They are two words that have influenced online activity - and the art and science of triggering it - more even than "click here" and "sign in."
"Skip Ad" was introduced in YouTube videos in 2010, as a way to placate impatient viewers. And while Adweek reports that some 90% of skippable ads are in fact skipped most of the time, the function has actually been immensely helpful to advertisers - and anyone looking to get anyone else's attention - by reminding them of the online public's intolerance with the ordinary, the irrelevant and the unwanted. Not only are we in the age of hyper-rapid page scanning, where key information and desired actions have to be in-your-face instantly, but it's also an age when a distinctive and compelling digital presence is possible for virtually every nonprofit or charity.
But are you set up to be distinctive and compelling online? Or are you turning people away because your website and other platforms don't have, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, any "there" there. No immediate, clear, engaging answers to the one question people want answered the second they show up, if not before: Who are you?
Who are you means, in order of importance:
- What's distinctive about you compared to others?
- What do you actually do - in a way that I could explain to my mother?
- What's your story?
Now, I'll admit that the title of this article promised you three things, yet this sounds like just one. But isn't who you are, what you do, and what makes you unique - your story - everything? Especially to people you want to like you, support you, even wave your flag?
So here are the three most important things you need to get right, right away, if you want people to stick around and engage. I also need to mention that I've paraphrased some of the example copy, so as to make it less identifiable to specific groups and more universally relevant. But I believe that the re-phrasings still carry the same tone, messaging and intent as the originals.
Who are you #1: Tell me what makes you different and adds value
This is even more important than what you do. If what sets you apart is intriguing enough, it'll make people want to know more. Establishing a point of difference isn't just a good idea for a nonprofit, but an essential one: the market is bursting with good causes led by earnest organizations who appear indistinguishable from each other.
Figuring out and expressing what makes you unique and valuable is necessary not just for your site, but for your organization's strategic self-understanding. It means crystallizing your approach, the benefits of your work and your reasons for being, in a concise way that will colour everything else your visitors will encounter. You can convey it in an elevator speech (a short articulation of why you're valuable and different), an intro video, a manifesto - something that gives you a little more time and room to present it than, say, a tagline.
Here are a couple of examples from the nonprofit world that attempt to this. I chose examples from the same category and I'm not going to set them up: I want you to see them like new visitors see them, as if they're introducing themselves for the first time.
This is how one group introduces themselves on their homepage:
Since 1995, (name here) has pioneered solutions for sanitation and safe water that give communities a future, women hope and children health. Join us.
Here's how another water organization does it:
We’re a nonprofit on a mission to bring clean drinking water to every person on the planet. And with the support of people like you, we’ve funded 19,819 water projects in 24 countries so far.
The second example is the slam-dunk. It talks like a person ("bring clean drinking water to every person") not a report. Its unique yet simple mission is simple and clear, and doesn't get tangled up in copywriting ("give communities a future.") It makes it clear what it wants -- support -- instead of being "joined." (Some may argue that joining is more inclusive, but we all know that they both want support.) And its results are right there and understandable: 19,819 projects is a lot easier to picture than something less direct like "giving communities a future", or some multi-million-esque number that just goes over peoples' heads. (Like my next example.)
The good news is, a lot of organizations, maybe even yours, are actually saying very exciting things about themselves. They're just not saying them where it matters most.
I looked at another water charity, and their opener was a wall of stats. The sheer scale of them, the inability to easily picture these numbers in your mind as individual people, makes them hard to relate to.
Over 2.4 billion people worldwide don't have adequate sanitation. 1.8 billion lack access to safe water...water-related diseases claim more than 840,000 lives every year. We exist to change this. We want to help communities break free from the cycle of poverty, and instead of walking for water and fighting off illness, spend their days learning, thriving and growing.
It's hard to get a sense from this what exactly they do, or do different, who they are, and - hugely important in today's relationship-based web - what they're like. But then I dug a bit more, and found this gem on a job listing deep in the bowels of their site:
We are a group of experienced field workers who are fed up with the complacency and tired rhetoric that characterizes this sector.
There it is. They're fighters and they're passionate. That's a line in the sand, and it's going to attract some people and not others, which is exactly what a strong positioning needs to do: take a definitive position. I think that they should focus on developing a community of water rebels, people who are tired of the same old same old.
Who are you #2: Tell me what you do - really
As I've tried to show, the best introductions combine mission clarity with mission distinctiveness. But the clarity piece is often overlooked. We often assume that people can fill in the details. But why would you want them to do that?
Take this amazing volunteer organization. Here's how they describe themselves:
We help improve the ability of developing nation emergency service agencies to provide a greater level of emergency services to the communities they serve.
Something tells me that's not how they'd describe themselves over a coffee. Especially since what they actually do is so inspiring. These are firefighters who give free equipment - and we're not talking helmets, we're talking fire trucks, ambulances, complete fire halls full of equipment - to their brothers in arms in foreign countries, then stay there for weeks training them. And it's all 100% volunteer.
The way I see it, their ladders, hoses and hearts are extending across the ocean and saving lives. So if they were to actually express what they really do, the result would be "Really? Wow, tell me more."
Here's another example of someone else who does something commendable, but hasn't mentioned the one thing that makes it most commendable of all. See if you can guess what it is:
We deliver yoga classes and programs, in a trauma-sensitive way, to people being challenged by poverty, trauma, violence, mental health, imprisonment and addiction.
They provide this tailor-made, healing therapy to people who'd never have it otherwise...free. You may have assumed that but it should be mentioned, because it frames all they do and makes giving to them that much more crucial. That's an important word to leave out.
In any kind of elevator speech or articulation of your What and Why, the things that make you unique and special should be there. Including, also overlooked in that last example, the benefit of your work. If this group can express the (probably very impressive) benefits that clients get from their yoga programs, their reason for being will be that much more compelling. So the benefit of what you do belongs in the elevator speech or intro, but it can also come across in a stirring client quote or in a video; somewhere it'll be both seen and felt.
Who are you #3: Tell me your story
A small boy was begging in the streets of India.
“What do you want most in the world?” I asked him.
“A pencil,” he replied.
I reached into my backpack, handed him my pencil, and watched as a wave of possibility washed over him.
This is how founder Adam Braun describes the spark that led to Pencils of Promise, a well-known developing-world school builder. I chose this example because it's a people story, and because what they do now, building schools and improving education on a global scale, isn't much different from that initial interaction. But people stories aren't new: many of us know the story of Bill and Bob, the first "buddies" of AA.
The point is, people want to know your story more than ever because they want to know you more than ever. The digital world has evolved to where sharing rich, moving stories is more possible technologically, and at the end of the day people just like hearing about people.
But stand-out stories can be many things. I came across a nonprofit that describes itself as change-makers dedicated to transforming society. They focus on community-building and dialogue. Yes, they're not alone in saying this. And building community and other forms of understanding is very current. But here's the differentiator: they've been doing this for over 80 years. They're genuine pioneers. But it's all hidden away in a little drawer at the bottom of the site, in a link to a "short history." And while longevity isn't an automatic brownie point, longevity in a newly-relevant area absolutely is, especially for nonprofits.
Think of people you've met who've intrigued you. Their origins, the genesis of their work or vocation are a huge part of their appeal. They saw something wrong, or spotted an opportunity no one had ever seen before. Their action was triggered by an event, a meeting, a decision, an insight. Then this happened, that happened...a story happened. Whatever it is, people want to know it, because they want to know you.
But wait, there's more!
Of course there is. And it all matters more than ever, because people scan and take in more than ever. So here's two bonus thoughts:
Make your social media feeds or icons prominent and quickly apparent, not hidden or tiny like afterthoughts. You want people to feel like you're active and modern. So why hide them at the bottom like legal fine print? Sure, they look nice and organized there, but they're not logos -- they're packed with more, current content about you.
Tell me in clear language where my money goes. No BS, no hemming and hawing, no suddenly sounding like auditors, no long preambles. But here's the thing: if you've answered the "Who are you" questions above, then you've shown me that you have value and credibility, and that you're genuine people with a great story. You're trustworthy and decent. And that's who the money's going to these days.
Who you are is incredibly hard to figure out for anyone, let alone organizations. But it's never been more important for organizations who want a successful online life to figure out, and then make prominent and memorable. People are affiliating themselves online with others who share their values and are saying and doing things that are relevant and compelling. It could be a person, an artist, or a nonprofit. But one thing's for sure: you've got to say it well, say it clear, and say it right away.
Jim Diorio is a writer and creative director who has helped hundreds of nonprofits do what he's just written about here. His online presence is at behance.net/jimdiorio, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.