Creative, Convincing and Cheap

Free-Range Thinking | March 2002

Bar coasters, personal ads, and do-it-yourself research are just a few of the tools public interest groups are using to craft campaigns that won’t bust their budgets.

It hit me one morning sitting on that long parking lot better known as the Santa Monica Freeway. Those aren’t just frustrated commuters lined up bumper-to-bumper, I thought. That’s a captive audience! And on that particular December morning, I was racking my brain for cost-effective ways to help a coalition of environmental groups reach this audience.

A few weeks later I was stuck in another traffic jam on this same freeway, but this time I was riding in a mock funeral procession comprised of five hearses. Each hearse had a billboard strapped to its roof, and the five billboards spelled out a message about the serious health impacts of air pollution in Southern California. The fifth billboard displayed a toll-free line set up by the Environmental Protection Agency to record public comments.

Tens of thousands of commuters saw the “Hearses on the Highway” firsthand as they crept along with drive time traffic, and millions more heard the story on morning radio or saw it on the local evening news programs. Within a 24-hour period calls to the EPA hotline from irate Angelenos demanding cleaner air spiked 47%. The total cost of the stunt: less than $2,000.

When you don’t have millions to move your message, a little creativity can go a long way. And even when your budget puts broadcast, print, or outdoor advertising within reach, you may discover there are better and more cost-effective means to connect with your target.

Rebecca Brookes has been down this road more than a few times. Over the last twelve years, she has served as Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. She has also orchestrated media campaigns on issues from traffic safety to sexually transmitted diseases as an independent consultant. Recently, Brookes shared with me some communications techniques she has used to great effect without incurring great expense.

Research comes first, so start saving here.
To prepare for a campaign promoting condom use in the New England area, Brookes had her team scour the web for existing audience research on this subject. Her colleagues came back with a foot tall stack of paper, including two reports on a very similar campaign waged in Louisiana. Since the demographics of the Louisiana audience were comparable to those of the New England target, Brookes was able to forego expensive quantitative research. Instead, her team used the Louisiana studies to help shape messages that could be tested in local focus groups.

And focus groups are another place where Brookes says you can keep costs under control. She recommends Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research by Richard Krueger and Mary Anne Casey for learning how to assemble and facilitate groups on your own. Not only can how-to manuals such as this save you as much as $7,000 per group, they can also make you a more discriminating observer on those occasions when you can afford professional facilitation. (See back cover for more information on this book.)

Your target’s in a bar? Give him a coaster.
Beer drinking is so popular in Burlington, Vermont that premium beers use it as a test market. So when Planned Parenthood wanted to reach a sexually active male audience with messages about AIDS, local bars provided a logical venue. Brookes’ team designed bar coasters with an intriguing message on one side (see picture) and information about AIDS – along with a toll-free number – on the back.

To promote use of the coasters, Brookes and her staff met with bar owners to show them hard data about the spread of AIDS in small towns like Burlington. That mini-education campaign, along with coasters that “didn’t look like a public health message,” convinced the barkeeps to participate. With local radio stations and an alternative weekly newspaper helping to underwrite the production costs, Planned Parenthood was able to distribute thousands of coasters with a minimal outlay of cash. And the buzz generated by the campaign led to television news stories that brought Planned Parenthood’s message to thousands more.

Emergency contraception is a personal matter, so.
In 1997, Planned Parenthood wanted to promote emergency contraception on college campuses in the New England region. Once again, however, Brookes didn’t have much of a budget for this effort, even to cover relatively inexpensive display ads in college newspapers. Undaunted, Brookes’ team wrote a series of provocative personal ads which were placed in the classified sections of targeted college papers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. The ads attracted readers’ attention with first lines like “Swept away last night?” and delivered information about how women could obtain pills that could prevent pregnancy when taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse.

“We were able to sprinkle a series of these little personals throughout the papers for a fraction of the cost of a display ad,” said Brookes. The classified ads generated immediate increases in the number of calls to the advertised toll-free line as well as the number of pills distributed by Planned Parenthood. Brookes estimated that the total cost of this campaign was “a couple of hundred dollars.”

Sometimes, it just comes down to asking.
Colleges and universities can be rich sources of high-quality volunteers, Brookes says, if you know where to ask for help. Marketing majors, for example, can often receive course credit for assisting your organization with polling, canvassing, or similar projects. Brookes has also used theater majors as free talent in her radio and television commercials, and this can be particularly useful when your target audience is high school or college age and would be more receptive to messages delivered by a peer.

When purchasing advertising time on local television stations, Brookes has asked stations to produce her spots for extremely low cost ($125 in one instance) and has even had production donated entirely. She also negotiates deals off the rate card, especially during the first quarter of the year when local TV and cable stations traditionally have the largest amount of unsold inventory. The key ingredient in all of these cost-saving measures is having the chutzpah (as we say in the nonprofit sector) to ask – for help, for a break, for a donation.

For more information on low-cost communication techniques, contact Rebecca Brookes at


 free-range follow-up

Find Out What They’re Saying About You

Before creating a message for your next campaign, you must know what your target audience already thinks about your issue. Since audience perceptions are increasingly shaped by what they see on television, it’s valuable to know how TV news is framing your issue. And that makes the Media Monitor an invaluable tool for public interest communicators. Published bimonthly by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, each issue of the Media Monitor presents an analysis of media coverage on a particular subject (e.g., religion in America, school shootings, Bush’s first 100 days,). At $50 a year, a subscription is another cost-saving measure for communicators on a budget. Ordering information and back issues can both be found at

Getting the Most from Focus Groups

As someone who has sat behind more than a few one-way mirrors, munched countless M&M’s, and cursed the comments of enough people to fill a small stadium, I have felt reasonably confident that I understand focus groups. Until I read Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research, that is. Written by Richard Krueger and Mary Anne Casey, this comprehensive manual may surprise you (as it did me) with how much more there is to know about this widely used research tool.

Krueger and Casey provide a deeper understanding of what should go into the planning of a focus group, how the sessions should proceed from moment to moment, and what you can (and cannot) do with the information you take away from them. If your goal is to save money by conducting groups on your own, their book can be used as a highly detailed road map. If, on the other hand, you want to sharpen your skills preparing questions for a professional moderator, or if you’d just like to make yourself a more perceptive observer, Focus Groups has chapters addressing these specific needs. Either way, at around $35, I think it’s an investment worth making (and in this case, I don’t need to ask 12 other people what they think.)