Many people have seen the upside down sales funnel that switches the customer relationship process from primarily sales to primarily marketing. The flipped sales funnel, my version completely removing traditional sales from the equation, can also be applied to social services programming.
Traditionally in the social services we see many traditional sales methods employed, they just happen to come in slightly different forms. For example, when carrying out a direct service type program (e.g. a health education program), there is a large focus on widespread recruitment to “fill the seats” and “increase reach.” During the programming it is theorized that people will change behaviors and retain those behaviors that are considered "good" going forward. As we see time and time again, there is a very low retention rate especially when programming has a set time period. Programming is not generally designed to span a lifetime or even beyond a few months and therefore there is little room for high retention rates. Also, many programs go their course without any formal evaluation meaning there is little indication of success or failure. Traditional funding methods also contribute to this type of programming as grants have specific periods and don’t always force agencies to plan BEYOND the grant period, REALLY plan.
Health education itself is often a sale of information; however, people do not like to be sold to whether it is a new vacuum or information on the complications of diabetes. Consumers have easy access to more information now (whether accurate or not) than ever. This type of short term program with little retention is not repeatable or sustainable. We have seen a shift in Public Health towards preventative based programming, but what does that really look like? I argue, it is not health education campaigns or sales of health, it is marketing health. People need information, but it has to be packaged and promoted properly to them. People need to be shown how to be healthy and what that means…complete lifestyle change. Like a doctor who smokes or a nutritionist who eats at McDonald's, it is very difficult to ignite behavior change when there is no example of good healthy behavior. Selling health is not genuine or transparent and doesn’t address many of the core issues.
Flipping the funnel requires agencies to work towards mass retention instead of mass recruitment. Finding the right people to then act as leaders in a community will help market the success of a program. It will also increase interest of their story, how they did it, and how it can be applied to others. Change does not occur over night. A relationship must be cultivated with individuals in order to encourage trust and for them to see how they can change to be healthier, in a better economic situation, etc. Proper recruitment and cultivation of individuals results in long term success and ongoing relationships. It may not result in a onetime sale or a quick close, but can result in ongoing and lasting change (or a business relationship). Over time, the increased retention improves brand strength of a program. Not only does it show the program has an impact, but many people are out in the world telling the program's story. If the cultivation process is done well, participants will want to share their success and tell their story. They will have a real buy in in the program and its future success. Instead of program/agency leads being solely responsible for dissemination of successes and failures (which is inevitable), there is an army of micromarketing professionals. This is also appealing to donors, partners, and other stakeholders.
Most all communities have local champions, but underserved communities can be markedly disempowered or even silenced. Programming has to not only be effective, but it has to work to mobilize that community, and only then it is sustainable. It is unreasonable to expect programming run by outside agencies to have the ongoing impact without very strong local involvement. I see the best success in “train the trainer” models that identify local leaders to carry to program forward. Using strong marketing strategies (perhaps without even knowing), these programs do an excellent job cultivating an ongoing relationship with participants. Very few are identified initially, but retention can be very high and organic buy in from neighbors, friends, and other community members occurs. These models are repeatable in communities all over and are intrinsically more accountable. Right alongside a full Collective Impact model having agencies, government, donors, and community members at the same table holds all parties more accountable.
The major issue with the traditional sales funnel is that “conversion” as a method of information delivery or behavior change is very difficult. Being an excellent sales person is very difficult and difficult to teach. Everyone however can tell their story and by being out in the world, everyone is marketing themselves. Training people on how to market themselves well is not difficult. Just like if you see a good movie and post about it on facebook you can have a great programmatic experience and post it on facebook. People simply have to think about what they say, do, and how they project themselves (see my self-branding blog). I know the skeptics out there want to say, “well some people don’t like to think” to which I respond, ‘you can’t win them all.’ You probably aren’t ever going to change someone’s behaviors if you can’t get them to think.
Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you are right - Henry Ford
Social media and ease of access to information enables the success of micromarketing as a tool in private or public business (tired of me saying this yet?). Instead of having your 20 person sales team or 5 person health education team, you now have all 300 employees or 10,000 residents of a town marketing for you. These larger audiences cannot be successfully reached through traditional sales methods. Sale of information is difficult to duplicate. Like with health education, you cannot deploy 100s of people to give lectures on the dangers of hypertension (not to mention how much people are already bombarded with diabetes, obesity, etc). I always think of the telephone game I played when I was little. After info leaves the sales person’s mouth it is manipulated in every which way down the stream. Successfully packaged information disseminated appropriately to all stakeholders in twitter like sound bites is repeatable. Stakeholders can be deployed as micromarketers to promote product, services, or to promote a social services program. They do not need to know all the details to share information, their story and their experience and they can direct people to where the information is or how to get more.
I’ll close by saying, I am in fact an excellent “sales” person and always have been. At age 16 I sold $500 worth a raffles tickets in a matter of a couple hours baffling my fellow volunteers and the following year I was asked to work at a car dealership when I turned 18 (by the owner). Those strict sales skills are difficult for me to teach others. The art of the close is something I don’t even know how to explain. I realize there are sales gurus out there who make a lot of money teaching people how to be excellent sales people, but the value in being a genuine micromarketer will outshine those skills and frankly sales has no place in the social services, if anywhere.