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Corporate vs non-profit marketing copy

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By peterurban - January 30th, 2009

Last summer, I was reflecting on non-profit marketing copy and wrote the following:

Writing non-profit copy is hardly straight-forward. It must carefully walk the line between polish and formality while setting itself apart from the doldrums of repetitive, tiresome catchphrases like “invaluable contribution” and “excellence in leadership” that seem endlessly interchangeable from organization to organization. It must celebrate the values of its organization without alienating the greater cause to which it is part. Good non-profit copy is the difference between an organization with goals and one who demonstrates unique ambition and drive towards achieving such goals.

All non-profit sectors come with a corresponding vernacular. If we consider environmentally conscious non-profits, words like “sustainability”,”preservation” and “quality” immediately come to mind. But are these words really different from say, a youth-focused group, with phrases like “happier, healthy futures”? All non-profits are united in the celebration of community and an improved global landscape for generations to come. Good non-profit copy highlights the key concerns of its organization whilst emphasizing the greater initiative shared among those who care about improving our world.

Indeed, marketing one’s organization whilst embracing the values of philanthropy requires a particular subtlety and balance. Be certain of your organization’s belief and value systems. If the Mission of your organization seems unclear, ask. Understand the assumptions that your organization makes in its understanding of the world, what the important factors are when your organization forms opinions, and what is at stake when they take action.

It goes without saying that the passion a writer has for their cause comes out in the felicity of their prose. Be clear, succinct, while graceful. Be persuasive, certain, while humble. This subtlety and balance comes with much trial and error, but it also comes with intuition, what do you expect from the writing that surrounds your life? Would you expect any less of your own writing? Hold it to a higher standard. Though deceivingly undervalued, your writing says much about what you, or your organization, are all about.

I think a lot of what I said applies directly to corporate copy. This notion of “knowing your business” is fundamental to marketing strategy, and building a vocabulary that fits your business model can be key to communicating the refined points of your mission to clients.

This equation works the other way around. Non-profits also have a lot to learn from marketing experts in the corporate sector. Check out these two websites, the first (obviously) corporate, the second non-profit.

(Thanks to Justin, a commenter on our blog, for pointing me in the direction of Housing Works!)

Aside from the obvious scheme differences, both of these sites are attractive, polished, and display information in a concise and orderly manner. Their design beckons further exploration. This type of design strategy has origins in the corporate sector, where the impetus is on selling commodities or services, and where the capability to attract the consumer’s eye and to fulfill their needs is the first necessary step in doing business with them. The non-profit site in this example, “Housing Works”, has clearly taken a cue from how the corporate sector effectively appeals to its target audience, it maximizes on visual appeal.

The non-profit site has also taken a corporate-cue in terms of copy. The tabs on the front page come with short and sweet descriptions of what the user can find through each link. Unlike many non-profit or government related sites where the copy is dense and hard to get through, “Housing Works” maximizes their user interface for friendly navigation. They optimize on fitting graphics and minimize on frustrating, jargon-filled language. In this way, the site appeals to users that might not yet be familiar with their mission and values, encouraging them to click around and become accustomed to the activist sentiments of the organization.

It would seem that the two sectors have a lot in common. Although they are selling different products to perhaps different target audiences, they are both selling in a fundamental way, and each can learn a lot from the other’s approach.

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