Episode 10 – Fundamentals of Telling a Good Story

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Episode 10 – Fundamentals of Telling a Good Story


My guest on the show today is Camron AssadiCamron is the Director of Marketing and Communications with Water For People, where he works to tell the story of the organization’s work to a global audience. Water For People is a global nonprofit organization working in more than 30 districts across nine countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa to achieve lasting quality water and sanitation services. Prior to Water For People, Camron was Director of the Climate Relief Fund, an organization that helped people affected by severe weather disasters, including the drought in California. Previously, Camron ran marketing on PLOS ONE, the world’s largest scientific journal. He was also Deputy Internet Director at Mercy Corps, and has run his own consulting business.

Highlights from this Conversation

  • What has worked well for you?
    • Getting back to fundamentals of telling a good story
      • Talk about the effects of your work
    • Segmenting their audience, engineers, donors, etc.
      • Tell the story to the right people at the right time
    • Consider an editorial calendar to plan your stories
  • What hasn’t worked well for you?
    • Having very segmented teams didn’t work well
      • Instead orient around results with an integrated team
  • What are you excited about?
    • Exceed 2017 goals

Interview Transcript

Adam: [00:00:09] Hi and welcome to Good People, Good Marketing podcast. A podcast about non-profit digital marketing and how to make it better, so the good people and good organizations can have good marketing as well. I’m your host Adam Walker co-founder of Sideways Eight, a digital marketing agency that specializes in non-profit work, and 48 in 48 a non-profit dedicated to hosting events that build 48 websites for 48 non-profits in forty-eight hours.

[00:00:31] Today my guest is Camron Assadi. Camron is the director of marketing and communications for Water for People, where he works to tell the story of the organization’s work to a global audience. Water for People is a global non-profit organization working in more than thirty districts across nine countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa to achieve lasting quality water and sanitation services. Prior to Water for People Camron was director of The Climate Relief Fund, an organization that helped people affected by severe weather disasters including the drought in California. Previously Camron ran marketing for Plos One, the world’s largest scientific journal. He was also Deputy Internet Director at Mercy Corps and has run his own consulting business. Camron, you sound busy. Is there anything that we missed in that intro?

Camron: [00:01:17] No, that’s a pretty good wrap up. Thanks.

Adam: [00:01:22] I like it. I like what you’re doing, if you want to round any of that out let us know. But I think that’s, man that’s a really good starting point. I love what you’re doing for Water for People. I’m really excited about water and clean water for people worldwide. I think that’s a really big deal that most people don’t realize.

Camron: [00:01:38] Yeah, yeah thanks. It’s a really great organization and I started out early in my career in for profit working as a marketer, mostly online marketing, back in the first dotcom in San Francisco and about fifteen years ago maybe more dating myself a little bit here. Non-profit work and really working at the intersection of humanitarian aid and environmental resources.

[00:02:04] I did a lot of my work over the last several years and then ended up at Water for People, because this organizations really known as a leader in the water and sanitation sector, really using our approach at working with partners and working in a sustainable way as we work. It’s a great organization and hopefully to be able to [00:02:27] inaudible [6.8] really help tell the story in a more [00:02:34] inaudible [0.0]

Adam: [00:02:35] That’s fantastic. Based on our conversation prior to this recording so I’m going to phrase this, related to digital marketing and/or non-profit leadership, so we will broaden the spectrum just a little bit. We’re going to talk through the questions what has worked well for you? What hasn’t worked well? What are you excited about? So to start off with what has worked well for you?

Camron: [00:02:58] I would say getting back to the fundamentals always, and you probably heard this from other people on your show of telling a good story, and that’s at the core of what we do. So that has always worked well and in every piece of content that we put out there’s a story behind that. The work that Water for People does is complicated, working with partners, developing all these systems in place, building infrastructure, pipes and plumbing, and toilets and sanitation infrastructure. Like these are very complicated issues.

Adam: [00:03:34] Right.

Camron: [00:03:35] Working with governments like this and it actually gets kind of boring. So the way that we’re able to talk about our work, is by telling what that actually means for the people that we work with in a really positive way. I think there’s two things that make a lot of people really unique, is that we have millions of stories around the world every day of people touched by our work, and being able to zero in on those individuals and how their lives have been improved by the work that we do, and always showing them in a positive way as our partners. It’s never the white great western NGO going in and helping these poor people. It’s never a conversation about that, it’s more about how these local people are leaders of their own whether in their families, or in their communities, or in their local governments, and how they’ve changed themselves with our support. So that’s the angle.

[00:04:33] But again it’s like taking this big global issue of two point eight billion people without access to safe water, four and a half billion people without access to a reasonable toilet. Those are big numbers and so to really try to convey that in a way that people can latch onto, is by these [00:04:53] inaudible [0.6] and we spend a lot of time developing things around our work [00:04:57] inaudible. [2.2] I think that’s something I learned early on at Mercy Corps, you see a lot of the best non-profits really telling these stories. So there’s some nuance there and how you really help, it’s really in a public way.

Adam: [00:05:14] Yeah, and I love how you talk about how what you do is extremely complex, but you narrow it down to a very clear and compelling story of the results of your work, right.

Camron: [00:05:26] Yeah.

Adam: [00:05:26] I mean that’s really easy to get to get very distracted by the many programs that a non-profit has, or the many things that they’re doing. But the bottom line is we’ve done this thing to help this person.

Camron: [00:05:38] Right.

Adam: [00:05:39] At the end of the day, right.

Camron: [00:05:40] Yeah, and it’s really interesting because Water for People is now a twenty-six almost twenty-seven year old organization that was founded by engineers. So water and sanitation engineers here in the U.S. they wanted to do something so they [00:05:53] inaudible [0.1] all the infrastructure here in this country American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation. These are engineering types and they wanted to take their technical knowledge out to the world, and really make a difference. Just like water is [00:06:08] inaudible [0.2] here and you take it for granted they clean, safe, perfectly good drinking water coming out. They wanted to make that kind of change around the world.

Adam: [00:06:17] Right.

Camron: [00:06:17] We have an audience of these hardcore engineers who want to hear this technical information, they want to hear the nerdy stuff. So the other thing that’s worked well for us is segmenting our audience so those individual stories we started talking about appeal to everybody, whether you’re an engineer, or someone in country, or someone who doesn’t even know that there is a global water sanitation crisis. That’s kind of the [00:06:46] inaudible [0.6] really widely. But then [00:06:49] inaudible. [0.1]

Adam: [00:06:49] Right.

Camron: [00:06:49] We segment out our audiences so people who are more savvy donors, or foundation, or these engineers we have to create the content that is specific to that audience. So I think something that has also worked well for us is being able to segment out audiences, be encapsulated by telling those stories and then a smaller [00:07:12] inaudible. [0.5] What was the technical challenge with this project? What do the logistics look like? So trying to really tell the right story to the right people at the right time is segmentation, and that’s pretty basic marketing stuff but it’s not always the easiest to really do that. So we spent a lot of time working on that.

Adam: [00:07:36] Right. That’s right. I totally agree with you it’s critical to a segment, and it’s critical for the timing of that, and the messaging behind it, and I think that’s really smart. It’s increasingly difficult for non-profits because nonprofits are speaking to very different audiences, depending on how you look at them. I mean there’s donors, there’s the people that they’re serving, there’s the people that are volunteering. Often those are three dramatically different audiences, and you just have to be very cautious about how they speak to them, how they present themselves in those arenas.

Camron: [00:08:03] Yeah.

Adam: [00:08:03] So I think that’s really cool.

Camron: [00:08:03] Yeah, I think just to add to that it’s constantly a challenge to try to take that really complicated model, the impact model, that we have is very complicated and distill that into a two hundred and eighty character tweet or a Facebook post is really pretty tricky. So I think getting the right team together that manage this, so on our team we have a writer who’s really developing these stories, and then we have someone who’s in charge of social media and they were really closely together [00:08:37] inaudible [0.4] an editorial calendar trying to pull off one of these different things that we’re going to do sometimes.

[00:08:44] But we definitely organize our content and what we say around editorial calendar and I have to say that’s that’s also something that’s worked really well, is being able to plan out the stories that we’re going to tell and working back from there. Making a request to our Africa office to go and get that story, and then turn that into something that we can use on the internet. So I would also say that editorial calendars [00:09:11] inaudible. [0.3]

Adam: [00:09:15] Yeah, that’s fantastic. I totally agree with you the editorial counters are critical when you’re really thinking through your communication strategy, being able to figure out what blog posts are we posting in the month of January. What’s our newsletter about? What are we going to be posting about, and tweeting about, and Facebooking about, and Instagramming. I mean having some kind of cohesiveness around all of that, it’s actually not as hard as a lot of nonprofits seem to think that it is. It just takes a little bit of time a little bit of intentionality and it goes a really long way towards getting much better stories in the long run. So I love that you mentioned the editorial calendar. That’s great. So then related to these things as well, what’s something that hasn’t worked well for you that we can learn from?

Camron: [00:09:56] Yeah I mentioned you know before we started talking on the podcast about organizing a team around marketing success. So I came here and my boss Previa, who has been here six months before I, he’s the Chief Development Officer. It was interesting that the marketing team here operated as kind of an agency within the organization, and wasn’t really integrated into the fundraising team. So my boss consolidated that together and brought me on as the Director of Marketing. So we’re all on one big team, so the fundraising and marketing team are together. So that’s been something that didn’t work so well before, and orienting ourselves around results in data driven marketing and ultimately raising money to support our work, has really been transformative for the organization I think. Both in being able to tell a better story and raise more money, but also really just being able to work more integrated with our team, especially our program teams, so that people who are actually doing the work in country.

[00:11:08] That’s something that we can’t really take for granted. It’s really easy I think for silofication or non-profits to be siloed in the ways that they work, or marketing is just doing the annual report and we just need to give them the information. Well we actually take a different approach, where we spend a lot of time integrating with these different areas and learning what’s important and what are the key messages. So we spent a lot of time, it ends up being a lot of meetings but it is really valuable in integrating with the rest [00:11:44] inaudible. [0.1]

Adam: [00:11:44] I love that. That’s great. I mean I think the default we tend to go to is the segmented you’re doing this, and only this, and focus on your lane. But I think to your point, you’re going to miss major storylines and major opportunities, because you don’t have a holistic understanding of what’s actually going on. The integrated teams approach is brilliant and really really smart, and I think for smaller nonprofits that sort of happens out of the gate in a lot of ways. But even then you have to be careful about it to make sure that the left hand knows what the right hands doing.

Camron: [00:12:19] Absolutely.

Adam: [00:12:20] I think the other thing that hasn’t worked well that we’ve definitely turned a corner on, and it’s related, is working with consultants. A lot of nonprofits like us can’t do everything internally, and so I would say that prior to my role here we were definitely a consultant heavy organization. I think there’s just a trick with working whether it’s a website developers, or public public relations agencies, or organizational consultants. Any time you’re bringing in an outside person, you really have to take the time figure out what you want first. Otherwise the consultants will just do what they want and bill you a lot of hours. So speaking to someone who works at an agency, and I’ve also been a consultant myself it’s really critical to identify what are the key asks.

Adam: [00:13:14] Right.

Camron: [00:13:14] Have oversight on what the agency’s doing, and have that really good line of communication about what are the expectations, and what things that we’re looking to achieve, and what are the most important things, and really do that prioritization before setting off some billable hours. That’s something that didn’t work so well, we had to change web developers to a system that had more oversight for example. We change PR firms, and just to find something that is more suited to the humanitarian style of communication that we were doing. Through all of this that would just be the other thing that I would impart if you’re working with an outside agency of any kind is just really take the time to identify what the goals are and what the deliverables are. Before we get into that I think [00:14:05] inaudible. [1.7]

Adam: [00:14:08] Yeah. Yeah, I mean would a hundred percent second that I talked to a ton of nonprofits that come to me from Sideways8, which is that the for profit agency and they come with sort of a very loose idea of what they want. But the first thing I always tell them is take what you’re talking about, and map it out in great detail on a minimum of a one page document, bare minimum, and outline what your goals are and what you’re hoping to accomplish through this, because that’s going to help you to get clear on what you’re actually doing and what you want to come out of this. Then we can have a more detailed conversation, and take that one page document and blow it up into something much larger that’s much more specific, right. But you’re right, I mean non-profits seem to engage with agencies and consultants sort of very broadly without goals. Then the consultants sort of run the direction they want to run in but that’s not.

Camron: [00:15:04] Yeah, not to disparage consultants or agencies at all, I’m a huge fan of many of them, and having been on both sides I think that’s just one thing that’s really valuable is to really take the time at the outset to figure out what you’re trying to get and continue to checking on it and have some real deliverables. I mean it seems common sense but I think you can’t really take that for granted.

Adam: [00:15:32] Yeah, I totally agree. Totally agree. So then my last question that I’d like to ask is what are you excited about? We’re starting out a new year, we’re actually having this conversation on January the 2nd, it will be published for a little a little longer but we’re starting the new year.

Camron: [00:15:50] I have to say we really exceeded the goals for our online fundraising for 2017 calendar year. So super excited about that and I think the reason why we were able to get to that is we implemented a new CRM system so all of our online donation forms, our e-mail systems, and sort of tracking and reporting, have been upgraded. I think that was really part and parcel of that.

Adam: [00:16:13] What’s the CRM?

Camron: [00:16:13] But also we use every [00:16:18] inaudible. [5.7] That coupled with being able to tell a lot more stories and having a broader audience, and we did spend some money on advertising. We did advertise on Facebook to try to get new people into our audience [00:16:36] inaudible. [0.9] So there’s a lot that we’re just going through right now this month looking back at what were the effect of emails or our best social media posts. Now that we have a CRM system we can actually track that or follow up what really engaged new donors and got them to convert. We also did a program to engage our lapsed donors and try to get them to re-engage and that’s been very successful. So it’s just really exciting to see all of the stuff that we tried out in building these new systems to really show results.

Adam: [00:17:10] I love that.

Camron: [00:17:10] Then I think yeah, for 2018 we know we have a beautiful website, everybody really likes it, but honestly from our side internally it’s very difficult to work with. The previous developer was a great developer but not a very good [00:17:28] inaudible [1.3] workflow and that kind of thing. So it’s kind of a really hard system, we have to rely on an outside developer to make a lot of changes or I’m the one in the organization that knows HTML and CSS, so I end up doing a lot of the changes myself and you know bogs me down. So I’m really looking forward to building a new website. We’ll probably use CMS either WordPress or Drupal to make it easier for people here internally to make an update changes and manage workflows. But we work in nine countries and each of the countries where we work in have a local market, and they want to market to people in their countries. So we have to localize the website and we also want to give them control but also be able to have oversight of what changes they’re making to the pages for example. So ideally [00:18:21] inaudible [0.7] our web systems.

Adam: [00:18:23] Right.

Camron: [00:18:23] To really be able to deliver more [00:18:25] inaudible [0.1] and give more people access [00:18:29] inaudible. [0.1]

Adam: [00:18:33] Well I’ll put in a plug for WordPress for you there.

Camron: [00:18:37] Yeah, [00:18:37] inaudible. [1.6] We really talk more about how I worked in Drupal as well, but WordPress I think for, especially when we talk about people who have hardly any technical experience, really no technical experience. WordPress is something that I think just makes it easier.

Adam: [00:18:53] Yeah.

Camron: [00:18:53] So that’s likely the way we’re going to go.

Adam: [00:18:59] That’s great. Well let me see if I can recap the lessons from this conversation and then you can sort of add to these if I miss anything. So the first under what has worked well for you, you talked about getting back to the fundamentals of good storytelling specifically talking about the effects of your work, also segmenting your audience so that your stories are affecting the right audiences at the right time, and absolutely consider an editorial calendar to plan and execute your stories effectively. For the what hasn’t worked well, you mentioned that segmented teams did not work well, and are working with more integrated teams that orient around results has worked significantly better, and helped you to exceed your 2017 goals which is the big thing you’re excited about, and I think rightly so. So did I miss anything from those lessons or anything kind of final thoughts you’d like to share with our listeners?

Camron: [00:19:47] No, I think that’s mostly it. One thing I should say is that storytelling is really important but you also have to have great design. So we have a wonderful designer in-house, so being able to have both storytelling and design, and sort of our global brand managed in-house has been really effective, because your brand tells as much of a story as the stories it sells. So having that integrated has also been really… Sorry, I don’t want to leave out.

Adam: [00:20:16] Yeah.

Camron: [00:20:16] But bringing those all together online.

Adam: [00:20:18] Yeah.

Camron: [00:20:18] Whether it’s in our Facebook banner headline, or our header image, or down to our graphics and our logos, like having that all integrated and managed [00:20:30] inaudible [0.6] crucial too.

Adam: [00:20:36] Yeah it’s great. I think that’s really good for nonprofits to have if they’re able to, and if not at least work with somebody that can be consistent to help them keep that brand consistent moving forward.

Camron: [00:20:48] Yeah, absolutely.

Adam: [00:20:48] Well Camron, with that I think we’ll wrap this up, man this was really amazing. I think I’d love to have you back on as well. Maybe we’ll have to work that out maybe mid-year some time. But I think until then thanks everyone for listening to Good People Good Marketing to get more resources about Non-profit Digital Marketing make sure to go to goodpeoplegoodmarketing.com where you could find out more podcasts blogs and other fun resources. Also if you want to find me Adam, you can find me on Twitter at AJ Walker or on my blog @Adamjwalker.com where I talk about leadership and productivity and having five kids in all kinds of other interesting things. Thanks for listening. Tune in next time.

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