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A New Era in Nonprofit Marketing: Why Winging It with Social Media No Longer Works

Nonprofit Social Media Marketing

Do you know how savvy nonprofits use social media marketing to reach more people?

On a wing and a prayer is not a strategy.  It means barely managing to get the job done.  Yet that’s how many nonprofits run their social media. They simply wing it. Cool?  Not cool.

Your constituents deserve more. You need to take control of your social media marketing with a strategic plan. Salesforce knows a thing or two about social business and put together a little infographic to show us what’s what.  Here, in a nutshell, is what you must do:

1.      Listen Have you assigned someone to pay attention to what folks are saying?  Is someone charged with responsibility to respond to constituent comments in a timely manner? Check out these free listening tools.

 2.      Engage Are you intentionally engaging with a purpose in mind? Check out Need a Social Media Strategy? by Kivi Leroux Miller.

 3.      Measure How are you measuring the return (qualitative; not just quantitative) on your investment of resources? Check out Do You Believe in Life After Likes?; How to build an engagement ladder, and Measuring the Networked Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World.

 4.      Integrate Are you integrating social media with your other marketing strategies so that messaging is consistent? Check out How to Integrate Social Media with Traditional Media.

 5.      Collaborate Is social media an organization-wide collaboration, or is it siloed off in a corner being attended to by a lower-level staff member? Check out Beth Kanter and Alison Fine’s The Networked Nonprofit.

 6.      Help (Don’t just sell) Are you simply pushing out stuff, asking for people to do something for you, or are you offering something of value?

Nonprofits must borrow a page from their for profit cousins to stay competitive. A Future Lab infographic shows that, over a year ago, more than half of executives of 900 leading US companies believed that if their company did not adopt social business they would fall behind their competition. It’s also going to happen to nonprofits that don’t engage strategically. If you’re not persuaded by fear of failure, then how about demonstrated success? Check out a recent study by Insites Consulting which reveals that businesses who’ve integrated social media into their operations are, indeed, seeing greater financial success than those who have not.

We need a social media plan (and here’s an excellent ‘how to’ from Brian Solis plus a great example that hits on all six of the elements outlined, above, by Salesforce). There are scores of businesses – and entire industries — that failed to embrace new technologies and are today mere shadows of their former selves. Kodak thought they could stay pat with their film and analog camera empire.  They’re dead.  Other dinosaurs?  How about… the record industry… video stores… bookstores… newspapers? You have to adapt and change if you don’t want to become irrelevant.

Change is occurring at a speed previously unimaginable and, along with new technologies, donor expectations are being altered. In case you’ve been living in a bubble, we’re in the midst of a digital revolution that has dramatically altered the way people engage. Brian Solis characterizes this as “The End of Business as Usual” and makes a persuasive case that this is not just a digital revolution. It’s a consumer revolution as well. There’s even a name for today’s consumers, ‘Generation C’, and they want to engage with you socially.

Your constituents want a relationship. We talk so much about the importance of building relationships in the nonprofit world that it’s truly perplexing to still hear folks asking “do we really need to do social media?” That was okay to ask in 2008, but no more. Social media is not only pervasive; it’s inherently ‘social’ — an act of attraction. It is invitational. It asks who is interested?  It asks who wants to participate? It asks who wants to go along for the ride?

Your constituents want to be transported and taken along for the ride.  First, however, you must develop and embrace a strategy to find them and get them on board. In other words, if you’re offering a ride in a horse and buggy while your potential donors are looking to board a bullet train, they’re probably going to get to where they’re going without you — and ahead of you.  And, trust me, that train has left the station. You need a strategy to meet folks at the right boarding platform.

Your constituents expect you to be where they are, and they’re receiving and communicating information through a multitude of channels.  Donors want to be connected to their causes constantly, and on their own terms. The digital revolution is about shifting power to consumers. If we’re not where our donors are, they’ll engage with someone else who is.

We’re in an environment where social nonprofits will have a real competitive advantage. If you doubt this, see 3 Reasons Why Building Social into Marketing is a Significant Competitive Advantage. Take a look at some of the nonprofits who are engaging socially big time, and you’ll see what you’re missing. On an international level there’s the Charity Water blog.  It’s creative, engaging, interactive, informative and fun.  It doesn’t just “push”; it “pulls” and draws folks in. On a local level, look at Goodwill of San Francisco on You Tube. They manage a true rebranding feat, appearing hip, modern and virtuous at the same time; not at all stuffy or depressing. And check out a group of nonprofits embracing Pinterest as a marketing and relationship building strategy.

When it comes to social media you have to go big. And by “big” I mean big wherever you go; whatever social media channel(s) you choose.  Don’t misread me to think you must go everywhere simultaneously.  But where you do go, go all in.  Because it’s what being social is all about.  If you only do a little bit, well… you’re not really being social, are you?  Even worse, what if you never respond to folks who tweet back to you? Or only occasionally reply when folks comment on your blog?  Or seldom respond when folks post on your FB page?  Aren’t you then actually being anti-social?

Social media engagement must be intentional and consistent; not catch-as-catch-can. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time. No one wants a fair weather friend. If you consider the ladder of engagement– the path a prospective supporter travels on the road towards becoming a donor – it’s clear the key role that social media can play. Your prospect goes from observing… to following… to endorsing… to contributing… to owning… to leading.  The first three actions lend themselves extraordinarily well to social media. It’s a great point of entry. If you don’t need new donors, then maybe you can afford to ignore it; otherwise, not so much.

Once upon a time it was okay to slap up a Facebook page and have a couple of tech-savvy young folks or interns post photos to the wall every now and then.  Or toss out occasional random tweets whenever the mood struck.  That may have resembled ‘cutting edge’ a few years back (when many considered social media nothing more than a ‘fad’ and plaything), but it’s not working anymore. A little dab won’t do ya.

Today’s social media is nothing to be flighty about. If you wing it, you’re in danger of being left “Two Generations” behind (caution: humor alert). Please don’t simply dabble.  I’m begging you. You can find an easy “5 Steps to Killer Social Media” here and here. And a list of “10 Potential Objectives for Using Social Media” here. Develop an integrated marketing plan that embraces social media.  Allocate some resources. You don’t have to go crazy. You don’t even necessarily need a full-time person.  But you need someone with skills.  Someone with passion.  Someone who’s a real player. Get into the game. Get into the century!

Don’t say you don’t have time. It’s okay to not do everything.  It’s not okay to not do something.  See Nonprofits and Social Media: How Even the Smallest Shop Can Join the Frenzy. And, when you’ve got a few minutes, read this brilliantly helpful (and free!) downloadable book “About That First Tweet.”  It offers tons of advice for overcoming challenges nonprofits face in building social media into their modus operandi, plus great examples to model from charities who are using social media effectively. One of my favorite quotes in this book is that Social media has forced brands and organisations to get a personality: to connect with people in a real way, the way that they connect with their friends and family.

 You can’t wing it because winging it is not a real way to connect. You don’t need a presence on every platform. You do need to find the right platform(s) for your audience, and you need to make what you do count. Whatever you do, do it strategically and holistically.  Integrate it with all your other strategies.  If you just do social media “on the side” – perhaps to appease your board members — you’re kidding yourself. Would you ask somebody’s kid to write a grant proposal; then after it was rejected say: “We tried that but it didn’t work, so we don’t think grants are for us?”  I certainly hope not!

Claire Axelrad (3 Posts)

This monthly Social Media and Nonprofits column is contributed by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE. Clarie brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing leadership experience to her work as principal of Axelrad Social Benefit Consulting. After working in the trenches for such organizations as the San Francisco Food Bank, San Francisco Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, California School of Professional Psychology and the S.F. Conservatory of Music, she focuses now on comprehensive vision, mission, strategy and analysis; nonprofit resource development; fundraising/communications audits and plans; integrated multi-channel marketing, and board/staff/volunteer development. Named by AFP/GGC as the “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” in 2010, her passion is instilling an institution-wide culture of philanthropy to help organizations build constituencies and drive increased income to sustain and expand missions.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

TOPIC: Nonprofit Social Media Marketing


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