This week’s guest post is authored by Nancy E. Schwartz, an expert in helping nonprofits succeed through effective marketing. Nancy and her team provide marketing planning and implementation services to nonprofit organizations and foundations nationwide. She is the publisher of the Getting Attention e-update and blog. For more nonprofit marketing guidance like this, subscribe to her e-update here. 


I’m fascinated by the Russian spy ring’s attempt to extract U.S. secrets. They counted on their ability to burrow deep into typical American life to develop their understanding of the U.S. government’s goals and strategies.


One of their primary strategies in doing so – knowing their “audience,” the neighbors and other folks who had to belive they were just “regular folks” – is the key to advancing your nonprofit’s marketing impact. In your case, it’s an absolute must for strengthening the relationships with your current and prospective donors, advocates, volunteers and more that are the foundation of effective nonprofit marketing.


The goal

To understand your audiences well, in order to find the intersection of their wants and needs and those of your organization. That intersection is where connection happens, followed by engagement.


The spies had their audience down cold

“A neighbor of the Murphy family described them as ‘suburbia personified,'” Richard Murphy mowed the lawn; Cynthia Murphy came home from work…with daffodils and French bread in her hands.


“Relatives, friends, classmates, neighbors and co-workers of the three couples expressed shock at the arrests, and they searched their memories for signs that something was amiss, but mostly came up blank,” according to a story in the New York Times.


Clearly, the spies and their colleagues back at Russia’s Foreign Service Intelligence Service had thoroughly studied these communities for the spies to embed themselves so successfully there.


Here’s how you can get to know your audience without putting espionage to work


  1. Define your primary target audience (those you need to engage to meet your marketing goals) and group it into no more than three or four distinct segments. Sample segments for an organization building support for a child-focused healthcare bill in Nebraska include: a) policymakers and their staff members at the congressional district and county levels, currently against the pending state healthcare reform bill; b) mothers of children 18 and under with chronic illnesses; c) health careproviders for those children.
  2. Outline everything you know now about each one. Supplement those outlines with online research.
  3. Reach out to one or two representatives of each segment to learn more. A casual phone conversation is a greatplace to start – perhaps even to non-work related acquantainces, just to build your understanding of what’s important to that group.
  4. Concurrently, build a list of those you know within each segment (or whom your colleagues, friends, family or board know if you are reaching out to these segments for the first time). Numbers may be low if these are new segments for your organization to engage, but their qualitatitve feedback will be representative of the larger segment.
  5. Once you have baseline understanding of each segment’s habits, wants and needs – reach out more broadly via online surveys, informal focus groups and/or brief phone interviews. Focus on learning what’s important to each segment and how that overlaps with your organization’s agenda.
  6. Craft personas – detailed profiles, including a photo – of imaginary representatives of each group you hope to engage.
  7. Shape your marketing messages and delivery to these personas, just as the spies shaped themselves to fit into their neighborhoods.


If you were a Russian spy trying to blend in, or simply a nonprofit organization trying to get to know its audience better, what would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below.