Jan/Feb 2008

Four Tips for Using Social Media to Reach, Keep and Engage Your Constituents at a Deeper, More Meaningful Level

by Dan Backus, Co-founder and CTO, ThePort Network

Public social media platforms like Facebook and MySpace have revolutionized how we use the Internet to stay in touch with friends and colleagues around the world. The same concepts that have made these sites so popular are being adopted by nonprofits to help drive interest, encourage donations and strengthen community involvement around key issues, causes and goals. With the integration of social media features, a passive, "read only" Web site can become an online meeting place or "virtual neighborhood" that allows your constituents to generate and share their own content and actively participate in discussions.

As nonprofits continue to face increasing competition for donor dollars and volunteerism, social media present a powerful way to keep constituents engaged and involved.

What is social media?

Social media — message boards, blogs with reader comment capabilities, podcasts, photo- and video-sharing, and other interactive functions — enable online participation. Real Simple Syndication (RSS) technology may also be used to enable registered members to tailor their own news feeds, so they receive only the articles and information that are relevant to them.

Similarly, site members can develop profiles that tell a little about themselves, and also "friend" others to develop online relationships built around common interests or concerns.

Unlike traditional Web pages, social media sites facilitate an open exchange of opinions, knowledge and information between groups of people online. Importantly, these groups can be exclusive (open only to registered members) or public (open to everyone).

How could my organization use social media?

Social media can support many organizational tasks for nonprofits, the most common of which are marketing, education and constituent communication. Think about these two scenarios:

  1. A potential constituent or donor is interested in participating with, or contributing to, your organization, but wants to learn more before acting. Imagine that same individual visiting your Web site and experiencing a virtual library of video clips and blog posts from local chapters or other constituents, showing firsthand how their money or time may be used.

  2. A current constituent is very interested in a single cause or campaign handled by your organization and would like to find and talk to others who have his same passion for the topic. By using "social objects", constituents can register their interests through your social media portal, resulting in a number of "micro-sites" that may include blogs, message boards, event calendars and other social media tools geared specifically for like-minded constituents. This deeper, more specialized communication will enable people to band together and have a more significant impact than they could have individually, keeping them engaged longer in online communities... and with your organization.

How do I get started?

Before launching a social media program, consider these four tips:

  1. Know your audience
    The tools you will want to invest in should be directly related to the online behavior of the people you are trying to reach. Ideally, you will want to conduct audience research to determine factors like — how often are they online? What other sites do they visit? Are they comfortable downloading podcasts or setting up RSS feeds? The answers to these questions will help you implement the tools that your constituents and donors will actually use.

  2. Align organizational objectives with social media tools
    Different social media tools are better at accomplishing specific objectives. For example, blogs are a great way to get feedback on potential programs or causes from large groups of constituents, while photo-sharing programs are useful for building a sense of community and excitement around new programs.

  3. Establish operating procedures
    Social media require companies to have a higher level of trust in their publics than other communication tools. At the same time, it is important to retain some organizational oversight to ensure communications remain appropriate and continue to focus on your organization's key goals. Identifying forum moderators and establishing rules for posting are important.

  4. Identify organizational resources and touch points
    A successful social media strategy requires active participation from many constituents, as well as from the organizational leaders themselves. Before initiating, make sure the appropriate internal personnel support the idea and are willing to integrate social media functions into outreach activities. Ideally, those same leaders will want to participate in the online communities themselves — both to learn more about their constituents and to use that knowledge to shape future goals.

A strong social media program will help your organization provide new value to current constituents and donors while supporting your external marketing through better public education and two-way communications. In particular, building online communities that connect nonprofits with constituents and constituents with one another provides a unifying component that can be instrumental in acquiring, motivating and retaining a strong supporter base.

Four Tips for Using Social Media to Reach, Keep and Engage Your Constituents at a Deeper, More Meaningful Level | Convio