Mistakes I'm making in communicating with the local community

As president of a Secular / Skeptical organization, I sometimes get the opportunity to set up something neat for our membership. We've been very lucky - beside the Heretic's Barbecue, we've had the opportunity to be part of a debate between Michael Shermer and Dinesh D'Souza, and to participate in The Amazing James Randi's visit to Fresno.

I've worked pretty hard at advertising that a secular / skeptical organization exists inside of the conservative religious stronghold that is the Southern half of the California Central Valley. Google "Fresno Atheist" or "Fresno Skeptic" and you get our group - the same if you replace "Fresno" with "Central Valley". We are the first Google hit on either, and we pretty much take up the top ten hits too.

And yet, when our recent article in the Fresno Bee came out, I got phone calls from delighted Atheists and Skeptics who were absolutely sure that they were the only freethinkers in the Central Valley.

This gives me a MUCH better appreciation of advertising professionals. I'm not going to crack any more jokes about the nerdy "Advertising Executive". Well, maybe if it is a really good joke I'll still use it...

But this is a pretty serious matter. I've done a little reading on the subject of advertising, and it has truly become a science. I'm only brushing the surface of the subject. And I have got to say that the advertising methods that our organization has been using have offered very different results. Frequently methods of advertising that I think are good have very little impact, while methods I don't think much about have a great deal of impact. Some methods of advertising are those that I don't even think of as advertising.

There is a maxim of "you get what you pay for", meaning that you tend to get better value for more money. I would guess that at a certain level, this is probably true for advertising. For several million dollars you can tell every person on the street about the next newest IPOD. But if your advertising budget is under a hundred dollars, then probably the worst thing you could do with it is take out a 3-day ad in the local paper.

So, what's been effective?

1. Social networks.

By far, these have garnered the Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics the most attention. We use social networks like Myspace and Facebook. And I personally use Twitter (see the Twitter feed on the right?) Atheist Nexus hasn't helped much, but then - it's fairly new, and I have not put a lot of effort into it as yet.

And that is the weak point of social networks. Each network takes effort to maintain. You need to deliver content to each network a certain number of times per week or it starts to go "stale" and people lose interest. When people lose interest, the network becomes less efficient, and less likely to attract new members.

There are tools online that allow you to create one piece of content and then transmit it to several social networks at the same time. That's attractive to me as a content publisher, but not so much to me as a consumer of social networks.

If I'm hooked into several social networks, and following my favorite garage band, I'd be much happier to see different content on each social network. I would expect to see the band from different perspectives on each network - or even on multiple accounts on the same network. (There might be an "official" band network, plus networks for each musician, and another for their roadies.)

Social networks are "free" only if you don't count the labor involved. But they can pay off handsomely. I suspect that the Fresno Bee initially found out about the Heretic's Barbecue through a social network.

2. Blogging

Blogging is what gets your organization listed in Google searches. It creates a web presence for your organization.

I'm not an "A-list" blogger. I don't have the time to be "A-list". (Although, if I did blog at that level and became popular, I could probably quit my day job. But it really isn't that easy, and I really do love my job.)

Even if you only post one or two posts per week, your blog will become an effective online advertising tool for your organization. Make sure your blog has an RSS feed on it - it does make a huge difference.

There are plenty of free blogging sites on the Internet too, so this tool is just as "free" as social networking. The cost is in the amount of time that it takes for you to make interesting and informative posts.

3. Direct email / Phone calls / word of mouth

Zack, of Central Valley Skeptics, used direct phone calls to gain membership. Personally, I don't have the guts for that. But I have no problem with direct email, especially if I gather that email from a Skeptic / Atheist website. And it turns out that you are never contacting just one person with a call or email, you're contacting that person's friends too.

So - what doesn't work?

1. Paid newspaper ads

One of our members took out an ad in a local independant paper. That ad was a constant feature for months. I am not sure, but I think it only brought one or two interested people.

Independant newspapers give you a lot of page space for your dollar, but they have a limited circulation. It's better to use these sparingly, if at all.

CVAAS has had some difficulty getting announcements for our group into the local city newspaper, The Fresno Bee. We haven't bothered to purchase ad space in that paper due to feedback from other groups who have done similar advertising with little results.

A newspaper advertisement has a very limited lifespan. A one-off advertisement, unless it takes up a large percentage of a page, is probably not very effective. It is certainly not cost effective.

Format matters

When I send a communication, I find I get a better response if it is properly formatted using HTML. I try to make it visually pleasing, and make all the important information easy to pick out at a glance. When I email this, I try to send it without embedded images attached to the email. The images exist on the 'net, and the recepient's email program will download them if allowed.

I also send the email as both plain text and HTML - there is a way to do that in the same email. Thunderbird is good at this. Thunderbird is also good for crafting emails in HTML.

How often to communicate

I've noticed that no matter what the advertisement, it works better if it is repeated. This seems to jibe with the little I've read about advertising. People need to be reminded several times.

Just giving people news about your organization or your next event isn't enough. You need to do it over and over again. When I have the time, I try to use the "Tell me Thrice" rule. I announce the event. Two weeks later, I announce it again. Then I send a reminder about 2-3 days before the event.

This is where I fail the most. Due to schedule, I often forget to post reminders about an event, or I'll often wait until the week before to post about the event. I'm really trying to be better at this.

When I do post about an event multiple times, I often get responses from people who apologize for not being able make this event, but promise to make the next, or to make a meeting. This doesn't happen if I only make a single announcement.

And this is where social networking can become such a pain. Formatted communication in HTML must often be re-written to conform to both Myspace and Facebook formats. What works in an email, doesn't work through Yahoo Groups or Meetup. And the format has to be tweaked again to conform to the CVAAS website so that it can be posted there too.

It can take me an hour to create a visually pleasing communication, and then another 3 hours to tweak it for the different networks it needs to travel. It's very discouraging, and it also keeps me away from blogging.

Is it worth it?

There are about 3.5 million people in the Southern half of the Central Valley, also known as the San Joaquin Valley. Following California demographics for the valley, it is possible that as many as 10 percent of the population lacks a religion. Their religious affiliation is "none". Perhaps as many as a quarter percent identify as "Atheist". (I don't know how many identify as "Skeptic".)

That is about 8 thousand potential organization members in the San Joaquin Valley. Maybe a third of them (2900) are within comfortable range of Fresno.

About 200 people are connected via some form of communication with CVAAS. I could perhaps consider 20 to 30 of them to be "regulars".

But we are starting to see a little saturation in our area of advertising. We are still getting new people who firmly believe that they are the only Freethinker in the area. I'm heartened by the idea that there are thousands of potential new friends out here, just waiting for someone to tell them that like-minded people exist.

So yes, I do think it is worth it. But it isn't easy. It is going to cost you to advertise - and that cost will either be time or money.


Ken L. Hagler said...

Just wondering if ya'll have Homeowners Publications in your area? If you've got large subdivisions, this could be an effective way to target strategic areas for not too much $.

Thought I'd pass on what I've learned!

Calladus said...

I've been thinking about geographical targeting, and I wonder if it is worth it?

A Skeptic / Atheist group isn't like a company that sells new cars or vacuum cleaners or yard care. It isn't even like selling childcare products or things for newly-weds or empty-nesters.

Atheists and Skeptics, from what I can see, come from all demographics, from across the board, from all economic backgrounds.

But maybe I should be targeting coffee shops around the university? But I think that's an overworked cliche too.

Ken Hagler, Your Alaskan Realtor said...

I don't know about coffee shops. Every time I go into them they are full of Christians trying to "emerge." Then again, maybe that would be a good thing! ;)

Advertising is going to add up to big bucks. Word of mouth is still the most effective means. The power of networking is incredible. You might try a professionally done business card you could hand out connecting people to your site.

I guess you'd also have to determine what you're trying to get across. Do you want to simply find other skeptics/atheists? Do you want to "convert" others and if so, what value would you offer?

Just a few thoughts.

Calladus said...

Ken, our organization, CVAAS.org, isn't interested in prostelitizing. We don't target Christians in order to get them into our organization. (However, we're not shy in letting everyone know that religious people don't always speak for us.)

There could be between 1500 and 5000 non-religious (or "nones") in the San Joaquin Valley. Most of them think that they are the only ones here. Even after several years of a presence on the Internet, the Fresno Bee article reached several people for the first time ever. And that's just the people that read the paper on Monday.

Yes, networking and word of mouth is best. But at this point, I'm not even sure that spots on the 5, 6 and 11 PM news would be enough.

Ken Hagler, Your Alaskan Realtor said...

That helps. As a pastor starting a new church, you and I are very much in the same boat in many respects. It seems to me, when it comes to getting the word out, you are on the right track.

What has helped us is:

1. Develop Identity. I think you've got that. Get your logo on everything and everywhere.

2. Develop Campaign. Pick a 6 month theme or something like it. Have your mailings, blog, cards, news: everything, reflect that theme.

3. Develop Presence. Get involved in the Chamber of Commerce and local business groups. Do giveaways. Sponsor community gathering events.

4. Develop Patience. You've discovered what I've discovered. Everything doesn't work. I did magnets - Bombed for me.

I've been working on this for two years. This last weekend I had a guy mention to me at a community event we sponsored, say that he'd seen our logo before. I'd hope so! It is on my car, in his homeowners, on over 2,000 CDs we've given out across our county.

You may try Inboxpromotions.com. They do direct e-mail marketing. It isn't too pricey and will hit more homes than direct mail.

You know, it sucks, you are out in CA. I'd love to co-sponsor an event with you guys!