Today what you say matters less than how you say it. And how you say something requires that you understand the context in which it will be received.
Content and context
In his book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson notes that the familiar phrase, “Content is king” is no longer true. Sure, content matters. But in our world today, we have so much of it that it’s hard for people to actually find and engage that content. Instead, he says that a better phrase would be this: “Context is king.”
Because there is so much content out there, we need aids like references or referrals to connect us with the content that matters to us. Hence, context.
Merriam-Webster defines context in this way:
1: the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning
As it pertains to content, some examples of context include user ratings and reviews, word of mouth comments, recommendations, or related articles that link to a piece of content. All these provide the context for evaluating and absorbing the content.
Why context matters
Donors, volunteers, and advocates all need context for them to engage with your ministry, at least in a meaningful manner. Most donors go through the following phases in their relationship with a ministry:
- Ignorant: They’re unaware you exist.
- Informed: They’ve heard of you but know little to nothing about you. “Aware” is a better word, but it would mess up my “I” motif and would rule out any chance of me making it as a preacher.
- Interested: They want to know more about you.
- Identifying: They sense you are like them or for them or vice versa.
- Involved: They test the waters through volunteering or doing something with you other than donating.
- Invested: They make a donation, possibly several over time.
- Impassioned: They love you and want others to know about you.
Not every person goes through all these steps or even in this order (e.g., some people donate before they volunteer). But it’s a helpful way of understanding the relationship cycle. And it also points out the value of context.
If the prospective donor lacks the proper context, they may know quite a bit about you but not from sources that frame you in a positive light. Getting positive reviews helps. But nothing creates an easy entry point for a prospective donor to your ministry like a strong recommendation from a friend.
Moving beyond the obvious
That may seem like a “No, duh” statement. But here’s what most ministries miss. Word of mouth that merely describes you will only get you so far. It usually helps move a person from the second to the third stage. But the fourth stage ─ identification ─ is where a prospect moves from an intellectual curiosity about you to the beginnings of an emotional attachment. And that emotional attachment is ultimately what makes a person impassioned about you.
Why don’t most prospects get past the mere “interested” phase? Because their friends cannot tell your story well. Some major donors or those who have interfaced personally with the ministry or been on a vision trip can. But the majority of donors can’t tell your story to their friends for a simple reason: You have never given them that story to tell.
I used to kid my wife that she could never explain to friends what I did for a living. My title of Senior Strategist, Brand Engagement is about as clear as the rules for re-opening the economy after this pandemic. But one day, I decided to practice what I preach. I gave her a simple way to describe what I do here at Masterworks which is this: I help organizations tell their story better.
In fact, all my work here at Masterworks is aimed at not only helping clients tell their story in simple and clear ways, but in ways that move donors to act. But it all starts with understanding your brand, what makes you different and why a prospective donor might care.
Most organizations never get to the first step of explaining how they differ from the hundreds or thousands of other ministries with similar missions. If you ask 10 of their staff to explain the ministry, you’ll likely get at least eight different responses. Sound familiar? This leads to so many variations that it’s no wonder someone outside your ministry can’t tell your story if the people inside it aren’t clear about it.
Too often, most ministries try to explain everything they do at one time. The result is a lot of Christianese buzzwords that may sound good to your leadership, but make little sense to prospects. It’s like the game of telephone: If you don’t start with a simple and clear message, it won’t make it past the second person.
Thus, nailing down your distinctives and your story is essential. But that’s just the content piece. Even more vital is understanding the context in which the prospect may hear that story. In short, you do need one core story about your ministry, your go-to version. But you should also have versions of that story for different contexts.
A final example
Let me give you a recent example. With the coronavirus pandemic, we all shared in a common experience of making our way through the crisis.
Or did we?
Some elements were common like sheltering in place. But even that differed from state to state in how it was interpreted and enforced. Moreover, consider this: A person who had COVID-19 or lost a loved one to the virus had a very different experience ─ a different context ─ from a medical professional working 12+ hour shifts and being surrounded by death each day. And that doctor or nurse had a different experience from someone who lost their job. And that person’s context was quite different from the guy who exhausted the entire Netflix library out of boredom.
How you talk to each about the pandemic should be different because each person will understand the pandemic from a different context. Of course, you can’t know who on your mailing list will have come from what context. But simply knowing there are a variety of experiences ─ contexts ─ out there will help you prevent making false assumptions and coming across as potentially tone-deaf.
The best way to understand context more specifically is to go to the source: Ask your donors. We do this at Masterworks through research that helps to identify not only what donors think of your ministry, but what are the emotions they feel about it and what is the context in which they engage that ministry. If you don’t know all those things about your donors and their situations, you’ll have a difficult time connecting with them and demonstrating your relevance to them, especially over time.
In short, context matters. It will affect how people receive the content you communicate. And if you don’t start by understanding your current donor’s perceptions and then crafting a brand identity that leads to clear and compelling content, the variable of context will only make things worse.
But look on the good side: If you start thinking in terms of context, you’ll start to consider your audience’s perspective more. And when you do that, you’ll not only create better content.
You will do better ministry.