NCFY Reports

Building Communities Through Online Social Networking

Think of social media as word of mouth on steroids. Social media, or social networking tools, like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, enable people and organizations to create online profiles, discover others who share their interests, and create an online network of hundreds, even thousands, of contacts and supporters, or in social media speak, “friends” and “followers.” For nonprofits, that could translate into new volunteers, advocates, supporters, and, yes, even donors.

NCFY spoke with two social media experts to learn the whys and hows of using social media: Najlah Hicks, founder of Do 1 Thing, a nationwide effort now raising awareness of homeless youth and encouraging people to do one thing to help the cause; and Heather Rist, marketing and development coordinator at Avenues for Homeless Youth, which provides emergency shelter, short-term housing and support services for homeless youth in Minneapolis, MN.

We asked, what’s all the buzz about social media?

Low-cost marketing

The biggest advantage of online social networking, both say, is the relative cost-effectiveness. Hicks says, “By forming communities through online social networking, one person or one organization can reach millions of people, in an inexpensive way, within a matter of weeks, something that was impossible 10 years ago.”

Also, it’s an effective way to tell the story of your program and clients. “By telling the stories of the people you’re helping, you can explain why your organization does what it does every day,” Hicks says. It’s a valuable way to connect with your community, including prospective volunteers and donors.

It’s not just a fad

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 79 percent of adults in the U.S. used the Internet last year, and 46 percent of those adults frequented social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. And the number of teens using social networking is much higher and growing every day. Even if it doesn’t pay off now, social networking is an investment in the future, Rist says.

Ready to get social?

Here are our experts’ tips for establishing an online presence:

  1. Experiment. If you’re not sure how it all works, go online and try out a few different social media platforms. Visit the sites of organizations similar to yours and see what they are doing and what the reaction has been. Experiment and determine whether or not online social networking is even a fit for your organization. If you feel totally stumped, ask your volunteers or even your clients if any of them could show you how social networking platforms work and how various nonprofit organizations are using them.
  2. Find out which of your supporters already use social media. Ask folks in your existing network—board members, employees, volunteers—whether they have a Facebook or Twitter account, or whether they belong to other online networks. That may help you decide which platforms to use. Once you get set up online, invite them to join your digital network. And ask them to invite their friends.
  3. Make a plan. Just setting up shop and collecting "friends" won’t necessarily result in donors and supporters. Once you’ve determined what type of presence your organization needs, draft a plan for your effort and set some goals.
  4. Devote staff time to making your social networking effort a success. Just because you create a presence doesn’t mean people know it’s out there. Enlist someone to manage your social networking who is enthusiastic about using new technology and wants to do it every day. You can do social media in as little as 15 minutes a day, but to build support for your cause or your program, it will probably take more time. But, Hicks says, probably not more than you’re already spending on traditional marketing.
  5. Communicate with your social networks on a regular basis. Hicks suggests updating Facebook pages at least once a week. Rist sometimes updates Facebook content daily, like during a recent fundraising campaign. Both send tweets a couple times a day. The point is to send out interesting or useful content, but not overload people with information. If your organization’s president is speaking at a big event, let your network know. You may even want to post the remarks afterward. If you get a nice donation, thank the donor on your Facebook page. If your organization needs winter coats, tweet it!
  6. Make sure communication is not one-sided. Ideally, social networking is a dialogue. Don’t just pump out information to your network. Engage your audience. Thank people who sign up to receive your tweets. Follow people or organizations that follow you. Retweet their messages. If someone comments, “Thanks for the great work!” simply responding “You’re welcome,” goes a long way toward showing your network you're listening and engaged.
  7. Activate your social network supporters. Eventually you’ll want to start turning your “friends” and “followers” into volunteers and donors. Make sure your outreach efforts feature lots of ways to get involved. Include donation opportunities on your social networking pages. (Facebook has special “Cause” pages where people can donate directly to your organization.) Be specific when you ask your friends to do something for your organization. And always let people know what happened at an event or with a campaign, even if they didn’t participate. They might get involved the next time.
  8. Learn from your experiences. Be prepared to adapt your approach to the results you’re getting (or not). Don’t give up if you don’t have as many friends or followers as you anticipated. Expect to be learning and making adjustments all the time.
  9. Remember the social part of social media. It’s supposed to be fun, interactive and engaging, not just one more thing on your “to do” list.
  10. Blog it. Although Hicks insists that social media really isn’t scary, if you’re still intimidated by the prospect, consider blogging. Blogging is just like writing an e-mail, she says. Write a couple of paragraphs, hit send; it shows up on your website and allows readers to comment publicly.
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