Time for Nonprofits to Rethink Social Media

Social media is like a cocktail party. In the kitchen, you’ll find someone like my friend Robin, a.k.a. the life of the party. He’s attractive, mysterious and has wildly interesting stories to tell.

And the best thing is that he’s not a narcissist. He asks questions, listens and makes others feel like their stories are just as amazing.

Outside, you’ll find something different. Someone invited a friend who can’t stop talking (loudly) about herself. Her politics, her hobbies, her private life … people are bored and trying to ignore her.

Then finally, there’s that quiet guy over there by the planter. When he does talk, he just repeats things he saw on TV. You never learn anything about him.

Which guest sounds the most like your nonprofit?

Most missing the point

In a 2014 study, three out of four nonprofits admitted that they’re guest number 2. They use social media to talk about their events, their activities and their needs.

Source: Nonprofit Quarterly

Source: Nonprofit Quarterly

In doing so, they miss the true purpose of social media: to drive conversation and build community. Few people like their posts and almost no one comments, shares or retweets them.

Now as a host, Facebook has had enough. In recent years, the world’s largest social media network has slowly turned down the volume on nonprofit posts. That means that only 2-8 percent of your fans actually see your organic content on their news feeds.

And now Facebook is turning down the volume again—unless you pay to boost your posts.

Source: Ogilvy

Source: Ogilvy

I believe every nonprofit should invest in paid social even if they can only afford $20/month. Compared to traditional advertising, it’s a bargain and it plays to nonprofits’ natural strength: emotional storytelling. What’s more, you can target ads toward specific ZIP codes, demographics and interests.

Time to reassess

Either way, now is a good time for nonprofits to rethink their social media strategies. Doing so can help you create and distribute content that works: it engages your audience, builds loyalty and moves your mission forward in measurable ways.  

So how are most nonprofits currently using social media? According to Hubspot:

  • Two thirds (67 percent) of nonprofits have no documented social media strategy, policies or goals;
  • 98 percent of nonprofits are on Facebook with 80 percent saying the channel is their primary focus;
  • 44 percent have just one person managing their social media accounts;
  • More than a third (38 percent) spend just 1-2 hours on social media weekly;
  • More than half are not measuring the effectiveness of social media.  
Source: Hubspot

Source: Hubspot

Those are some tough statistics, but nonprofits aren’t the only entities struggling to make social media work. A survey of 3,000 businesses found that only 26 percent of for-profit marketers say they’re able to measure their social media activity. So, score one for nonprofits.

Let’s take on these issues one-by-one. I’ll use the case of a food bank I volunteer with to help illustrate the problem and some potential solutions.  

Set clear goals

First off, let’s get some goals in place. In a perfect world, your organization has a documented strategic plan. Some common high-level goals would be raising awareness of your brand and issue, as well as increasing donations. You might also seek to recruit new volunteers and retain existing ones.

These goals may address very different audience segments: community leaders, donors, volunteers and clients. You need to be clear who you’re talking with on social media.

Now it’s your job to translate organizational goals into social media goals. In the case of the food bank, our first goal will be to foster an engaging volunteer experience. We want to retain our amazing volunteers and get them talking about us with friends and family. Use Facebook Insights to set a baseline for your average monthly shares and comments per post.

Now set a numeric goal for increasing this number over time e.g. increase average shares per post by 10 percent by June 30. We’ll talk in a moment about what kind of content will help you do this.

Our second goal will be to use social media to consistently educate people about the rising demand for food aid in our community and how the food bank helps meet that need. Our current content is mostly events information, so it doesn’t communicate why people should care and get involved.

First, we’re going to adjust our content mix to provide more value to our audience. We’re going to aim for 25 percent of our content by June 30 to talk either about hunger or about the volunteers who live our mission every day.

Next, we’ll focus on expanding the reach of our posts. As I mentioned before, great content that your base endorses will help more people see your content naturally on their newsfeeds.

But to really increase reach, you’re going to have to pay to boost your best-performing posts. A goal might look like: increase organic reach by 10 percent and paid reach by 20 percent by June 30. 

For a small nonprofit like the food bank, these two, multi-part goals are more than enough. Over time, they may wish to add a goal of increasing the number of social media referrals to their donation and events landing pages.

Consider focusing your efforts

Most nonprofits already focus their social media efforts on Facebook. When you look at Facebook’s broad appeal across different age demographics, this makes perfect sense. It also reflects the limited resources available at nonprofits to manage social media.

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

It’s fine to invest most of your resources in just one network and nail it. Just make sure that your social media of choice matches that of your audience. At the food bank, we could easily survey the volunteers and donors on our email lists to find out for sure.

If your survey discovers that a second or third social media network makes sense, it’s probably time to use a social media management tool like Hootsuite or Sprout Social. These tools, some of which are free, can help you schedule posts, respond to comments, monitor third-party mentions of your brand and track your goals. Some even integrate with your fundraising software to provide insights on donors.

Search Engine Journal has a good roundup of the major tools available.  

Be interesting

I’m always concerned when I see a nonprofit post the same content on Facebook and Twitter. I know it saves the social media manager time, but it ignores the fact that the audiences on these two networks have very different expectations. Here’s what I mean:

Source: AddThis

Source: AddThis

Posting the same thing across all networks is a bit like bringing a beer keg to a wine and cheese party. It’s not going to get you the right response from your audience.

So in choosing a social network, you also have to think about your nonprofit’s ability to consistently create great content. How can you tell if your content is great? Go back into your social media insights and look at how different posts performed.

What kind of content gets a reaction from your audience? If surveys or short videos get conversations going, then make, post and boost more of those posts.

The Case Foundation and Social Media for Nonprofits have four tips for nonprofits wanting to make the most of their social media content:

  • Be conversational: Posts that end with a question mark get twice as much engagement than those that end with a period. 
  • Get visual: Attach a video or photo to your post. These don’t have to be professional-quality, but they do have to tell an interesting story. Free tools like Canva can help you build infographics.
  • Be mobile-friendly: By one estimate, nearly 80 of all social media time is spent on mobile devices. 
  • Have a plan: Social media is easier to manage when it’s part of a larger content plan. Use an editorial calendar to ensure your audience sees a consistent story, whether they’re on social, reading your newsletter or visiting your website. 

Nonprofits have a huge advantage over businesses when it comes to social media. Our stories are usually emotional and visual. That makes our audience naturally want to root for us.

By rethinking the way we use social media, nonprofits that were once wallflowers or bores can soon find their brands become the life of the party.

What advice do you have for nonprofits using social media?

Laura Ingalls Fuqua is co-founder of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising marketing firm in Phoenix, Arizona. A recovering journalist, Laura has worked over 20 years as a professional communicator in both the nonprofit and corporate sectors.