Social Media in the Nonprofit Sector

Social media-based marketing is a natural tool for organizations that depend on the willingness and interest of its supporters. These nonprofit organizations include museums, theaters, relief and aid services, and family and child support organizations. Such organizations are deeply connected to their members and the audiences they serve. They typically have solid contact information on which to build and more often than not have the capability to create both content and experiences that people inherently find talk-worthy. In fact, if they couldn’t do those things they would probably have gone out of business a long time ago.

Nonprofits depend on people taking an active interest in what they do: Volunteer efforts and donor support are often the center points of these businesses. Katya Andresen, via her blog and book “Robin Hood Marketing,” offers superb thinking on the challenges — and secrets for success — in marketing for nonprofits.

Compare this with the for-profit sector, a lot of which is filled with efficient providers of commodity or relatively low-involvement products that we know we must have. People know they need toothpaste and soap, for example. But most use whatever their parents used, making successes like Unilever’s Axe and Crest Whitestrips all the more impressive. Support for these products is assured at some base level, at least within the category.

Over in the nonprofit world, it’s uphill all the way. People don’t necessarily know they need theater or art, for example. (Keep in mind, these are typically the first programs, along with physical education, cut when school budgets get tight.) And no one thinks she’ll need the Red Cross until something bad happens, like a hurricane, flood, or fire. The challenge is that these types of organizations must continually drive awareness, get people involved, and maintain a high level of community visibility and participation simply to stay alive. It’s that much tougher when the economy heads south (an expression I still find odd given that I live in Texas) and corporate and individual donations dry up. Nancy Schwartz, who blogs at Getting Attention, is an excellent resource for marketers supporting nonprofit organizations with tips and insights on managing in any economic conditions.

Social media can be hugely valuable for nonprofit organizations. Because social media is largely consumer-generated, production costs can be low. Of course, maintaining an awareness of what people are saying takes real work — and that has real cost. However, this is a common challenge that anyone servicing a market faces: If you’ve got customers, regardless of what types of markets you serve, chances are they are talking about you. It is part of current reality that you stay up on what they are saying.

Over the past six weeks I’ve been leading a series of two-day social media workshops for the American Marketing Association. In each session a local nonprofit organization was invited to attend at no cost. Workshop attendees learned about the social Web and best practices (along with some handpicked worst practices) of leveraging the social Web in business and marketing. Attendees then planned and launched the core elements of a social media program for the participating nonprofit organization. This approach, borrowed from the “Web raisings” of the early ’90s and barn raisings of a century ago, provides everyone the forum to work through real issues in tackling social media. Best of all, the featured organization walks away with a plan.

The range of solutions developed was amazing. Too often people equate “doing social media” with putting up a Facebook page and/or creating a Twitter presence and using both of them to talk. We worked with three organizations: Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta, the Raue Center for the Arts near Chicago, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Las Vegas. Now the organizations have plans that collectively include Facebook, Twitter, Yammer, blogging and blogger outreach, FriendFeed, Flickr, YouTube, Eventful, Eventbright, and more. Each plan was integrated with each organization’s existing marketing program and anchored in a defined set of metrics. These plans will be implemented in coming months as a part of their regular marketing efforts. What exactly do these plans include?

Facebook was used in multiple ways. One of the theaters is using Facebook’s Groups feature for outreach to members while and its Business Pages for people who may not be on Facebook yet. Unlike Profiles and Groups, Business Pages can be viewed without a Facebook account. In another case, its Facebook Group is being used to organize people within the organization and as an internal conversational tool.

Twitter is being used for everything from business development to games that involve a live audience. Yammer was rolled out internally to overcome collaborative challenges. Services like YouTube and Flickr are being used for content sharing as well as to drive the content that appears in blogs and on Facebook through FriendFeed. This not only maximizes content exposure but also minimizes the amount of work required to actually keep everything running. The effort required to keep a social presence running was a major concern of all three participating organizations as well as the workshop attendees. Social media is real work, and there is no getting around that.

When the workshops wrapped up, the organizations left with a plan based on business objectives and a knowledge of their audience, a strategy that included social media and a selected set of short-list tactics to implement and measure. That basic methodology — business objectives, audience, strategy, a basis for measurement, and the selection of tactical methods — will serve any organization well. Including your for-profit business.

Join us for a one-day Online Marketing Summit in a city near you from May 5, 2009, to July 1, 2009. Choose from one of 16 events designed to help interactive marketers do their jobs more effectively. All sessions are new this year and cover such topics as social media, e-mail marketing, search, and integrated marketing.

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