Market to People, Not Data

By Spencer Critchley

Marketing definition diagram: marketing connects people who will benefit with people offering something of value


The simplest definition of marketing I know of is also the one I think is most useful:

Marketing connects people who will benefit from something with people who offer it.

This definition can guide an entire marketing strategy. It’s like the Golden Rule, an elementally simple proposition that can inform a lifetime of moral choices. 

First of all, notice that this way of defining marketing starts with “people who will benefit,” not “how you get people to buy something.” All effective marketing starts not with you but with your customers.

There’s an added power to this definition: Like many people driven by a sense of purpose, maybe you don’t actually like the idea of marketing very much, because you associate it with manipulating people. This definition points the way to ethical, respectful marketing. Offering people something that you honestly believe is valuable isn’t just selling, it’s service, in the best sense. This approach aligns very well with the values of a purpose-driven organization.

And nonprofits should be at least as good at serving people  as for-profits, right?


Well, consider where the bar is set. Much of what we know about marketing comes from giant consumer brands, led by Procter & Gamble. P&G pioneered marketing field research, as described in an article from The Balance Small Business:

...Field research was revolutionary in its time. For decades following the Great Depression, companies had a patriarchal orientation to product development, advertising, and sales. Products were developed in company laboratories that were considered to be scientific and objective. Companies developed products to meet generic needs and marketing underscored that if customers would just buy and use the advertised products, all would be well...

The missing element in this research and development approach was the research... Procter & Gamble connected the dots. If Procter & Gamble wanted to know what customers wanted, in order to be able to sell it to them, then the company would need to hear directly from the consumers…

The army of Procter & Gamble field researchers knocked on doors and peppered willing homemakers with questions about each and every domestic chore for which the company either had a product or was considering a product launch.


Cleaning products on store shelves


P&G established the first Market Research Department way back in 1925. It was later emulated by all other consumer marketers. But much nonprofit marketing is still better described by the first paragraph of the above excerpt: “if customers would just buy and use the advertised products, all would be well.” Just substitute “donate to our cause” for “buy and use the advertised products.”

Usually, the nonprofit is right: donating is good. But when it comes to persuading people to act, being right is nowhere near enough. It can even be counter-productive.

Thousands of nonprofits compete for the average person’s attention. If most have essentially the same message, what are the odds any one of them will break through? More likely, they’ll all be tuned out.

The ones who do succeed are the ones who offer us not just the right thing, but something we want. They fulfill a desire or relieve discomfort.

“Wait a minute!” comes the objection. “Nonprofits actually are trying to get people to do the right thing, not just sell them detergent. How do you make the greater good appeal to one person’s self-interest — and how is that even OK?”

To which I respond that you don’t have to sacrifice your ideals by accepting reality — in fact I’d argue that achieving good requires it. And the reality of human behavior, as found through much research and much practical experience, is that people’s behavior is driven primarily by the fulfillment of desire or the relief of discomfort.

Does this mean people are purely selfish?

No. One of our most powerful desires is to help others. Meanwhile one of our greatest sources of discomfort is seeing others suffer.

But consider the relative effectiveness of two different approaches to asking people to donate, one following the guidance of behavioral psychology, the other not. In 2005, Hebrew University researchers Tehila Kogut and Ilana Rotov published a paper called “The 'identified victim' effect: an identified group, or just a single individual?” Its findings are summarized well by University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic in another valuable paper, “‘If I look at the mass I will never act:’ Psychic numbing and genocide:”

Kogut and Ritov (2005a, b) tested their predictions in a series of studies in which participants were asked to contribute to a costly life-saving treatment needed by a sick child or a group of eight sick children. The target amount needed to save the child (children) was the same in both conditions, 1.5 million Israeli Shekels (about $300,000). All contributions were actually given to an organization that helps children with cancer. In addition to deciding whether or how much they wanted to contribute, participants in some studies rated their feelings of distress (feeling worried, upset, and sad) towards the sick child (children)...

Contributions to the individuals in the group, as individuals, were far greater than were contributions to the entire group. In a separate study, ratings of distress (not shown in the figure) were also higher in the individual condition.

[Emphasis added.]

Here’s a representation of the result, based on a graph in Kogut and Rotov’s paper:


Bar graph showing that people contributed more than twice as much to help 1 victim as they did to help 8


Our System 2 logic tells us that, obviously, we should donate more to help donate eight sick children than to help just one. But if I’m with a charity that wants to actually help those eight children, I’ll choose what works over what’s logical, every time.

Understanding our often irrational System 1 motivations is what market research is for. And it works for causes like it does for consumption.

One of the most successful anti-tobacco efforts ever is the “Truth” campaign, which seeks to prevent adolescents from picking up the tobacco addiction — a big win, since kicking it is so hard. Because Truth’s ads and other promotional messages are designed by marketing pros, they seldom waste time warning young people about tobacco’s health risks.

Now System 2 would wonder, “What else would you talk about?” Answer: the stuff your target audience really cares about — which, and I can’t emphasize this enough, may be very different from what you care about.

There are young people who worry about their future health. They are unusual. Most adolescent minds are preoccupied with other concerns.

For example, gaining status. For a teenager, this often means demonstrating independence, so taking risks becomes not reckless, but cool. Should we be surprised that it doesn’t work very well for an adult to say, “Don’t smoke, it’s bad for you,” and in fact often encourages more smoking?

Knowing this, the Truth-tellers designed ads that exploited adolescent resentment of adults, for example by showing tobacco company fat cats laughing at teenagers who fall for their marketing.

Another feature of the adolescent mind is a heightened experience of disgust. So another set of Truth ads highlight the fact that cigarette smoke contains urea, which is found in urine, and methane, which is found in poop. Ewwww!

Similar thinking went into the famous “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-littering campaign — one so successful that many people assume that slogan is actually the Texas state motto. Here’s how “Don’t Mess With Texas” came to be, as related in a January, 2011 article in “Texas Monthly” magazine:

...It began in 1985, when Tim McClure, of the Austin advertising giant GSD&M, was trying to devise a slogan to pitch to the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation… for its new anti-littering campaign. Research showed that the main culprits were young truck-driving males, and McClure needed a catchphrase that would grab their attention.

“I was up before dawn one day, walking outside and racking my brains for the right words,” recalls McClure, who grew up in East Texas. “As I was walking, I noticed that even the sides of the road in my nice neighborhood were piled with trash. It made me mad. That’s when it hit me: Texans wouldn’t call this litter. The only time I’d ever used the word ‘litter’ was with puppies and kittens. Instead I was reminded of what my mom used to say about my room growing up. Real Texans would call this a mess.”

Almost immediately, four simple words—“Don’t mess with Texas”—coalesced in his mind, and a battle cry was born. Since then, the phrase has become embedded in the collective psyche not just of Texans but of the whole country.”

“Don’t Mess With Texas” leveraged the very attitude behind the problem to solve the problem. It was like Judo. Young male Texans didn’t like being told what to do, especially by people who used words like “litter.” So telling them not to might very well make them do it more. But by linking that same pride to protecting their beloved Texas — while enlisting iconic Texan spokespeople like Willie Nelson and members of the Dallas Cowboys — ”Don’t Mess With Texas” inspired change in a social norm and dramatic reductions in litter.

Chances are you’re already applying this kind of thinking in at least some of your marketing efforts. Consider the charity auction. As anyone who’s organized one knows, helping a good cause is only one of the motivations for raising your paddle and showing a room full of your peers that you can afford to give away money.

Still, many nonprofits base their market research (when they do it) mostly on data: the demographics of where people live, where they work, and especially, how much money they have.

Such information is valuable, but what’s more valuable is knowing what people want. Then you can design marketing that connects what they want to your cause.

Rethink the habit of asking people to donate to support to your mission: that’s the goal, but not necessarily the message. Instead, find ways to give them what they really want. Satisfy their desire or relieve their discomfort. Their donation is the price they pay for this service — and it supports your mission at the same time.

Let me say again that I’m not saying people only have selfish motives. The knowledge that a donation helps a good cause is valuable too, for reasons we can be proud of.

But let me also say again that we need to know the people we’re trying to reach, and that means knowing what they want.