The Why’s and How’s of Social Media for Nonprofits

September 29, 2011

Everywhere you look these days, there are courses on, readings about and how-to’s for nonprofits on social media. While virtually every individual you know is on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google+, SlideShare, and/or on and on, does every nonprofit need to be there?

Should nonprofits be in the social media game?

According to a September 16, 2011, post on the go-to social media website Social Media Today, 65% of all U.S. adults using the Internet are now using social networking sites. That is up from:

  • 61% last year
  • And  just 5% in 2005!

But, the source is Social Media Today. So, some might be inclined to probe a bit deeper.

And I did. What I found is that those statistics were actually generated by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The study also included the surprising statistic that 50% of the entire U.S. adult population uses social media – even if they don’t use other online platforms. So, nonprofits do need to focus on social media, because our constituents are there!

The Benefits of Social Media

In addition to the fact that our constituents are there, social media offers a host of other benefits for nonprofit organizations:

  1. 360 Degree Communication: It takes our nonprofit organizations beyond 1-way communication to the recipient (print, e-blasts and brochure-type websites) and 2-way communication (interactive websites) to 360 degree interactions. In the latter model, communication can be generated by users to the nonprofit and/or more powerfully to each other.
    1. Sharing Information. An important note here though: Be sure your program is not about marketing, but about sharing information. If information sharing and gathering is not at the center of your social media program, don’t bother. Users will not return if marketing is all they get. A credible social media program engages users.
    2. Gathering Information. Use your program to glean the interests and needs of your constituents – and respond to them in a timely way.
  2. Immediacy. Social media provides immediacy – from Facebook to LinkedIn to Tweets to blogging.
  3. Cost of communication. In these economically precarious times, social media can provide substantial cost savings for nonprofits over printing and mailing, and even the cost of maintaining a website and email marketing tools.
  4. Analytics. Another benefit of social media platforms is that most provide tools that help you analyze who is visiting, from where, how long they remain, what they “care about,” etc. This allows you to make course corrections more seamlessly and helps you determine how best to use your time.
  5. Segmentation. You can – and users themselves – can engage only in those areas of interest vs. wading through information that does not interest them.
  6. Forward looking: Social media appeals to the current generation and is consumed daily or several times a day by the next generation of nonprofit leaders.

Getting Started, Growing Your Social Media Presence

Resource Considerations/Issues

  1. Cost – It’s not free. While you do not have to buy a subscription to or pay a monthly fee for most social media platforms, these tools are not totally free. Realize that a strong program requires substantial staff time. Not only should the traditional communications staff be involved in this work, but to have a credible program, your program people need to be front and center in this effort.
  2. Staffing. Make sure that you have enough staff time – and key program staff available – to interact with constituents. Do not bite off more than you can chew. If you spread yourself and your organization too thin by being on too many sites too soon with limited staff time, you will quickly lose your credibility for not generating enough information and for not responding in a timely way to users.
  3. Ability to remain current (technically and on a day-to-day basis).  Again, you have to remember that social media is immediate. Make sure you can interact with users in a timely way. Also, make sure you are able to keep up with the technical aspects of social media, incorporating upgrades, etc. as they happen.
  4. Ready for audience-owners? Can you afford to lose control of the message? Do you have the comfort level for this? Does your board, management team, etc. understand that users lead the discussion? And that discussion may not always flatter your nonprofit. Realize that you can no longer fully control the discourse when it is no longer generated by your nonprofit solely. Make sure you have policies in place about the parameters of discourse by staff and volunteers. Make sure you have a handle on privacy issues and you know about liability issues.

Now, go share and gather information, gain insight into others’ opinions and voice your/your nonprofit’s own, generate ideas, learn new things and mostly have some fun!

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