Books Worth Reading: Selling the Invisible

One of the timeless, classic marketing books on my bookshelf is Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith. Although Beckwith targeted the book to people who work in service companies, nearly all of his lessons apply equally well to United Ways. Selling the Invisible explores perception, positioning, branding, and communicating through a series of short examples that demonstrate a simple message or truth.

As a market researcher, it is refreshing and appealing to see a book about marketing start with a discussion of market research. The second section of the book, entitled “Surveying and Research” drives home three points that every United Way should heed: ask what your donors and the community think, survey to keep in contact with your donors and the community, and have a third party do your surveys because people are willing to talk behind your back.

A fair number of pages in the middle of the book discuss “how you wish to be perceived,” which Beckwith calls positioning. When outlining how to create a positioning statement, the process applies directly to United Ways, although the examples may be service businesses. The author ties together research and positioning, stating “Your position is all in people’s minds. Find out what that position is.”

One lesson especially appropriate for United Ways comes in the communication section of the book, with the idea that one story beats a dozen adjectives. Especially when communicating with your donors, United Ways should take advantage of the opportunity to tell a story, which makes your presentation more interesting, more personal, more credible, and more persuasive, according to Beckwith.

An intriguing idea comes near the end of the book when the author writes “Shoot the message, not the messenger.” Beckwith’s thesis is that the problem may not be how we communicate the message, but failing to create a message that resonates clearly with the market. He discusses the idea from the point-of-view of a sales pitch; but, for United Ways it applies equally well, when trying to communicate the benefits of your United Way to the community, whether you are a staff member, board member, or volunteer.

You will find many good ideas and tips about how to make sure the work of your United Way is not invisible in Selling the Invisible.

Selling the Invisible

Harry Beckwith, Warner Books, 1997