In the early 1990s, when I was editor in chief of Upside, a magazine covering Silicon Valley, I wrote an editorial titled “Marketing Über Alles,” the same headline as on this editor’s note. The point of that editorial was to drive home the idea that marketing was an underappreciated part of creating a successful technology company. Too many technology companies then (and now) believed that the best technology would always win. Instead of focusing on what consumers needed or wanted, companies would concentrate on technical features that engineers thought were important.

There are many examples one can point to when a superior technology lost. One of the most famous is Betamax, a videotape technology developed by Sony in the late 1970s. Betamax was widely acknowledged to be a technically superior format, with better sound and picture quality. But it lost out to a competing technology, VHS (Video Home System), which off ered features that were more important to consumers: a lower price and a longer recording time. The lesson of the videotape wars was tha t technology companies needed to pay closer attention to what consumers wanted.

The same lesson applies to the social sector. Too often, nonprofi t organizations develop what they believe are technically superior programs and services that end up falling fl at because they are not designed with the benefi ciary (i.e., consumer) in mind. In this issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, we are proud to bring you “Selling Social Change,” a feature story about this very topic.

“Rigorously evaluated evidence-based practices and programs alone cannot trump benefi ciaries’ lack of awareness or interest,” write coauthors Taz Hussein and Matt Plummer from The Bridgespan Group. “Nonprofi ts must learn some of the same demand-generation techniques that forprofi ts have been honing for decades.”

The authors illustrate this issue by examining the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), developed by the National Institutes of Health. The program targets people who are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes (close to one-third of the US population). It reduces the risk by getting these people to change their lifestyle.

Numerous organizations now offer DPP, but most have not been successful at signing up signifi cant numbers of people for the program. The reason is that DPP was not designed with sales and marketing in mind. The assumption was that people would sign up for the program simply because it was available and it worked. It was a “build it and they will come” approach.

There is one organization, Omada Health, that took a diff erent tack. Omada tweaked DPP to make it more appealing to customers. For example, they put the program online to make it easier for people to sign up and immediately begin taking lessons at their convenience. In contrast, most other organizations require people to attend a class in person, at a specifi c time and place. The result of Omada’s eff orts: it “expects enrollment to top 100,000 in 2016, fi ve times the number enrolled by all other DPP providers in 2015.”

To be sure, sales and marketing are not by themselves sufficient for success. It also takes an eff ective program or service. But unless nonprofi ts do more to think about their benefi ciaries as customers, then many well-intentioned eff orts will continue to fail.

Read more stories by Eric Nee.

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