When strategic story designer Vinish Garg reached out about interviewing me for his Content Conversation series on Medium, I didn’t expect the conversation to get as deep as it did. I really appreciated the depth of his questons, and suspect you will, too.

[Vinish Garg]: Let us start with the mindset. You worked in GoPro where the product team contributes to the commercial interests of the organization. And you worked for Net Impact where the goals are entirely different because the organization works for a cause. In either case, are there any mental shifts that you need to make, for the way you channelize your energies in the product team? And what were the common grounds in these two roles?

[Jess Sand]: Both roles were so different on the surface: at GoPro, where I was embedded on the UX Design team for software, I was working directly with dozens of product managers, designers, and engineers to shape apps that could play well with cameras and still feel fun and immersive for the humans using them. At Net Impact before that, where I oversaw our digital channels and helped drive a website and CMS rebuild, I was designing content intended to change people’s behavior in service of social and environmental impact.

Products vs. services, app vs. web, 1400 employees vs. 40. So yes, there were definitely some differences in how I approached the work! For one thing, at GoPro I was working directly with UX researchers to understand the impact of and validate our content decisions. I didn’t have the luxury of that kind of dedicated staff at Net Impact, so we had to be much scrappier in how we tested and measured success. We’d run really short intercept studies in a single afternoon, for example, and leaned heavily on surveys and analytics, which didn’t require testing facilities or heavy technology.

But here’s the thing: as you know well, content is one of the unsung assets in any organization; it informs every aspect of how someone experiences a product or service. So even though there were some tactical differences on the surface, I was often applying similar principles and practices in both roles.

Content that meets user needs: screenshots of Net Impact career content, including the 'Stories from the Field' video series.

For example, both roles required me to meet the user where they are. At Net Impact, that often meant in the midst of a busy workday, and at GoPro it might be on the top of a mountain. But in both scenarios, I needed to speak to the user in their own language, and get them through a given task so they could do the thing they really wanted to do — whether that was capturing the fleeting feeling of the wind in their hair while rocketing down a snowy slope, or it was helping a frazzled facilities manager convince her boss to recycle old fiberglass scraps instead of throwing them in a landfill.

And in addition to the front-end work of producing usable content, both roles required deep immersion in back-end content strategy: developing the systems and structures that enabled my colleagues to get that content into people’s hands. Because as much as content has to work for the people taking it in, it also needs to work for the people creating it.

So honestly, both roles were ultimately about the same thing: building the capacity of an organization to connect the dots in their user experience.

[VG]: Sometimes the product decisions for content or experience need to be taken fast, particularly when the leaders are in analysis paralysis mode. It can be assumed for how they may take such decisions in a for-profit organization but are things any different in a non-profit team? For example if it is about the location and the message for the DONATE button (such an important Call To Action), is there something at the back of your mind to be more considerate while making such a decision — because the team is working for a cause?

[JS]: So the nonprofit example you’re giving here is a great example of where I think nonprofits often stumble their way through content strategy. The tendency in the sector is to conflate content strategy with content marketing, which way too often focuses on the transactional at the expense of the experiential. The sector’s money model is fundamentally broken, with too many nonprofits undermining their mission because they have to constantly chase after donors (be those individual people or corporate sponsors). So what ends up happening is, you spend all your time tweaking donate buttons and email subject lines, without uncovering the role your content plays in how your audience connects to your actual cause.

This is starting to shift among savvier nonprofits, who are looking more deeply at how they shape the way their constituents engage with the cause, and those folks find that when your programmatic content is both functional and compelling, that donate button doesn’t have to work quite as hard. It really goes to the heart of how content needs to be integrated into the larger organizational strategy and funding model.

A woman with her back to the camera stands facing large poster mounted on a wall featuring lost of post-its during a journey mapping session.
Image © thinkpublic.

So before you worry about using “donate now” vs. “support the cause” language, you should be thinking about everything that led up to getting that donate button in front of your user — and that includes all the content you rely on to actually achieve your organizational mission.

  • Do you write policy papers to influence legislation? Your prospective donor wants to know that content is effective.
  • Do you produce training materials to help ex-convicts develop job skills? Donors want to know that those materials actually do their job to reduce recidivism.

That, to me, is far more critical than running yourself ragged trying to increase your click-through rate or A/B test a call-to-action. And not for nothing, but have you seen the state of donation forms? The strongest CTA in the world can’t push someone through a broken form with 40 fields and crappy error handling!

[VG]: Now in relatively mature nonprofits, there are multiple audiences for the content — the donors, volunteers, programs owners, partners, sponsors, community moderators, and others. They have their own journey, and goals…How do you manage a resource-constrained team to plan and write this variety of content, to ensure right brand voice and message cohesion?

[JS]: This is where a good editorial strategy really shines. In any organization, it’s common to have lots of different folks producing content (many of whom may not be writers), and in nonprofits, as you point out, they’re often creating it for lots of different kinds of people. That can lead to split personalities across channels and inconsistent, fragmented experiences for the audience, which undermines trust. On the flip side, there’s the risk of over-simplifying your message to the point that you’re treating all audiences the same and hitting them over the head with one common-denominator message that really speaks to no one in particular.

A good nonprofit editorial strategy should…

Read the rest of the interview on Medium

(Yes, I really did that to you. Go read the full interview, and give Vinish a clap on Medium in thanks for me.)