How To Pivot Your Marketing Because of an Unexpected Event (or Pandemic) with Graham Cannon

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Welcome to another episode of Three Minute Marketing where we interview some of the world’s leading growth marketers across different channels. We really like to talk to unicorn type growth marketers.

I’m your man, Chris Mechanic, co-founder at WebMechanix and a veteran, a performance marketer. I am super excited today to have Graham Cannon, the CMO of UJA-Federation of New York. They are a nonprofit dedicated to communal planning and philanthropy and the New York Jewish community. Previously, Graham headed up marketing at other Jewish philanthropic organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League.

Show Notes:

  • They realized quickly they had to switch their business model since in-person events, where they got most of their donations, wasn’t possible.
  • Learn and move quickly. UJA had to pivot and iterate quickly to find the best digital alternative to direct mail invitations, which ended up being concise e-mail invitations that had a similar look and feel.
  • Build a framework around a new way of doing things (e.g., through Zoom events).
  • Nonprofits love to talk about themselves but don’t overwhelm people with data. Focus on delivering the key points. Don’t rely on people to figure it out themselves.


– Hello, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Three Minute Marketing where we interview some of the world’s leading growth marketers across different channels. We really like to talk to unicorn type growth marketers. I’m your man, Chris Mechanic, co-founder at WebMechanix and a veteran, a performance marketer, |super excited today to have Mr. Graham Cannon here from UGA Federation of- Or UJA, pardon me, Federation of New York. Graham’s currently the CMO there. They are a nonprofit dedicated to communal planning and philanthropy and the New York Jewish community. Previously Graham headed up marketing at other Jewish philanthropic orgs, including the American joint Jewish distribution, and the anti-defamation league. Prior to that, he was in the nonprofit space in multiple different types of careers, and then you were even on the private side. So very interesting background. You’ve got a little mix of everything. Super excited to have you on the show today. Thanks for this.

– It’s great to be here, thank you.

– All right. So, as usual, I do have a big question for you. I’ll ask it and then you’ll have your three minutes. So the question is UJA Federation of New York, I think I was kind of observing your guys’ response to the pandemic, I think it was one of the most brilliant responses I’ve ever seen. It was very fast, it was timely, it was tech heavy. It was impressive. Can you kind of paint us a picture of, you know, what that period was like for you and how you, you know, pivoted so quickly and so effectively.

– I think we realized early on that we were going to have to switch our business model. Our business model is so engagement heavy, where in many ways, an old style philanthropy in that we have a huge number of nightly events and dinners. That’s where we engage and meet our donors, and it’s part of the fabric of philanthropic life in New York, and literally that turned off like a light switch. So I think at that point we then had to learn the Zoom business, discovering that there were many flavors of Zoom. I mean, you know, we’d all be using whatever IT provided, It turns out those are the 300 person, you know, maximum limit. Could we get licenses quickly for a thousand and thousand person limit, 3000 person limit, then how do we flow content into that? Do we just start, how do we brand and market that? Can we build frames around that? Can we run slideshows? Can we run videos in that? When do we do that? Who hosts, who introduces? So talking to that audience, which again is our prime fundraising audience, we had to move very quickly with that, and what we also discovered is content is king. I mean, you know, I, you know, I spent a lot of time in television. I didn’t think I’d be bringing my TV backgrounds back into this space, but essentially you’re producing television, you know, events typically a two or three hours long, and I think we learned very early on you can’t just sort of open Zoom and somehow take what would have done in that space and move it into a two or three hour Zoom session. Secondly, you’ve got to tell people what’s going on. I mean, invitations that used to go out, many of which used to be printed, maybe followed up by an email. You know, our initial emails just got missed by people who didn’t realize this was now a new format and new medium, and so that those invitations have to start to look and feel- Again, television is the most obvious word for it, but you had to invite me and tell me what I was going to see, how long I was going to be on for. You couldn’t just say, starting at seven, you had to say seven to eight, and we found the shorter we got the better the audience was, and the more the audience was with us. Our job has been to make sure we never let our moving information to people taught on seeing the people would have- It’s most important that we reach with stories that we, you know, we’ve been able to test in some way to know that I’ve been backed in effectiveness, when they sell the information and also look for- Non-profits tend to lack verbosity. I mean, you know, we love to talk about ourselves. We love to talk about our mission, and again, being relentlessly disciplined to boil it down to the key messages that we know are going to work, and being cognizant of the time people were prepared to give us, and not just overwhelming people with data to the assumption somehow that they’ll work their way through it and they’ll figure out for themselves what the value of the proposition is, that that doesn’t work. One of the things we’ve found is really immensely important as to relationships we build deep in the community over a hundred years have been particularly important right now. I mean, being able to make a phone call to someone who, you know, is your friend and colleague as well as your donor is a very different relationship to calling someone out of the blue and saying would you like to stop being a donor to UJA?

– I love it, I love it. Graham, this has been so useful. Hey Graham, tell the audience where they can find you, if they want to learn more.

– You’ll find all the resources that we have at our disposal there. You’ll see, linked off at resource pages, information pages, obviously join us and sign up options as well.

– Awesome, thank you so much, Mr. Graham Cannon, please go check out the site and sign up, consider a donation. You guys are doing some fantastic work and I do appreciate it. We can continue talking, and if you guys want to check out the link to the show notes or otherwise you’ll find the show notes somewhere around here, you can get the rest of our conversation. I am actually very impressed by that response. It sounds like you guys did some really impressive things, Zoom wise and the idea of, like, producing Zooms like you would a TV program is actually really interesting too, and I’m interested just because, like a lot of the folks that we talk with here are really deep in platform. They’re experts at, you know, Google ads or SEO. They’re like really into the performance marketing piece, but it’s interesting with a person like you, where have such a diverse and broad background, like you may not necessarily be an expert, like, you know, a specific paid media channel, but your background enables you to do things like just, you know, quickly produce a TV show. So I’m curious, you know, and with a lot of the really sharp, young up and coming marketers on our team and others that I meet, you know, they’re really, really fluent in the platforms, you know, there tend to be technical, and they lack that broader view of the world sometimes in the earlier parts of their career. I’m curious, do you have any means, like, do you know of any program or any book or anything that you can put in front of kind of like somebody in their earlier stage of their career to give them that broadness of view, that business acumen, that understanding of the world?

– It’s a great question. I think, actually you’ve just given me an idea, and I think I probably need to write that book, but you know, you’re absolutely right. I mean, look for me, the keys to doing my job, particularly in these kinds of broad organizations that have so many ties to so many parts of the community and the broader world, is number one, you have to know your business and the substance of the business inside out with enough confidence to be able to make decisions you know are going to be right. If you have to start going to lots of different people to have to check every single thing you’re doing, you’ve lost time, and you’re behind the curve. Secondly, you have to have the confidence of the CEO and senior leadership who are going to trust you to the extent possible to take the brand and move it in ways and stretch it in ways that are very new and very different, recognizing there’s going to be, you know, some falls and some challenges and, you know, not everything is going to work as effectively as possible, and because other people are going to marshal the resources and give you the backing as you move through. And then I think you need to have an eye for talent and know who to bring in, but you know, something I try and be very careful about it is not to get too deep into the weeds. I mean, I know a lot about programmatic media, but I know this much about programmatic media compared to the people on my team who know about programmatic media and that’s fine. I don’t need to know what they know. I just need to know they know it. They can explain it to me in clear simple terms so that we can roll it into our broader media strategy and move ahead. But, you know, I’d say ultimately, it’s really also knowing your market. I mean, you know what, I try and train my staff and always is, you have to be your customer. You have to know everything about them, where they go, where they, who their friends are, what their interests are, what motivates them, what moves and what trips they’ve taken recently, and, you know, Our challenge always as a nonprofit is do we have the resources to do the kind of data dives that we need to do? And in the absence of having that data or the other ways of gathering that, because that will tell us a lot about where we need to go and what we need to do, and then keeping those channels open so that, you know, you don’t dismiss the feedback you get. If your market says to you, something listened to it. I mean, I learned years ago, I mean, even the early days of the internet, you would get someone calling up and saying, I can’t hear, I can’t see the link isn’t working, and your initial reaction is, let’s say, ah there’s just someone who doesn’t know how to use the media, but I’ve learned again and again, always listen to that person. When someone calls up and says it’s not working for them, they represent a thousand people that it’s not working for, so, no, don’t- Never dismiss, particularly in the digital space, someone as, you know, not having the digital skills to use your product. They’re telling you your product doesn’t match a need, their needs, their interests, that level of engagement. So, it’s things like that I think that are very important.

– Yeah well, I’ll tell you what, if you can write that book that you can put it in front of, you know, somebody early on in their career to give them that context, I think it would be a best seller. It would be super valuable for a lot of folks. I noticed, like, within our own team it tends to happen naturally. You know, you come in here the first year, you’re kind of disoriented. You’re getting your bearings. You start working with clients. From the agency side, it’s unique, you know, because it’s one thing to understand the ins and outs of your own business, which is angular company. But on the agency side you might have three or five or seven different clients. So I think just that first thing of, like, knowing the substance of the business inside and out and understanding, you know, the products, the customers, the use cases, I think even that would go a very, very long way, like, you know, and we’re already doing this in a lot of ways. It’s like for every hour of product or channel training, we’re going to do at least 10, 15, 20 minutes of just this, like, how do you get to understand a substance of a business? Like what language do you even use to start to gain understanding of that?

– Right, and look, it’s a very important point, and I think for marketers it’s a very distinct understanding. I mean at some level you also have to be able to stand to one side. I mean, the job of the CEO, the job of your leadership, the job for your board is to love the company, love the product, love the mission, you know, unconditionally as they should, and they’re right, and that’s exactly as it should be, but for the CMO and the Senior Marketing team, you also have to be able to stand a little aside and say I’ll be right, is this working, you know, have we got the message in place? I mean, and that’s a tricky place to occupy as well, which again goes to the notion we would have to know this well enough so that you have the authority to say at the right moment, we haven’t got this quite right here, you know, need to shift a couple of degrees here, a couple of degrees there, what we thought was right and what sounded great over dinner, actually isn’t connecting quite in the way we thought and you become the truth-teller, began to be the truth teller, you know, in a way that when you tell the truth people listen to you and don’t dismiss you as, ah, he doesn’t know our business, doesn’t know what’s going on. So you don’t have to have that immersion in order to be able to bring that to the table.

– A hundred percent. So tell me a little bit about your guys’ own digital marketing initiatives and activities. Like, is there anything particular as of late that you’ve done that you’re proud of, some that you consider sexy or next level?

– It’s interesting. We’re actually probably going to be using some of the new digital options in New York, like Link NYC, which are these sort of kiosks that over the last few years have gone out in the street. I mean, they’ve evolved a little bit, initially they were sort of seen as, you know, they were charging stations, everyone needs charging stations and, you know, information destinations, it’s evolved a couple of times but it’s, you know, they’ve now become an interesting- They sort of crossed the intersection between display advertising and sort of the solidity and impact that that display brings with the ability to manage digital content and track it and change it, you know, on a fairly easy basis. So I think that’s going to be an interesting sort of test as sort of this outdoor piece, and of course it’s a highly targeted, I mean, you know, there’s hundreds of these units. We can talk block by block based on what a segmentation tells us is where our audience is most likely to be.

– You’re doing that through what, like, Trade Desk?

– Well, we do actually, we have a media buyer that we’re working with, you know, sort of as part of a larger media plan. So, you know, his company is managing that implementation.

– I just read that Trade Desk, introduce that- I don’t know how recent it was, but they introduced a digital outdoor, to be purchased programmatically which is super exciting, especially, you know, in a scenario like yours where it’s pretty much geographically bound or do you guys get donors from outside of New York?

– It’s primarily, you know, the five boroughs, Westchester and Long Island is, you know, probably 95% in our- 98% of our catchment area. But as I said, that’s exactly right. I mean, there’s targeting piece of it. I mean, you know, we can almost take down block by block, you know, I can overlay, you know, I could literally take a spreadsheet overlay you know, 30,000, you know, New Yorkers I’m looking to reach and literally have those kiosks sort of mapped against that distribution and then we can make decisions on which chaos we want to use, where. So it’s, you know, it’s interesting, you talk about old ideas are coming new suddenly QR codes. I think literally with iPhones upgrade to not requiring a separate app for QR suddenly, and that, also, I’m not sure what it’s like sort of where you are, a lot of restaurants have just switched to QR codes for menus. So just saves paper menus and all the hassles of keeping surfaces clean, suddenly QR codes would come back, so now that enables us to put QR codes in front of people and, you know, the call to action can be tied to that rather than having to make the sale in the entirety of the space.

– Yeah, that’s very interesting. I remember text messaging was out when I was in high school, but we considered, you know, like a lesser form that we would just prefer to pick up the phone call, but then text messaging re-surged in a big way, hasn’t been recent, but that is interesting. The old becoming new again.

– Yeah, I mean, text questions, messaging is an interesting example. I mean, you know, you’ve had sort of various text-to-donate options. The challenge is you often end up getting lower donations and other channels would deliver for you. I mean, you know, they tend to be $10 to $20 mediums. Although again, it’s changing. Again that’s yesterday’s news, it’s not necessarily tomorrow’s news, and also because, you know, texts have now become perceived as a junk channel. So trying to figure out, you know, whether and how to have a voice there is also, you know, challenging too.

– Yeah. Want to know something else that I think is like the old coming new again, is copywriting.

– Yeah.

– I think with copy writing, you know, in the early days of advertising, everybody like understood it, because that was the only variable really. Like if you’re running print ads, running different publications, but ultimately it’s the copy that sells. And then I think with all the complexity of the different platforms and all these different levers that you could pull to adjust, you know, the cost of a customer or a lead, I think that the importance of copy kind of waned for awhile when you had this, you know, wave of very technical marketers, but now it’s coming back in a big way, I think. Or maybe it’s just me that’s because-

– We do a lot of print advertising, still copywriting is something that that’s sort of particularly important to us, and it’s tied to the history of UJA. I mean, if you go back into the archive and you look at the ads, particularly sort of from the forties and fifties around sort of the founding of Israel, you know, and that was the era where the major agencies often gave pro-bono or deeply discounted services to nonprofits like UJA, there are some remarkable ads. We’re not a TV production company, a lot of this stuff we’re inventing on the fly, but you know, you put someone smart and versatile in the director’s chair and you’ll deal with it. I mean, what did we deal with last night? Literally 10 minutes before we went live, we had to show him verdict was coming down, and then while we were on the air, and again I say on the air, we’re not a television company, I don’t have anchors. I have a CEO and one of our board members asking the mayoral candidates questions, and literally there he was sort of saying, you know, I’ve just learned that Sheldon has been found guilty on all three counts. Mr. Adams, mayoral candidate, what’s your reaction to that? But again, having a director who writes, who thinks, who, you know, can move on the fly is infinitely more important than his ability to be able to know which button to push.

– I love that, I love that. Just smart people, how do you find them? How do you interview them? How do you-

– First of all there’s a lot of smart people out there, you know, and I’m one of those folks who thinks, you know, today’s sponsors, people are 23, 24 years old. I mean, you know, I wish I was as fast and smart as many, at their age, as many of the people now, I mean, you know, there’s a great new generation of people coming in, and, you know, we talked in just a conversation. I mean, you know, you ask basic questions that are sort of aimed at project management. How would you solve this? How would you get out of this? I throw this to you tomorrow, what are the first three questions you’d ask? So it’s those kinds of questions less than tell me something about your last job, and, you know, a lot of it is just instinct. I mean, you know very quickly whether someone, you know, has the smarts and intelligence to be able to figure out what comes next. And again, look at me, this is a business changing so rapidly that, you know, if I’m hiring you for a set of skills those skills could be obsolete tomorrow.

– A hundred percent.

– So, you know, you better have the ability to be able to switch those skills and, you know, have the underlying smarts to know what’s driving your ability and those skills that you can transfer it over to something else you know, pretty quickly. Chris, thanks a lot.

– Absolutely Graham, stay in touch.

Graham Cannon

Graham CannonCMO of UJA-Federation of New York

Chris Mechanic

Chris MechanicCEO & Co-Founder

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