The 50+ crowd is no stranger to social media, and neither is the AARP, whose stated goal is in "leading positive social change and delivering value to people age 50 and over." The non-profit organization has some 80 Facebook pages, well over a million fans on its main Facebook page, an active presence on Twitter and YouTube, as well as a toehold in about 15 other online platforms. Its main publications, AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin, also go out to its 37 million members. ClickZ spoke recently with Tammy Gordon, VP, social communications and strategy at AARP, about the evolution of its social strategy.
ClickZ: What are the goals of AARP's social media activities? How many employees are focused on it?
Gordon: We use social to amplify our core messages and calls-to-action. Our social strategy is embedded at every level of the organization. Altogether we have a nine-person team dedicated to social media. That includes six employees integrated into our business units developing social media strategy, a full-time social media trainer, a blogger, and myself, managing social across the whole organization.
ClickZ: How long has AARP been active in social media?
Gordon: We started looking at it in mid-2009. I was working on a communications platform for achieving our volunteering objectives and started integrating social media into our digital efforts. I was fascinated by what I learned and how people were using it. But most people were doing it on the side, with no official strategy or direction. I approached our chief communications officer about it and we spent six months developing social media guidelines and best practices for the organization. Our social media efforts were then officially launched in January 2010.
ClickZ: And how has it evolved since then?
Gordon: Within the first year, with zero budget and no directives, we saw a 98 percent adaption rate among AARP's 53 state offices across the country. Many of them were handling Twitter accounts and brand pages solo. That works fine if you are doing social at the level of having a message of the day for each day. But we quickly saw that if you really want to embed social as an ethos across all communications, an organization must invest early on. That means having a social strategist at the table whenever you are building out a marketing or PR campaign, as well as measuring and testing results of these efforts.
ClickZ: What does that integration look like at AARP?
Gordon: We have six social strategists for each issue or theme identified as important to the AARP. These issues are health, financial security, advocacy, volunteering, home and family, and personal time, which includes things like dating, travel, and technology.
ClickZ: How extensive is your presence on Facebook?
Gordon: Altogether on Facebook we have some 70 to 80 pages. We have 53 local offices, each with their own Facebook presence, and beyond that we have specialty pages around certain hyper-focused audiences. If you post more than one to three times a day, you begin to hurt your page's numbers, so we often build a separate presence such as the AARP advocates page for those who want "all politics all the time," or the AARP page in Spanish, which shares bilingual stories and news.
ClickZ: Do you target specific members when you reach out on social media?
Gordon: Our social media audience tends to be on the younger side - our primary audience is between 50 and 60, with participation much lower above 70. Interestingly, the next biggest audience after the Baby Boomers is people between 40 and 50. We have tens of thousands of followers on social media in this age category. It will be interesting to see what impact maintaining ongoing contact with this audience via social media will have in the future, and whether they will be more likely to become members than those we made contact with via direct mail campaigns. When you get a membership card in the mail at 50, you may be more willing to join if you've already established a relationship with us. I think this bodes well as Generation X enters AARP age in less than two years.
ClickZ: What are the characteristics of Baby Boomers when it comes to social media?
Gordon: Baby Boomers are more fluent in social media than our older members. They use it at work so they are quite comfortable with it and have an entrepreneurial outlook on figuring new ways to use these platforms. Facebook is the most important platform for the Boomers, and they are highly engaged, doing lots of commenting. Accordingly, our biggest focus is on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but we also post on Pinterest and Google+ on a daily basis. Others we take part in include LinkedIn, Instagram, Tumblr, and Flickr. We watch where our audience is joining, securing accounts, and then trying to figure out if that area might be growing. Pinterest was a personal passion of several people on our social media team, but it quickly became clear that this is an important business platform for our target audience. Boomer women love it - out of all Pinterest users, the AARP The Magazine is among the top five things they read!
ClickZ: What have been some of the more successful AARP campaigns on social?
Gordon: The hottest campaigns have been based around advocacy work, such as our efforts to fight for Social Security and veterans' benefits, a membership drive around Veterans Day, and fundraising for senior hunger associated with our Drive to End Hunger campaign at NASCAR events.
ClickZ: So what did success mean on the Social Security issue? What were your objectives and methods? (Editorial note: A budget proposal in Congress called the "Chained CPI" envisions lower cost of living adjustments to Social Security payments, which AARP estimates would result in a loss of $146 billion in benefits over the next 10 years.)
Gordon: On our Facebook page there's a calculator tool where people can find out how their benefits would be affected if the cost of living adjustment is changed. We also use Twitter and other platforms to drive people to the tool on the Facebook page or website. And on YouTube, we provide a whiteboard- style explanation of what the changes could mean. We give you everything you need to figure out how the cuts could affect you and then urge people to contact their member of Congress. As for the results thus far, we have reached more than 18 million people with those messages on social media and saw a nearly 20 percent increase in engagements related to the posts. The YouTube video has also received over 6,000 views. (Editorial note: Gordon says AARP does not release more specific internal metrics.) And most significantly, no changes in the law have taken place. We are fighting so that whatever bills do pass do not contain the chained CPI and we have been successful thus far!
ClickZ: How do you measure success generally on social media?
Gordon: One measure of success is how many people have passed a post along organically to others, but success looks slightly different on each platform and for each business objective. Each one of our six units has numerous objectives they are trying to achieve. The challenge for us is not only to manage dozens of campaigns and sites, but also keep track of the results enterprise-wide. To help us with that, we use a tool from Spredfast that helps us pull all that information together. Rather than just Facebook analytics, it gives us the ability to get a bird's-eye look at what's happening on all of the different pages, so we can track social media success enterprise-wide. Each of our state offices can also view the results of their own localized efforts and manage their analytics. This empowers them to view and understand their own data, and improve based on that data. The enterprise-wide team can see everything, allowing us to report to our executive team and board in real time how the organization is performing and resonating with our audiences on social media.
ClickZ: What other issues do you face in your social media efforts?
Gordon: Another challenge is to continue to shift perception within our organization that social media is of strategic importance. For those who work on it every day, it feels like standard operating procedure. Yet nearly every week we discover someone not aware of what we are doing or unsure how social might help them achieve a goal. So part of our job as the social media team is to teach it across the organization. It's a big leap for many executives within the business units, but our team is here to help execute and educate along the way.
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Mary Lisbeth D'Amico is a freelance writer based in Jersey City who frequently covers digital marketing, social media, tech startups, and venture capital. She has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Red Herring, and Real Deals. Find her on Twitter at @mldamico.
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