Leveraging the Power of Social Media for Nonprofits

On January 12 of this year, a deadly earthquake ravaged the country of Haiti. While physical relief has moved slowly due to the infrastructure challenges on this devastated island nation, the world acted instantly through social media to communicate the news and offer help. For example:

  • Those without direct involvement to the disaster used social networks to share stories or relay their sympathy.
  • According to Facebook, users posted status updates containing the word “Haiti” at a rate of 1,500 per minute.
  • The Twitter account for the American Red Cross, which had on average been adding roughly 50-100 followers a day before the Haiti earthquake, has gained more than 10,000 followers since.
  • The Red Cross has raised over $140 million through a largely word-of-mouth text messaging campaign.

Social media provides a compounding, powerful  effect on your message. To harness social media’s power, enabling friends and colleagues to easily spread your message is absolutely critical. People trust messages from friends and colleagues more than from organizations. This isn’t just anecdotal; an Aberdeen study on the value of online communities states that 77 percent of people trust friends, family, and other consumers above retailers and manufacturers.

In a world full of marketing noise, trust is an important factor—and nowhere is trust more important than in nonprofits.

Getting Started

Much like every other activity in which a nonprofit participates, social media needs to be run like a campaign— with an objective, measurements and clear results. Social media platforms such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter are key in building a fully engaged online community that will lead to campaign success.

The first step is formulating a social media plan. Then you will find that the technology exists to support the goals of your campaign.

Social Media Plan: One of the best pieces of advice I have for prospective customers, whether commercial or nonprofit, is to start small. Your social media strategy can be divided into three categories:

  1. Communities you own: These are the communities that you run and manage directly for your users. Typically these are investments, not experiments. These communities take time and money to run, but offer big rewards through deep engagement and connection.

  2. Communities you participate in: These are the communities like Facebook and Twitter. While the same level of investment isn’t required as in your own community, participation is still a time commitment.

  3. Communities your customers own: These are external communities that customers run on their own. They could be full-blown dedicated community sites set up to support an effort like Haiti relief, or they could simply be blogs that individuals are using to communicate.

From a planning perspective, start with Facebook or Twitter and learn about the various communities run by customers or prospects. Depending on your goals, you may start by running a 6-12 week awareness campaign, creating content on your own site and referencing it on Facebook or Twitter. Once you have established credibility with your audience and determined a need for a more robust online campaign, begin considering an online community that you own and manage directly.

One real-world example of an organization that successfully owns and manages its own community is the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF). Because Facebook is the tool most commonly used to communicate within a person’s circle of trust, NBCF leverages Facebook to build upon relationships that exist between friends, co-workers, and family.  Those afflicted can join the NBCF fan page on Facebook and easily communicate their situation to their friends and family, raise awareness, and encourage donations and support.

NBCF has also linked its Facebook presence to its online community (nationalbreastcancer.org). Whereas Facebook provides a place to communicate and update people, the NBCF community is a private place where members can share their stories in a more intimate setting. The community builds support groups and creates relationships between people that may be thousands of miles apart.

From a campaign perspective, Facebook raises awareness, connects like-minded people, and provides NBCF with a communication platform. All of this leads people to the private online community provided by NBCF, enabling the organization to provide additional services and benefits to its members.

Measure, analyze and adjust: To get the most of your communities, you should also set clear goals with measurements. For example, if you are trying to build an audience, how many followers on Twitter or fans in Facebook do you expect to have at the end of the campaign? Setting goals and objectives will help ensure you can measure success and adjust your plan, especially when thinking about investing in a larger community solution.

The number of tools, both free and commercial, for analyzing and measuring your social media activities is staggering. It goes to show just how important analysis and measurement has become. No matter what tools you choose to engage online, measurement is essential.

To get started, Google provides some great free tools. Google Analytics allows you to get basic Web statistics about your users, and Google Alerts allows you to track keyword mentions.

There are also a number of monitoring tools that can be used to track and analyze topic or keyword mentions across Twitter and other large social network providers. And for even deeper analysis, there are analytic tools that measure engagement both inside and outside of your community. You can use these tools to track Web analytics and measure engagement sentiment, and influence within your site and across the Web.

Here are some tips for establishing a successful online community:

  • Begin with a clear objective in mind. Formulate your plan.
  • Identify measurable goals and metrics for your online community.
  • Determine which – if any – communities currently exist that meet your audience’s needs. What is working for similar organizations? Determine if it is a best practice you can utilize.
  • Ensure first-time visitors get an immediate positive response. The most important factor that determines if someone returns to your community after posting is whether or not he gets a reply.
  • Determine ways to use your community in enhance your online presence. Use this initiative to supplement your marketing and advertising efforts.
  • Get the ball rolling for your members. Seed your community with relevant content that members can’t find elsewhere.
  • Do what you can to get the word out. Leverage external sites like Facebook and Twitter, leading back to your community.

Social Media: Building Relationships and Support

Social media tools can be immensely powerful for nonprofit organizations. They provide organizations the critical ability to listen to constituents and build on personal relationships, while at the same time giving members instant access to information and support— from your organization and each other. Formulate a plan for your social media campaign, setting clear goals— and then move forward, measuring your success along the way.

Rob Howard is founder & chief technology officer at Telligent, an enterprise collaboration and community software company based in Dallas. He can be reached at RHoward@telligent.com.