Getting People’s Attention

For several years I went without a wristwatch. I had accidentally driven my car over the cheap Timex I owned, and I soon realized that I didn’t really need a new one. Clocks are everywhere – on computer screens, in most meeting rooms, on car dashboards, hanging outside banks – and if I still needed to know the time, I figured I could simply look at my cellphone. And I did.

That worked well until I bought a smart phone. Now when I reach for my phone to check the time I see that I have three new emails. And a text message from my daughter. I sneak a glance at the Red Sox score. And while there, I figure I might as well find out how the Yankees are doing, too. If the news is good for my team, I send a snarky note to my Yankee fan friend. He and I have a text exchange and decide to meet that evening for a beer. I enter the appointment in my calendar. And I slip the phone back in my pocket – never remembering to check the time. It’s fifteen minutes later than it was when I pulled it out – but I still don’t know what the time is.

It’s an age of information – which is to say, an age of distraction. “Multi-tasking” is a misnomer. Our brains are still the brains our ancestors had. We each do only one thing at a time, but we now tend to do many things in quick succession, most unrelated to the main task we’re trying to finish that day. Hence the popularity of computer programs and apps that block emails and other distractions so you can get important work done.

Given this fractured and confusing scene, how do nonprofits get someone to pay attention to their message?

Some nonprofits think the answer is to have a robust social media presence. Twitter. Facebook. LinkedIn. Pinterest. Blogging. Not to mention regular email blasts. I’m not against any of that, and I certainly participate in them myself.

But for people to bother opening the link to see what you have to say, it helps tremendously if they already know who you are. They need to feel a personal connection. They need to be your actual friends, not someone who friended you. They need to like you, not “like” you.

If people know and like the leaders of an organization – staff and board – they’ll open the emails and read the tweets and click on the links. If not, not. Who has time? The same goes for U.S. Mail. People shred a lot of mail without opening it. But they certainly open the letters from people and places they know, especially if the name of a friend (a staff or board member) is written in above the return address.

So how to make friends who will pay attention? People who will open your mail and email and read your posts and tweets? People who might even then send you money? Mostly, the old fashioned way. You get to know them face to face. You meet them at kids’ soccer games, at dinner parties, at political rallies, at Rotary Clubs. You connect with them when a board member brings them to an open house at your organization, and you call them up afterwards and take them out for coffee. You invite them to your organization’s special events and make them feel welcome. You ask them to serve on committees or your board. You introduce them to other like-minded folks. You call them when bad news is about to hit the airwaves so that they have a heads-up. You send them a note of thanks when you’ve hit a campaign goal. You treat them as friends and partners in your enterprise.

Social media is great for amplifying your message, for notifying large groups of special events and accomplishments, and for strengthening established relationships, but it’s not going to be successful on its own. If you build genuine relationships with supporters, good things will happen. If not, you’re just tweeting into the wilderness.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • Al,
    So true. Since we are in the same line of work, I’m sure you get the same questions from those who feel they need to have a presence in social media before they even have a plan. I’d argue that a presence without a plan is worse than no presence – and it’s most effective when it’s part of an overall communication strategy.

    I wrote a related blog post recently about how all this technology and the apps that are supposed to bring us closer together often make us feel more isolated from good old face to face interaction. The challenge is figuring out which tools are right for you and using them while also figuring out how to prevent them from taking on a life of their own.

  • william lychack
    June 29, 2012 10:06 pm

    You write like a demon, Al! I love these posts, always learn something, and admire your energy and spirit a great deal. Hope you’re wool-gathering all of this into a soon-to-be great book. “You treat them as friends and partners in your enterprise.” This is my idea of a perfect sentence. And so is this: “If you build genuine relationships with supporters, good things will happen.” Keep calm, carry on, Bill


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