My favorite session at last week’s Nonprofit Technology Conference was “This is Iron Chef . . .  Battle Nonprofit.”

Three teams made up of consultants from four different agencies (Beaconfire Consulting, Forum One Communications, Free Range Studios, and Firefly Partners) got together on a Sunday for a strategy and design competition. Their challenge was to remake the online presence of Youth Speaks, a nonprofit presenter of Spoken Word performance, education, and youth development programs. They were all given the same information and amount of time to develop their programs.

Each team, comprised of 3-4 of the consulting firm frienemies, then presented their online strategy and home page redesigns for the first time at the conference. Take a few minutes to check out the slides to see what they came up with. You’ll see how some very creative firms go about a project like this, how they define online goals, set priorities and timelines, and use a blend of tactics.

I was tweeting during the session and these were my impressions as I listened:

  • team 1 seemed a little too kitchen sink for me
  • loving team 2’s real focus, storytelling, bringing in rural areas, building fan base for artists
  • loving team 2’s thanks for attending email the day after event to get people to go online to share their impressions.
  • team 3’s emphasis on artist’s own pages that they can really customize is nice touch.
  • think I like team 3’s home page the best, but team 2’s strategy the best.

What made this session so good?

The Open Sharing. How often do we get to see four leading firms talk openly about how they would approach a real project, in quite a bit of detail? Uh, never. This one session saved Youth Speaks thousands and thousands of dollars, but it also let all of us learn about ways to approach these kinds of projects too. I admit that I feared that the firms wouldn’t want to give too much away and the proposals would be lightweight, but instead they were really packed with substance. Kudos to the four firms for really sharing their best ideas!

The Collaborative Spirit. This could have easily been set up as a firm-against-firm competition. But by blending the teams, it removed the real-world winners and losers element, and made it much more fun and less pressure-filled (at least it felt that way as someone in the audience – not sure how it felt to be on a team!)

No Right Answer. While there was certainly overlap between the three approaches, this session proves that there is no one right way to do online marketing – so don’t believe anyone who tries to convince you otherwise. Yes, when in doubt, follow the conventional wisdom or best practices, but don’t be afraid to try something new or to put your own twist on it. Although the intention was for the audience to vote on the winner, people were apparently having trouble getting a signal in the Hilton basement, so they did a “Make Noise” vote instead and called it a tie. More proof that there is no “right way.”

kiviandbrittI would love to see more collaborative makeovers like this in the nonprofit marketing world. It doesn’t have to take on the whole Iron Chef theme. You may recall that Britt Bravo asked Nancy Schwartz, Katya Andresen, Nedra Weinreich, and me to review the Social Actions home page back in October.

That wasn’t structured as a competition, but the outcome was similar – lots of concrete ideas that a real nonprofit can sort through and use, while also letting others learn from the analysis and strategies as well.

By the way, it was fabulous hanging out with Nancy, Katya, and Britt at the conference. (Photo of Britt and me by Nancy Schwartz. Photo of Nancy, Katya, and me by Nice Waiter at Foreign Cinema).

nancykatyakiviI’m already mulling over ways to pull them into some kind of Iron Chef / Extreme Makeover Something or Another for next year’s conference (Mark your calendars for NTC 2010 in Atlanta, April 8-10). Your ideas for a session? Or something we could do sooner online? Leave a comment.