Nonprofits of all sizes are strapped for capacity, and often staff isn't trained in marketing, advertising, or social media. When you lack internal marketing skills, it may make sense to hire a third party to help, whether that be a large agency or a solo consultant. Sometimes this can be more cost effective and less risky than bringing in a new full-time employee - but going outside the org requires more intentionality and oversight to ensure results.
In this episode of Nonprofit Nation, Chris Barlow and I talk about the ins and outs of hiring marketing help, how to keep agencies and consultants accountable, and where to start.
As a teen, Chris believed he’d work in a cause-focused mission or career, but when he had to just “get a job” after college, he surprisingly discovered a passion for business. After over a decade in corporate sales, he realized that while he enjoyed it, he couldn’t see himself retiring in it.
So in 2015 he founded an agency, Beeline, and volunteered with a local nonprofit to help them with their digital marketing. This unexpectedly led him back to realizing the dream he had growing up - that of doing something to serve people and a greater purpose.
Beeline focuses on helping nonprofits expand their mission and grow their donor base through digital marketing, but Chris' favorite skill and privilege is putting his two youngest boys down for a nap every day.
Here are some of the topics we discussed:
Connect with Chris:
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About Julia Campbell, the host of the Nonprofit Nation podcast:
Named as a top thought leader by Forbes and BizTech Magazine, Julia Campbell (she/hers) is an author, coach, and speaker on a mission to make the digital world a better place.
She wrote her book, Storytelling in the Digital Age: A Guide for Nonprofits, as a roadmap for social change agents who want to build movements using engaging digital storytelling techniques. Her second book, How to Build and Mobilize a Social Media Community for Your Nonprofit, was published in 2020 as a call-to-arms for mission-driven organizations to use the power of social media to build movements. Julia’s online courses, webinars, and talks have helped hundreds of nonprofits make the shift to digital thinking and raise more money online.
Connect with Julia on other platforms:
Take Julia’s free nonprofit masterclass, 3 Must-Have Elements of Social Media Content that Converts
Hello, and welcome to nonprofit Nation. I'm your host, Julia Campbell. And I'm going to sit down with nonprofit industry experts, fundraisers, marketers, and everyone in between to get real and discuss what it takes to build that movement that you've been dreaming of. I created the nonprofit nation podcast to share practical wisdom and strategies to help you confidently Find Your Voice. Definitively grow your audience and effectively build your movement. If you're a nonprofit newbie, or an experienced professional, who's looking to get more visibility, reach more people and create even more impact, then you're in the right place. Let's get started. Hi, everyone, welcome back to nonprofit nation. I am just so thrilled to have you here. Thank you so much for listening. This is your host, Julia Campbell. And as usual, I am back with a special guest. We're going to learn so much today. This is my friend and colleague, Chris Barlow, and I love his bio, so I'm just going to read the whole bio, I think it's great. As a teen, Chris believed he'd work in a cause focused mission or career. But when he had to just get a job after college, he surprisingly discovered a passion for business. After over a decade in corporate sales, he realized that while he enjoyed it, he couldn't see himself retiring in it. I think that's something a lot of us can relate to. So in 2015, he founded the agency Beeline, and volunteered with a local nonprofit to help them with their digital marketing. As that organization began referring his company to other nonprofits, it eventually and unexpectedly led him back to realizing the dream he had growing up that of doing something to serve people and for a greater purpose. Beeline focuses on helping nonprofits expand their mission and grow their donor base through digital marketing. But Chris's favorite skill and privilege is putting his two youngest boys down for a nap every day. Chris, welcome to the podcast.Chris Barlow:
Thank you so much, Julia.Julia Campbell:
It's great. Now I feel like you have an insane amount of children. Is that true?Chris Barlow:
That is true. You said yeah. Yeah, we have six in and we are expecting any day now. Really? Yes.Julia Campbell:
I didn't know that. Oh, my gosh, that's so exciting.Chris Barlow:
It feels like the number of completion. SoJulia Campbell:
we'll see. Wow. Okay. Well, as the time we are recording this, oh, my gosh, when it comes out, hopefully, we'll have some great news to share around that. That is wonderful. Well, congratulations. I do remember when you told me that. And I feel like I was so taken aback. I was like, oh, gosh, whoa. And like tired just thinking about it. Putting kids down for a nap. What's your trick?Chris Barlow:
Just routine, we read books, they pick some books out. And they each get in their beds, and I tuck them in, and I give them a stuffed animal of their choice, and usually make a little funny voices for the stuffed animal. And then that's pretty much it. But it's the same every day.Julia Campbell:
I completely agree with you. And this is going a little off topic. But I was so very strict with routine with both of my kids. First of all, my first child, she's not 12, my daughter, she was one of those kids that would go down for a nap for three hours. Perfect. My son, I don't think it's still to this day has ever taken an app and it's like, but the key is the routine. Because if you mix it up every day, it's at different times if you're doing 50 different things. So I love that you having your own businesses has helped you be able to do that. And I've talked about how having my own business, my greatest privilege is seeing my kids get off the bus. And you know, just kind of being home for them when they come home and giving them a hug and helping them with homework or whatever they need. So I feel very privileged to do that. So thank you for sharing that. So you shared a little bit about your story about found in your agency volunteering with a local nonprofit. That is really my story as well how I got into consulting, working with local nonprofits and then realizing that it was such a need. So can you talk more about your story how you founded Beeline and some of the nonprofit's that you work with?Chris Barlow:
Sure. Yeah, so I just took a course on Google ads. I didn't I didn't have a specific niche that I was going to focus on yet. I just wanted to just get some experience under my belt and I started with that nonprofit. I started also found a couple for profit clients and I have no problem I enjoy working with for profit companies, but it just something really clicked with the organization. They provide a lot of counseling and health care that particular organization, and they referred me to similar organizations. And, yeah, I mean, there's, there's no one particular sector in the nonprofit space that we specialize in, but just helping them take advantage of the Google Ad Grant, or using email to turn the people who are following them into donors, or just expanding the reach of their mission. You know, they're like, we just want to find more people, we can help we want, we're just not getting enough awareness in our community, or across the US. So that's kind of, you know, like I said it, or like you read it, I somewhat fell into it. But I'm very, very happy when that happened.Julia Campbell:
And the topic today is how to work with a marketing agency or an outside consultant. But I think, before we even get into the how, it's really when do we know when it's time to hire some outside help?Chris Barlow:
I think the first thing is looking at what our internal resources are, like, you're going to look there first, naturally, and a lot of nonprofits if you don't have a marketing person, internal or someone without the time and skills, I mean, it really should be part of your annual plan. And look like saying is this the year, because if you're already, you know, you've already made the plan, you're a few months into the year, you're halfway through the year, and you're like, man, we really need you can always hire someone anytime of the year. But you're it's already too late. You're you're past the point when you needed it. And so planning ahead, I think is really important. And again, you can do it each year, but just knowing what are we going to or what are we what are our what's our budget for marketing? What do we want to accomplish? Can we do that ourselves? No, then we need to hire someone?Julia Campbell:
Absolutely. I feel like nonprofits often will pay a graphic designer, they'll pay a direct mail firm, they'll pay someone to come in and do certain services. But it does seem like marketing and fundraising and anything digital is sort of like a vitamin rather than a painkiller. But what are some examples of services that nonprofits can look for when evaluating marketing agencies? And of course, what's the difference? I mean, we we know, but what's the difference between an agency and a freelancer or consultant,Chris Barlow:
an agency is going to often be a lot more process oriented in terms of this is what you get this is their packages, they do kind of the same thing. Of course, they're going to tailor to their clients, good ones, good agencies will tailor to their clients. But they it's very much like this is the process we take you through. And a consultant may have that kind of thing, too. They may have a process that they follow. But they're also often going to just be almost like a internal marketing person, if you will. And they can use the depending on their skill set can be really flexible, and what you need with marketing. So if you're going to an agency or it's like you hear the services we offer, if you need this, this or this, I'm generalizing here, of course, and then it consultant often will be like, Okay, well, I can just be your part time marketing hat as you need it. I mean, the kinds of services Yeah, I mean, anything from we need to, to craft and write a copy for an email or a fundraising letter to we need to, we want social media, we want to grow our audience there are reach, whether organically or through ads, or similar on in Google and search, we want to grow at organically through SEO, or gonna run ads, whether they're paid or through the Google Ad Grant, running our email marketing. Again, that's similar to sending physical mailings, just having that direct mail, having someone manage that process and be accountable to it and ongoing improvement.Julia Campbell:
I think that there's so much expected of the modern day fundraiser or AND, and OR the modern day marketer, you have to be a copy whiz, you have to know about email tech and open rates, and you have to know analytics. You have to know how to run Facebook ads, you have to, but the thing that I want nonprofits to know is you really you don't have to know all of those things. Yes. And if you're a really small shop with a tiny budget and one person doing everything, then you know, you might need to kind of tamp down your expectations of what you can achieve. But there are there there's help out there for every single piece of the puzzle. So I think with me, what happens is organizations come to me and I used to do social media management actually posting creating the content, managing the analytics, providing the reports and now I focus much more on strategy action plans campaign design, and it will not work if there's not really a person to implement it or an intern, a volunteer someone there that can actually implement the strategy and the plan. And something like Google ads, Facebook ads, it's changing constantly. Who has the time? To keep up with that? How do you keep up with all the changes? I mean, it is your job. But how do youChris Barlow:
do it? So let me say first, you mentioned, what you do is that that kind of strategic plan high level, and I think that's so important, because in this conversation, I mentioned so many different things that a marketing agency or consultant can do, and I don't want you to feel overwhelmed. When you hear oh, this this, like you said, Julie, like, you really just need to think about what are your goals, and then you need to talk to someone like Julia or you know, a consultant, or whatever and get, tell them what your goals are. And they need to listen well and tell you what, look, we can't do it all, what is the one thing that we can do, that's going to move the needle for you, and keep it simple and focused. And that way, you know, I don't have to do everything I do. And I can build slowly build, do one thing at a time and build from there. So I think that's really important that whoever you work with, or you find someone like Julia, that you really understand what the best strategy for you is, before you start, like trying to do everything, or just feel overwhelmed.Julia Campbell:
Exactly. And I refer out all the time, because I refer people to you all the time, because I don't do everything. And I help you design a plan where I can say okay, you are one person in this nonprofit, we are not going to be on 27 different channels, we are not going to be on Tik Tok every day Instagram stories every day, sending 75 emails, it's just not feasible if you only have an hour a day to focus on social media. So I always start from, what's your capacity? What's your bandwidth, you know, what's your budget, and then if we decide that something very specific is a piece of the puzzle, there are always other people we can outsource it to. So if we decide as a piece of your puzzle that you need, or graphic design or website design, or even direct mail, like whatever it might be. So what I think happens, and I know happens, and you see it, too, is nonprofits start with the tactics. They're like, we got to get on Facebook, we get Google Ad Grants, we've got to do all these things, but they don't actually have a plan to achieve it. And they're so close to it every single day, that they might need some outside some outside assistance. So my next question, it's kind of a two parter. So what are some things to look for when researching and interviewing potential consultants or agencies? And the first part of that question is, what are some things to notice when you're talking to them?Chris Barlow:
Yeah. So when you're having a first conversation with someone that you're considering, do they listen, well? Do they ask you questions? Do they let you set the agenda, the best outcome you can have is for someone to tell you, this would be a good way to go and all the rest would not be a good way to go. Or I do this, and we're not a good fit, because this is what I do well, and this what you need, or I do this well is what you need. We're a great fit. But we're not a good fit. Because they listened well and understood what you needed, is so important. I was referred to an organization last year, and they were like, oh, we need marketing. And I would like we asked the last a lot of questions and uncovered that actually, they weren't ready for marketing. They were still trying to figure out how they were going to implement their mission. They hadn't even they were like they had formed the nonprofit a few years back, they still needed to go through the hard work of how are we going to actually implement like, we have this idea, we know what we want to do. But there's different different options we can go through. And so it's so important that you the person you're talking to the company you're talking to helps you uncover that. Because if you're not ready for it, man, you're gonna start throwing money and energy into something and it's like, Wait, back it up, like, you know, this organization date. Still, like I said, we're defying their mission.Julia Campbell:
Exactly. I love also that you say that if you want help with reviewing. So if you want to examine what they're doing, before they publish it before they go, you go forward with anything. They're not defensive. They're not saying oh, well, I know everything. And here's kind of a cookie cutter template. So consultants know best practices and we have a lot of experience that we know. I mean, I can I know immediately when I go do an audit. Five minutes in I say, okay, I can already see some of the problems just because I've seen them all so much before, but I love what you said about asking a lot of questions and really uncovering what's really going on. And I think a lot of what I do is really kind of marketing therapy, or even marketing and fundraising, couples therapy, getting people to talk to each other, really uncovering the politics, the real reasons why things are not working. And I love what you said about how they might come to you with this idea, we've got a market, we've got to do this. But if they haven't actually figured out their mission, how to execute it, you know how to package it, how to position it, then all the marketing the world is not really going to uncover any of that. Right? What are,Chris Barlow:
they might Yeah, you can say they might come with you with a goal in mind. And you can tell them, that's not really realistic. That's not achievable. And or maybe they say, Yes, we can definitely do that. But do they give you a realistic timeframe? Do they under promise? Do they say, Well, based on what your organization, your mission, your reach, you're going to be able to spend and use the Google Ad grant really well, you're going to spend the whole grant, but it's going to take three to six months before we're actually able to get there. Or we're going to be able to send it really fast. But you're going to actually have to do a lot of work on your sites and kind of stuff that isn't going to be as exciting. Because there's not numbers attached to it and traffic attached to it and people coming in, it's going to be all the stuff that we need in order for this to so do they just do they set a good realistic timeframe and framework? Or do they just say, sounds good, we'll make it happen and right? Not don't question or help you craft that goal or understand it.Julia Campbell:
And now a word from our sponsor. I'm here to tell you that this podcast episode is sponsored by my newest free training social media in 20 minutes per day. This is where I give you my exact framework and process to schedule and organize your time. So the social media does not take over your entire day. And to do list, watch the replay for free at social media in 20. That's to zero the numbers to zero.com. And be sure to tag me on social to let me know what you think. That's social media and twenty.com. Thanks for listening and enjoy. I think a lot of the nonprofit's listening, they want someone just to do it for them a lot of the time. And what I think our job is as responsible Consultants is to help them understand. I can't post to social media without your input without visuals without stories without your context without knowing what the problem is. You can't just say, Okay, I'm going to hire a social media consultant, and never speak to them again and expect them to perform miracles. Right? You probably see that.Chris Barlow:
Yeah, it's so important that you're involved, your voice, your knowledge, the stories that will make it so much more effective and better. Trying to have the consultant try to figure it out. Without that it won't, it probably won'tJulia Campbell:
work well. What are some questions that our listeners can ask a consultant or an agency?Chris Barlow:
Yeah. So in again, if you're interviewing someone you're considering working with them? Can you share any client references that we can speak to? Can you connect us with some of your clients? Because, you know, if your client if their clients are happy, that's, that's great. That's a huge bonus for them. But if their clients aren't happy, why would you ask any other questions or go any further? Yeah, that's, to me the most clear, because you want to hear from the customer. And so you can ask the customers to like, Are they good at listening? Are they how quickly do they respond to you, when they make a mistake? Do they tell you? And how do they own up to that? How do they keep themselves accountable? And again, some other questions, you can ask the agency or consultant directly, like, what should my expectations be for what we can achieve? And can you give me an examples showing the results your clients have seen? How do you measure success? And how do you I think a really important one is how do you stay accountable? And kind of industry standard is we send a monthly report, and it has all the numbers on it. That's great. That's important. I think one thing that's really overlooked, and this is across nonprofits, and for profits everywhere, is is the person you hired, actually doing on a month to month basis. Because, like, if the campaigns are performing great, and you get a bunch of good numbers, then it's really easy to be like great, they did a great job, but they might not have done anything that month. Now. You know, some months, they might work way hard and have not so great results, other months, they might not put in as much time and the results are amazing. So it's not about like me, you can have, you know, hourly arrangements. Totally. That's that's totally legitimate. But it's important to understand that give me a report on what you did. What are the actions you took this month? You can also look at that there's some things that aren't recorded. But both Google and Facebook have that change history report that you can access. And so you can see what things were uploaded to the campaigns, what were changed what's changed. And so obviously, that doesn't tell you a whole picture of everything that your agency or consultant did. But it does tell you, what did they actually do inside the campaigns to optimize to improve to try things, try new things to pause, things are spending too much money and not working. So that's it, that kind of accountability, more than just hear the numbers.Julia Campbell:
Exactly. And you have a blog post about this that I'm going to post in the show notes. If you go to your Beeline comm forward slash to 20, forward slash marketing hyphen, transparency, I'll post that in the show notes, then you can find an article on how to view your campaign history in Google and Facebook. But I think you bring up an excellent point, you know, who has access who has ownership, and I, the way I see consulting, and agencies are kind of different one is, okay, I just want to have an agency come in, and do everything for me, and then report back to me, or I want to be taught how to do it, and then eventually do it myself. So I'm not saying one model is better than the next model, because you might not have time to manage your Google Ad Grants, that might not be your zone of genius, while it definitely is Chris's zone of genius. So you need to figure out which kind of agency want, but you can't just wash your hands of the entire engagement without knowing without having access without having ownership. So you know, who has ownership of all the marketing assets that are created? I think that that causes some confusion.Chris Barlow:
Yeah, so I run across this a lot, where an agency, usually this happens more with an agency than a consultant who's working almost more like a part time employee, but where they will, like create a client's website for them. And they own the website, they own the content management system it's on. Or maybe they don't, maybe that's not maybe the websites owned by the client, but the ad campaign is owned by the agency, and the client can't actually go inside it at all, they have no access whatsoever. And that, to me is a real problem. Because it basically says if you leave that agency, you lose the campaign, you have to start from scratch, that should never be managed that way, without the relationships to always be this is your ad campaign that we are stewarding. And so you're an admin on it, you can access it anytime we can't remove you from it, or, you know, we have to your your added immediately as an admin, and you can remove us from it. I think this is important as a as a, your, as a nonprofit, you're a steward of your donors investment, you're a steward of your mission. And so you need to have the transparency to look at the campaigns, you need to have ultimate control. Even if you don't understand everything, like you don't have to say I know what's going on, I know what to do. You could say I never want to touch anything in the campaigns, but I need to be able to access who has access to it, I need to be able to audit, I need to be able to bring in someone else who's an expert, and give me an audit. And if you don't own the account account, you can't bring in a third party and say give access to this competitor of yours to audit our ad campaign because we're like, well, it's ours, sorry, it's proprietary.Julia Campbell:
And then things get really ugly. And then this is why people feel so burned. I remember when I started out as a consultant and I had been on the other side, I'd been a development director, and I remembered working with consultants and I did not have a good experience. I felt like the consultant in particular that I worked with was just sort of not like out of touch didn't do all the things that you say they really came in and said this is how things are going to work. And I know best. And we were dealing with a very complicated issue and you know, a very diverse and complicated community. And I think that just speaks volumes. If the if the consultant of the agency can come in and be curious and ask these questions and say we want you to succeed. I'm not here to kind of put my template on you, we really want you to succeed. And that might take some different strategies. So what are some ways that you would recommend a nonprofit to keep people like us accountable for the investment that yeah, made?Chris Barlow:
Yeah, just I mean, just ask them good questions, you know, review the change history, an occasional basis, if you're running ads, otherwise, just you know, getting a report, of course the results and find out what did you work on this month or not? If they're not in your office, or if they're not? If you're not having a meeting and you're discussing the things that you're working on? Just say Okay, once a month when you send us the report of the results. The data also include like just a list of you Here's the things we did on the campaigns. Here's the things we did to you know, here's why you hired us.Julia Campbell:
Exactly. I love also expectations, you wrote about expectations, and really being clear on what can be achieved. But that should be more on the front end and the back end. I think that if you're working with someone on the outside, and they're not giving you ideas, or saying, this is going great, but have you tried this, like, I think it could work even better. So it's not necessarily their job to give you 1050 Overwhelming ideas, but even just calling you or talking to you in that monthly report and saying Instagrams going really well, maybe we should consider stepping up our story game, or here's some ways to do that. I think that for me, at least, if I'm looking to hire outside help, I really need that kind of push almost to make changes, because we kind of get stuck in the status quo. So I guess the the million dollar question, how can we convince the boss and the board to get us some help?Chris Barlow:
Let me start with, what if you don't do anything? Mm hmm. And tie it back to? What is the annual what was the annual plan? And what are the goals strategic plan? What were the goals set out and say, We need in marketing support, we can't do this ourselves, we're not going to hit these goals without this and paint the picture to be honest about what your limitations are, and what you can do on your own. And then talk to other organizations, you know, who have marketing and say, tell us what is your marketing doing for you, and just get some case studies and say, Look, this is what their agency has done for them, or their cat consultant that they hired, or the volunteers that they've been working with and been able to do for them this year, or last year, I mean, just one piece of data for you to know, email marketing is still the number one marketing channel in terms of ROI. For every $1 you invest in email, on average, it brings back a return of $40. So grow your email list and show the board show your boss that that's what we need to do. And texting, I mean to SMS list is including that it's even more effective than email. It's just not as widespread. And you're going to grow your donor base. If you can do that. Well be honest about your limitations, and then point to other organizations on what it's doing for them.Julia Campbell:
I think what's so interesting about nonprofits is that they tend to not understand that donor acquisition does require getting in front of completely new people. So that requires advertising. And that requires maybe partnering with an organization that has a different audience. Donor acquisition is not just constantly getting in front of the same people, the same people, the same people, that's donor retention. And sure some of those people are prospects, some of those people have not made a donation that could be converted into donors. But when I get questions of, well, how do we grow our Facebook page with brand new people? How do we grow our email list with brand new people I see Well, you know, it's like Procter and Gamble, or Apple or any big company, they invest in ads, because they can't just count on. Well, I'm not a big Apple fan girl and the Google fan girl, but they can't just count on me, to tell my friends and to share stuff about Google, they have to get in front of brand new people constantly, constantly, constantly. So I think this notion of, oh, let's just keep doing the things the way, you know, we're the best kept secret. Well, there's a reason I think you're the best kept secret. And I adore you and love you little nonprofit. But there is a reason why you're the best kept secret. So let's end on this last question. What else do we need to know that you think and your experience, everything that you've been seeing, could help us achieve success with nonprofit marketing?Chris Barlow:
So yeah, the first thing is just, if you want to attract people, you have to serve them. That, you know, obviously, is what you're doing with your mission. People want to come to you and and are helped because you're serving them, do the same to your donors. And do that serve your donors by giving them a taste of your mission. If you give them a taste of your mission, and you use whatever you're doing to meet a need of theirs, then it's really natural for you to then connect what you the way you serve them to the bigger mission. And say, we do this in a bigger scale. This is what we're all about. Don't be overwhelmed with all the different options in marketing, really just think 8020 20% of the things you do will bring 80% of the results or that one channel will bring in, you know, the vast majority of you're so focused on that one thing to once that's coming, you can look elsewhere.Julia Campbell:
I love that. Thank you, Chris, where can people connect with you and find you and learn more about you?Chris Barlow:
Yeah, so you can just go to my website, your Beeline calm, or you can email me. I'm happy to talk. Answer any questions that didn't get addressed here, Chris at your Beeline calm. All right.Julia Campbell:
Well, thank you so much. I hope we didn't interrupt naptime in your house. Yeah, thank you so much for being here. Thanks, everyone who's listening. And I'll be back with another episode. Next week, same time, same place. So have a great day Well, hey there, I wanted to say thank you for tuning into my show, and for listening all the way to the end. If you really enjoyed today's conversation, make sure to subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast app, and you'll get new episodes downloaded as soon as they come out. I would love if you left me a rating or a review because this tells other people that my podcast is worth listening to. And then me and my guests can reach even more earbuds and create even more impact. So that's pretty much it. I'll be back soon with a brand new episode. But until then, you can find me on Instagram at Julia Campbell seven, seven. Keep changing the world your nonprofit unicorn