I am a word guy—always have been. I read a lot of books and have even authored one. This blog is a bunch of words. And in my marketing work with nonprofits, words are paramount: mission statements, proof of impact, value propositions, and otherwise persuading audiences with words.

I have noticed that I am not alone; nonprofit leaders in general seem more comfortable working with words than images. I believe our sector tends to select for facility with text. For instance, the vast majority of grant applications are text only, and I have yet to hear about a final report that required a video attachment.

I attribute this to two things. First, until the last decade or so, the cost of producing quality video or professional-grade images was high and deemed out of reach for most local nonprofits. Second, professional training for the nonprofit sector has been sparse. There are not many opportunities to teach leaders new ways of thinking and communicating. As a result, we default to the mode that our education systems currently stress and reward: words and writing.

The first problem is no longer an issue: Production costs have plummeted—anyone with a decent computer can create and work with video and images in ways we couldn’t imagine a decade ago. Unfortunately, the second problem still exists: Most local nonprofit leaders cannot afford to hire staff with expertise in visual communication, and many face barriers to acquiring the necessary skill sets internally.

It is a serious knowledge gap. The latest “neuro-marketing” studies have demonstrated anew the power of images in persuading audiences; in fact, audiences are increasingly conditioned to respond to video and images. This puts the onus on leaders to self-educate on this subject. That doesn’t necessarily mean producing videos, but today’s leaders do need enough visual fluency to manage volunteers, consultants, or their own staff members who are working in this area.

Here are some resources for those looking to take a crash course on visually based marketing techniques:

The basics
The best primer on the subject is “Seeing Is Believing,” a 20-page, free best practices guide for visual communications for nonprofits. Produced by the nonprofit Resource Media, it is filled with great examples. One of the most helpful paradigm shifts it articulates is to select images for their emotional impact, not just the logical function of illustrating a point. Resource Media’s blog is also an excellent source of ongoing learning. I especially like that it is organized by different causes so that readers can find material particularly relevant to their agency.

Presenting data
Today’s audiences have short attention spans and expect to get information in easily digestible forms. Many nonprofits can greatly boost their appeal by turning their numerical data into compelling charts and graphs. On this topic, Jim Stikeleather, executive strategist for Innovation for Dell Services, has written several helpful pieces for the Harvard Business Review. He emphasizes using charts to support a logical point and to tell a story, and articulates three elements of successful data visualization.

Inserting photos into marketing material is the easiest way to achieve visual impact; it’s also the easiest way to screw it up. Believing that you need to include photos for photos sake—without thinking through how audiences process those images—can lead to counterproductive choices. Take this test by the nonprofit marketing guru Andy Goodman to see how well you choose photos for your cause. In this era of social media, making informed choices about the photos you put on your nonprofit’s accounts is increasingly important. If you need better ones, Lightbox Collaborative offers guidance on finding free images.

Take a look at 11 agencies that have used video particularly effectively. It’s worth noting that as the number of people using video has risen, so have production standards. To meet those standards, here are a series of production tips prepared by Global Giving and presented, appropriately enough, in the form of a video. My biggest advice to nonprofit leaders: Determine the shortest length of time needed to communicate your cause in a video—and then force yourself to do so in half that time. I don’t know how many nonprofit videos I’ve come across that run more than 10 minutes—rarely have I clicked the play button.

If you often use PowerPoint, you absolutely must absorb the lessons of Nancy Duarte, the guru who turned Al Gore’s mountain of research into a world-changing slide deck. I recommend diving into her book Slide:ology, or you can start with this short article on how to evaluate your slides. The big insight is this: Slides should accompany your spoken words, not repeat them. Slides primarily should contain pictures, and the best slide decks have few, if any, text. Goodman (who I mentioned above) also produced the excellent—and free—resource, “Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes.”

The production of truly eye-catching collateral is very challenging. It’s hard to come up with an original concept and then execute it well. Here are 40 campaign posters for nonprofit campaigns that illustrate what it takes to succeed. Wild Woman Fundraising shared a nice example of a makeover it did to its annual report. Brochures are unnecessary for most organizations: they are basically websites on paper. But if you really need one, here are some simple but still helpful nonprofit brochure basics.

Sweating the details
Succeeding in the realm of visual marketing requires attention to details. Studies show that something small like a color choice can affect donor response. Staying consistent with your visual choices is also critical, which is why brand guides are important to nonprofits. Just like you proofread your text, you have to “proofsee” your visuals.

Read more stories by Curtis Chang.

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