June 14, 2011

Social Networking for Social Change: How to create an effective social media campaign to further your cause

Social media for nonprofits

Remember in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy says to Toto, “We’re not in Kansas anymore…?” Well, organizations that are trying to keep pace with networking, marketing, and communication can find themselves in similarly unfamiliar territory when trying to tap into the power of social media. The fact is, social networking is akin to a new world order for many (myself included!). Comprehensive marketing and fundraising strategies that worked earlier in this decade are no longer “comprehensive.” Direct mail, writing checks, even printed newsletters seem to be going the way of the dinosaurs. There is no way to avoid it: staying relevant means integrating social media into your nonprofit. But, what is social media? How can a nonprofit use it effectively? And, maybe most importantly, is it worth the effort? The learning curve can seem intimidating and steep, especially for organizations that are overworked and stretched for resources. This article provides a primer and a few, quick tips for embarking on the yellow brick road of social media.

What is social media?

Social media is a term that encompasses a bevy of mechanisms that link technology and social interactions in a way that grows connections exponentially. At its core, social media is interactive. This means it is a dialogue, not a monologue. To get an idea of how this works, think of the old game of telephone, where one person passes a message onto the next person who then passes it onto a third and so on. Now imagine that every time the message is passed on, it is shared with that person’s entire address book, and each recipient has a chance to share her thoughts on the content. Then each of those people spread the message to her entire address book, again with a chance to give feedback along the way. And so on and so forth. In only a few communication “transactions” the message spreads literally exponentially, sparking conversations along the way. Through social media, you can share your message once and benefit from the recipient’s entire social network as they pass the message on…and on…and on…

What is the point of social media for nonprofits?

Social media opens conversations between your organization and the community. The point is to create opportunities for dialogue between you and your supporters, and between your supporters and other, potential supporters. Social media:

  • Is less formal that other networking avenues, with a more personal, more transparent communication style;
  • Is a great venue to express and build enthusiasm, both from within your organization and from supporters;
  • Is a low cost, high touch endeavor (in terms of numbers of people reached);
  • Builds word-of-mouth marketing, a powerful (and free) marketing tool;
  • Elicits feedback from users such as testimonials, comments, and reflections;
  • Utilizes real-time updates that help your constituents feel involved in your work which, in turn, garners more community support and buy-in;
  • Makes it easy for followers to support you through donations, volunteering, and feedback;
  • Makes it easy to track community engagement through fans, website viewing statistics, blog subscribers, and giving;
  • Gives you an opportunity to “take the pulse” of your audience and measure the success of your social media campaign.

Social media offers a unique opportunity to reflect on feedback from constituents. Guiding questions might include:

  • Did we learn something about our audience that we didn’t know before?
  • Did our audience learn something about us that they didn’t know before?
  • Did we start new conversations about issues of importance to our work?
  • Is our organization benefitting from new feedback tools?
  • Are we changing and adapting to reflect the interest of our audience?

Is there a downside?

Well, that depends on how you define “downside!” Here are some things to consider.

First, thoughtful social networking takes time. Your followers want to know what is going on (otherwise they wouldn’t follow your organization), but empty updates and posts are considered spam and can drive supporters away. It takes time and dedication to keep content updated, relevant, and interesting. Scheduling daily or weekly time to update content can help keep you on track. Good posts and updates balance creativity and content to keep audiences informed, engaged, and excited about your organization. Quality of content is more important than quantity of content.

Second, there is an inherent lack of control built into to social networking: you send your message out into cyberspace in the hope that your network will share the message. When you do that, you lose control of how the message is conveyed. This reveals the shadowy side of “transparency,” which is “exposure.” Social media content is, by its very design, meant to be shared. In order for this to be a positive, an organization needs to be philosophically aligned with sharing, and in agreement about how much to share. Consider who in your organization will update social media content and what they will share. Be sure they are trained to represent your cause and organization in this venue. As recent scandals have demonstrated, tweets, texts, posts, and blogs have a long half-life in the online world, so be clear about what and how you are willing to share.

Organizations need to stay current in order to post relevant and interesting content. One way to do that is to stay informed of what is going on in your field of interest. A newsreader tool can help you with this task. Newsreaders are tools that compile blogs, news stories, and search feeds for a certain topic. You can create one for your own use through free services such as Google Reader, Alltop, or Bloglines Reader. Keeping abreast of other blogs and newsfeeds will help you get a feel for what is happening in your field, and how people are reacting in comments and feedback. You might also get design and content inspiration for your own blog posts or content updates.

How do we get started?

So, you’re ready to dip your foot into the social media water, but don’t know where and how to start? In a nutshell: Start small, start now, and do it well.

First, identify someone within your organization who is enthusiastic about the project. You want that excitement and energy to come through in all of your social media endeavors. Choose someone who has the time, interest, and technical savvy needed to lead your organization’s social networking efforts. Make sure your entire organization understands and agrees to the goals, vision, and approach.

Second, create a strong, realistic social media policy that outlines your focus areas, milestones, success measures, and “rules for engagement” for employees.

Third, pick one or two outlets to start with and see how you do. Easy places to start include:

  • Facebook: Create a page for your organization if you don’t already have one. Post photos and testimonials (be sure to get permission), “find friends” using your organizations current contacts, “like” other like-minded organizations to tap into their network of fans, create a discussion board, post links to community events and other organizations, and create a calendar. If you already have a page, make sure it’s current and fresh.
  • Twitter: Consider Twitter like a mini-blog. You can post and receive messages from a community of “followers,” or you can keep your Tweets public, so that anyone can read them on your Twitter profile page. If you want to Tweet to your supporters, however, they need to sign up, too. Posts are limited to 140 characters.
  • Create a blog: There are lots of sites that make starting a blog easy and painless (at The Grant Plant, we use www.wordpress.com) Other sites include Google’s service www.blogger.com and www.blog.com. Be sure to include a comment feature (otherwise your blog is really just an e-newsletter, not a conversation) and a RSS (“Really Simple Syndication”) newsfeed option. RSS allows readers to subscribe to your blog so they are notified when you post new content. Blog hosting sites also often include widget features that allow readers to access your Facebook and Twitter pages with a click of the mouse.
  • Your website: Add a link to your blog, Facebook, and Twitter pages, add a contact us button on each page to encourage feedback. Include information about your plan to expand your internet presence.
  • Email blast: Let your current contacts know of your social network expansion. Invite them to follow you on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook. Add Facebook Fan and Twitter follow us links in your email signature line.

Finally, take it slow and learn as you go. With an open mind and adventurous spirit—guided, of course, by good judgment—you’ll be riding the social media wave like an expert in no time.

The future of social media

There is an exciting and growing trend to use social media for social good. Major sites like Facebook have added features that make raising funds (and awareness) easier than ever. Other sites like Kickstarter allow people to pledge money to a project without charging them until the fundraising goal has been met. Some giving campaigns, like Pepsi Refresh, make grant awards based on fans’ votes on their favorite social projects. My next newsletter article will shed light on how nonprofits can tap into social networking trends to raise funds for programs, projects, and causes.

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