organization to change. That change might be a small one, like adopting a few new marketing tactics, or it might be a big one, like forever changing your positioning as an organization. But there will be change. Don’t enter into a marketing strategy partnership if you’re not open to it and ready for it.
That’s not to say you should expect the change that comes from your marketing strategy partnership to be easy. Change is almost always difficult at nonprofit organizations (and really, at all organizations). You should be ready for disagreement across your team, pushback, and slow decisionmaking. But you can improve your chances of success by ensuring that those at the helm of your organization – your leadership team and board – understand the sort of change they might have to manage as the result of your marketing strategy work and that they’re up for the challenge. Which brings me to my next point…
A Successful Marketing Strategy Requires Time
I know you’re eager to find solutions to your organization’s challenges and start making decisions, but a successful marketing strategy project is going to take time. We rarely engage in strategy projects that take less than three months to complete, and the average duration of a strategy engagement with Prosper Strategies is 6-8 months. And while we’re on the topic of time, I should warn you against falling into the trap of thinking that strategy is something you can fully outsource and then forget about. A successful strategy engagement requires a significant time investment from key individuals within the organization. We typically suggest that our clients designate one “leader” for their work with Prosper Strategies, and this person usually carries the heaviest set of responsibilities – from transferring over files and relevant information, to setting up meetings, to talking with us one-on-one as we work through key deliverables. In addition to the leader, we often engage others within the organization, such as members of the leadership team, program staff, and development staff in our work (and sometimes we even engage outside stakeholders like donors and beneficiaries as well). You’ll help us figure out who needs to be involved based on the parameters of the strategic project and the nuances of your organization. Time requirements vary widely based on the nature of the strategy project, but as a general guideline, the leader can expect to spend 1-2 hours a week engaged in their work with us during the duration of the project. Others can expect to spend less time – typically in the range of 1-5 hours per month. Don’t enter into a strategy project unless you know you have the time to do your part to make it a success.
A Successful Marketing Strategy Partnership Requires the Right Mindset
Key beliefs about the role marketing can and should play within the nonprofit sector guide every recommendation we make at Prosper Strategies. Our strategy engagements are always most successful when a client shares that mindset, or at least is open to it. That’s why we ask every new client to read our Nonprofit Marketing Manifesto and discuss it with us. You can grab your copy below.
It may be tempting to kick off a nonprofit marketing implementation partnership without following these steps, but to do so will inevitably impact the quality and longevity of the relationship. Set your nonprofit’s marketing up for success, and you’ll see the results.
Are you considering working with an agency on your marketing strategy?
If so, what questions do you have about what it takes to make a strategy partnership successful? Let us know by contacting us here or leaving your thoughts in the comments.
The Nonprofit Marketing Manifesto
For far too long, the nonprofit sector has thought far too small when it comes to marketing. Read the Nonprofit Marketing Manifesto to change your perspective on how marketing for nonprofits can — and should — have an even bigger impact.