If you are interested in pursuing open adoption, you'd better get pretty comfortable pretty fast with "marketing" yourself.
There are lots of reasons that M. and I have chosen open adoption as our path to parenthood, most of which I've blogged about before. One of the reasons, I suspect, that many others follow different paths is because this way requires a certain amount of self-promotion.
Open adoption relies on future adoptive parents creating and disseminating the information about themselves that will attract prospective birthparents and ultimately motivate them to match. And, while M. and I wholeheartedly embrace the principle that birthparents should have the choice of whether and with whom to place their child, its hard not to see the thousands and thousands of other hopeful adoptive parents as the "competition." Clearly, the way we represent ourselves is critically important.
Not a big deal, we thought. After all, we've got a lot to offer, so it won't be that tough presenting ourselves attractively. Plus, I am well practiced at writing promotional material, and M. has lots of experience with design and especially with optimizing web pages.
Oh, we were so niaive. Marketing ourselves has turned out to be the most awkward, uncomfortable part of this process. (At least so far!)
Different agencies and attorneys handle the marketing of adoptive parents differently. Our agency required us to create a two-sided, full color "Dear Birthmother letter" - which M. and I have come to refer to as the DBL - that they can send to inquiring birthparents. We also have to create our own web site that we link to the agency's along with all of the other waiting families'.
What is presented as the final hoop to jump before officially joining the "book" of IAC's waiting families is for their main office in the Bay Area to receive 100 copies of the DBL and an 80 word blurb with a link to your web site. I believe we started drafting our DBL in February 2008....and we weren't eligible until July. For five months, nearly every weekend - and many weekdays - was frought with discussions, drafting, and decisions.
First, I took a stab at the text, guided by a fairly vague list of requirements provided by the agency and several sample letters. Then M. made tons of edits. We realized it was way too long; we had to encapsulate our lives in about 800 w0rds. So we cut and rearranged and edited some more. Meanwhile, we were scouring our digital and print files for photos to include. We knew that these visual representations would be particularly important.
At last, we had text with which we were comfortable. Okay, I'll say it: with which I was proud. We emailed it off to our coordinator at the agency. A few days later, he emailed us back with his reaction. It wasn't the "this is the best text I've ever received. I have no changes, and I know you'll have your baby in a few weeks" I'd hoped for. Instead, he had a long list of changes to "suggest." Examples include changing every reference we made to "our kid" to "our child" and eliminating reference to my "brothers' and their tribes of crazy kids" because it might offend Native Americans or the mentally ill.
While we weren't entirely convinced that his changes made our letter better, we deferred to his experience and incorporated them, and then sent off another version, hopeful it would pass muster this time. Nope. More changes. We ended up going back and forth about four times, each time feeling that the things that distinguished our letter from the other families' in the waiting pool were further diminished. And each time the wait to meet our baby extended further and further.
One particularly aggravating dilemma was what we refer to as the "his and hers" section. Our agency recommended that letters include sections written by each partner about the other, citing this as an opportunity to say nice things about the individual that you can't say as a couple without seeming vain. But in our opinion, these sections in the sample letters we'd read were trite and formulaic. We tried to convince our coordinator we could convey the same information and emotion in other ways throughout the letter. He wouldn't buy it.
Ultimately, in the interest of getting the project done and moving on, we acquiesced to many of the "suggestions," which we came to feel were actually requirements to approval.
Then we got to move on to design. Our coordinator suggested we show him a slew of photos which he could help us sort through. Shockingly, he told us we had wonderful photos, and we just needed to narrow them down. In the end, we picked a few that showed us interacting as a couple and individually with kids who seemed to be having fun, others that pictured us doing active things, especially involving the ocean since our letter talks a lot about our shared love for it, and one that shows us in an exotic location to emphasize our passion for travel.
The hardest photo to come up with was our "cover shot" - the required 4x6 "head and shoulders, both partners smiling, no shadows, no distracting backgroud," etc., etc. It took us four different shoots in three different settings before M. and I (and our coordinator!) settled on one with which we could all live. (In case you are wondering, it's tough to smile naturally for shot 326.)
Then the design process began. It was complicated by not having good desktop publishing software. We tinkered, the program made big changes. We got things looking just right, only to have the printed version vary significantly from what we were seeing on the screen. Frustrating!
At last we had the DBL ready and all approved by our agency. I called a local print shop we often use at work and asked for a quote on the project. What do you know, they offered to do it for free! It was another touching example of how people have helped us along our path in unexpected and wonderful ways.
We got the letter back and had a pasting party with my mom, meticulously gluing our cover photo on to each letter and personally signing each one. Knowing that the agency only links new families to their site on Friday afternoons after they've received the letters, we rushed to get them sent Priority Mail.
Meanwhile, we were working on our web site. We decided to just link initially to an html version of our letter. We - particularly my web marketing expert partner - didn't want to delay any further to do all it would take to have a great web site. (You know, something related to the cobbler's shoeless children...)
Of course, that Friday I checked and refreshed the "Choose a Family" page on the agency's site incessantly. Our thumbnail photo and little blurb with a link to our site didn't show up. I fired off a pleasant but direct email. By Monday morning, we were live! And the wait began in earnest. We could be contacted by a potential birthfamily any time.
We took a deep breath, and then began working on our real web site. It might not surprise you that this was easier for us than the DBL, partly because our agency didn't impose the same rigid guideline, and partly because the unlimited space of a site gave us much more freedom to really express ourselves. But mostly it was easier because M. is so good at what he does professionally, it was (almost) fun to put his skill and creativity to work on a personal project.
Don't get me wrong: it took us several more weeks before we were ready to forward a new URL for linking. We spent tons of time looking at other peoples' sites, talking about what worked and what didn't. We added back and adjusted text we had eliminated due to the restraints of our letter. Then there were hours spent selecting and uploading more photos, and then paring them down to a number we feel is reasonable. M.'s facility with web design enabled him to add backgrounds and other attractive elements we didn't know how to do with the desktop publishing program. Finally, we were satisfied with the web site and it went live.
Since our agency tells us that about 10% of their clients match with birthfamilies through their own personal connections, we crafted an email with a link to our site. We thought long and hard about who to send it to. We ended up decided to "come out" about our adoption plans to many acquaintances and co-workers, in addition to our closer friends and families who were already in the loop, in order to throw a wide net.
Again, we were overwhelmed with the positive responses we received. The encouraging words and promises to forward our web link to others meant so much to us and helped us feel that word was getting out. It was an exciting time.
Each day I'd return home and check out how many hits our site had received. Especially interesting is the Google Analytics chart that maps were the hits are coming from. We took it as very positive signs when the map began to include states like Oklahoma and Alaska, places where we personally don't know anyone. Maybe our own networking will bring us our baby!
So, I've written what I believe is my longest post yet, and I've detailed the painstaking process to get our marketing information together. It was indeed all arduous. But I haven't yet brought up what really made if so challenging for us. The hardest part is all of the navel gazing involved in determining just what to share - and what to exclude - of ourselves and our lives.
For me at least, there was a lot of self-doubt involved. So many of the sample letters and other web sites we'd seen boast about homes on friendly cul-de-sacs and active church communities. They related how so-and-so can't wait to be a stay-at-home mom (usually bolded). We couldn't say any of those things. And truth be told, we wouldn't. They aren't things we seek in our lives. But are they things birthmothers seek for their children?
Presenting ourselves authentically is our highest priority; we know that to make the best possible match, we must be honest about who we are. But that makes us wonder often whether who we are is attractive enough, whether talking about how we spend our time or our goofy photos are appealing enough to help someone decide to make the huge decision to entrust us with her child.
I keep trying to remind myself of the principles of niche marketing. After all, we don't need to attract all prospective birthparents. In fact, we just need to attract one, the right one.