Discover the Power of the Communications Hierarchy to Engage Your Prospects

When we date, we don’t jump right to a marriage proposal. In the same way, you will succeed in engaging prospective customers by following the Communications Hierarchy. The way my intern Mariah Wilson, from Godfrey, Illinois, chose a college illustrates the power of one-on-one communication. She graduated from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, in May.

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“My brother’s friend went to Lipscomb,” Mariah Wilson says. “I also knew about Lipscomb because it is a Christian school and they participated in college fairs at youth group events I attended.”

Mariah knew the Lipscomb brand because of recruiters’ participation in college fairs (large group events). Then, when faced with the decision of where to go to school, she received the social proof from her brother’s friend (top-of-the pyramid communication).

We have become so dependent on communicating from quarantine many of us are out-of-practice at getting to the top level of the communications hierarchy, says Kris Tenny-Brittian, senior strategist with The Effective Church Group.

With most communication online we definitely didn’t have as many chances to interact in ways that nurture rewarding relationships.

Honestly, we were off-track about communication before the pandemic. Coworkers tried to solve problems via email. Family members texted on topics that needed to be a conversation. And new tools like Slack created divides between the adopters and the old-school emailers. Thus, I’m happy to revisit the topic of the Communications Hierarchy and share tips from other communications gurus.

The Communications Hierarchy guides us when we have questions like “When do I email someone instead of calling them?” “If my organization buys more digital ads will our donors give more?” And “Can we skip the large events that take so much time plan and cost so much money?”

The Communications Hierarchy illustrates how message-delivery systems build upon each other.

Follow These Steps to Successful Interactions with Prospects

Our goal is to build one-on-one relationships that result in investments in our organization, referrals, and engagement. Some people think sending a mass mailing or posting regularly on Facebook will get those results. They won’t. Here are the steps to follow.

  1. Build brand awareness with mass communication. This includes social media and blog posts, advertising, mass mailings of email, newsletters, magazines, and letters, podcasts, and earned media.
  2. The next level of communication is large group. I don’t think webinars and Zoom events count, but you may disagree. I want to see people on your campus, or on-site at your nonprofit, interacting with you and those you serve. You are welcoming them into your family in a non-threatening way by inviting them to an event. Make sure to show off who you are with remarks and visual aids. For educational institutions, commencements, graduations, football games, and band concerts count as large group events, so make sure your brand is on display at those activities.
  3. I’ve had great success with small group events for both cultivating and stewarding donors. At Powell Gardens, Kansas City’s Botanical Garden, we had a series of dinners for prospective campaign donors before public concerts in the gardens’ chapel. We invited people who were members or on the mailing list that we knew had capacity. Some highly qualified prospects attended then returned for our next small group event. I’ve also planned dozens of gift announcements for university donors. The announcements are a combination of a press conference about the gift and a reception for family and friends.
  4. Many development directors send letters to individual prospects introducing themselves before they call them. This personal touch is important even if the director doesn’t reach the prospect. So are print invitations to events. Phone calls are much more productive than emails, although individual emails fall in this category, too.
  5. One-on-one communication is the goal in building relationships. While in-person is best for reading body language and sharing experiences like meals, video calls work when necessary. They definitely save time and money.

In “Why Word of Mouth is So Important.” Megan Mosley, a contributor to Social Media Today, wrote

“Connect with consumers, as opposed to ‘collecting’ them. You want real fans and supporters. The more passionate your fans are about you, the more likely they’ll share you.”


Your students, alumni, and parents are your best recruiters and drivers of donations. Communicate with them consistently at all levels of the spectrum.

Digital ads on Facebook, YouTube, and Google allow you to target your audience by location, age, gender, and interests. Hammock Communications will manage your ads and create your videos so you can focus on your mission.

Internal Communications: So Many Choices

Tools like Slack, Teams, and Sharepoint have sped up communication internally. They also leave some people wondering how to reach the right people at work.

Aaron Lynn, an Australian business and operations consultant, shared a communications hierarchy for internal communications that’s pretty useful. weighs urgency and importance. The bottom of the hierarchy is email, which should be sent infrequently. The next level is meetings, followed by tools like Slack, messaging, phone calls, and in-person conversations. He’s not a fan of walking around the office chatting with people, which I don’t agree with. But he’s an operations guys and into maximizing time resources. No one wants the chatting to turn into a half-hour conversation, but most of us have heard good bosses go talk to their staff once in a while.

Aaron has guidelines for personal communications in the same post and those are more in line with what I think. Don’t text difficult conversations. Consider the context and intensity of the information you want to discuss when making a decision on whether to call, text, or meet.

My manager at Mizzou Advancement, Linda L’Hote, taught me to respond to messages in the way the person contacted you. If they emailed you, email them back. If they called you, call them back. This is donor-centric and a great way to lose the guesswork on how your contacts like to communicate.

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St. Louis marketing and pr executive beth hammock combine creativity, storytelling, and strategic thinking to help businesses achieve more in today’s digital-first marketplace.

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