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Shine the Media Spotlight on Nonprofit Products

By Jason Salzman   

Nonprofits often sell products to support their cause-even if they're ridiculous ones like Planned Parenthood's underwear printed with condoms. Any nonprofit organization with a product for sale can learn a lot by observing how for-profit businesses market their products.   

I like reading business books about marketing, especially because the tomes about marketing for nonprofits are often so boring you have to plunge yourself in a bath of ice water every half-hour to stay awake while reading them. Bookstores have large sections of lively business marketing books waiting for you to skim, if not buy and study. Most are written for small businesses, which-like many activists-are scrambling for media attention.   

The sections of these business marketing books explaining how to use the news media cover some of what I've laid out in this "cause-oriented" book-how to write press releases, when to distribute them, and so on. But the business books also discuss at length how to present a "product" to the media in a newsworthy way. If you read these books and scrutinize media coverage of products and businesses, you'll discover there are three broad reasons products become news (not including the usual business and crisis coverage of goods, such as the story of contaminated Perrier). 

Link the Product to the Public Interest     

Nonprofits don't usually have to worry about making a special point to cast what they do as being good for the public. Their activities, by IRS definition, serve the public. But when you are trying to convince a journalist to do a story about your nonprofit product, you should ask yourself how it contributes to the public ood. Does it benefit public safety or health? Does it save money or time? Can it be used for a holiday gift? How does it address a current political issue? Can you connect it to breaking news? 

For example, recently I was trying to generate news stories about the book Venus Revealed by David Harry Grinspoon. It turns out there were numerous ways to link the book to the social issues raised by the questions just given. Public safety? Venus Revealed discusses clues to averting global warming. Money or time? Venus   

Revealed critiques congressional spending on space programs. A holiday gift? Full of funky references to pop culture, Venus Revealed was published right around Valentine's Day. A current political issue? Again, Venus Revealed argues for more money for the embattled space program. A connection to breaking news? Venus Revealed theorizes that life could exist on Venus, and it arrived in bookstores just after news was released that scientists had discovered evidence that life may have existed on Mars. In the end, the author and I chose the book's links to Valentine's Day and life in the solar system. We scheduled a book signing a few days before Valentine's Day (to inspire feature stories) and pitched the life-on-Venus theory to science writers at newspapers to generate news stories. Both worked to some extent. The life-on- Venus theory proved particularly good fodder for talk radio. 

Do Something for the Public Good     

If their products are either too ordinary or inextricably greed-related, businesspeople break into the news by doing a "good work" that has nothing to do with their businesses. Or, alternatively, they make news by doing something fun that also has nothing to do with their businesses. Nonprofits can expand the visibility of their causes and their products in this way too. Here are some options: 

  • Dedicate part or all of the money from the product to a specific community project like the establishment of a sexualharassment hotline. 
  • Offer free samples of your product or discounts on it. 
  • Invite a celebrity, for example, a professional athlete, to endorse your product and have a reception. 
  • Organize a cleanup campaign of some kind (for example, a river cleanup). 
  • Offer a free class related to the product. (I teach a course called "Let the World Know: Make Your Cause News.") 
  • Sponsor something outrageous. (A microbrewery sponsors a running-of-the-pigs day downtown. It doesn't matter that pigs have nothing to do with beer as long as the pigs are, in fact, running around!) 
  • Sponsor a contest.     

Spot Trends and Be Opportunistic.   

  • Set up a web site selling a product linked to a media frenzy and you're in business. Here are some ideas for capturing some of the media attention heaped on trendy topics: 
  • Remember that the media are always looking for stories about anything related to holidays and seasons, including products.
  • Provide expert information linked to breaking news-and ask that you be identified as the inventor or producer of your product.
  • Consider whether your product relates to a local or national anniversary.
  • Your product may have a niche in the latest craze.
  • Link your product to a major event planned for your city. (For example, during  Republican national convention, an ice cream store in San Diego captured national media attention by naming flavors of ice cream after the Republican presidential candidates.)
 


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