Social Media Strategy for Non-Profits: Best Practices for Beginners

This post is first in the series on ‘Social Media Strategy for Non-Profits,’ and is aimed at beginners to the world of social media. It features simple and practical tips to help you draft a social media plan for your non-profit / NGO. Listen to this quick introduction here. 

social media strategy for non-profits

The last three years, I have been working as web producer for a small United Nations-based advocacy initiative that promotes digital and ICT rights for persons with disabilities. Prior to that, I wore multiple hats, simultaneously working as consultant at two places, a technology magazine and as community manager for a research/think tank organization.

Coming back to my current gig, the term web producer is WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) and pretty much encompasses the entire spectrum of digital communication strategy (ideation, creation, writing to deployment, outreach and measurement). I am a one-woman-army and am solely responsible for my organization’s social media presence.

As a communications person, I do a lot of reading, community outreach, creating a marketing calendar for the next quarter, event promotion, social media management, external relationship management, liaising with media, designing the newsletter, Analytics and other web masterly tasks. It’s a full-time job, requiring that I be fully engaged and in the moment, alert to information streaming in and maintaining clarity in the material that gets displayed on our website.

However, considering the nature of my profile and the rather niche sector of work – Communications + Disability, I have to also be up-to-date on issues pertaining to ICT, disability history, accessibility, regulations and current policies, mobile technology and industry events situated around assistive technology and inclusive ICTs. I don’t have a background in the social sciences and neither did I have professional exposure to practical ICT4D. So, how do I keep up?

Here’s the first tip for social media beginners:

1. Be a Subject Matter Guru of the Cause You Support

I know, it’s a lot to ask. You are faced with an exceeding amount of information everyday, and now you have to keep up with news about your organization’s cause! But think about it: how well can you talk, communicate or sell a product or service about which you do not have more than general information?

Excelling in social media communication strategy is not what makes me good at my job. What I read is directly proportional to how well I communicate the organization’s vision to our audience and constituents. This is key to any social media strategist’s work plan. Not only do I have to disseminate news to the public, but also to other stakeholders from the academic, corporate and government stakeholders. These folks will spot incompetence a mile away and I better know my subject reasonably well, before I begin to tell them about it!

All emails, news updates, blogs and newsletter editorial that I write has to be 100% accurate in factual data and also exhibit a sense of confidence and command. By the time you have crossed two years working with your organization, keeping up with current news about your industry will seem as easy as following the online exploits of your BFF (that’s Best Friend on Facebook)!

This rule is especially applicable in the highly specialized, marketplace ecosystem that we are part of. If you are a social media producer for a healthcare or pharmaceutical company, you better know about the latest healthcare policies applicable to your target geography or age group. The same applies to a social media strategist working for a university or education sector; you must be up-to-date on issues pertaining to educational policies, technology in the classroom, best college guides and annual events calendar for educational fairs.

Tip: Maintain an Excel sheet of relevant links, news and infographic you come across and are in the process of reading. A couple of months later, you can simply skim through these links for a refresher course.

2. Managing Content on the Website

If you are a small non-profit, it’s a given that you are working on a tight budget and do not allocate more than 0.5% of your overall financial resources on maintaining a digital base. If you are a social media producer for your organization, chances are you will be the lone ranger or if you are really lucky, have two or three additional team members dedicated solely to handling digital communications. Your focus area begins with a website.

Maintaining a website and populating it with strong, visually appealing (not always possible, I agree) and up-to-date content is a simple and cost-effective take-off point for your NGO’s social media presence. It’s a digital resource center housing the publications, news, case studies, images, videos, and documents that the NGO would otherwise have in physical formats (brochures, newsletters, flyers, pamphlets).

The first rule of Effective Website Content: Spell out the reason for the website. That’s right, let people know who you are and what your area of work is, either on the Header (top of the webpage), or on the left / right column. All the photos, videos and social media messages popping up on your webpage will be irrelevant if visitors don’t get an immediate hang of what your cause is about.

In later posts, I will delve deeper into Content Best Practices. An organization that is just getting started on social media, a good rule of thumb would be to feature a) visible mission statement, b) contact address (please don’t make your visitors dig deep into menus for this!), c) news, d) reports and case studies of your success, e) dedicated social media share icons that takes visitors to your social media platforms and also allow them to share the web pages they were viewing on your site.

Tip: Ensure you have a dedicated webmaster who is looking into comments, pingbacks and spam on the website.  Do a weekly check for broken hyperlinks. Nothing makes a website visitor cancel the page faster than an outdated page! This also applies to your site’s RSS feed.

See how this ties up with Strategy No. 1? Read, be informed and communicate the right information on your website. This ensures repeat visitors.

3. Choosing the (Right?) Social Media Platform for your Non-Profit

A couple of years ago, I would have left the word ‘right’ in the headline above without using the question mark. The digital space was restricted to a handful of options, with allegiances built around age and country of access. All that has changed. Today, there is overlapping of audience and interests across the social media platforms and every social network has its merits, making it necessary for big and small organizations to sign up and stay signed-in.

The advocacy initiative I work for is a pan-global entity and works with governments from around the world, across the language barriers and is primarily dependent on the web to reach its constituents. Our audience consists of the general public, so we need to be on a popular networking channel such as Facebook and YouTube (websites with sizable users). At the same time, we also need to reach out to corporates and independent professionals from the field of ICT, activism, mobile technology and disability rights campaigning, so we are on Twitter and LinkedIn. The third segment comprises academics, government officials and international institutions, whom we reach out through our website, email marketing and newsletters.

♦ On LinkedIn, apart from using my personal account to share updates about my organization, I also maintain a group on behalf of my NGO, and am part of close to 45 groups that center on the field I am working within. LinkedIn is a great tool to connect with professionals from your field and allied interests. Groups allow you to share specific information with targeted audience and you don’t have to worry about whether your message is reaching the intended audience or not. Feedback is also instant as group members can respond to your posts and share it within their network.

♦ Twitter is a broadcast medium, allowing you to share news, links, images and videos, without being too verbose about it. The platform is an effective tool for keeping up-to-date on news from around the world. I look at it as an interactive RSS feed, where you get to respond to the news supplier instantly, instead of passively consuming information. Twitter also allows you to communicate to a larger audience at one go.

Facebook is a platform that cuts across the age, professional or geographic divide. While earlier it was known as a youth hangout, it has now evolved to become a channel used by businesses, universities, music academies, local retailers, and non-for-profits to interact more closely with their audience. The advantage of Facebook is that visitors to your page will share your news and updates within their social / personal circles, turning the platform into a digital ‘word of mouth’ funnel. Facebook also allows you to place ads, videos, images and notes within your post. It’s the network with the maximum number of users in the world.

Watch out for my individual guides on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Coming Soon!

4. Community Development

You have now set up your website, populated it with content and images, and have begun sharing relevant news on the cause your organization supports. What’s next? Well, you need to now focus on building your community of supporters!

How do you decide whom to follow? Social media channels make it easy through their “search” feature. Use the specific keywords associated with your industry (ICT, digital  inclusion, disability, in my case), and expand your search by searching for well-known experts in the field, celebrities who support your cause, other non-profits and civil society organizations that you are aligned with, your peers and colleagues, as well as international institutions such as the United Nations, Greenpeace, Save the Children (only examples, not indicative) who might be associated with your work.

You can also send out a marketing email to an existing database by letting them know you are on social media and if they would like to follow you or Like your page on Facebook and join your group on LinkedIn. Yes, this is painstaking work again: writing to hundreds of people, requesting them for their support, following-up to see if they have indeed signed-up on your network, followed by a weekly or monthly assessment of your supporters.

Followers on social media give you their time, attention and support because you are the public face of a campaign that they support or wish to stand up for. Followers help amplify your reports, case studies and events because they feel a personal stake in your cause. As a non-profit, we are entirely dependent on the community for outreach: both our vocal and passive supporters help us reach the right stakeholders.

Amidst all the business-y updates, do share a note with your followers, thanking them for their support and asking them for feedback on your campaigns and events.  

♥ See how this ties up with Strategy No 3? Pick the right platform, find relevant audience and share information that is relevant.

5. Social Media Population: Numbers versus Strength

You must have read a dozen other posts elsewhere, giving you tips on “how to build your followers on Twitter” or “how to get more Likes on Facebook,” but honestly, numbers are limited in what they convey or signify. Having a thousand followers on Twitter means squat if none of your audience are listening in, sharing or Retweeting your updates. The same applies to Facebook’s Likes. Having a million followers on Facebook is great if you are trying to win a popularity contest, but the real deal is in those million Likes translating to people who are ready to share your message within their networks, thus helping your organization to amplify its message.

It took me three years to build an effective, consistent and strong social media presence for my organization, across multiple platforms, and I had to do it single-handedly! Developing a relationship with your social media audience is painstaking (but fun!) work, and requires a project-like approach:  complete with timelines (but not deadlines), goals (focus on what messages were shared instead of how many were shared), assessment (is the news we share relevant and useful), and evaluation (what do we need to do differently).

If you ask for a ballpark figure, there really isn’t a magical number of followers that you have to acquire. For a niche cause, like say, Save the Amazon Dragonfly, you will only find a few hundred supporters, and these folks might not always be on social media, waiting to spread the message. It all depends on how well you make your cause relevant to the widest audience possible and help them see the impact of their support. It’s slow work, so do not expect turnovers in less than a year.

There will come a point in your social media deployment, when you have a good number of followers, who are steady and loyal. These are the audiences who will share your passion for your cause. They will help you spread the message, compliment you on a job well done and cheer with you when your organization has crossed a milestone. It is for the continued support of these folks that a social media producer needs to strive for. The rest shall follow.

See how this ties up with Strategy No 4? Keeping in touch with the relevant audience will help you build an information-rich calendar that you can refer to through the year.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series: Social Media Strategy for Not-for-Profits: Advanced Guide, where you can read about relationship building, marketing strategy, event promotion, feedback, and measurement on social media.

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