The Empty Package–Nonprofits, Social Media, and Content Strategy



I’m delighted to see recent data about the nonprofit sector’s leadership in adopting social media.

I’m also a little worried.

We’re all familiar with the knock-out Facebook pages, Twitter streams, flickr albums, and YouTube channels of large nonprofits who have become models in the use of social media to grow and engage supporters. I love keeping track of what they’re doing…thanks in part to Beth Kanter and others who share these organizations’ experiments and growing wisdom with us.

But I see a slew of other nonprofit social sites that remind me of empty packages. They can be beautifully wrapped sometimes—with great visual branding. But once you get beyond appearance to substance, there’s no meat, no content strategy. They’ve jumped onto the social media bandwagon without much of a plan.

Content freshness is a well known value by now; most organizations try to tweet and update often. And some of the pages look great. My concern is that there’s often so little evidence of a content strategy. Much of the time, it’s impossible from reading the content to know who the intended audience is or what the purpose of the communication is. That’s a bad sign. It tells me they’ve focused on paper and ribbons, and not the gift inside.

For example:


So many Facebook pages regurgitate Twitter streams, and vice versa. (Also true for blogs and FB.) That’s time-efficient for the administrator, but it can be a turn-off for your followers to find the same things in both places. Twitter, Facebook, and blogs are different tools with different strengths and uses. Think through your strategy for each of them, because they aren’t interchangeable. Maybe, for your organization, they should even be aimed at different audience segments.

My, me, mine

I run across a dozen Facebook pages a day that are simply a series of updates by the organization about its own news and activities. Even with clever text and good photos, those updates read like a PR newswire. There’s certainly a place for some of your own news on your Facebook page, but this medium is about conversation and community. If someone talks about themselves all the time, it’s not a conversation (in fact, it’s boring). Having 4,000 followers and no comments or posts from anyone else isn’t a genuine community or a successful Facebook page. Engagement is what you’re after.

Willy Loman lives

Too many nonprofits still try to use social media as a selling  instrument. They look at these communication channels as one more place they can tell you how important they are and what kind of impact they have–in hopes you’ll donate or volunteer. That selling approach—even if it’s done well—isn’t appropriate for social media. Use it on your direct mail, maybe even on your website donation page, but not on Facebook and Twitter. Social media require a service mentality, not a sales mentality. You really have to care about helping your followers in some way—making life easier for them, solving their problems, getting them where they want to go, helping them feel good. This is not to say these tools can’t be used at some point to help raise funds, but build your community first—and build it honestly. As one strategy guru said recently about content—“It’s not what you sell. It’s what you stand for.” (You know all those lofty values your organization shares on your website? You should be living them out through your social media.)

Cha-ching cha-ching

Many nonprofit Facebook pages are geared toward fund-raising, with donate widgets everywhere, sometimes in two or three places on the landing page. That might work well for websites, but social media aren’t websites. Lots of Facebook group pages and other pages are exclusively aimed at raising money for short-term crises and projects—I’m not really addressing those. I’m talking about organizational pages that are seeking to get more engaged followers, to build online communities. Maybe you don’t need a “give” message on every single social channel. Shouldn’t there be more places and occasions when you aren’t asking your followers and friends for something, but offering them something? Like the most relevant and significant content?

Nonprofits should heed the movement toward content marketing in the for-profit sector—where companies are starting to understand that telling people how important their brand/product is isn’t as effective as actually being important to them. So, instead of shouting out product benefits, they’re starting to create and curate social media, email, and web content that explicitly meets their customer’s wants and needs. There’s purpose behind every piece of content they put out there. They’re building stronger brand loyalty by letting their customers help drive that content.

I’m not suggesting that nonprofits turn to content marketing—but that they come up with a more disciplined strategy for their social media content. Content is your most powerful reader engagement tool! You can’t afford to randomly slap up photos, updates, videos, and tweets. You can’t just talk about yourself, you have to bring your friends and followers into the conversation. You can’t aim at everybody, you have to know who you’re trying to reach and why. You can’t expect followers to do something for you, at least until you’ve done something for them (and more than once).

Think about the purpose of what you’re tweeting, posting, and updating. This is not to say everything has to be deadly serious or a version of your organization’s key messages–but you should know why you’re sharing a piece of content and what outcomes you’re hoping for from which audiences.

I’m going to close with a great content strategy example.

The nonprofit blogger John Haydon has started a Facebook page that does only one thing—answers people’s questions about Facebook. It doesn’t promote his consulting services—it embodies them. There are no self-promotional ads or come-ons—he simply shares his considerable insights about how to use Facebook by answering questions his friends ask. (He brands himself as The Facebook Guy, which even takes his name out of the equation yet creates a well defined niche.) Even more—the content is personalized. His answers help one person at a time solve real problems.

What’s not to love? John has combined two of the most powerful friend engagement strategies out there—content marketing and personalization. You have seen the future.

My next post will be about the potential of content curation for nonprofits. (No, I don’t believe “Curation is king.” But it can be part of your overall content strategy for websites, blogs, and social media.)

PS: I will also soon wrap up the final installment of the strategic planning for nonprofits series from earlier this year. Thanks for your patience!

CC photo credit/minxlj



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