Get Your Head Out of … the Sand
Yesterday, the mother of a sick child Googled the name of a devastating disease. She got thousands of results, but the ones that interested her the most were links to your organization’s Web site; two stories from the national media; a handful of online support groups for patients and their families; a general health Web site with online communities dedicated to the disease; and one site focused exclusively on a heartsick father’s negative experience with an operator on your organization’s support line.
The people who are affected by your mission are talking about you. Your donors and supporters are talking about you. And the people who don’t like you all that much are talking about you, too. If you aren’t involved in those conversations, wherever they’re taking place, you’re missing out on valuable opportunities for constituent care, donor engagement, friendraising and, in some cases, damage control.
It’s a complex dance with a lot of partners, and in this day and age of instant gratification and immediate feedback, no nonprofit can afford to be a wallflower.
Fortunately, much of this chatter is going on online. Consider it the cyber watercooler or virtual cocktail party. And even though — despite the common misconception — online communications aren’t free, they are a lot less expensive and a lot more immediate than other forms of outreach, like direct mail. Online offers a ton of opportunities for organizations to connect with donors and other supporters, including blogs; message boards; and social-
networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, etc. If you’re not already engaging them, you’re kind of late to the game.
“Larger organizations and those with very social-media-oriented audiences have been investing in staff here for the past couple of years,” says Sarah Durham, principal and founder of fundraising consultancy Big Duck. “If you’re not proactively monitoring the buzz online about your organization, you’re sticking your head in the sand and pretending the world isn’t there. If people are talking about your work and your issues online, you should be there.”
Many organizations, especially those entrenched in a static modus operandi when it comes to outreach, seem to be put off by the language surrounding social networking and other e-communications. Or many think their audiences are too old to respond well. That, by the way, is another apparent misconception.
Says Kim Cubine, principal and senior vice president at fundraising agency Adams Hussey & Associates: “The demographics [for social-network users] always trend older and more educated than most people believe.”
It’s true that the average age of the particular demographic you’re trying to reach determines which social-networking site you use to engage it: generally, MySpace for teens and young adults 18 to 23 or so, Facebook for mid-20s and up, and Twitter and YouTube almost across the board. But no matter where you put your message, this is still a matter of communications, pure and simple. There are just a few new bells and whistles to wrap your brain around.
“Word-of-mouth marketing has historically been the most powerful way to engage people with your brand, and social marketing is really word-of-mouth marketing at its core,” says Atul Tandon, senior vice president of donor engagement at World Vision U.S. “It is a relational way to engage the communities that support your brand and mission.”
Sites like MySpace, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are not a truly viable option for fundraising. Sorry … they just aren’t. Sure, some donations might trickle in as a result of having a presence there — and certainly Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign went a long way toward changing things — but generally, it would be foolhardy to divert resources from things like direct mail and e-mail to try to raise a significant amount of money from your organization’s social-networking pages. For now, at least. Rather, think of these sites as engagement devices, or brand-building opportunities.
“Social media is not a large source of direct donations [at World Vision U.S.],” Tandon says. “Social media builds brand, awareness and credibility. It is halfway between a relational tool and a mass-marketing tool. It creates one-to-one connections and dialogues, but those dialogues can go much farther, [and have] wider impact, than those one-to-one relationships.”
Cubine agrees: “The ROI would be horrible. It would require too much staff time and show too little results to be worth it.”
That said, no one has written off social networks as an entrance to the donor pipeline entirely. It’s just a matter of time. And the signs are there.
“We find that if a donor is engaged in our online community, their average gift is 50 percent higher than a donor who is only responding through direct mail,” says Roy Jones, director of development at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
Kenneth Grunke, director of individual and major giving at Pillars, a social-services organization with locations throughout Illinois, definitely sees the potential, explaining: “Starting the conversation about a charity or cause is usually how we see prospects become donors. To us, it’s no different than a
current donor mentioning to one of their friends, who isn’t a current donor, about the program and that individual eventually becomes interested enough to want more information.”
That interest, one would hope, eventually leads to a donation.
It takes time
Even if you aren’t trying to fundraise via social-networking sites, just having a presence there does require resources. That’s where a lot of organizations seem to go wrong — underestimating the time and effort it takes to maintain a significant, consistent presence in this world. Blogs have to be updated regularly. Message boards must be monitored for off-topic, off-color or other inappropriate remarks. Comments and messages require responses. Sounds a little like child’s play, but it’s pretty serious business.
Ideally, a nonprofit would have at least one person whose job, eight hours a day, would be monitoring blogs, message boards and profiles, etc. But what are the chances of that happening at your organization?
More likely, the work will be divided among a number of staffers, or even more likely than that, one or two people will do it in their “off” hours.
Durham says social-network updating is a great way to give capable volunteers an important role within your organization — “as long as you trust them to draw the line where you would,” she adds.
The do’s and don’ts
No matter how you choose to engage people online, you need a plan. It’s not something that, despite appearances, just “happens.” Maybe your teenager can get away with updating his status every six weeks or inundating friends with stream-of-consciousness tirades, but you — as an organization — can’t.
Cubine offers these tips for connecting online:
- Map out a “high-engagement timeline.” Plan on daily updates, blog entries, and photo or video posts, etc., perhaps, for example, around an important issue on Capitol Hill or about a big event sponsored by the organization.
- Create a contact strategy. Divide up responsibility daily or every other day between two or three key staffers to determine who will do what and when. For example, staffer A checks and responds to postings between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., and staffer B checks and responds to postings between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.
- Be prepared. Trying to think of something witty to post or comment on is sometimes difficult. Treat these posts just like an e-mail series or direct-mail letter, and plan on regular discussion topics and other elements.
Cubine also suggests identifying one or two key bloggers in your mission area, nurturing relationships with them and keeping them updated with news from your organization in the hopes that they in turn will talk more about you in their blogs.
Even with a plan, there are many pitfalls that make it a tough road for organizations venturing into the world of e-communications. Aside from underestimating the amount of resources needed to maintain relationships (including staff time and IT investments), others are:
- Trying to control the conversation on message boards and online communities too aggressively. “[Online communications] tend to be decentralized and organic in nature, so the nonprofit must be comfortable with not controlling the message. If an organization becomes obsessed with controlling the message, they’ll end up cutting off the conversation and alienating potential supporters,” Tandon says.
- Using blogs to bombard audiences with random or off-topic content that undermines the organization’s credibility. “If you use [blogs or social-networking pages] for work, be careful what you say, do and post,” Durham says, warning that organization staff should avoid blurring the lines between personal and professional use. “Don’t undermine your organization’s credibility by posting pictures of your development associate’s wild party last weekend, for instance.”
- Not reading comments/messages carefully and responding thoughtfully and promptly. Responding to comments and messages both on your own site and those run by others keeps the conversation going and underscores your organization’s interest in the community. Grunke likens “commenting back” to a prompt gift acknowledgment to a donor. “A prompt greeting and invitation for conversation is important,” he says. “It doesn’t just start the dialogue, but it also lets the ‘friend’ know that you are interested in their interest.” This is equally important — if not more so — when you see negative comments about your organization. Letting a negative comment go by without a response is, in many users’ minds, tantamount to admitting that the negative comment is accurate. Or at least that you don’t care enough to pay attention.
- Creating a blog, then not updating it regularly. “Blogs need to be changed daily, if not more often. If not, people stop visiting,” Jones says. “The more often you update, the more viral your blog becomes. Just remember … you are creating a dinosaur to feed. The bigger it gets, the harder it is to feed.”
- Using a blog, profile or message board as just another public-relations vehicle. “The dialogues need to be authentic,” Tandon says, “not just corporate-speak. People want to hear from an authentic voice, the person(s) behind the brand, doing the work, making things happen at a grassroots level or receiving help from the nonprofit.”
Finally, Tandon cautions that, while they shouldn’t control the conversation, organizations can’t just let their online presence run on autopilot.
“Ownership needs to be clearly defined for each social entity, or it will quickly become an empty shell or, with too many [voices], a cacophony of noise,” he says. “The social-media community will realize that quickly and stop returning.
“That represents wasted resources to the organization that won’t easily be recouped. And you may lose brand equity or potential donors who are turned off by your apparent lack of stewardship,” he warns.
Threat or thrill?
With all of the potential positives and pitfalls, where does that leave nonprofits — and especially their fundraising/awareness teams — in terms of social-networking and other e-communications? We asked the people we talked to for this story: threat or thrill?
Durham: “From a consultant or project manager’s point of view, these tools are thrilling. They open up new, exciting ways to reach niche audiences more deeply and with less money. In terms of implementing them on a daily basis, however, it can be overwhelming. Nonprofit staff are already busy — and these new tools only add to their plates.”
Grunke: “It becomes overwhelming and complicated at times if you are not organized in utilizing each resource appropriately. There is so much unknown yet in cyberspace that I think you take a risk when approaching these opportunities.
“In addition, there always seems to be someone thinking of a new way to utilize these resources, so there is a whole ongoing training component involved.”
Tandon: “It’s both taxing and thrilling. Social media is particularly exciting because it [connects] people who care passionately about the brand and work for the organization to people who care passionately about the brand and want to help. Social media represents an unprecedented ability to have direct conversations with your most impassioned supporters and then project those conversations outward to potential supporters. It also provides informal research on how people view your brand that would be very costly to collect otherwise.
“What’s taxing is how rapidly it expands and how unpredictable it can be. It all comes back to the same marketing principles: Who is my audience? What do they care about? What is my core story? How should I engage with them?” FS
Bryan J. Schoell is a freelance writer based in Sicklerville, N.J. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org