Articles & Resources About Marketing & Messaging

Marketing and MessagingIf you do an internet search on “marketing” or “messaging” you usually end up with a bunch of results that don’t really apply to your organization’s needs.

The tips and information below apply the basic principles of strategic marketing and effective messaging to the unique needs of your education or non-profit organization so that you can begin using these tips today!

The 10 PR Commandments of a Successful New Website Launch

hcgovimageNo matter what side of the Obamacare debate you’re on, there’s one thing that we can probably all agree upon: Websites still matter.  In this day and age of increasing focus on social media, websites and website content have kind of gotten the back burner in terms of marketing focus.

The healthcare.gov website roll-out debacle certainly fueled politicians’ fire on both sides of the political spectrum, but there are some valuable lessons that can be drawn from “the nation’s worst website roll-out in history” for any organization with a website—whether it’s a school district, school, county office of education, governmental entity, non-profit, or business.  While techies and other website gurus could spend a lot of time discussing the technological aspects, I’m going to focus on the 10 PR Commandments of a successful new website launch, so that your new website becomes your best PR tool…and not your latest PR nightmare:

Commandment 1: Develop a website that is responsive to stakeholders

How do your stakeholders want to navigate your site?  Do they want a list of options, or do they want a site that is intuitive and takes them to the information they are seeking?  In the healthcare.gov example, backend users (insurers) are experiencing problems that differ from the frontend users’ (those seeking insurance) problems.  Both are equally important to the overall success of the site.  And, let’s not forget the “ques”….look, if you built a site for all of America to get government-subsidized health insurance, then make sure your site can handle the traffic!  So, with this in mind…

Commandment 2: Strategically develop your new website

Use surveys, focus groups, and interviews with key front end and back end users of your site.  Make sure the tech folks understand the needs and capabilities of those who will be updating the site and vice versa.  Look at the short- and the long-term needs of the site.  Ensure that your organizational policies will support the new site, and consider implementing a governance plan for the site to ensure the site’s integrity over the long-term. And, before launching the site, test pages with your front and back end stakeholders and ensure that everyone’s needs will be met.  There’s nothing worse than having a new website launched and then hearing about everything that’s missing from a key stakeholder.

Commandment 3: Set realistic timelines for the development of a website

Everyone wants a new website…yesterday.  Rushing the development of a website will risk critical website testing that needs to occur prior to its launch.  This website testing is code word for: saving your organization’s rear from a PR nightmare. Testing takes time—so does applying fixes.  With that being said…

Commandment 4: Heed the advice of your website developer

Prior to its launch, the healthcare.gov site’s website contractor threw out several red flags related to the site’s capacity and its ability to launch by the October  deadline.  These warnings were widely ignored (according to media accounts), and, as a result, an incomplete, faulty site was launched, placing a dark cloud over the launch of the nation’s first comprehensive healthcare plan.  Look, a great website developer is going to be your partner in success—they don’t dig in their heels for their own kicks.  They have a very valid reason to raise concerns about launching before certain activities are completed. Listen to them.

Commandment 5: Develop a website that is reflective of your organization’s brand

Many organizations think they can use a cheap template approach to work around the financial challenges associated with developing a new website.  Unfortunately, this out of the box template approaches result in underperforming websites that look like…a bunch of other underperforming websites.  I work together with who I consider to be some of the best website developers around who develop custom, branded websites for a competitive price.  They not only provide great design elements, but they also deliver websites that use navigation, content organization, and design that best respond to stakeholders’ needs.  Consider making a little more of an investment to launch high quality website that is responsive to your unique stakeholders/customers and best reflects your organization’s brand.

Commandment 6: Every page shall have content

Seriously, healthcare.gov had pages without content…worse, it had placeholder content. I don’t think this should require further discussion.  Really, please don’t use placeholder content—just don’t include pages that don’t have content.

Commandment 7: Every page shall have consistently messaged content

Having a content style guide for your site will ensure that your organization isn’t referred one way on your home page, and another way on an internal page.  The content style guide will also ensure that, if multiple employees are developing content, that there’s one way that bulleted lists are presented, a consistent approach to linking content, and more.

Commandment 8: Every page shall have effectively messaged content

Writing effectively messaged content ensures that your content is interesting to readers, guides them to other pages on your website, increases SEO (search engine optimization), and reflects your organization’s brand.

Commandment 9: Launch a website—that meets and exceeds everyone’s expectations

With that being said, don’t overpromise and underdeliver.  If you wanted video streaming on your website, don’t talk about the “new streaming video feature” until you have ironed out all of the details and finalized that video will actually be on your site.  There are a lot of technological details that go into every website feature.  Video, for example, sounds great on the surface, until you discover that you don’t have organizational support for developing video, or because your server can’t accommodate video hosting…and your organization blocks YouTube videos.

Websites cost money and take time—when public funds are used, then the light of scrutiny shines brighter on a new website launch.  When discussing the yet-to-be-launched website in public, make sure that your organization’s leaders are on the same page when describing the website’s new features—I would highly recommend developing talking points.  That brings me to my next and final point…

Commandment 10: Have a PR and Marketing Plan for the launch of the new website

Just as you would carefully construct a PR and marketing plan for the dedication of a new building, launch of a new program/product, or other feature of your organization, your website is the most important digital PR and customer service vehicle and structure for your organization.  Yet, all too often, organizations launch new websites quietly, under the radar, and expect their stakeholders to take up and notice the site when they happen to visit it.  Here’s a quick reality check: you may have already lost a lot of your stakeholders’ interest in your website before you updated it—and I’d be willing to bet that one of the goals of your new website is to have increased traffic!  So, why wouldn’t you treat its launch with the same PR kitten gloves (talking points, press releases, announcements to stakeholders, social media announcement) as you would any other important launch in your organization?

Oh, and if I could add a Commandment 11: Keep your new website updated!

Want more resources for developing your new website?

Sounding Board provides website content writing services, as well as capacity building workshops on writing effective website content, including a website content style guide.  Contact us to begin improving your website content today!

Sounding Board’s Preferred Website Developers

We want to refer you to the best of the best when it comes to website developers.  For this reason, Sounding Board does not endorse companies that provide a cookie-cutter, template-based approach, and instead, would prefer you to invest in a strategically-planned, branded, and beautifully-designed custom website through either of these amazing website developers:

SectorPoint, Inc.: Sounding Board Marketing & Communications regularly refers clients to SectorPoint, Inc. on the development of large-scale websites on the Microsoft Sharepoint 2010 and 2013 platforms.  More information about SectorPoint, Inc. can be found at www.sectorpoint.com.

Bourn Creative: Bourn Creative specializes in strategic consulting, extraordinary branding, and custom WordPress websites. More information about Bourn Creative can be found at www.bourncreative.com.  (P.S. Bourn Creative designed Sounding Board’s website!)

Pitfalls of the Amber Alert text launch…and how to avoid them

When I received the noise-jarring, wake-up inducing Amber Alert at 11 p.m. a couple of weeks ago on my smart phone, I’ll admit it: I looked up how to turn it off, and did turn them off.  That was only after I received two more alerts, and I had no idea why I was receiving them (and how much longer I would receive them throughout the night).

Please forgive me—as the mother of two children and someone who had slept poorly the night before, I desperately needed some sleep, otherwise I would have to issue an Amber Alert for my children the next day, as they would have gone missing due to my sleep-deprived status.  Personally, receiving an Amber Alert at 11 p.m. was about as good as reading it in the paper the next day for me.

Of course, I joined the thousands of “heartless” and “unsympathetic” people who cared more about their sleep than a missing child (I did care…however, there’s not much I could have done about it when I was in my bed, thank you very much).  However, my public relations and communications side of me begged this question: “Why didn’t we know ANYTHING about this in advance?”  I considered the thousands of people, like myself, who searched the internet for “How to shut off Amber Alerts on my smartphone” and have kept them off indefinitely, rendering this potentially-effective communication vehicle ineffective.

In reality, this system—IPAWS (Integrated Public Awareness Warning System)—has been around for some time, beginning about 10 years ago.  However, ongoing hiccups, bureaucratic challenges, along with FEMA’s admission that yes, they could do a better job of educating the public about it, has led to ongoing challenges in fully and successfully launching IPAWS.   Article: “Why the government is sending emergency alerts to your smartphone”

Which brings me back to the Amber Alert—and why public outreach and education are critical in launching— and the ongoing success—ANY kind of program:

1)      Educating the public early and often will help your program win fans…and let’s face it: fans are good.  Fans will also help positively promote your program.

2)      Communicating in advance of a launch will ensure that everyone is “on board” for the launch when it does occur…and this also increases the likelihood that your organization’s messaging about the program are front and center.  This also provides your organization the opportunity to address questions and concerns before the launch—versus having the questions and concerns become the central messages about the launch.

3)      Public education and outreach provide people information about the choices they do have regarding your program—versus making them think they have no choices.  In my experience, when people feel like they have limited or no choices, they tend to react negatively, no matter how wonderful your program is.  Case in point—Amber Alerts.  We can all agree that they are an effective and amazing way to inform the public about an abducted child.  However, when people receive a jarring alert on their cell phone—without education, warning or information about their choices to receive (or verify) alerts—some of their first thoughts will be, “Here’s big brother government, forcing me to receive these alerts” or “I didn’t sign up for these!” or “This is nice, but, how do I manage these alerts?”

4)      Timing IS everything:  Look, I know child abductions can occur any time of the day.  But, launching a new alert system at 11 p.m….the worst timing ever.  In fact, had there been a notification alert sent earlier in the day, stating, “The Amber Alert system will begin sending alerts to your cell phone, starting today.  For more information, including how to manage these alerts, please visit www. Amberalert.org” I’m sure this launch would have been received with more positive feedback (and fewer people turning off the alerts) and much more effective outcomes.

So, when developing your organizations plans to launch a new alert system, new program, or changes to an existing program, don’t forget to include a good portion of time for public education and outreach before and during the planning phases, and allow for a significant amount of time prior to launching the program/changes to inform the public.  The success of your program depends on it.

Best Practices and Tips for Districts Communicating New SB1404:School Property-Civic Center Act Fees

I had the recent opportunity to develop a presentation and handouts for a client regarding California SB1404: School Property-Civic Center Act, which, in September 2012, the California State Legislature approved amendments to the Civic Center Act (more information about SB 1404 can be found here.)

With SB 1404 approved, your district is eagerly anticipating new revenue to fund facilities’ repairs from the new direct fees that will be charged to its facilities users.  New policies and fees have been approved by the board, new forms have been developed, and…wait…how did you communicate the new fees to your facility users?  Here are a few tips and practices to remember when considering the smooth implementation of your district’s new fees.

One very important thing I cannot emphasize enough is, communicating early and often, and including stakeholders in the process, will help in retaining and maintaining these critical relationships with your district’s community partners!  This is so important when communicating new fees to your district’s stakeholders.  So, here are some tips to help ease the transition of implementing new fees for your district’s facilities.

Timing Matters

Chances are, your facility users are already collecting their own fees for their programs…based on last year’s fees (unless your district already notified them of the new fees earlier this year).  They based their budgeting and communications on last year’s fees, and approaching them with information about your new fees, now, would put a huge monkey wrench into their operations.  Or, perhaps you are still in the process of developing new fees—your users should be aware that there are changes on the horizon so that they can plan accordingly.  Considering that these users have been and continue to be your district’s partners, consider developing and implementing a communication plan—based on both your district’s timelines for adopting the new fees, as well as a timeline that takes your facilities users’ timelines into consideration—for informing your current and future facility users not only about the fees, but also educating them and including them in the process of developing the new fees.

Relationships Matter

Your district’s community has and will continue to be comprised of the people who your district relies upon to approve facilities bonds and parcel taxes…so, when your district develops new fees on the very buildings their tax dollars are helping to fund, make sure that you take care of your relationships.  One day, you will be approaching them about upgrading the same facilities (or building new ones), and seeking their approval of funding those upgrades.  So, when approaching communications about the new fees, highlight the following: “We are protecting your investment by incorporating fees that ensure that our community facilities are safe, in good repair and in good working order for youth and community activities.”

Educating Matters

When communicating about the new fees, include stakeholders early in the process—preferably before adopting new fees.

  • Hold meetings (either one on one or in larger groups, depending on the number of stakeholders) with representatives of existing facility users, community leaders/managers, and district staff who will be involved with implementing the new fees.  Notify your local media, as well.
  • Provide information about SB 1404, including an estimate of the amount of money your district has spent annually on funding the repairs from community use, and how the new fees can only be charged for direct costs and used toward direct costs related to users’ facility use.
  • Provide stakeholders with the information about how new fees will be calculated, along with an estimate of how much more their group will likely need to pay (pending board approval on new fees), if possible.
  • Obtain stakeholder input on the new fees, as well as any other input on your district’s facilities use permitting process (this is a great opportunity to obtain customer service feedback!).
  • Provide stakeholders information on how the new fees can legally be used (designated in a special fund for purposes described in SB1404).
  • Once the new fees have been approved, communicate the information (including the process) about SB 1404 and the new fees to stakeholders and the local media.

Need more assistance with communicating SB1404 or other changes in your district?  Contact me for more information about how we can work together to obtain, maintain, retain, and strengthen your district’s stakeholder relationships.

12 Inexpensive and Easy Ways to Market Your School

time-and-training1. Create a parent advocacy group.

Suggestion: Identify involved parents who can speak about your school‘s programs and the positive effect they have had on their student’s education. Encourage these parents to join you on tours, school hosted coffees or to host coffees (or gatherings) in their neighborhoods in order to identify and inform additional parents. Engage them in phone tree activities to follow up on letters sent home. Most importantly, identify and work with cohorts of parents who appreciate your school and have children who are from areas of the district where you need to encourage additional enrollment. Ask parents who have children attending targeted middle schools to arrange a “Talk with the Principal” with prospective students/parents at the middle school they came from. It adds a personal/special touch.

2. Obtain mailing labels for schools targeted for recruitment.

Suggestion: Do a postcard with a tag line that makes the community remember your school listing the tour dates for your school on the back of the card. This quick mailing gives your community an immediate heads-up. Follow up by mailing a letter, signed by the Principal, to each student and their families speaking to reasons why they should consider your school. Students and/or parents can volunteer to stuff envelopes.

3. Engage your local media.

Suggestion: Establish a relationship with your neighborhood association. Incorporate regular articles in their newsletters and with the local area publications. Include tour schedule dates and times. Send articles to the most local Patch news source. Also, use church bulletins to convey information about activities and opportunities at the school.

4. Establish Shadow Days.

Suggestion: Develop a calendar of shadow days with middle school students with targeted elementary school students. At the elementary level, focus on third/fourth graders and early fifth grade students (in the fall). Most fifth grade parents have already made up their mind as to which school their child will be attending by later fall. Work with the individual schools to match students and calendar activities.

Suggestion: Regularly publicize shadow days in your principal letters to your community & homeowner association newsletters. Work with targeted schools to ensure information is included in their publications and/or daily announcements.

5. Develop school information packets.

Suggestion: Develop and distribute a packet that includes a brochure (or flyer) of your school that provides school highlights in a very user-friendly manner. Make sure it includes your website URL. Possibly list names and phone numbers of parents that would be willing to field calls from perspective parents.

Suggestion: Make sure these information flyers are in the hands of realtors, neighborhood associations, and others that are in a position to promote your school. Also, make sure to carry over any new messaging (and photos) used in these materials to your website content.

Content ideas: Interview or have your teachers, parents and students bullet things they think make your school special. Direct quotes from parents, students and teachers make a significant statement about your school. Take pictures of students engaging in the learning activities and programs you want to promote—a picture is worth more than 1,000 words!

6. Cooperate with your feeder schools to use your district’s parent database from target/feeder schools to remind parents of tour dates and recruitment activities, and hold information/recruitment community meetings with representation from all feeder schools.

Suggestion: Have a meeting with (or at) all schools represented, involve your council member, board member, administration, parent and student groups. Invite 5th grade parents from the neighborhood, especially targeting those you might know to be moving to private schools.

7. Update your school’s website with current programs, tour dates and times, and other recruitment information.

Suggestion: Content is everything! While slick and savvy websites are undoubtedly eye-catching, well-written and organized content with easy-to-follow links to other information and catchy photos are extremely valuable, and can provide the information that people are seeking.

8. In your school/parent/community presentations, include students and/or parents who can speak to the positive experiences they’ve had in your schools.

Suggestion: Focus your conversations around student achievement (and don’t just talk about test scores—talk about the ways in which your school works with students to help them achieve, student support services, extra-curricular activities, parent/community support groups, etc.). Make sure your campus is clean. Follow up your tours with phone calls and/or written correspondence. This can be even more effective if you have neighborhood school “cluster meetings” with community organizations.

9. Involve your local city councilmember/elected officials in marketing your school.

Suggestion: Have your school site council, or other established parent group, invite your councilperson to a school/community meeting to offer their viewpoints and ideas for supporting you in marketing the successes of your school.

10. Create a student-organized school “Marketing Club.”

Suggestion: Creative entrepreneurship is a valued skill in today’s workplace. Providing students the opportunity to “brainstorm,” develop and implement marketing strategies for your school can be a great way to engage students in the process, while also providing them valuable, hands-on learning experiences.

11. Ensure that everyone is involved with marketing your school.

Suggestion: Work with your staff to understand the importance of projecting that they are part of a positive and focused school culture and environment. Provide them a brief, one-page “talking points” document that highlights the key information that you would like to have all staff share in a consistent manner. A parent’s first point of contact, along with the enthusiasm of staff and students, plays a critical role in making a decision about your school.

12. Develop marketing materials specifically targeting parents and students.

Suggestion:

Parent marketing materials should include:

•    Description of your school’s product and model-in other words, your mission statement, what is special about your school and your school’s approach to student success
•    Support and transition opportunities for parents and students
•    Testimonials from current parents
•    Photos showing the best of student experiences at your school

Student marketing materials should include:

•    Flyer with information about electives and programs, photos showing the best of student experiences at your school, and student testimonials
•    Promotional items: Practical items with school logos or slogans that students would use every day (i.e., pens, pencils, note pads, etc.).

Need help devising a long-range marketing and communication strategic plan?  Contact us regarding our strategic planning services.

We give credit where credit is due!  Some of these ideas were inspired by San Jose Unified School District’s 21 Point Marketing Plan, developed by now-retired Communications Director and fellow California School Public Relations Association member Karen Fuqua.

 

What if You Had a Party…and No One Came?

partyA few years ago, I was invited to speak to middle school students about careers in marketing and public relations.  I was trying to figure out a way to explain marketing in terms that they would understand, and bingo…a party came to mind.  I took the students through the process of how they would tell other people about the party, and essentially taught them the marketing mix (product, price, place and promotion), as well as some basics of public relations (“What if the neighbors had a problem with the party?”  “What if someone got hurt at the party?”  “What if you needed more people to support having the party?”).

I was reminded of this analogy when I had the recent opportunity to conduct a Communication Audit for a school client as part of their Three Year Marketing & Communication Plan.  This client is challenged with negative public perception problems, along with impending direct competition from a charter school that will be opening its doors this fall right in their neighborhood.  Added to this challenge was the fact that the school has a very attractive program of choice commencing in the fall, and little had been done to promote it.  However, after talking with their administrators and stakeholders, a few things became very, very clear to me:

1)      The positive things happening at their school GREATLY outweigh their challenges.

2)      The school has a much higher number of collaborators and supporters than they do competitors.

3)      The school had greatly neglected is communication and marketing to its external stakeholders—as well as their internal ones (central office, school board, feeder school parents, teachers and administrators).

4)      The school was doing nothing to celebrate their students’ or schools’ achievements in visible ways on campus.

In other words—this school has an AMAZING party going on, and only a few people know about it!  And, guess what?  No one’s complaining about their loud music, either.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of relationships—relationships with both internal and external audience members.  There’s little that this school can do between now and the fall to pull back parents who have already decided to send their children to the new charter school (or other charter or private schools).  Undoing relationship neglect does take time and effort.  However, this school can begin changing its marketing and communication approaches in simple, inexpensive and quick ways to both begin nurturing their relationships and to reduce the flight of their students to other schools.  All it takes is the willingness, some time and effort.

I realize that schedules get busy—no, make that overwhelming—and marketing, PR and communications gets put on the back burner for “the time we really need it.”  But, what if the time you “really need it” is close to “too late”?  Relationship maintenance is a strategic, proactive and ongoing process.

I have created some other blog entries on relationship management, as well as some tips on marketing schools—if you’re in a different industry, these tips can also be used for your relationship management and marketing.

No one will come to your party…unless they’re invited!  And, unless people know about your party—they won’t tell other people about it.

If you need resources or assistance with starting or maintaining any step in the communication process, Sounding Board can provide you the resources you need.  Contact us if you need assistance!

Guest Blog: Why Quality Matters…Marketing is More Than Advertising

It is my pleasure to kick off Sounding Board’s guest blogs!  I love to share the advice and expertise from other marketing experts who want to help organizations like yours advance their goals through strategic, integrated marketing, communications, and public relations.

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Why Face Time Still Matters

Education and non-profits are truly in “the people business”, or, as I sometimes say, “the relationship business.”  Your products are social goods, improved educational opportunities, the future workforce, the future leaders, and more–each of which come in different colored, sized, and shaped packages.  Our brands are not as easily identifiable as Pepsi’s, Nike’s, Apple’s, or Ford’s, but yet at the same time, our public school brands are shaky because they rely upon the overall strength of the statewide and national public school brand–even if our neighborhood schools are strong.  And, unless they’re Goodwill or the United Way, non-profits’ brands often get muddled with those of organizations with similar names or missions.  Who’s going to differentiate your organization’s brand from others?  You–not behind a computer, but in a face-to-face meeting with those you need to influence.

That’s why face time still matters.

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Who’s Sinking Your Marketing/PR Battleships?

Battleship Board GameConsider the following scenario: Your superintendent (or board) has asked you to develop a marketing strategy for two of your district’s schools.  Each school has undergone amazing physical, programmatic and achievement improvements over the past year, yet they are still challenged by perception issues—people still think “gangster kids” go to these schools, and that they are underperforming schools.  While you’ve successfully obtained a couple of positive stories in the media, these perception problems still persist.   Your board thinks that some slick flyers and creatively designed posters will help attract more students.  The parents of current students at the schools share that people keep their children away—and send them to the local charter or private school—because they don’t really know how well the students are performing.  The mayor still describes these schools as being in disarray during his most recent state of the City address.

You’re thinking about the relationships…at least, you will be after reading today’s blog.

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6 Easy Ways to Build Your Organization’s Social Media Following

Building your organization’s social media following is comprised of activities that should be part of your overall social media strategy, and occur on an ongoing basisRemember, relationship-building and nurturing is not a one-time activity!  These are six easy ways to build your organization’s social media following, which will, in turn, also build your social media presence.

1.    Cover the basics. Make sure the bios/profiles for your social media accounts are complete. They should include clear and concise descriptions of your organization, your organization’s logo and your website URL.

2.    Share the news — and make sure yours gets shared! Retweet and share posts from others that you are following. And make sure you have sharing buttons on your content (blogs, news posts on your website, and of course, on your social media accounts).

3.    Promote your social media presence. Add social media badges (icons) to your organization’s website, blog, email signature, on your business cards, in your storefront and in email marketing.

4.    Make sure your content is interesting, useful, and interactive. Use photos, videos, write about engaging topics that leverage your expertise, and find ways to interact with your followers.

5.    Provide some exclusive offers to your followers.  Whether you’re a school and you offer free spirit items to the “next 20 followers” that comment and share a photo that you post, or a non-profit, and you offer an exclusive discount on your next event to the “next 10 followers” that share/comment on your status update, make sure that you are asking your followers to take an action (or actions) that helps build your following and social media presence, while providing a valuable exclusive offer that builds your brand.

6.    Network in person and online! Go to Tweet Ups, networking events, and other events in your market niche (or, better yet, start your own networking event/Tweet Up for those in your niche!). Find and follow partners, donors, supporters and others that support your organization’s mission via social media searches.

Check out Sounding Board Marketing & Communications’s Savvy Social Media Guide and Video for more tips on how to harness the power of social media to advance your organization’s goals!  Need help with developing your organization’s social media strategy or presence?  Contact us for more information about our social media services.

5 Social Media Content Ideas Readers Love

One of the biggest mistakes that marketing and PR people (or those who wear that hat) make for their organizations is pumping out website and social media content that I roughly define as content that “makes their organization look good” but isn’t necessarily interesting to readers.

One of the biggest challenges of social media is developing constant content that compels followers to come back for more.

Many education and non-profit organizations are challenged to come up with ideas of how to create this type of content, so, using some inspiration from a recent ragan.com article highlighting 20 content ideas readers love (you can read them here).  I’ve narrowed down the list to just five content ideas that will resonate with your education and non-profit audiences:

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