Most nonprofit marketers — especially direct marketers — operate in a culture of hype … hyping fear, anger or suffering; hyping urgency; hyping “new” solutions to persistent age-old problems. Some believe that such hype (though we wouldn't term it that) is necessary to win initial, preciously-guarded attention for our causes and purposes.

But in a recent post called The expectation paradox, marketing maven Seth Godin reminds us of the age-old marketing maxim … underpromise, overdeliver.

What he adds to the equation is the observation that overdelivering is becoming even more important as word-of-mouth becomes a more and more powerful component of marketing. This trend is driven in no small part by the way spreading one's opinion is facilitated these days by online viral marketing tools and social networking platforms. And what most drives word-of-mouth recommendation is the rare pleasure of having one's expectations exceeded.

But I confess I'm puzzled as to how that simple maxim might apply to nonprofit marketing.

How does a nonprofit underpromise and overdeliver?

I'm particularly puzzled by the underpromise part.

How do you understate or modestly state your need, its urgency, the unique effectiveness of your approach, or the impact you expect to have, without getting drowned out by your more shrill or flamboyant competitors?

This is a huge communications challenge for both fundraisers and advocates.

The good news is that if you've somehow managed to get the underpromise part right — and still have an audience — the overdeliver part should be easier to pull off.

If your programs, campaigns, initiatives are indeed successful, you can declare and report that with suitably modest rhetoric because you presumably now have the attention of your supporters. And they will be happy to hear that their support had even greater impact than they hoped it would. They're ready to refer and recommend.

So let's come back to the underpromise challenge.

If I had ten proven ways to underpromise and still win attention, believe me, I'd publish them right here, right now … maybe write a book. But I don't.

Maybe you have some ideas. Please send them to The Agitator.

We'd love to publish a “top ten” (even better, “top twenty”) list of how to underpromise and be successful in nonprofit marketing … with full credit to your insights!

Seth, maybe you'd like to weigh in?


P.S. Of course, if you think the maxim doesn't apply to nonprofit marketing, tell us that. Then we can go back in better conscience to hyping our hearts out!

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