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Free Popcorn: a Case Study in Social Networking

Lori Halley 13 June 2009 4 comments

I just received a real-world lesson in social networking  — and a free bag of popcorn.

This Saturday morning, in our small rural community, anyone who stopped in at the general store was handed a free treat by a smiling child. Down the road, a young family served up free lemonade from a table on their front lawn. In the school parking lot, high-spirited teens were washing cars and refusing payment for the service.

Had we woken up to a strange new Utopia?

LoveYourCity.comIt turns out, this is the designated weekend for Love Your City, a community outreach program by evangelical churches across Canada.

Churches, like any member-based organization, are faced with tight budgets and declining memberships. If they are to survive, it’s vital to find innovative ways to recruit new members.  Not an easy task for religious groups, in an increasingly secular world — not easy for any non-profit group, in fact, when so many people are already over-committed and yet faced with infinite ways to spend their limited time.

My free popcorn came with a small card, reading:

We hope this small gift brings some light into your day. It’s a simple way of saying that God loves you — no strings attached. Let us know how we can serve you.
Love [community name].

and a second hand-out, a printed list of other “booths” in the area with a ballot form on the bottom, and these instructions:

Get this card initialled at as many booths as possible and drop it in a ballot box at one of the churches for your chance to win!

So how does this relate to social networking, to using social media to recruit new members to your nonprofit? There are a couple of clear lessons:

Go where your audience is

It’s not enough to simply set up shop (or church, or website) and hang out a shingle, and wait for your new members to roll in.  Love Your City brings church members out into the community to make direct, friendly, low-pressure contact with those who might not normally visit a church.

Online, identify the audience you want to reach, then go out into the online communities, forums, blogs, and social networking sites where those people are already active. To reach the members of a community, be an active and contributing member yourself.

Give value, no strings attached

The free popcorn, lemonade, car wash, etc. is a concrete reason to connect, while the card explains what’s going on — without forcing a busy shopper to stand there and listen to the message.

Online, build your relationships by giving “value” in the form of advice, humor, support, friendship, and links to resources that can solve people’s problems or help them to accomplish what they want to do.

Leave the audience wanting more

And yet, the Love Your City popcorn card raises more questions than it answers, even as it reassures the cynical reader. No strings attached? Indeed. Not even a web address or phone number… hmm, I wonder who is behind all this?

Yes, it feels a bit counterintuitive to sit back and wait for curiosity to kick in — but social networking is about conversation, after all, and the stereotypical cocktail party bore who tells his whole life story in the first five minutes is likely to find himself shunned for the rest of the party.

The second Love Your City hand-out partly answers the questions, with its instructions to take the completed ballot to one of the local churches — but only in part. I chose to google for more information, being pressed for time today, but no doubt there were others who followed the “treasure hunt” trail and ended up at a church door with their completed ballot in hand.

Instead of pushing your message at people, allow them to be pulled in at their own pace, within their own comfort level, for their own reasons — whether that’s to satisfy their curiosity or to fill a more profound need. To attract new members, in short, be more attractive.

Bring it on home

Bringing the community to the church is a key step in establishing a relationship. Every ballot that’s delivered is an opportunity for  the Love Your City participants to have a real conversation with prospective new members, to give a human face to the institution and give a welcome.

It’s human nature, to be reluctant to step into an unfamiliar space. Having entered the church in a spirit of fun on a Saturday morning, full of free lemonade and popcorn and community spirit,  it becomes just that much easier for people to turn up for a service on Sunday.

In the same way, your website — your online home base — should welcome the new visitors you’ve connected with through social media, guide them to the information they need, and give them opportunities to engage more deeply with your cause or organization. Ideally, give them a really good reason to subscribe to your blog updates or newsletter, and keep delivering the kind of value that piqued their interest and brought them to your door in the first place.

Love Your City ‘gets’ social networking in the community

There’s a clear pattern of steps, a progression, leading to ever-greater levels of engagement with the participating churches. Even those who don’t complete the steps are left with a generally favorable impression of the role of the churches in the community, and the beginnings of a friendly relationship with church members who were strangers to them just yesterday.

And apart from the membership recruitment aspect, the churches fulfill another part of their mission: to spread a message of human kindness and brotherly love with every bag of popcorn or free car wash.

Online, not so much...

LoveYourCity.com is easy to find with a simple search, the website is not unattractive, and its navigation is relatively intuitive. But there’s a lot of stale content on there, making the website feel like a bit of an afterthought. More importantly, the website can’t seem to make up its mind about its primary audience — whether it exists to serve the curious community members who, like me, might go looking for more information, or as an organizational tool for participating churches.

We’ve talked before about the importance of connecting your non-profit’s online and offline activities, and that’s a two-way street.

A brilliant Web campaign is only as good as the results in terms of real-world actions — more donors, more volunteers, more members, more (and more effective) programs and services to further your cause. Conversely, a well-executed offline program such as Love Your City could benefit from more thoughtful follow-through on the website.

Statistics tell us that a significant number of people will seek more information on the Internet, when your (metaphorical or literal) free popcorn piques their curiosity, instead of coming to knock at your door. And if your website’s not ready to continue the conversation you started with them offline — if you don't have a  welcome prepared for that particular audience — how many prospective members might be drifting away?

You know, it seems to me that a campaign like Love Your City is almost tailor-made for social media. Random acts of community spirit and Christian love, captured in Twitter tweets and Flickr photopools and Facebook groups as the weekend unfolds — the storytelling magic is just waiting to be shared!

Ideas, ideas... How would you connect the online and offline aspects of a community outreach / membership campaign like this?

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Saturday, 13 June 2009 at 6:15 PM


  • Kare said:

    Saturday, 13 June 2009 at 2:56 PM

    Great article!  thanks for all the tips and information!  We are always looking for specifics in ways to connect and grow our online and offline presence.  Really appreciate this article!

  • Nicholai Burton said:

    Saturday, 13 June 2009 at 3:54 PM

    For a split second I hoped our tiny nonprofit had made its way onto the map.  At our film society, someone personally hands out free popcorn to every patron who attends a film, as a chance to spend a couple of minutes with each person, get to know them better and grow the relationship.

  • Mitchell Allen said:

    Sunday, 14 June 2009 at 10:51 AM

    I enjoyed the popcorn and lemonade! This is an excellent real-world example of social networking.

    Let's face it, the age of advertising is waning, given its preponderance of annoying hyperbole and aritificial regulatory oversight. If an organization finds a better way to reach its audience, it should not hesitate.

    It's actually a blessing that many non-profits don't have bottomless pockets. Creativity grows from necessity - just like inventions.

    I only hope that strings don't emerge to ensnarl unsuspecting people. (With such a powerful connection to human nature, it's only a matter of time before social networking becomes the target of grifters.)



  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Wednesday, 17 June 2009 at 10:00 AM

    Kare and Mitchell, it's always great to find a useful real-world example, isn't it?

    Nicolai, handing out free popcorn at your film society showings is a brilliant (and appropriate) way to make personal contact! I always think of the old TV program "Cheers" in this context: it is human nature to want a place "where everybody knows your name" so those quick little conversations at the entrance can have a powerful effect in buildling loyalty.

    On a side note: I've just noticed that one branch of Love Your City has T-shirts for sale, and that's a great idea - but even better if they get a local sponsor to underwrite the cost of the T-shirts, so they'd be available to a greater number of community members - and thus increase visibility. I'd even go so far as to print the website address discreetly under the logo or on the back of the shirt, to further connect the online and offline outreach.

    Any other thoughts on what else could be done to ramp up a creative online/offline membership campaign?

    Another way that the Love Your City folks might try to connect (anad track) their online and offline activities - and this would vary greatly in effectiveness according to how "connected" a particular community is, probably more so in urban areas than in rural - could be to offer a printable version of the "treasure hunt" checklist/ballot as a download on the Web. That might help to move some online viewers to offline participants. And with some small difference to help distinguish the printout from those ballots handed out at the booths, it would be possible to track which of the completed ballots - church visits - came from website visitors.

Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.

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