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Emotional engagement – what business needs to learn from charity


In a blog for the Harvard Business Review, Professor John Kotter suggested that business people, in order to accept the need for change, sometimes need to “feel the need for the change” as well as understand it financially and intellectually.

I think there’s an alternative view here and that’s about acknowledging that the approach Professor Kotter suggests is pretty much what any successful charity does to build its campaigning, communications and fundraising success.

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the balance between using heart versus head in communications and it’s a tricky line to walk.  Charities are not supposed to use guilt to fundraise, imagery has to be impactful but not shocking or in poor taste and emotional blackmail is a very definite ‘no’.  But the same rules apply to businesses.

I believe businesses can and should learn from charities in terms of how to get this right.  That said, ‘business’ has to include social enterprises, community interest companies and pretty much all charities who have to manage a trading arm, so perhaps there’s also a case for charities learning from themselves and maybe breaking down a few internal silos.

To start the discussion, here’s five ideas on how to help your audiences ‘feel the problem’ without going too far:

  1. Look at what other successful organisations are doing and learn from their experience.  We don’t need to reinvent the wheel and the web provides lots of case studies and examples for us to analyse and emulate where relevant.Smiley image from ctr at (2007)
  2. Businesses of all types, try and get hold of copies of a successful charity’s Cases For Support.  Pay particular attention to how they get across the need for an audience’s support without obviously leveraging guilt.  You’ll find cases for individual, corporate and institutional audiences which will perhaps more closely reflect your target markets.
  3. Appeal to positive emotions rather than negative ones.  That doesn’t mean you can’t be hard-hitting.  Disaster recovery charities of course talk about the catastrophe, but they also focus on what they are in reality doing, which is helping people get back on their feet.  A proactive and positive action.
  4. Leverage as many human senses as you can in support of your communication, selling or persuasion.  Humans are complex creatures and our emotions are triggered by all of our senses.  That’s why videos showing the joy and peace of mind some charities bring are so powerful.  Similarly even the smallest of businesses can appeal to emotions using the senses – ever been to a taste event for example?
  5. Don’t expect instant financial returns.  Sorry to have to break this news to you but other than in the most extreme cases, appealing to people on an emotional level may take longer than offering 50% discounts over a weekend sale.  This is offset by the key benefits of building a more emotional engagement with a brand.  Translated for your accountants, this means: greater likelihood of repeat purchases, more cross-sales potential and less likelihood of losing business to a competitor.

I’m mindful that not all of these ideas will be palatable to some more short-termist business leaders but whilst money may still make the world go round, that world is a very different place in 2011 and might just mean we have to think differently…

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