BUILDING A “CAUSE” AGENCY: MOST NONPROFITS HAVE CONSTRAINED RESOURCES. THAT PUTS PRESSURE ON AN AGENCY LIKE OURS.

"Our nonprofit clients' goals are actually somewhat similar to what most for profit clients want to achieve. They need to reach and cultivate a community, build awareness of the nonprofit's mission and value proposition, engage with them around the content and messaging, and inspire them to take action."




Introduction

Filecamp, the makers of your favorite digital asset management tool, recently reached out to the folks at HelpGood, an agency focused on social good, to talk about their experience growing and managing their cause agency. 

Let’s jump into the interview below.




The Interview

Hello and thank you for taking the time to chat with the team at Filecamp today about HelpGood. You have a very interesting agency, not only due to the work you've done, but also who you do this work for. Can you kick off this interview by introducing our readers to your agency? Tell us a little bit more about your early days and why you decided to work specifically with the groups you work with? 

HelpGood is a social impact marketing agency whose clients are focused on social good. All of our clients include nonprofits, foundations, government agencies, universities, and corporate social responsibility teams. They are all mission-driven and usually their vision statements include trying to make the world safer, greener, inclusive, equitable, diverse, healthier, supportive, connected, educated, just, freer, representative, peaceful, trustworthy... better. 

Honestly I didn't always set out to run an agency like this. While I am an Eagle Scout, so community service was key to my upbringing, I didn't ever really think that this was something you could pursue as a career path. I have a BS in Industrial and Operations Engineering from The University of Michigan and an MBA from Columbia Business School. I focused my career on making businesses more efficient and competitive in their operations and in their marketing, and I've always focused on doing this from the role of a consultant, whether it was as an internal or external consultant. When I moved to Los Angeles after getting my MBA I worked as a consultant with for-profit organizations helping them build new digital businesses. When the dot com bust happened in the early 2000's, I was hired to act as the COO for a startup interactive entertainment company. We were part of the early vanguard of digital production companies working with entertainment studios to design and engineer immersive digital content before social media and YouTube even existed. It took a lot of hard work to make inroads into the studio system, but when we landed our first client, Disney, it led to an avalanche of work. We built the franchise sites for Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh full of animation and games and fun activities for kids. We went on to work with major toy companies and nearly every major entertainment studio and we had some outsized success including being listed on the Inc. 500 list twice and winning the first-ever Emmy Award given to digital content. 

Ten years in we got asked by the Ad Council to work on a couple of websites aimed at helping kids understand social good concepts. One was for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help kids understand the importance of keeping oceans clean, and the other was for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy to help kids understand the importance of energy conservation. The success of those two projects led to more and more work with the Ad Council and other nonprofits and I started a dba called HelpsGood to make the distinction between the entertainment and nonprofit work we were doing.

At the same time the nature of the entertainment business was changing. Our production company was now competing with not just large studios like ours, but also kids who could produce high quality material for a fraction of the cost. Also, the business model for a production company is tough. You're always hunting for your next production to work on and if you don't own some of the intellectual property, the margins are very tight because there's always someone else who wants to work in entertainment. It was during this time that I decided to pivot. I realized that now in the world of social media, every company needed to become its own entertainment studio, churning out content and then distributing it themselves. The nonprofits we were working with were all very hungry to do more, to capitalize on social and digital media. Plus, they were a little easier to work with and it felt good to be making a positive impact on the world. 

On a personal note, I also was getting older and wanted to start a family, so I knew the roller coaster ride of entertainment wouldn't be easy to sustain. My nonprofit client base was growing so I decided to leave the entertainment production work behind and focus on social impact digital marketing. I partnered with Amanda Lehner, a former client at the Ad Council, who now runs our NYC office while I run our Los Angeles office. Even though we started a startup consulting business, it had been incubating for awhile, just now it was ready for prime time and with a new LLC and a name “HelpGood”.

What are some of the major advantages and disadvantages of being a cause marketing agency compared with being a traditional B2B agency? 

Our nonprofit clients' goals are actually somewhat similar to what most for profit clients want to achieve. They need to reach and cultivate a community, build awareness of the nonprofit's mission and value proposition, engage with them around the content and messaging, and inspire them to take action. It's the last bit of that funnel that differs, in that the call to action for our clients is usually donate, volunteer, sign up or some other action meant to further their mission versus buy this at the new low price of $19.95! Even that has evolved over time though as some of our nonprofit clients have a variety of ways people can get involved and help further a cause including purchasing a product or subscribing to a virtual product, even. 

How has your client acquisition strategy changed over time? What are your current best client acquisition channels? Why do you think that is? 

Our best client acquisition strategy is to work with quality clients and do quality work for them. We are fortunate to have a steady stream of referrals. We've worked with local, national and global clients across a range of causes with some of the largest nonprofits, like United Way, as well as smaller ones, like The Center for Election Science. We've worked with clients tackling the pressing issues of our time, like the Los Angeles County's Homeless Initiative, and we've gotten a chance to  work on some truly unique experiences, like Night of Too Many Stars with NEXT for AUTISM.

We also have tried to step up our own marketing game, but it's hard to do that when your client work takes priority. We use all the same tactics across owned media, like optimizing our site and email marketing, earned media, including articles like this, partner media - our clients are nice about mentioning us, and limited investments in paid media like Google Search. We've also leveraged speaking appearances and, thankfully, awards to spread the word.

How are you clients different than the clients of a more traditional for-profit business agency? For example, do you find your client's either have more or less knowledge in certain areas (ie. analytics, branding, social media marketing, content marketing etc). How do you make up for any gaps in client knowledge? 

Over the years HelpGood has worked with nonprofits and for profits, actually. We worked with AT&T on their anti-texting and driving campaign, It Can Wait. The biggest difference we saw when working with the likes of AT&T versus some of our other clients is the scale of the budget. Most nonprofits have constrained resources. That puts pressure on an agency like ours to look for different ways to be disruptive with lower investments in paid media and with smaller marketing teams. If anything, most of our social impact clients don't have knowledge gaps when it comes to digital marketing. Mostly there are opportunity gaps because of those constrained resources. I don't see that changing anytime soon. Despite the movement to invest more in operations and marketing championed by Dan Pallotta, most nonprofits and boards still focus on investing in an organization's programs and direct impact work over marketing and communications. 

 

A lot of the clients you work with have very different objectives than a traditional company. Therefore, their marketing needs may not be so easily understood by other non-cause agencies. We’ve touched on this a little, but can you tell us a little bit more about some of the common campaign objectives of the organizations you work with as well as how you prepare your team to deliver results based on those campaign objectives? 

Most of our retainer based client engagements are bespoke in nature. Each one has a different objective or outcome that they want to see. It usually is some combination of the following:

  • awareness - measured in reach or impressions - basically to educate a population or build awareness for a brand or a message.
  • engagement - measured in clicks, likes, views, shares - focused on getting people to dive deeper into a cause marketing message
  • conversions - measured in signups, donations, actions taken - to build a long-term relationship with that person and to make them a contributing member of a larger community

As part of our strategy development process we set out to better understand the organization/campaign's mission, goals and objectives and then we determine hard metrics and proxy measurements we will use to track our progress. For example Smokey Bear is all about preventing wildfires. While ultimately we want to decrease the number of human-caused wildfires each year and the acreage burned, we also use proxy key performance indicators to track the progress of our work. We'll look at site visits, social reach and engagement, sentiment, pledges, and other actions to see how effective Smokey's message has reached and engaged people across a variety of channels.

That said, we also work on a project basis to design and build websites for clients, including AnimalLeague.org, DisabilityIn.org and NeighborhoodDefender.org among others. Some of our favorite work is fundraising campaigns where we brand, design creative and market a suite print and digital campaign assets -- we did this for clients such as Lawyers Committee, Planned Parenthood of Greater New York and St. Mary's Children's Hospital. We often have a digital first approach, but still see opportunities for offline strategies to work well when integrated closely with digital strategies. Finally, we do a lot of paid media management across Search, Social, Display, Video, Remarketing, Native and other platforms. 

It seems like content plays a big role in what you do at HelpGood. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you approach content production for your clients? Is the process much different when working with nonprofits? What are the main differences in content planning and production (if any) when working with non-profit vs for-profit enterprises? 

I've been in the content production business since 2000, with most of my focus being on digital production and leveraging emerging distribution mediums and channels. I've been a VP of the Producers Guild of America running the New Media Council and I'm a member of the TV Academy's Interactive Media Peer Group, and was also part of the American Film Institute's Digital Content Lab. In all that time I've seen how its equally as important to produce compelling content as it is to deliver and target it properly. It doesn't matter if you've made an Oscar-winning short film if nobody can find it. Likewise, any kid can shoot a TikTok on an iPhone and change the world. To have one off success is great, but what we help our clients do is create a process for creating, inspiring and curating content and then taking a data-driven approach to distributing it across the optimal mix of platforms to cultivate and activate a community. Our tagline is inspiring action with your story. To accomplish that it takes developing a strategy and commitment to implementing that strategy, managing opportunities across owned, earned, paid and donated channels.

We've worked on campaigns where we got more traction with an improvised video we shot and edited on an iPhone versus a big budget PSA with a big-time known director. A lot of the variability in that success is in the way the story is told, who the audience is and how you are delivering that story. Especially in the overly saturated and ever-expanding media landscape we are in today, where you are fighting for ever-shrinking attention, you need to invest in building a long-term relationship with your community. How an organization approaches its content production and distribution workflow really can make or break the success of their marketing efforts.

You also help your clients engage in influencer outreach. Again, what are some of the big differences when dealing with influencer outreach for nonprofits vs. for-profits? How effective have influencer outreach campaigns been for your clients? Do you see this as a growth channel? 

We have worked on many campaigns that leverage influencers to amplify messaging. They've ranged from professional influencers -- really a career path that's less than a decade old -- to people who are micro influencers. Our agency is all about helping our clients make authentic connections with their communities. Often, their own story is better told by someone else who has been inspired or impacted by the work of the organization. While you can invest and buy that "inspiration" the best results have always come from working with influencers who truly believe in the cause, are directly part of the impact community, and have a vested interest in furthering the work of the nonprofit.  The main thing is really digging into finding the shared space between each other's value propositions. Yes, we all want to make the world better (I know I've used this phrase too often that I have Pied Piper ringing in my ears), but both the influencer and the nonprofit want something out of the exchange. It's best to be transparent about those wants and the gaps that need to be overcome. 

What are some of the campaigns you're most proud of working on and what is it about these campaigns that make you proud? 

Two of the campaigns that come to mind are ones we worked on for the Ad Council. 

Back when we were first starting to work with the Ad Council, after the success of those first two website building projects, they asked us if we knew how to run a social media campaign. Frankly, most of our work was in the digital realm and we used social channels to promote all of our work, so we jumped at the chance, especially since it was to manage none other than Smokey Bear's social media. To this day, a decade later, we continue to work on Smokey's social media. The Smokey Bear wildfire prevention campaign is one of the longest-running public service campaigns in US history. In 2019 he celebrated his 75th birthday and it was jam packed with events and celebrations including the reappearance of his balloon in the Macys Thanksgiving Parade. During the time we've worked on the campaign he's had lots of viral moments including Pharrel wearing a Smokey hat to the GRAMMY Awards and even a wildfire prevention themed Mannequin Challenge. It's also been personally rewarding - we won a Gold Smokey Bear Award for our work on the campaign. 

The other memorable one was Love Has No Labels. We were the social media agency working on the launch of the campaign that went on to be one of the biggest ever in public service campaigns in history. The launch video truly went viral and now has had billions of views. It helped shape the trajectory of the gay marriage debate in the country and truly made an impact to inspiring people to create a more inclusive world. The campaign has continued to help shape the national conversation around diversity and inclusion by challenging people to address their implicit bias. 

Two other campaigns that I'm personally proud of are Protect Native Culture for the Native American Heritage Commission. It's the first time we are selling a product, in this case a license plate, to further social impact efforts. The other we are proud of is a campaign that hasn't even launched yet. It's called Bold Moves and it's for the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. The campaign is intended to inspire people to take small actions that will make others feel safer, evolve our culture and help prevent sexual assault. Stay tuned for the launch in February.

Lastly, if you could go back in time and start your agency over again, what are three things you would do differently and why?

  • Buy more coffee. There are lots of sleepless nights in the client services world. There are even more when changing the world is your mission. 
  •  Focus on improving my personal productivity habits. I am obsessed with learning about other people's morning routines and what keeps them on track, largely because I personally find it challenging to maintain productivity "tricks." That's part of my problem. There really is no such thing as a universal productivity hack. You really have to find the components and elements that work for you and that you can readily incorporate into your lifestyle. It takes time and energy to cultivate a new habit or to replace an old bad habit with a new and improved one, and typically humans are impatient. Being an entrepreneur you need to be your own productivity champion. Each year I have focused on trying to adopt at least one new positive habit. For me that's been exercising more - I now workout 5x per week, whereas two years ago I did diddly squat. I've become a lover of to do lists and paper planners. My next challenge is to drink more water and drink less of #1.
  •  Maybe not have a baby in the same year as launching a new company. Both Amanda and I had kids within the first year of starting the company. They were born two weeks apart. It was a lot of life all at once. You can never engineer everything perfectly in life, but it did make the stress of starting a new business even more challenging to be sure. Luckily our clients were very accommodating of the baby cries in the background of our conference calls.

This has been an eye opening interview. Thank you greatly for taking the time to chat with Filecamp’s blog readers today Michael. We truly appreciate your insights about how you approach helping your agency’s clients brand and grow their organizations. I know the readers of our blog will have taken a lot away from this interview. To our blog readers, if you’d like to learn more about HelpGood you can follow them on Twitter or head over to their website here


MENTIONED IN THIS POST:@HelpGoodAgency 
HASHTAGS: #agency #agencylife

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