Nonprofits looking to start using social media as a marketing tool will find a wealth of sound advice online, but putting the pieces together into a solid strategy? That's the real challenge. No one simple strategy will work for every nonprofit group. (In fact, trying to give step-by-step "one size fits all" directions for using social media is a lot like trying to teach a shy first-time party guest how to mingle with strangers.) Enough nonprofits and businesses have broken the trail, however, that we can begin to draw on their lessons as a general roadmap for getting started in social media.
What is social media, anyway?
You'll find social media defined differently by different people, but one of the most useful definitions is this basic one proposed by internet marketing consultant Chris Garrett: "The term 'Social Media' describes tools, websites and software that allows people to connect and share."
It's that simple.
"Once you understand the conversational nature of social media, you can really jump in and get going," says Mason Hipp (SmallFuel.com) who describes social media marketing as a secret weapon for small business -- and for small business we can read small nonprofit too: "Most small businesses already build relationships and network in the physical world, so it really isn’t a big stretch to take it digital."
Start to list off all the social media tools and applications that are out there, however, and it can make your head spin -- so many choices! Most of them are free, and until you wade into an online community it can be hard to tell if it's a good fit for your particular organization.
So, where do you start?
The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently hosted an online chat, How Charities Can Raise Money With Twitter and Other Social-Networking Tools, where Chris Garrett and nonprofit marketing consultant John Haydon fielded questions from nonprofit staff and volunteers with practical pointers on the how-to of social networking. I'm ready to bet that a lot of the questions you've had on your mind are answered right there, so the transcript of that chat is a great starting point.
Blog and Outposts
"The most essential social networking tool to have is a blog," Garrett says. "Treat it as your hub for communicating all your activity, like a cross between a Web site and newsletter. Other social media tools can then feed into that."
It's the "blog and outposts" model suggested by social media veteran Chris Brogan. If he were starting out in social media with a nonprofit today, Brogan says:
I’d start a storytelling and pictures blog about the causes I was tasked with supporting. No question about it: stories and pictures are powerful contributors to nonprofit experiences.
I’d build outposts which help me reach into lots of different places and communicate with people where they might be. Depending on my needs, I might use different tools. At the very minimum, I’d start accounts on:
From there, as resources permit and your needs demand, you might reach out to establish a presence in smaller, more specialized social media venues. Almost every small interest group or demographic sector, all over the world, will have its own interactive community -- blog networks, forums, social bookmarking sites, chat rooms, and other ways that people can connect and share their ideas and resources online.
In fact, there's a real risk of over-extending your effective reach, if you're tempted to tap into too many social media tools at one time.
Here's what it often comes down to:
- Dip in a toe; monitor and measure; and assess the results.
- Adjust as you learn what works.
- Repeat as necessary.
"It’s tempting to give a formula like '20% blog, 10% site analytics, 15% Facebook presence...' etc." says social media connoisseur Joey Mornin, but "I think that’s the wrong approach, and I’m glad that so far there are no 'Teach Yourself Web 2.0 in 24 Hours' books. For me, it comes down to what an organization really wants in the long term from a social media presence."
Others have suggested that for every 5 hours spent in creating blog content, at least one hour could be spent on social media outreach, but it's only a rule of thumb -- and one of many you'll find suggested by various social media mavens. The fact is, each nonprofit is unique -- and any formula for time allocation can be no more than a general guideline, based on what the "average" organization has informally reported doing online.
And because each nonprofit group is unique -- each with its own mission, its own goals and priorities, and its own demographic of members and supporters, each of whom are multi-faceted individuals with a variety of interests (beyond the nonprofit) they pursue online -- no single social networking site tends to act as a central gathering point for supporters of a certain cause, or will work equally well as an outreach tool for every organization.
How can you know which social media sites are right for your nonprofit?
Go where your target audience lives, and meet them there.
In other words, don't invest your time in building a social-bookmarking empire on Digg, if your audience isn't technology oriented, or put all your energy into MySpace if you want to connect with seniors. Instead, find out where your supporters are already gathering online, and reach out to them on their own turf.
Scout the Statistics
Perhaps the most useful statistics on social media usage we've got at the moment come from two 2008 reports from Rapleaf, here and here. They'll tell you that MySpace users are younger than those on Facebook, while LinkedIn is geared to those well started on their career path, and so on. The online world changes rapidly, however, so the picture painted by any statistical report will already be slightly out-dated by the time the numbers are crunched -- you may notice that Twitter was not mentioned in the Rapleaf assessments, for example, yet that micro-blogging website is now indisputably one of the leading social media websites.
Round out your research with some of the other resources from Aaron Uhrmacher's How to Find Statistics on Social Media and the extensive Social Networking Research section at eMarketer.com.
Follow Your Supporters
We've talked a bit here on the Wild Apricot blog about how to learn more about your website audience -- and one point we made there can bear repeating: Don't underestimate the power of asking the question! Set up a quick poll on your website -- "What social media sites do you use?" -- and repeat it in your newsletter. Let your most-engaged supporters tell you which of the social media sites are most likely to reward your efforts at outreach.
Similarly, many of the same tools that social-media marketers use to measure "reach" can be used to track down your target audience. Search tools and keyword alerts, specifically, can clue you in to the scenes of action, too. For example:
- Set up Google Alerts for the name of your organization, its acronym or nicknames, and keywords related to your cause, to be notified when any of these search terms appear in blogs, news feeds.
- Run a search on Facebook to see what other nonprofits with your area of interest have a presence at that site, then check to see what kind of support they're receiving there -- how many fans, how active a message wall, and so on.
- Browse Friendfeed.com, a service that aggregates the social media activity of its users across many sites and includes a social networking aspect. See where your most active supporters are connecting online, and who else they are connecting with.
And why do nonprofits and businesses step out into social media, when it is admittedly a fair amount of work?
I like the simple and straightforward explanation that Greg Verdino, chief strategy officer at crayon LLC, gave the Wall Street Journal: "People trust people like themselves more than they trust experts... It would be advantageous to have these folks telling your story."
Social media is much more just than "the next hot thing" and savvy nonprofits know it. The sector is fast developing guidelines, strategies and best practices to help make sense of the new interactive tools and technologies. For some of the latest ideas, check the Blog Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants, hosted this week at The Hatcher Group Blog with "Best Practices for Nonprofits in Using Social Media" as a theme.