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Mercy Corps’ four-quarter full-court marketing press

May 13, 2009

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In a recent New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell wonders why more basketball teams don’t employ a full-court press. Instead of dropping back to your own net and defending, you press the other guys on the inbounds pass and at the mid-court line. You don’t defend 30 percent of the court (inside the 3 point line), you defend the entire court. This surprising strategy gives underdogs a fighting chance: it keeps the stronger team always on the defensive, and makes greater virtues of speed and endurance (as opposed to ball-handling and shooting). Gladwell’s article has sparked a little interest among webheads, like Martin Kelley of O’Reilly Media, who sees the web enabling a sea change in marketing and communications:

“Traditional marketing campaigns are batch: we plan out a commercial, pick its theme, hire directors, do audience testing and months later air it on broadcast television. Even low-budget nonprofits operate this way: they create a schedule of newsletters to distribute by postal or electronic mail, with carefully constructed branded templates and standardized lengths and formatting ... Many of the most adept citizens of the new web culture don’t sit down to write pre-planned blog posts. Twitter has taught us to capture the moment, to express the thought now and just move on. ... Most of the ubiquitous ‘how to make money on Twitter’ posts fail to make the difference between real-time and batch processing. If you’re real time, you’re part of a conversation and building a community that might be virtual and asychronous but is authentic in its own way.”

The rise of social networking gives organizations with underdog marketing resources (like, um, certain non-profits) a stellar chance to press the full court. In Ye Olden Days (ca. 2005), marketing was planned around calendars (monthly, quarterly, etc.) or for “windows” like Holiday, Mother’s Day, Back-to-School. But with flexible and rapid media tools like Facebook, Twitter and blogs at our disposal, Mercy Corps can substitute speed and effort for ad buy dollars. My colleague Floyd has already written about how our newish design makes this much, much easier.

But more importantly, these tools allow us to turn a liability into an asset. Mercy Corps’ world doesn’t always obey the calendar. We can’t predict when or where the next cyclone or earthquake will strike. We can’t hope that military conflicts will helpfully schedule themselves between the Dads-and-Grads and Fourth-of-July windows. But each of these events represents a unique moment to communicate, with little filtering, what Mercy Corps is doing. Not some abstract brand promise, or mission statement, but the daily reality of our recipients and fieldworkers: yesterday we delivered aid packages to displaced people in the Mardan and Swabi Districts of Pakistan. And here are the pictures. They might not be the studio-quality portraits the art director I used to be would have chosen for the Memorial Day E-Blast, but they show what is actually happening right now.

I came to Mercy Corps almost two years ago after a decade working in the for-profit sector. I’m a great believer in commerce, but I can’t recall ever getting as worked up about printers or software or t-shirts the way I am about giving blankets to cold children. I have a (perhaps naive) faith: the best way to “sell” Mercy Corps to our constituents (and trust me, non-profits have to make the same marketing and branding and sales decisions as for-profit companies, but with the hitch that we don’t actually deliver products to the people who give us money), is to talk about what Mercy Corps is doing.