Chris Forbes is the co-author of and a certified guerrilla-marketing coach. His varied background in marketing includes experience in the faith sector and work on five continents, and he has pioneered several media initiatives in public relations, television, radio and the Internet. The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of for Nonprofits and a frequent contributor to the MKCREATIVE blog.
MKC: What drew you to the marketing field?
CHRIS: I grew up in a marketing family. My mom had a product-administration service and worked with grocery stores and established networks with, say, free samples of food. When I was 14, she wanted me to dress up as Twinkie the Kid in a big foam-rubber costume to pass out . When I was 15, she wanted me to dress up as Freddy the Fresh Guy from Wonder Bread. Then at 16, she asked me to be the Planter’s Peanut guy, but you have to wear leotards for that costume. I drew the line there.
I got involved with activities in my church and in college, and with overseas projects and missions and international students. I was fascinated with other cultures and lived overseas in Spain and southern France. It dawned on me somewhere in there that all the things that my mom used in marketing were things that could or should inform the way I was dealing with communications with the nonprofit work I was doing. I started reading and studying marketing. Jay Conrad Levinson’s great book, Guerrilla Marketing, was one of the first books I really studied and drew from. I realized that I should really thank Jay for what he’d done. He provided years and years of experience, and we get to sit on his shoulders and learn from his mistakes. I wrote him a thank you note, and that became a conversation with his daughter, Amy. I saw what guerrilla marketing meant to small businesses and I knew that most of those ideas would work for nonprofits too. Over a couple or three years, we developed the idea of doing a nonprofit guerrilla marketing book. A publisher asked Jay if he’d be interested in doing that title, and there I was already in contact with Jay and discussing that idea. Jay, Frank Adkins (his son-in-law) and I worked on the book together. The book is in second printing, and we’ve been published since July 2010.
I continue to use Guerrilla Marketing as much as I do because the book is such a perfect fit for nonprofits. If you don’t have a lot of money, what’s left to you is time, energy, and imagination. That’s where real marketing shines. It’s where the small, mom-and-pop type shop that has to go against& Coca-Cola finds ways to thrive. These small businesses have to be stealthier and crazier, and they can be more flexible. It takes a long time for a corporation to respond to something.
MKC: ‘Contextualized Marketing’ is a phrase I saw on your website. What do you mean?
CHRIS: Contextualized Marketing is the intersection of anthropology and marketing and entrepreneurism, and using all that information to understand each community. Every situation has a context. Marketers are always trying to slice people up into neat scientific segments. They’re only just starting to learn that you can’t segment people like that. You need to do the work like an anthropologist would, or an ethnographer. These are not buzz words for ad agencies to use. These are real tools to help you understand the communication network. The network is built on relationships that have gate keepers or mavens who might close you out or bring you into the inner circle. There are bridges and barriers to your messages that you might not understand. You can’t introduce a product to a community from North Africa like you might to the people of Ada, Oklahoma.
One demographic trend that people don’t think about much is the diversity of Generation X and the Millennials. We’re probably familiar with them in terms of age, but Generation X and the Millennials are the most ethnically diverse of all the living generations. There are many more niche markets, which is all the more reason to understand the context.
MKC: What you describe sounds really expensive − to figure out all the nuances of the different people you want to reach. As a guerrilla marketer, how do you do that?
CHRIS: It’s not expensive to listen. It’s not expensive to read and investigate. There’s so much information − just going to the library and gathering information there is more than a lot of marketers do. You can’t phone this work in any more. You can’t buy a list, buy some research. You need to have some experience. You can’t be lazy. Say you want to market a product for women − half the population. ‘Well, let’s make it pink because women like pink!’ You don’t understand how diverse that group is! Nonprofits especially need to understand women and their different interests. They are the more common donors. More women volunteer. You need to be able to listen to your constituents as people instead of as groups.
Some will say, ‘I can’t afford to do research. It’s expensive.’ It’s not really a question of whether you can afford to do research. You’re going to be doing research, whether you know it or not. You’re going to try an idea and discover whether it works or not. Wouldn’t you like to find some things out first before you roll out your product, flop, and your ‘research’ really becomes ‘operations’ as you fall down? The real question is: do you want to do your research right?
The same goes for contextualization. People are going to make up their minds about what they think about what you say or what your product is. Wouldn’t you like to participate in that process that they use to think about you? Or would you rather wait and be surprised? That’s where research and contextualization come in.
MKC: What is your advice to clients who ask about social media and social marketing?
CHRIS: First, they need to understand the market they want to reach. There are different social networks. Facebook and Twitter are becoming standbys because you see them everywhere. It’s now an accepted convention that you just have to have a Facebook page, just like there has been the convention that you’ll have a web page. Depending on your product, Pinterest might really help, or getting a presence on or LinkedIn will be of better help.
For nonprofits, I often hear, ‘Well, I don’t have time for all that.’ But that’s like the first person at a nonprofit who put a phone on his desk and said he didn’t have time to answer the phone and talk every time it rang. But the phone is an integral part of communications of any nonprofit. And that’s what social media is. Think of it as another telephone on your desk − another way to communicate. You can move messages fast! You can see how political movements and even a lot of today’s celebrities came up through YouTube. Social media is this huge platform and mostly free, so a guerrilla would say “Why wouldn’t I want to use that?”
I think it’s good to be aware of the tools within those platforms. For example, on Facebook, they have Open Graph service where you can create apps that will give functionality with your website, so people can interact with your Facebook page and your website at the same time. On a political campaign I worked with, you have ‘Joe Politician’ running for office and a voter can take the ‘Joe Politician Challenge’ and invite his or her friends in the same district on his Facebook page to vote for Joe and share that message.
Another cool thing about Facebook is that you can go to Facebook ads and play around − do some research − and you can do queries on their databases as if you were creating an ad, but without paying for it. You can ask for data from all the criteria by which people describe themselves (gender, ZIP code, Likes…). That can become criteria for advertising, even outside Facebook. For example, I can find out how many Oklahoma University fans are in an area and to see if I want to move to a neighborhood or not!
Another thing in political and social activism, just searching the hashtags helps. Go on Twitter and do a search while a popular show like American Idol is showing. And search a tag that they use for that show. You can follow online what they are saying about the action on the screen. You can interact with them. You may not be able to afford to advertise your product or service on that show, but you can easily and for free interact with that audience and get your message out there.
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.
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