What Your NonProfit Board Must Know About Social Media
During my brief break in July, I spent time catching up on social media. A participant in a nonprofit-centered Facebook group asked a question about what nonprofit boards should know about social media. There were many good responses, as well as requests for summary. Since I’m not sure how much time the original poster will have to share the mass of responses and her own conclusions, I’ve drawn up a summary here for general use. This includes both responses to the Facebook post and my own experience as a consultant on marketing strategy.
Most non-profits now use some form of social media. As board members consider budgets and proposals relative to social media, here’s what they should know about planning for social media success.
Using Social Media Is Not Free, and It’s Not Optional
When social media was first growing in popularity, I used to hear marketing professionals sing its praises as a new, free means of reaching their audiences. Everyone needed a social media strategy, they claimed. Of course, it was neither free nor mandatory. Not everyone participated in social media, so it didn’t reach every audience. In some cases, social media didn’t reach any of their audiences. In addition, while signing up for an account might be free, the cost of managing a social media program is significant.
Things have changed. Most marketing professionals no longer argue that it is free. They recognize that it will cost either volunteer or professional time, and require some level of oversight. In addition, your nonprofit may want to “boost” or “promote” posts by paying for them to appear in your market’s feeds. While nominally small, these costs can add up.
It’s also no longer optional for most nonprofits. As one participant in the Facebook conversation said, it is “more like taxes than income — doesn’t do much for you but you get punished if you don’t do it (less general visibility, less credibility with the younger generations).”
Social media have become some of the most broadly followed media channels. Almost every demographic enjoys broad use of one social media app or another. It is still most popular as a source of information on entertainment, politics, hospitality, and a handful of other topics. However, many nonprofits address topics that would fall within the social interest areas of their markets. This makes at least some social media platforms appropriate channels for communications.
Social Media is a Channel, not a Strategy or a Tactic
Social media is a means of communicating with a targeted audience, just like newspapers, websites, or any other communication channel. To maximize outcomes, your social media use should be targeted and seamlessly integrated into your broader marketing plan.
Having a social media presence may be important, but not simply for the sake of having a social media presence! In other words, social media isn’t a strategy. When someone suggests that you should be on social media, you should ask the same questions you would if they were recommending any other channel investment:
- Who are we trying to reach?
- What do we want them to know/do as a result of our message?
- Is this channel the place they would look for or pay attention to this information?
- What percentage of our audience will this channel reach?
- What mix of channels optimizes the number of people we will impact for the cost involved?
Social media also isn’t the answer to “how do we get the message out?” In other words, it isn’t a tactic. There are many different types of social media, each targeting a specific audience. As one of the contributors to the Facebook conversation commented, “Twitter is super popular for activism and [traditional] news.” Facebook and LinkedIn both have groups that cover specific interests. Just as you wouldn’t send a press release to every traditional publication, sending broad messages through social media is equally misdirected.
Thinking of social media as a strategy or tactic encourages organizations to invest heavily in posting on the most popular media, without giving thought to outcomes. This absorbs resources and produces sub-optimal results. A detailed marketing (or communications, or development) plan should include objectives and identify social media along with other channels that can be used to deliver the message and prompt action.
Social Media Can Be Useful – But It Won’t Raise Millions of Dollars
Sure, there have been exceptions. The ALS Association reportedly raised over $115 million through its famous Ice Bucket Challenge. However, viral campaigns like these are as rare as their pre-social media equivalents.
Participants in the Facebook conversation noted that campaigns leveraging social media take time. It is important to set small, realistic, measurable goals, and to track progress against them as you would with any campaign or channel investment.
It is fine to set intermediate goals relative to social media. For example, targeting a specific number of posts, likes or shares is appropriate to track progress. However, it is important to have your ultimate objective in mind. Tracking conversion rates, new donors, new volunteers, or other metrics associated with your ultimate objective is a better way to assess whether your social media investments are producing results. As one Facebook participant said, “posting just to post does not deliver results. You need a solid strategy. Vanity metrics don’t equal results.” Another added that “followers only for the sake of followers is pointless. What you do on social media should be driven by strategy!”
On Social Media, Content Really Is King
Your traction using social media will only be as good as the content you post. When communications professionals produce an authored article or pitch for the print media, they prepare carefully. Hours of thought, careful drafting and editing, and consideration of the audience go into each piece. We understand that editors will only choose content that will interest their audience.
Social media doesn’t have that editorial filter up front. As a result, anyone with access to the internet can post an article or comment. However, just because it’s posted doesn’t mean anyone will read it. And if a site continues to post content that is inferior (or inaccurate), readers will drift away. The absence of the editorial filter makes it seem like the content should be less time consuming to prepare. In fact, the opposite is true. There is so much competition for visibility that only the best sites will succeed.
To be successful, your content must be as good as the image your nonprofit wishes to create. In the Facebook conversation, participants recommended focusing on storytelling, using videos to help reinforce the message, and lining up experts and other resources to provide guest posts and commentary in advance.
Social Media Can Cause Irreparable Damage in Minutes
Because it is so easy to post content, a poorly conceived post can cause damage. And once that content is on the internet, it is very difficult to retract. The damage can be irreparable.
To steer clear of damaging posts:
- Ensure that your social media sites are registered to your nonprofit, and not to an individual. Working to transition ownership is challenging, particularly if the former employee left on bad terms.
- Make sure that all content complies with the organization’s messaging and brand guidelines. This is critical to optimize effectiveness and protect brand integrity.
- Establish a social media policy. As one Facebook contributor commented, this will help provide guidance on what type of content is appropriate and not appropriate to share on social media.”
- Don’t assign social media posts to an inexperienced communicator. Many organizations have made the mistake of assigning social media management to interns or inexperienced professionals, only to find that they don’t fully understand the audience. As a result, they post content that is not of interest, or posts that are inaccurate, contain misspellings, or are inappropriate. Social media is an important and unforgiving communications channel. Its management should be assigned to someone with the experience to do it justice.
- Use editorial calendars. Maintaining calendars for content help ensure that communications remain consistent with the overall strategy and brand guidelines. As one Facebook participant noted, “just saying “we should post about this great idea” can actually ruin a strategy.”
- Listen. Unlike traditional communications channels, social media is a two-way conversation. Posts should encourage conversation, ask questions, solicit input, and provide information in response to reader input.
In Most Organizations, Social Media Requires Board Support
Finally, board members must know that social media requires their support to succeed. Unlike many other forms of communication or promotions, social media relies heavily on users to make it effective. Your board should champion that effort.
However, staff members should also recognize that not all board members use all forms of social media. For example, you might have a board member who is quite active on LinkedIn and Facebook, but not at all engaged in Instagram or Twitter. While you can ask them to help by creating an account and participating, you should not be surprised or offended if they decline. Frankly, if they create an account for the sole purpose of following your organization, but have no other interaction on that social media, their participation is unlikely to deliver much benefit.
On the other hand, if you do have board members who are active and influential in social media, you should certainly ask them to help! As one Facebook contributor said, “if they are influential in the community, their kind words about your organization and a like/share can go such a long way.”
For willing board members, there are a few ways to help them be more successful:
- Provide training. One Facebook participant suggested that you provide training to board members. Tell them “which pages they should follow, and how to click, share, retweet, etc.”
- Remind them. When the organization has a particularly important message to get out, let board members know that you’d like them to share the post.
- Provide sample content. One Facebook participant suggested that “as a board member, I would appreciate pre-drafted content that I can simply copy, past and share. That way I know it’s the right message you want to send.”
A few people who commented on the Facebook post added links to other useful resources. I’ve included those as links below:
Classy produces a publication called The Social Media Marketing Guide for Nonprofit Events. I have not reviewed this publication. However, the website says that it will “dive into how a nonprofit organization can plan and execute a social media campaign for any large event, such as a charity run/walk, benefit concert, or gala, or how you can use social to engage supporters, boost cause awareness and generate funds.
Techsoup.org published an article entitled Creating a Social Media Policy. The article outlines key areas to address in a social media policy.
The Winter 2016 issue of Nonprofit Quarterly was dedicated to social media. Social Media: the new non-elective included a number of articles on related topics, including Social Media as an Organizational Game Changer.
What Would You Add?
If I missed something you feel is important, please add a comment to my blog post! I would also welcome additional recommendations on resources that are solid and well-researched for inclusion in the Resources section of my blog.
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About the Author
Heather Fitzpatrick is a management consultant who focuses on helping organizations create thoughtful, strategic plans to achieve important goals. She provides strategic planning, marketing planning, financial planning and business planning expertise to a broad range of nonprofits. An active community volunteer, Heather has also served on 10 different boards of directors. She is the author of Marketing Management for Non-Marketing Managers: Improving Returns on Marketing Investments, published in 2013 by the AICPA’s publishing division.