It’s hard for any organization to thrive in complete obscurity. Whether you’re working to end childhood hunger or working to change policies in your city, your impact and influence will be limited at best—or nonexistent at worst—without building awareness and mindshare among the people who volunteer, give, and advocate for your mission.
Fortunately professionals don’t have to look far for communications models to help them steer their campaigns more thoughtfully. A good mental model offers a common language and conceptual framework for diverse teams, helping them clarify and align on goals—so that their work is unfettered from constant questioning about what they’re doing and why.
The typical comms model: Reach, Engage, Impact (R-E-I)
The most common communications framework we know is R-E-I (Reach, Engage, Influence/Impact). It orients you toward figuring out how much reach is needed to produce the desired level of audience engagement—and in turn, how many engaged individuals are necessary to produce the impact you’re looking to achieve.
This model has its benefits. But it’s imperfect for mission-driven groups in a few key ways. Most significantly, the direction of the R-E-I model is singular and one-way: at the end of a campaign, you simply start over. Yet for most non-profits, success isn’t powered by a series of one-off campaigns, but through long-term relationships with engaged stakeholders that are carefully cultivated over time. In this context, real transformation tends not to happen primarily through new audience acquisition—which is costly in terms of financial resources and staff time—but through strategic efforts to deepen audience affinity over months and years.
Refocusing the R-E-I model for the mission-driven sector
I suggest we refocus the R-E-I model into something I’m calling the bubble gum model. The shape reminds me of the Dubble Bubble single-wrapped pieces of gum my wife loves to chew. I also think we should have a sticky, thick center of engagement for our audiences.
Yes, cold outreach is useful for growing your audience. Yet for cause-oriented outreach in our sector, it matters more that you can elicit a predictable response from your audiences—be it for donations, sharing ideas, or signing petitions and action alerts to help move policy. Predictability comes from building deep-rooted engagement that evolves and strengthens as your stakeholders’ knowledge of what you do increases. This long-term orientation develops your confidence to steadily heighten what you ask from these engaged audience members.
In this model, the sides are the funnel—imagine a special campaign at one end, and your daily outreach and thought leadership at the other end. The point is, there are multiple doorways to get engaged with your organization, along with different depths of engagement among different audiences at various times. Impact and goal targeting can happen at any point, bolstered by an already-activated audience that has affinity for your organization and brand.
The center of this bubble-gum model is reminiscent of the Hubspot Flywheel model; this is also all about building cycles of affinity.
If you have one message for all of your audiences, you are talking to no one
We need to more deeply consider the lifetime experiences of audience members, and their unique journeys of engagement with what we do. Once they’re part of a cycle of engagement, it grows critical to serve them more relevant content, more effectively, based on the actions they’ve taken and the information they’ve shared with us. This requires having the right architecture and contact models to produce personalized content at the right touch points in their lifecycle.
In addition to your short-term goal for the next fundraising campaign, or legislative session, what can you accomplish in terms of impact for your constituents over the course of the next 10 years with this fundamental shift in thinking about engagement?
I realize this is not a turnkey approach being presented here. But the most important thing is to develop a plan and get started based on where you are. Consistent, incremental improvements and steering are possible as you go, always keeping your North Star in sight.