Last week, I was driving through downtown Hollywood, Ceiling Can’t Hold Us cranked on the radio, and–lo and behold–what does my eye spy but a big ol’ billboard for the Grammy Awards featuring Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (just like the pic to the left only gihugic).
It was LA, so I had a long time to look at this billboard (what with traffic not really moving and all) and I was delighted beyond belief to see the 206 on Lewis’ flag. I reveled in it. It made me proud, I tell you, proud.
I looked around at the other drivers as if to say, “See, people? Seattle is awesome. We are so cool. (And we’re going to the Super Bowl!!!).” I was pumped.
Sitting on the passenger seat next to me was my current fave book, This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. Semiotics is the theory of symbols. Objects can be symbols (think: horseshoes as a symbol of luck). Letters are also symbols. Words are a collection of letters that form an object that we call a word. Numbers are also symbols. A symbol has meaning because we give it meaning.
The basic construct of any symbol is as follows (stick with me…know I’m going Professor Mills on you here with all this talk of semiotics):
sign + signifier = signified
We know a table is a table because, at some point, someone pointed at a table and said, “Table.” Ditto for every other word we know. Double ditto for numbers. A 2 is a 2 because our preschool teacher said, “That’s a 2, kids.”
What does this have to do with Ryan Lewis’ flag and what, in turn, does that have to do nonprofit marketing, you ask? Everything. First, Ryan’s flag: The ‘206’ on Ryan’s flag meant something to me because I know that 206 is Seattle’s area code. The ‘206’ was a sign. The signifier, to me, was ‘Seattle area code’. The signified was, “Seattle is awesome and cool, and MackLewis love us. So there.”
No one (or at least very few people) in the cars around me likely knew Seattle’s area code. Therefore, the 206 signified something entirely different to me than it did to them. Sign was the same. Signifier was different (just a collection of three numbers). Therefore, the signified was totally different. Whereas I was all puffed up with pride over the 206 symbol being there loud and proud smack in the middle of Hollywood, it meant nothing to the other drivers. They probably didn’t even notice.
Now what does this have to do with you and your marketing efforts? You send out annual reports, newsletters, appeals, blog posts, etc all the time. Those pieces are a collection of symbols–pictures, words, numbers. You likely assume that what those symbols signify to you–the creator of the piece–is the same as what they signify to your reader, donor, volunteer, fan. That’s an erroneous assumption.
That great graphic you worked so hard to pull together that shows how many people you served in 2013? Unless you give it meaning, unless you make it clear to your donors that it signifies the change they helped create in the world, it’s nothing more than the 206 on Ryan’s flag was to my fellow drivers. Meaningless.
The moral of the story? Make sure the symbols you are putting out to the world–the symbols that speak to your mission, your vision, your values, your impact–signify the same thing to your supporters and fans as they do to you.