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I recently got back from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I attended the DMA Nonprofit Federation‘s leadership summit and met industry leaders from some of the top nonprofit organizations in the US, like the Red Cross, AARP, Catholic Charities and Wounded Warriors.

For me, this was a different kind of conference and the format wasn’t what I was generally used to. Instead of choosing from a long line of workshops, for example, we all listened to one speaker together and then went into breakout rooms to talk about the presentation. We discussed the takeaways from the session, what we learned and how we could apply it to our own organizations.

In general, I usually attend and speak at shows related to email and digital marketing. But being out of my typical comfort zone this time gave me a refreshing new perspective on the email world, one that I encourage you to pursue whenever you can. There’s certainly a lot that we can learn from the nonprofit industry.

My “Aha!” moment

The collective idea sharing immediately after the presentation was energetic and productive, and it led me to this epiphany:
We, in email marketing, try to solve problems in an echo chamber, which doesn’t admit outside perspectives. We get so wrapped up in our own challenges that we think we’re the only ones struggling to adjust in a changing world.

How do we remain relevant to our customers? How can we market effectively to new and younger audiences? It seems that we’re not the only ones who face these issues and it turns out, these were hot topics for these nonprofit executives, too!

For nonprofits, the key age demographic for giving is 55+. How can they speak to a younger generation on their level? Email marketers who want to stay relevant with teens and Millennials can relate to that issue.

The older demographic loves direct mail, but the nonprofits need new ways to target younger donors. How can they change their strategies to persuade millennials to donate their time and then turn that into cash donations?

What does this mean for email marketers?

Here’s the relatable part: When you have a problem, think completely outside the box. Think so differently that you come up with an idea that’s just crazy, and start there.

A speaker from Publishers Clearing House (PCH) detailed how its Prize Patrol energized the company’s marketing. If you who live outside the US or haven’t watched TV in a couple of decades, the Prize Patrol is a van full of PCH ambassadors who present prize checks in person to winners of its legendary sweepstakes and film the event.

This new strategy worked because it was authentic, and it tapped into the whole PCH sweepstakes experience and participants’ expectations.

Although PCH is not a nonprofit group, its example inspired many charity executives to start talking about how to translate the experience to their own organizations. Not all of the ideas that we came up with after the presentation in our breakout session would have worked, but they certainly got everyone talking and thinking.

As email marketers, we too, need to think beyond traditional marketing tactics because email is a digital medium. We have to start with the premise that we can fix our problems however we want, not just by using a traditional mindset.

Two key takeaways

Broaden horizons: If we aren’t looking across and below our own traditional verticals, we aren’t learning anything.

One of our further discussions at the DMA Nonprofit event focused on securing a larger share of budget for research and development. In another, we talked about measuring return on investment. Either of those sound familiar? There certainly seemed to be a lot of crossover with our industry.

Lesson 101: Don’t just study the companies you compete head-to-head with. Look at organizations that are in a completely different vertical and subscribe to their emails. What are they doing that you could add to your own program?

This cross-vertical view is something I value about working with agencies. They have customers across all kinds of verticals and can see what’s happening outside of the narrow spectrum that the rest of us work in.

We are family: The people I meet at conferences are like family to me. We may compete out in the real world, but at conferences when we can relax, we socialize, share stories of our family life and learn from each other.

The nonprofit world is similar. Many have either met at conferences or leadership workshops, or worked together in the past. That collegial feeling informed many of the conversations I heard or participated in.

Email was not the top topic this time. I went, not because I could teach any of these executives about email and digital marketing, but because their perspectives and presentations gave me new ideas on how to help different businesses.

Where could you look for inspiration beyond the echo chamber of email? Let us know in the comments below!