Mission Critical Marketing: Are you marketing upstream?

Success in the NDIS demands that services are responsive to consumer needs and wants. To survive, your service models will need to be designed around giving consumers what they want.

We are seeing that consumers are starting to ‘switch services’ in the trial sites; loyalty to existing service providers is quickly diminishing. To ensure this does not happen to your organisation, you need to understand consumer needs and design your services to suit. Yet in most organisations, marketing, which is a key expertise required for designing the services that people want, only undertakes part of the functions required.

Marketing in disability is a victim of our history. In the pre-NDIS system, governments would design our service models and we would work from there. Marketing was all about promotion of those services and often had a huge focus on fundraising. As a result, most organisations have marketing departments staffed by employees who have no voice at the Executive level.

So pre-NDIS marketing is essentially a ‘downstream function’, performing its work after all service design has been completed. Most organizations we encounter focus their marketing spend almost exclusively on the collateral or promotional side of things. The ‘upstream’ marketing function of investigating consumer needs is virtually ignored. This is a great recipe for failure in the NDIS service system.

Our ‘Meet Your New Boss’ campaign was all about understanding consumer needs as the new NDIS organisational imperative. But how do you ascertain what your client base wants?

The answer is market research and it is now mission-critical to success. We have to find out why clients choose different services, what new services they want and where they go to get their information. We have to work upstream, using the information we gain to shape our services.

The best forms of market research are the ones that engage current and prospective clients. After all, the fundamental goal of NDIS marketing has to be for you to keep current clients and attract new ones and the best way to do that is through genuine engagement.

Who should you engage? Just who is the customer in the NDIS? Most people who have an intellectual disability, cognitive impairment or significant mental health issue require assistance with decision making. So the decision making unit often includes family and influential friends and professionals. It is all these people that you need to engage.

How should you engage? Forget about surveys. They result in poor response rates and low value information. Instead, talk to people. Ring them up, visit them, or run some groups with clients and key people in the client’s decision making unit. Focus on the full range of people who currently, or are likely to, use your services.

Make sure these interactions are a really positive experience and not just you asking people for their valuable time and information. People need to go away with a warm glow about your organisation. Show lots of hospitality, make it fun and give something back like information about latest developments in the NDIS. Some common engagement questions we often use include:

  • What would make your life easier?
  • What’s keeping you awake at night?
  • How are our services currently underperforming?
  • What really matters, what’s important here?

You will get a wealth of information that will help you design services that successfully compete and keep clients loyal. We have found a huge additional benefit of this approach is that it helps you build deeper relationships with clients, and this is the absolute key to marketing intangible disability services. When you genuinely enquire about what it is that people need and how you can provide that service, the outcomes are all positive.

Your engagement needs to extend beyond consumers. Vanessa’s recent article speaks to the essential nature of staff engagement for implementing organisational change. Staff engagement is just as important for marketing your services. A receptionist can do more damage to your organisation’s reputation in a moment than any amount of advertising your services can undo. We constantly hear stories of front-line staff such as bus drivers damaging a whole organisation’s brand. It is vital that marketing is seen as a function in every staff member’s role and that in the NDIS, their jobs will depend on giving great customer service.

In upstream marketing it is also essential to see what your competitors are doing, analyse best practice in service models and find your place in the market. All of this is foundational work that must inform your service models and business model design. There is no use providing a service which is already in over-supply, which is not needed by consumers or is likely to damage your brand.

You need to know you can provide a service which is as least as good as your competitors and you need to be aware of the likely threats and opportunities you will encounter in the market. Only then you can position your organisation for NDIS success.

If you want to be working upstream in the NDIS you need to know that marketing is a strategic function and it needs to have strong place at Executive level.


We’ve spent years working upstream including running lots of client engagement groups and have ideas and tools to share with you free of charge. Just give Roland a ring on 0407 556 520 and we can work out which approaches will work best for your organisation. We will not try to sell you anything, this service is about us engaging, practising what we preach and getting to better know what organisations need.