In 18 years, the team at my agency has helped about 1,100 clients develop their marketing plans. These companies range in size and industry; however, until recently, our client intake process varied only a little for each client.
Our onboarding process included an extensive questionnaire, survey and an interview to collect data that would help our team to write the client’s marketing plan. If members of the client’s team wanted to offer input during the writing process, they could provide feedback as we submitted each draft. Otherwise, clients remained hands-off because they trusted we would provide them with the service they paid for.
However, over the past 18 months, I decided to start using various design thinking techniques when helping my nonprofit clients develop their marketing plans. I found these techniques especially useful when facilitating marketing strategy boot camps.
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is a collaborative, solutions-based strategy for solving problems. Organizations that use design thinking define a problem, develop various ways to address the problem, then test those solutions to find the answers they need. They work through this process in a collaborative environment. At the very core of design thinking is the goal of getting an organization to become actionable and improve its sustainability.
Design Thinking Techniques
The design thinking techniques I use most often in my boot camps and workshops are brainstorming, brain-dumping and brainwriting.
The basic concept of brainstorming is generating ideas face to face in a group setting. I typically have workshop participants introduce themselves and their organization and start with discussing marketing strategies and techniques they’ve already used. I then encourage participants to tap into the ideas that have been shared to start generating new ideas.
Brain-dumping is the process of emptying the mind of every marketing idea you can think of. Workshop participants are asked to set a specific goal. That goal might be recruiting more volunteers for an upcoming event. Participants are given 10 minutes to write down every idea they can think of on a sticky note. When time is up, all sticky notes are placed on a whiteboard for workshop participants to discuss.
Brainwriting is a bit like brain-dumping, except the team builds on each other’s ideas before group discussion begins. In the workshop, for example, participants are asked to think of a specific challenge most nonprofits have and write down marketing ideas for overcoming those challenges. Participants share those ideas with other workshop participants, who then build on those ideas and pass them on to other participants. After 10 minutes, the workshop facilitator collects the ideas and the group discussion begins.
Brainstorming, brain-dumping and brainwriting are practical tools that don’t require a lot of financial resources like expensive surveys, data collection or market research. Marketing consultants can provide value to their clients by utilizing these cost-effective tools as a service they provide to their clients.
After completing my first boot camp that implemented design thinking strategies, I learned a few valuable lessons:
1. The intake process, like the one I discussed at the beginning of the article, usually doesn’t allow a consultant to gain in-depth knowledge of an organization, its staff, history and challenges.
2. A consultant can’t truly gain an understanding of the nonprofit’s target market — or its true impact — with an intake process.
3. Many times, a consultant lacks the marketing and business intelligence needed to develop an effective marketing plan because an intake process can’t provide that kind of data.
4. Design thinking provides a new way to look at marketing problems. It’s far more effective to start with gaining a deep understanding of the organization, then using ideation to brainstorm various strategies to solve your community’s needs.
Why is design thinking an effective tool for nonprofits?
Using various design thinking techniques, marketing consultants can work with the staff and board of directors — the people who have the most knowledge of the organization — to do the deep-dive necessary to establish effective marketing solutions for the organization. This strategy encourages full engagement with the organization.
As the problem-solving process unfolds, the consultant can collect the marketing intelligence necessary to provide guidance during the planning process. This is where extensive assessment of what may or may not work for the organization happens.
Using design thinking techniques allows the marketing consultant and the nonprofit’s board and staff to create an actionable marketing plan that’s written in a language the organization’s staff, board and volunteers can understand.
Generating ideas using a collaborative approach to solving marketing problems is far more effective when a marketing consultant works with the people who have the deepest knowledge of the organization.
The intake process I’ve used for years included onboarding that allowed my team to collect extensive business intelligence from our clients. But our process did not include the kind of client engagement necessary to develop a product that helped to improve the client’s sustainability.
Design thinking, at its core, encourages nonprofits to take a broad look at how all of the organization’s pieces fit together. Using this technique can help marketing consultants collect the business intelligence they need to develop an actionable marketing plan that’s aligned very closely with the nonprofit’s strategic plan.