The Hidden Picture in Marketing and Development Problems

When I was a kid, the highlight of any trip to the doctor’s office was the opportunity to read Highlights magazine. My favorite part was the Hidden Pictures page, the drawing where you needed to find a picture of a banana, or a lunch box, or an umbrella hidden within a drawing of something seemingly unrelated to
those objects.

Sometimes finding true marketing and development problems is a bit like looking for an object in Hidden Pictures: the issue may be missed because it looks like or is assumed to be something else.

Let me illustrate with two examples.

Real Life Examples of Marketing and Development Problems

One of my education clients was frustrated at the lack of response the organization was receiving to their email outreach campaigns for students. Their programs had won awards for quality, but a few programs were suffering poor enrollment. They came to us asking for help to improve their promotions.

A human service organization wanted to expand fund development by increasing participation in certain programs. While there had been some growth, the organization wasn’t seeing an increase in available cash. They engaged us to help them determine how to expand their donor base.

In both cases, the organization assumed that the marketing problem they faced was related to promotions. They had looked at the picture before them, and determined that the solution was to expand awareness.

In both cases, they were missing the hidden picture.

The Real problem

After conducting a survey among potential students, we found the real problem with the educational organization’s outreach campaign. Students told us that they would travel a certain distance to attend classes, and the population of prospective students within a radius of that distance was not sufficient to sustain the program. No matter how persuasive the email campaign was, the outcome was unlikely to change.

In their case, the solution was to change their distribution approach. They needed to move their class location in order to make it more geographically appealing to their market. By doing this, they could easily fill their unused capacity.

For the human services organization, the culprit wasn’t awareness, it was cost. We spent some time analyzing the revenue and expense streams, and realized that the organization was paying more in direct, indirect and labor costs than it was generating from the thousands of small donations it was receiving.
Attracting more donors would simply compound the problem.

Minor modifications to the benefits they promised their donors and the operational approach delivered returns without the need to expand the donor base.

The Cause of Marketing and Development Problems

So, how do you know if you’re missing the real cause of your marketing headaches? The biggest clue is in your budget. You might be missing the hidden picture if you are spending disproportionate amounts of money on public relations, advertising, printed materials or other promotions, and it doesn’t seem to be making any difference in your outcomes. You might also see it in your list of vendors. If you’ve churned through a large number of agencies, none of which produced the results you wanted, you may be missing the hidden picture.

To solve the problem, you need to look at the picture differently. I don’t know about you, but there were occasionally Hidden Pictures I just couldn’t solve. No matter how long I looked at it, the banana, or lunch box, or umbrella just wouldn’t stand out. Then I would ask someone else … my little brother, or my mom, or the doctor’s receptionist. They would spot it in a heartbeat. Fresh eyes made all the difference.

Obviously, consultants are one option for fresh eyes. However, they aren’t the only source of good insight! Try asking your donors, the beneficiaries of your services, or your other stakeholders directly. Ask your board for their input, or create a special advisory panel. You might even try asking another group of people within your organization … people who you might not assume had the knowledge or experience required to solve the problem. Good insight often comes from abandoning what you think you know about what you see in front of you.

If you have a marketing puzzle you just can’t solve, consider the Hidden Picture. Once you’ve found the solution, it will stand out as if it should have been obvious all along.

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