The “Ship It To Everyone We Can Think Of” Strategy

One of the more curious funder-driven outreach strategies we’ve witnessed over the years involves funding someone to write a book, funding the publication of that book, and then funding distribution primarily through a “ship it to everyone we can think of” approach. Back when the approach was more novel (for enviros the “Clearcut” book might be a good example), it might have had some impact, but I’m guessing it was mostly limited to keeping the activists themselves fired up. Many of the photos in that particular book still stand sharp in my mind, and I remember being impressed that I had friends whose photos made the final version. But even then – with a novel strategy and a dramatic vehicle for implementing that strategy – I’m pretty skeptical that the book was very effective at persuading undecideds or converting members of targeted audiences (were there even well defined targeted audiences?). I’m not convinced it had a meaningful impact on my own effectiveness as an advocate, for that matter.

I’m guessing that there have been some exceptions over the years, but in general the strategy seems too unfocused, too dependent on users actually taking the time to engage with the book, then too dependent on that particular book having just the right message for that particular reader, and too expensive to make much sense. And if it didn’t make much sense then, it really doesn’t make sense now.

It was with some surprise, then, that I received yet another unsolicited book in the mail just a couple of weeks ago thanks to a presumably generous foundation grant. I don’t know if they commissioned the book itself or if they simply funded the distribution, but either way I now have a no-doubt well written text, with an inspiring message, that I will never, ever read. At least the coffee table photo books lent themselves to quickly skimming the images, but the likelihood that an unsolicited book written by authors I’ve never heard of will compete favorably with the already-overflowing pile of books that I selected and acquired and placed in that pile, well, the odds are basically nil.

I think about Seth Godin’s admonition that marketing be relevant, anticipated, and personalized; this was none of the above. If an impressive open rate on marketing that is all three of those things is 10% or 25%, and a good conversion rate substantially less than that, what percentage of the recipients are likely to do anything with their fresh copy, not to mention actually change their behavior in some mission-oriented meaningful way?

What’s more is that the book was addressed to me as the executive director of the Nooru Foundation (one of my less demanding roles since our hiatus began in late 2008), so I’m assuming their target was environmental funders. For those few recipients that do actually read the book, and the even fewer that are truly inspired by it, what are the odds that it will actually change behavior in a mission-relevant way? How many will become better funders as a result? How many will have more impact?

I don’t want to be overly harsh about it because the effort was no doubt well intentioned, and perhaps there is a more subtle and effective strategy at work here that I’m just missing. But in every respect it feels like a dated approach that probably wasn’t very effective even when it had everything going for it. And in the year 2011 it really doesn’t feel like a particularly thoughtful strategy or effective way to burn limited resources.