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Let’s be frank. Most nonprofits do not have the resources, the budgets nor the staff, to substantially develop a social media presence, let alone strategically market their mission to the public, to partners and supporters and future donors. Traditional means of marketing, print and broadcast are effective, proven methods, but they are expensive. The potential for younger demographics and new audiences clearly rests with social media, and most pack a lot of bang for the buck, which for a lot of social media is zero dollars. That might change in the future, but right now, for nonprofit social media management, the deterrent is the costs of human resources and time it takes to go on social media and do it right.

A good part of my full-time job is promoting social media for Cooperative Extension and Delaware 4-H. In 2014, I was awarded a fellowship from eXtension.org to study social media best practices. In addition to that experience, I had the opportunity to delve into nonprofit marketing for an education client as part of the 15-week University of Delaware Social Media Marketing Strategy course I recently completed. In developing strategic plans for all of these, many commonalities emerged – techniques that can help those on a restricted budget make the most of social media. Since no one platform is the panacea or magic pill, a school of thought has emerged which argues for a social media shotgun approach – pellets of content sprayed across a wide virtual stage, with a better chance of hitting targeted audiences.  That is fine if you have the time, people and money. Most of us don’t have the luxury of hiring one or two full-time social media managers and being an expert player in all of the platforms.

Here’s what I have gleaned so far:

  1. Define your organization’s target audience. This may be multiple audiences. That is fine, but be clear who you are trying to reach
  2. Study the demographic trends of each platform. Match the platform to the audience. Example, Facebook might be ideal for parents, families, individuals, and Aunt Edna. Not so much for other businesses. If you are looking for donor or legislative awareness, Twitter may be more suitable. Instagram is very youth friendly. Pinterest is currently driving e-commerce. Pick two of the most appropriate platforms and learn them well before taking on any other ones.
  3. Create a weekly content schedule – general guidelines to help shape your content. Monday is link to website day, Tuesday is inspirational story, Wednesday is a YouTube video, Thursday focuses on an employee or volunteer profile, etc.
  4. Follow an annual editorial calendar. Make note of holidays, national observance days, specialty weeks and months. Find ways to make your content connect to those occasions.
  5. Does the public know your brand? A logo? Use it everywhere. Be consistent with it. Your appearance across the different social media platforms should be consistent. The brand should be visible wherever possible. On shirts, on banners, backgrounds, etc.
  6. Use the hashtags everyone else is using. Breaking through with a razzle-dazzle campaign that involves a special hashtag is fine when you have built up your audience and beyond. But not before. Get established first. People search commonly known and used hashtags. Be on the list of conversations that apply to your organization by using the right hashtags. There are many online resources that will explain how hashtags work.
  7. Customize content for each platform. Do not, under any circumstances, practice a one-post-fits-all approach that populates identical content across all platforms. It might appear as a tempting time saver, but is considered counter-productive and social media lazy. No, no, no, no no! Did I say no?*
  8. Study what other nonprofits are doing well on social media. Take a look at what platforms they are using. If they are doing #7, ignore them! What does XYZ post on Facebook and how does that differ from what they post on Twitter or Instagram?  Ignore the number of likes on Facebook and observe the engagement of each post. Are people liking, commenting and sharing? If they are, that organization is doing something right.
  9. Divide and share the responsibility. Consider developing a volunteer social media team. Train them on principles and strategy. Make a big deal about them & celebrate them. If not volunteers, assign a portion of social media responsibility to two or three staff members.
  10. Engage with and mention your partners and supporters. In social media this is called tagging someone, most often by using the @ symbol before the page or user name. Don’t just spit out your data. Interact with others. Be social on social media. Enter the conversations that surround your area. Stay local if your audience is local.
  11. Don’t over-rely on Facebook. If you have a page already on Facebook, you’ve noticed a lot has changed. The number of page likes your organization earned has become an irrelevant number. Success on Facebook is now about engagement and reach, and it is tough to get. Your content has to be fantastic, or you have to pay. Read these suggestions for how to shed those Facebook algorithm blues.
  12. Use free tools like Hootsuite and TweetDeck to organize and schedule your social media content. The holiday observances and events from #4 can all be posted ahead of time through these free schedulers. Note: Images shared via Twitter come through as a link.
  13. Videos and really strong photographs are proven engagement drivers. If you have a fantastic photo, upload it directly to the platform and try not to use management software, which will turn the picture into a link. You want the image to pop right out automatically. People might not see it if they have to click a link.
  14. Revisit your website. Ask an outsider to look at the content and the graphics. Maybe it is time for a fresh look. In most cases, this is affordable. Make sure your social media icons are prominent.
  15. Consider timing. When is your audience home or on their mobile devices? Many have touted the effectiveness of weekend posts. Who wants to work on a weekend? You don’t always have to. You can schedule ahead directly from Facebook, and can use software (#12) to schedule in advance. We have found snow days to be a particularly good time to post. Experiment. A good rule of thumb is 2-3 times a week on Facebook and 2-3 times a day on Twitter (which could be simply responding to the content of others).
  16. Develop internal guidelines. These should cover basic paid and volunteer staff behavior on social media, the voice and tone of the social media communications (serious, humorous, quirky, a mixture) and crisis response (both the procedure and response) to negative experiences or press.
  17. Know how to measure success. You can’t create content and hope magic happens. Free analytic tools are available within Facebook and Twitter and these are important to visit and observe and know what worked and what didn’t. When a graph peaks and a percentage soars, you are on to something and you need to repeat what works and ditch what doesn’t.

Nonprofits do the people’s work. Support of their noble missions often rely on the goodwill will of the public, overall public awareness, and financial support from civic leaders, taxpayers or other grantors and partners. Most social media is “free” but it is not without its costs.  Real human relationships develop across and within these virtual institutions. Social media has become a crucial tool for nonprofits to stay in touch and expand their outreach and make the important connections.  It is an arena they can ill afford to ignore.

*Okay, one exception! If you have an Instagram account, it is okay to occasionally share an Instagram photo to your Twitter account, just so people on Twitter know you have an Instagram account. But don’t make a regular habit out of that. Twitter is photo-friendly and if you upload a photo via Twitter, it opens up and is easily viewed by all. Via Instagram, it is just a link.