If you are a nonprofit marketer or digital fundraiser looking to raise awareness for your cause, increase visibility for your programs, and grab the attention of new donors, then you probably already know that you need to start using social media.
So I’ll spare you the “why social media is essential to nonprofits” lecture.
No need to be a broken record and convince you of something that’s already been drilled deep into your nonprofit marketing mind.
After all, you definitely know that creating a strategic social media action plan is the key tipping point that will allow you to streamline your time, impact more people, and expand your revenue.
Here’s what you might not know: Having a robust presence on social media should enhance what you are already working so hard on in your nonprofit – getting seen, getting heard, and getting your message across.
Here are a few stats:
- 90% of NGOs worldwide regularly use social media to engage their supporters and donors.
- 94% of NGOs worldwide agree that social media is effective for creating online brand awareness.
- 78% of NGOs worldwide agree that social media is effective for creating social change.
- 75% of NGOs worldwide agree that social media is effective for fundraising.
Even though the reasons to create a social media marketing strategy for your nonprofit seem like no-brainers – the PROCESS involved in actually creating a plan and a strategy is anything but.
To cure the disease of ineffective nonprofit social media marketing, we have to diagnose the symptoms – and form a strategy to combat them, one by one.
What are the real reasons that so many nonprofits struggle to build truly engaged communities on social media?
We buy into pervasive and destructive myths and misconceptions about what social media is and how it works.
Here are six of the most common mistakes, myths, and misconceptions that nonprofits make in their social media marketing work.
Mistake #1: Believing that social media is “free”.
Let’s face it – back when social media first became popular, we were sold a bill of goods. Social media was once promised as the marketing silver bullet for nonprofits and brands.
When Facebook rolled out the Business Page in November 2007, the social network touted it as the perfect way to stay in touch with fans and supporters.
Some marketing experts even thought it would replace email marketing for good.
Think of it: Setting up a Facebook Business Page completely free! It’s so easy to use! Everyone is doing it! Start posting and like magic, the shares, the clicks, and the donations will just roll in!
When other social media channels started to become widely adopted for marketing purposes, the common belief was that we should all be using them, because they were “free” and “easy” and “everyone is on them.” Board members and nonprofit directors started pressuring staff to take on “this social media stuff” – because it’s free (and we know how much nonprofits LOVE free)!
As we soon found out, social media is free like getting a puppy from your next door neighbor is free.
In reality, marketing on social media it requires time, patience, willpower, creativity, and consistency to do it right; the principles are simple but getting results is certainly not “free and easy.”
Nonprofit decision-makers and Board members have been guilty of buying into this myth, and of simply tacking social media tasks on to the already full plates of nonprofit staff.
I once led a Board meeting where a trustee thought the solution to their funding shortfall was to create an Instagram account, because “it doesn’t cost anything to set up and all the young donors are on there.”
I had to explain that just because these platforms are free to use and open to all, it does not automatically make them a fundraising solution. Just because you build it does not mean they will come.
Mistake #2: Buying into impostor syndrome.
So you don’t have cute puppies and children to feature in your social media content. So what? You need to get creative!
Your supporters care about your cause and the work that you do. Stop comparing yourself to the organizations with huge marketing departments and an endless list of celebrity supporters.
There is a reason that your unique cause exists and there are a myriad of reasons that people support your work. Focus on building upon what you have, not lamenting what you don’t have.
Take the example of The Ellie Fund, a small, bootstrapping nonprofit with a handful of paid staff and a hands-on Board of Directors in Boston, MA. In 2005, Julie Nations became The Ellie Fund’s first full-time staff member. She managed all of their social media, communications, fundraising, and outreach.
While Julie was not able to create flashy Facebook videos or build a fancy blog template, she had many strengths that translated perfectly into social media work: Telling her story of her mother’s struggle with breast cancer, communicating in a genuine, friendly way with supporters, conveying enthusiasm for her topic, and getting people excited about the work. Those are the reasons why The Ellie Fund kicks serious butt in the social media space.
The Centre Street Food Pantry in Newton, MA has one part-time paid staff member, and one social media account.
They post daily on Instagram because the executive director loves to document visually the people who come into the food pantry and the great work done behind-the-scenes by the volunteers. Instagram was the easiest for them to immediately get set up and start using without taking a course, watching lengthy how-to videos, and acquiring technical skills.
This is an important point. Even tech know-how, fancy video skills, and a big budget is not going to help your cause if you can’t be authentic and interesting, and if you can’t tell your story in a way that connects emotionally and inspires curiosity and compassion.
Mistake #3: Completely off-loading the social media marketing work to an unpaid intern just because they are young.
While some of us think that social media is worthless for marketing, and some think that it requires special technical skill, there is yet another group that firmly believes that any young person should be able to do it for us (for free).
Nonprofits, we can do better. Just because someone is young and just starting out does not mean that they should be taken advantage of. And just because they are young does not mean they were born with the skills required to carry out social media marketing campaigns, and to mobilize communities.
There are two pervasive and destructive attitudes that have infected many nonprofits, large and small, old and new. I call them the Cult of Free and the Cult of Young.
The Cult of Free is when nonprofits feel entitled to receive all the things—labor, assets, items, knowledge—without putting any skin in the game.
The Cult of Young is when they expect any young person they meet to gratefully accept these job offers for nothing, as they are assuredly an expert in all things social media, mobile, and technology.
So they call the Board member’s 16-year-old niece or the director finds an unpaid college intern, and they expect them to set up and manage social media, and magically get instantaneous results. All without paying the person, figuring out what it really takes to succeed, or investing in the work.
The Cult of Free and the Cult of the Young are both insidious. Some organizations spend so much time and effort looking for free stuff and training young, inexperienced interns that they lose entire weeks of serving the community! This idea is completely bananas.
Yes, resources are stretched. Time and money are most often cited as the reasons why nonprofits do not improve their websites, tell their stories on Facebook, or use email software to communicate with supporters.
In the digital age, nonprofits have to make some serious and difficult decisions about where to allocate resources and staff time. You can say that you value communicating with donors, sharing your impact with your community, and raising awareness with new groups of potential participants. But does your budget and your staff truly reflect this?
Mistake #4: Promoting, promoting, promoting.
You may think that the one and only goal of social media marketing is to “get more visibility” for your organization. It’s not.
Simply getting more people to be aware of you is not going to help you accomplish your bigger organizational goals. Getting more people to hear your voice does not necessarily mean that more people will listen.
If you had extra money in your marketing budget, would you purchase billboard space? Many nonprofits do, and it drives me crazy.
I never understood the point of billboards to promote nonprofits and social causes. Billboards make sense to promote local restaurants, gas stations, that great store at the next exit, even radio stations (you can listen while driving). But for a cause? A social issue? Do billboards really work to drive donations or get people to go to your website?
How can you measure the marketing ROI (return on investment) from a sign that is basically just yelling at strangers to pay attention?
This is how many nonprofits approach their social media platforms – as billboards to shout out one-way promotional messages, not as avenues to build relationships and make connections.
They repeat: We are here! We got an award! We are awesome! Pay attention to us! But they don’t offer any value in exchange for the attention they want to be paid.
Fundraising guru Jeff Brooks was spot on when he wrote, “Proclaiming your existence is not fundraising. It’s also not marketing, advertising, or branding.”
Beyond pushing out marketing messages, what nonprofits share on social media affirms our values, our belief systems, and helps us reach more people who think like us and may want to get involved in our work.
Showcasing impact and telling great stories about our mission and vision is a great way to deepen relationships with existing supporters and hopefully get them to bring others on board.
The stories and communications we share with our supporters explain what we stand for, what we are trying to change, and help to expose our core values to a wider variety of people. A lot of people will understand our world view and want to get on board. Many will not, and that’s fine.
I believe that even though we don’t have huge marketing departments with large budgets, small nonprofits have a distinct advantage in the social media space: Rather than selling perfume or designer bags, we are selling a better world.
Mistake #5: Blaming the technology.
We need to acknowledge the myths that we buy into and the snake oil that we were sold initially – and then we have to get over it. Let’s overcome these hurdles, stop blaming the tools and the tech, and move forward into a better future.
If your marketing isn’t working the way that you want it to, I’m willing to bet that your emails and social media posts are interrupting people who don’t know you or trust you.
We spend way too much time on choosing platforms and sending out promotions, and not nearly enough time sharing value and building community.
To quote Ice T: “Don’t hate the player – hate the game.” And what’s the “game” in social media marketing?
Grabbing attention and piquing interest. Getting seen and heard, and then getting people to listen and act. As we discussed earlier in this chapter, the internet can be a crowded, noisy, unforgiving place. Organic reach, meaning reach that you don’t pay for with social ads, is experiencing a dramatic decline. Even old standards like email open and click-through rates are taking a nosedive.
However, this does not mean you get to just throw up your hands and say “Damn you, Zuckerberg!” and quit. The tools are just a symptom of the bigger problem.
Many, many nonprofits and businesses and causes and individuals are using social media, email, blogging, and more to tell their stories, connect with customers and donors, and do business and raise money.
For real-world nonprofit examples, check out the Shorty Social Good Awards, which honor the best of social media in the social sector, and PRNews’ Nonprofit Awards, highlighting campaigns and communicators that get social media and multichannel campaigns right.
Stop saying that it’s Facebook’s fault, or Twitter’s, or the email providers, or your website. Explore different tools if you need to. Get more training. Understand how best to leverage the digital tools at your disposal and then kick butt at using them. If you set up a telephone line in your office, but you never use it to reach out to donors, you can’t blame the phone company when the money doesn’t roll in.
Social media is a value exchange, pure and simple. Your audience gives you their time and attention and you have to give them something of value in return. You can’t force people to join your movement – you can only entice their curiosity and then invite them in on their terms.
Purchasing fans and followers, trading email lists, manipulating your audience with scare tactics, and engaging in smarmy, spammy digital behavior may get you a few more clicks in the short run. But in the long run, trust will evaporate as people begin to see through these tricks.
Mistake #6: Automating their social media.
You may also think that social media can be completely automated. Sure, I’m all for scheduling tweets here and there, and strategically using certain platforms to streamline the workflow. Automation tools have their uses and can save time and increase results when used strategically and thoughtfully.
However, nonprofits that effectively use social media need to budget some of their work day to monitor conversations on their social channels and respond in real time. If you are not willing to use each channel the way it is meant to be used (and they are all vastly different), and you simply want to send the same announcement to each channel and never check it again, do us all a favor and don’t use social media.
There are no shortcuts here. Effective social media marketing requires understanding your audience and how you can add unique value to their busy lives.
Content such as helpful blogs, educational videos, and thoughtful social media posts can help you spread your ideas to people that will be receptive, enthusiastic, and excited to join you. Recognizing this value exchange is the only way to build an audience online with integrity.
Social media marketing that works involves consciously creating something that your audience wants, in return for something you want – their attention, their trust, and eventually, their action.
The only way to “cut through the clutter” in the digital age is to make yourself indispensable and valuable to a smaller, more targeted group of people. The kind of people that would miss you if you went away.
I’m of the mindset that social change agents and nonprofits have a distinct and unique responsibility to their stakeholders and constituents to educate, to inspire, and to build community.
We need to address fake news about our cause head-on, to provide reliable and trusted resources, and to advocate for our missions.
We must communicate what we stand for and stand firm on our core values – even if it means getting a handful of people upset.
We should make it as easy as possible for the largest group possible to participate in our work, and that means meeting stakeholders where they are. And where they are is on social media.
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