A 5-step quide to social media strategy for nonprofits

flickr/luc legay

flickr/luc legay

Many nonprofits have already dipped their toes into social media. They see others doing it and figure they should be doing it too. So they jump on Twitter and create a Facebook page. Or they put event photos on Flickr, or buy a Flipcam to get videos on YouTube. Then what?

Back up.

Grab your strategic communications plan and start over.

But first, understand that social media is not about marketing, it’s about community. Yes, nonprofits can reach influencers and raise money through these channels, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. To succeed with social media, you have to genuinely appreciate the idea of community—offering help and value with no expectation of return. (I’m not saying it’s not great if you do get support in return, just don’t demand it.) These are useful channels for building relationships.

Using social media, nonprofits can:

  • gain insights about audiences and issues
  • spread important ideas and create awareness
  • share resources and opportunities
  • build networks and social movements
  • strengthen trust in your organization

Step one–the match game

Looking over your communications plan (or your organization’s strategic plan)—identify goals that could be supported by using social media in one of the five ways above.

For instance, advocacy groups may want to use social media to build networks and social movements. Foundations may want to use them to spread ideas and create issue awareness, or share research findings. Other nonprofits may want to use them to learn more about the needs and preferences (or complaints) of the clients they serve. Some nonprofits may want to use them to deepen trusting relationships with their donors.

This little match game should highlight areas that hold the most promise for your social media use. Refine and prioritize these into a set of social media objectives (what do you’d like to accomplish).

Step two–grab the earhorn not the megaphone

Before you start investing in social media, listen to what’s already being said about your organization and your issue. Get the “feel” of these media and how people are using them.

Even if you’ve decided social media isn’t a good investment for you, every nonprofit should at least have a listening outpost. Set up Google alerts for your organization’s name, executives, news release titles, and issue keywords. Research which bloggers are writing about your issues through Alltop or Technorati and subscribe to their blog feeds.

Organizing all this through Google Reader makes it easier for a staff member to keep up with relevant online conversations. Listening is not just a one-time exercise; it should become part of your standard day-to-day operations. That means expressly making time for it (1 hour a day) in someone’s schedule. That person should routinely report significant findings not only to executives, but to all staff members. And you should think about developing a way to make sure that anything negative you hear is addressed!

What do you do with what you hear? Check out these 17 ideas from Kivi LeRoux.

Step three—who, what, and where

If you have a strategic communications plan you already know who your key audiences are. If you don’t, use your organizational strategic plan and ask these questions: What changes are we trying to make in the world? Who can make those changes happen? Those groups are your key audiences. Be very clear about what they need to do to make the changes you desire happen—those are the actions you’re aiming to trigger through your communications.

If you don’t feel that your listening outpost captures your key audiences well enough, enhance it so you can find out more about what these particular groups of people think about your organization and its work. You especially want to find out which social media are popular with these folks. Do you need to start tracking Facebook because your audiences are there? Are they Tweeting? What blogs do they follow? Are there other online communities they participate in? What kind of research do you need to do to find out where they are congregating online? It might also be helpful to scout out which social media your peers and competitors are investing in.

Once you know who you’re trying to reach, what you want them to do, and what social media they’re using—you’re more than halfway home. Remember, just developing a deeper relationship with your key audience members can be an “action” goal.

Step four—putting it all in context

There’s a huge universe of social media out there, so don’t get carried away. Stick to your objectives and key audiences. Pick out a couple of social media that offer the most promise of reaching your key audiences, then focus on going deep with those.

Once you’ve chosen them, think about the larger picture. How are these social media tactics going to integrate with your website, email strategy, publications, media relations, and special events? (Don’t forget widgets.) These are all threads in the same cloth and they need to interweave and reinforce each other. (They also need to reflect that there are human beings behind your logo.)  Write down your integration plan, even a starter time line for the next few months.

Get creative about how you repurpose content in all these media so you’re not reinventing the wheel but still providing valuable content in fresh ways.

Step five—the rubber hits the road

Now, the tricky part. Who’s going to be responsible for what? Who’s going to generate the content and when? Who’s going to do the organizational listening? Who’s going to handle IT and legal support if needed? Do you need outside expertise? How are you going to measure ROI? Who’s going to gather that data?

Are you opting for an organizational voice or are you inviting employees to participate as individuals? How will you handle negative online comments about your organization? What are the budget and staff implications? (These media may be free to use, but they require a sustained investment of staff time to be effective.)

Some people put this question as the very first one an organization ought to ask itself in the process of developing a social media strategy. I don’t. I think that once you understand if, how, and why you need social media to advance your agenda, you’ll probably find a way to shift resources to handle the workload. Maybe you can adjust your other communications commitments to free up time. In the beginning, you may need to rob Peter a bit to make room for social media. Your efforts don’t have to be perfect, but they do have to be consistent and professional.

If you want estimates about how much time Tweeting, blogging, managing a Facebook or YouTube page takes—ask one of the nonprofits successfully using these media. From my own experience, listening and Twitter take me about an hour a day, and my blog posts take 1-2 hours each.

Even with a modest investment in social media, you also probably want to create a short user-friendly policy for your organization. Keep this in simple-to-understand language. There’s a good example at the end of this helpful Mashable blog post.

These statements can help trumpet and clarify for your employees the cultural shift that participation in social media represents—toward more transparency and openness, less control of marketing message, trust-building rather than self-promotion, and more authentic, multi-way engagement with partners and potential supporters.

Now, you’re ready to start using social media strategically—more confident that your investment of time and energy will actually advance your mission and goals.

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7 Responses to “A 5-step quide to social media strategy for nonprofits”

  1. Derek Gwinn Says:

    I think that the “where” in step 3 has another, often implied, side – don’t expect people to go “where” you are.

    Last year, our project director went to a marketing and media conference and came back excited about social media and one site, in particular, that allows one to set up a unique social networking site.

    For a year, we tried to drive program participants to this new site. We linked blog postings to RSS feeds on other sites. We gave program participants fliers about the existence of the site. We marketed it in weekly emailed newsletters.

    And, pretty much, no one used the site but our project staff.

    We’ve since created a page on Facebook, updated our Myspace page, and created a twitter account. All three are linked with updates, when they’re made. Within only a couple of weeks, our Facebook page has as many followers as our previous “experiment” had members after 9 months.

    What we learned was that, at least in our area, we cannot expect people to add yet another web site to their daily activity. So we’re making ourselves available on “the big three” social media systems. And that is making all the difference.

  2. 10 Questions to Get You Started Using Social Media for Your Nonprofit or Do-Good Project | Legal-Sleaze.com Says:

    [...] A Five Step Guide to Social Media Strategy for Nonprofits on IMPACTMAX [...]

  3. Rachel Says:

    I love your suggestion about using Google alerts. In my experience, organizations rarely use this excellent tool. It’s been an invaluable source of information for us and it’s a great way to keep automatically updated on media about your group.

  4. Top 10 posts of the year: Happy 2010! « IMPACTMAX Says:

    [...] A 5-step guide to social media strategy for nonprofits [...]

  5. Becca Says:

    Thanks for all the great tips! I love the idea about Google Alerts and listening for what is being said about our organization or other similar projects, a great way to stay connected.

  6. Roundup for October 2009 « Nonprofit Blog Exchange Blog Says:

    [...] A 5-step quide to social media strategy for nonprofits (IMPACTMAX) [...]


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