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Geeking Out Shakespeare: What Nonprofits Can Learn From The Bard

This guest blog is by AJ Leon, CEO and Creative Director at The LaC Project as part of our themed content hosted the first week of each month, with September focusing on social good and non-profit causes. Be sure to connect with AJ on Twitter, Facebook or visit his blog.

Hello. My name is AJ and I nomad around the world and make things happen.  I’m based in the East Village, but for the past two months I’ve been planted in Stratford-upon-Avon in England working with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the cultural organization and museum that maintains William Shakespeare’s birthplace, his mother’s farm, his wife’s country cottage, the home where he wrote many of the plays and countless original documents, like the First Folio and his baptismal records.  It has been repeatedly called one of the most important cultural institutions in the Western World, and has been visited by dignitaries and celebrities through the ages.  

We just launched a major project with them yesterday, so I thought it might be useful for me to share some key takeaways that we’ve learned thus far. If you work at a non-profit (particularly cultural sector), this may be useful for you.

Earlier this summer, we heard of a film being produced by Roland Emmerich (the guy who directed Godzilla … yep), that is promulgating a conspiracy theory that Shakespeare was a Fraud.  The impetus of the argument is basically that a poor kid from a small town couldn’t have possibly had the game to be the best writer the world has ever known.  Essentially, that ordinary people are not capable of extraordinary feats, and of course as the son of two Cuban immigrants, I take personal offense to that, but that’s another post for another blog.  

In response to this preposterous film, we wanted to launch a web-based project that would dismantle the conspiracy theory, bit by bit, and would act as a call to arms for a small museum in response to Hollywood.

The difficulty was making a largely academic debate into something soluble, fun and accessible to non-academics.  In the end, our concept was an online conference 60 Minutes with Shakespeare – 60 Questions. 60 Scholars. 60 Seconds Each.

Effectively, our goals were the following:

1. Create a timeless resource about Shakespeare that would outlive the lifespan of a film.

2. Make it easy for non-academics to get involved.  In other words, we didn’t want it to be a Shakespeare scholar circle jerk.  We wanted people from all walks of like to be able to join in.

3. Collect names and emails of people interested in these types of projects.

4. Reframe the story.  This is bigger than Shakespeare.  It’s about what we believe about the condition of the human spirit, and whether we believe that in order to do something special, you need to come from a background of wealth and power.

Since launching this project on September 1st, we’ve had a phenomenal response.  We’ve had thousands of people signing up, and have had dozens of newspaper and blog write-ups and interview requests (on UK and European radio and television).  Also, we’ve had hundreds of people tweeting about the project, most of which are not Shakespeare scholars, just normal folks interested in a compelling story.

Here are some key elements that I believe have made this particular project successful right off the blocks.

#1 Aesthetics Matter, The Web is a Superficial Place

No matter what anyone says, you need to invest in design.  Even if the content is great, if it looks like shit, no one will care.  This sounds intuitive, but most people skimp on design.  And its the reason why some projects that should take off don’t.  Anything Shakespeare is typically (and sadly) perceived as something boring by popular culture.  We designed the site and the UI to look and feel like something that web geeks would want to use.

#2 Warm up your Community early

For the past three months, we had a splash page up for 60 Minutes with Shakespeare and slowly warmed up our community about the project.  Because of this, the day we actually launched, we already had hundreds who had signed up to be informed about the project.  You can do this easily on LaunchRock.

Three months out, we started publishing a series about Shakespeare and Authorship on Blogging Shakespeare (the largest Shakespeare-related blog in the world), obviously leading people to the splash page.

Two months out, we attended the largest Shakespeare conference in the world, and used Mailchimp’s Chimpandoo app on iPad to sign people up to the project, and of course having many conversations evangelizing the project in IRL never hurts.

One month out, we started sharing relevant links about Shakespeare and Authorship on our social channels, two weeks out, we had the staff send personal emails to people they thought would enjoy the project as well as add the project to their email signatures.  And one day out, we produced a free webinar (powered by GoToWebinar)  with two leading Shakespeare experts, Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson.

#3 If possible, have a PR Plan in place

Read Newspapers? Yeah, me neither. But as much as traditional media doesn’t matter to you and I, it still matters.  Because we crafted a compelling story around William of Stratford taking on Hollywood, we knew it would be something UK media would eat up, so we worked closely with the brilliant PR girl at the organization, Lynn Beddoe, to ensure that we fed the story to traditional news outlets. (Pro Tip – start with local news first, if its a good story and with a little luck, it will catch on from there.)

So, what about you?  What are your tips when launching a non-profit project to the world?

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