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Your Creative Brief: Don't Leave Home Without It
Tom Ahern

December, 2006

Readers of this newsletter tend to be professional fundraisers, not advertising folk.

So there's a good chance you're unaware of a profitable little trade secret called "writing a creative brief." (Brief as in "briefing." Brief as in "short," too.)

In advertising, the creative brief guides the efforts of writers and designers. It gets everyone on the same page (literally) and answers the questions: Why are we doing this? What are we trying to accomplish with this ad?

A creative brief talks about the target audience. It talks about the ad's special message. And most important, it talks about ACTION: what the ad will cause the target audience to think, feel or do.

Now let's jump to the exciting conclusion: if writing a creative brief is a proven secret to success in advertising, you'll be thrilled to hear that it is ALSO a secret to success in fundraising communications.

And it doesn't matter what kind of fundraising, "friendraising," or reputation-building communication you have in mind. Whether it's an appeal letter, case statement, newsletter, membership offer, annual report, website, brochure, press release, fact sheet, or bumper sticker for that matter: anything will be more effective when it's based on a creative brief.

Writing a creative brief is easy. First, answer these three questions:

Who is your specific, target audience?
What do you want that target audience to do once they've encountered your communication?
What's in it for them IF they do the action you're proposing?

Then take that information and fill in the blanks in the following statement:

This [enter name of communication item] will convince [enter name of target audience] that [enter name of action you want them to take] could [enter the benefit, what's in it for them].

Here are three examples of creative briefs:

[For a community symphony selling season tickets] This brochure listing our upcoming season's musical offerings [the communication item] will convince music lovers in the Cape Cod region [the target audience] that buying a season subscription [the action you want them to take] will give them enjoyable, exciting, professional-level musical experiences without the hassle of driving into Boston [what's in it for them].

[For a new fund at a community foundation] This case statement [the communication item] will convince feminists of both genders [the target audience] that supporting the Women's Fund with their gifts [the action you want them to take] will help level a very unfair playing field in Rhode Island [what's in it for them].

[For a mental health agency doing outreach] This ad [the communication item] will convince parents who are having problems with their teenagers [the target audience] that one phone call [the action you want them to take] could improve their lives [what's in it for them].

Note in that last example that the benefit is a bit vague. That's OK. In fact, for many fundraising communications, the benefit that ends the creative brief is simply some version of "...will make the world they care about a better place."

Last word:

Creative briefs have been compared to road maps. They show you how to get to where you want to go. I'm a true believer: I write some form of creative brief for every job I'm hired to do. After all, organizations pay me good money to get results. I can't imagine attempting that kind of journey without my trusty map.

Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America's leading authorities on how to make nonprofit communications consistently effective. He speaks frequently in the U.S. and Canada on reader psychology, direct mail principles, good (and not very good) graphic design as applied to fundraising and nonprofit branding. He is a writer and president of Ahern Communications, Ink., a consultancy specializing in capital campaign materials and other fundraising communications. Recent clients include a local Boys & Girls Club, a regional hospice in Maryland, a DC-based black HIV-prevention and treatment center, a national agency for low-income elderly housing, a North American Jewish education association, and one of the country's largest community foundations. He has won three prestigious Gold Quill awards from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). Gold Quills are given annually to the best communications work submitted by leading corporations from around the world. Tom is also a magazine journalist. His article on the devastating treatments for prostate cancer won a 2001 Sword of Hope Award from the American Cancer Society. He has his MA and BA in English from Brown University, and a Certificate in Advertising Art from the RI School of Design. His offices are in Rhode Island and France.


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