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How to Market Your Nonprofit like a Space Program

January 13th, 2015
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When I was young, my father worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., as a technician. One day, he brought my brother and I back into his lab, which was filled with guys in white lab coats looking very important, whirling around equally important-looking machines that permeated the room with an orchestra of electronic sounds and blinking red light bulb eyes.

From that moment on, I was enthralled with NASA, space and the very concept of putting something on a rocket and shooting it into the void. It was only till a lot later in life that I realized the rest of the world was not as interested in the space program as I was.

Example 1Two of the world’s greatest space programs were born in the late 1950s when the Soviet space program and NASA competed against each other in a variety of missions.

The intent was to project military power and to facilitate national pride.

But it was expensive.

In the 1960s, during the Apollo program, America at one point spent up to 4% of the national budget on NASA.

Fast forward to today and NASA, to many, is seen as a luxury program — unpopular with most people and overfunded for its results.

It’s lost some of the grandeur of the past and is disconnected from the people. Government agencies that aren’t vital to the survival of a nation are irrevocably linked to their popularity.

The more popular a program, the less likely it is that budget makers will cut its budget. Because of this, space agencies all over the world have started a major marketing media campaign to renew the 1960s passion of space exploration.

 

What space agencies can teach about improving your marketing

To re-inspire interest they have used a variety of techniques that the every marketer can use, especially those marketing single events or nonprofit organizations.

The ESA (European Space Agency) recently landed an unmanned lander on a comet. They used this event to gain brand awareness with a calculated marketing effort in traditional media and social media. To do so, they released data from the lander as it came in and held a live video conference as the lander landed.

This entailed flooding social media with updates on the landers progress and holding a video Q-and-A. They targeted potential “customers” — such as taxpayers and youth interested in space — with a strategic individualized marketing plan that began years before the event.

This was the fruit of years of effort of getting people involved and building a social web of interested individuals who would spread the awareness of ESA into nontraditional social circles. The greatest success comes through a detailed plan and the ESA’s plan has its roots in a 1998 paper written about how space organizations can market like nonprofits by Ph. Willekens and W.A. Peeters.

They conclude their paper with a very important message for marketers:

For nonprofit organisations, as for commercial companies, ‘marketing’ involves a mixture of elements, analogous to the ingredients for a cooking recipe. The marketing ‘strategy’ forms the key for the preparation of a set of actions directed towards a clearly defined customer or target group. The various target groups as far as the ESA is concerned are: the taxpayers (general public) as ESA’s main ‘end customer’, the youngsters as ESA’s future ‘end-customers’ …

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