Keeping up with the Joneses – social media edition

Interesting new survey just being reported on HubSpot on social media practices among 9,000 small to medium nonprofit organizations in North America.  Check it out here.

It’s always interesting to see what other folks are doing, in aggregate – my clients know that I am constantly asking where they are in relation to best practices and common practices.  You should never confuse the two…but the rules are the same: you need to know what the best practices are and you need to know what the herd is doing, because you never want to be far afield from either unless you have made a strategic choice to do so.

So, go through the report.  See how you stack up.  Remember that these are NOT best practices…and I’m going to go through some of the things I think are problematic for the organizations represented here…but aren’t you curious to see how you rank with social media savvy?

Helpful hint – be sure to include some of these findings in your next presentation to the board.  Regardless of whether you seem to be far ahead of the curve or need help to prioritize a jump into the 21st Century, it’s GREAT fodder for productive conversation at the board level.  

Let’s start with what I see in the Survey Highlights.

  • An overwhelming majority of nonprofits list Facebook as their primary social network.
  • Most nonprofits do not have a documented social media strategy.
  • Goals are varied and diverse – about half are measuring their results.
  • Responsibility typically falls to only one employee.
  • Tracking the social media accounts of donors within a donor database is a rare practice.

These are interesting.  Let’s reflect quickly.

1) it’s not a surprise that 98% of nonprofits use Facebook as their social media platform.  It doesn’t look like it’s the ONLY social media tool being used, which is good, but it’s a natural start.  It’s free, it’s simple to use, there’s not a lot of syntax or community norms to learn, and there are so very many people using it that it’s a great place to reach a broad chunk of your regular constituents.  That said, the low barriers and adoption rate probably also indicate that a lot of people are using Facebook without understanding it all that well.

2) My skepticism that Facebook is being effectively used plummets when combined with the lack of social media strategies.  I’m not surprised, of course…many of the folks I work with believe that having a budget that contains dollar goals for fundraising (particularly if they’ve broken it out into amounts they expect from various solicitation methods) is a development strategy.  And that’s the folks who don’t blink like an animal caught in your headlights and mutter something about “it’s not like we don’t have a plan…but: We don’t have the time to spend on putting things in writing.  It’s a constantly evolving thing.  We don’t need one – we’re a small staff and we all meet once a week.”  Oh, the excuses I’ve heard.

Look – very few people, in any industry, have time to burn.  I’ve heard some really creative and sometimes sad inventions used as excuses for not documenting strategies (inventions – that’s the word I like to use for the lies we may or may not realize we are telling ourselves, and often come to feel true).  Taking the time to put strategies on paper isn’t going to make you look like you’re not busy enough, that you have time to spare and are trying to make yourself look productive, that you are one of those fancy management type people who writes about ideas instead of actually doing real work…or, more sympathetically, that you just can’t afford to spend time on documenting something that needs to be done yesterday just like 5 other things on your to do list.

Documenting a strategy does one amazingly critical thing: it forces you to articulate, in a way that will make sense to someone else, what you’re attempting to do and why you think that’s a good idea.  When you have that down on paper, you should be able to think of ways to measure whether you’re making progress based on your stated goals.

That critical articulation is even more important than crystalizing your own thoughts (which is worth doing in its own right!) – you’re never working alone, particularly in a nonprofit setting.  You have a team – and a written strategy is essential to getting on the literal same page.  It’s important for your board to consider – the virtual identity of an organization is something that many people dismiss as a minor detail of operations, and yet, it is every bit as meaningful as the identity constructed in real life through programs and community interactions and tangible presence…if not more so, since the ability to interact directly with others is so much easier.

There’s also the reality of succession planning.  It doesn’t matter who’s running the day to day of your social media presence…it’s irresponsible to have any job function hostage to the individual performing it.  I use the “hit by a bus” scenario with my clients, but the reality is, people are going to leave your organization.  Whether it’s the entry level “communications assistant,” or yourself, unless the person actually posting the Facebook statuses, tweets, instagram pics, etc is operating under the guidelines and goals of a specific strategy, it’s going to be very hard to transition seamlessly…and it’s miserably hard to win back followers if you’ve lost them.  You put yourself at risk.

Don’t follow the herd on this one.  Don’t waste time on social media if you’re not going to do it strategically (oh, and by the way, you have to have a virtual presence these days, or you don’t exist to many people…so this is not actually justification for not using social media at all.).  Documenting a social media strategy will make you better.  It will also dramatically cut the risk when staff turns over.

3) Goals are varied and diverse.  I love this.  I mean, I hope this means that people are actually putting thought into how and why to use various platforms, and what social media can do for their specific needs…it also frees you from becoming too monolithic in your thinking of what each community should be used for.

4) It’s not surprising that one person is typically responsible for all social media operational details.  That’s easiest, of course.  But it’s dangerous.  Firstly, it’s often a lower level person – many organizations see their twitter account as scut work, only the tiniest step up from filing and photocopying.  But (and I’ve said this before), unless you trust that person to be your unsupervised representative to the press, to make partnerships with other organizations, to communicate directly with high level donors…they’re not the right person to be doing all of that through social media.  Also, if you force multiple people to work together to develop the “voice” of the organization, it’s much much more stable as an institutional tool.  That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to sacrifice the independent voices of your socially savvy representatives – senior staff, board members, etc.  If you’ve got someone who’s amazingly effective as a communicator on one or more of these channels, you can involve them in crafting the overall strategy, but you can also have them build independent accounts with followers that get linked to and shunted over to the main organizational account.

5) You should track social media accounts and preferences of your biggest supporters.  This is one of the hugely useful fundraising pieces of fundraising.  Let’s be clear: social media is a tool for communication.  If you use a channel exclusively for solicitations, anyone who finds that sort of thing annoying is going to tune out…and that’s most people.  Think about best practices of newsletters – whether online or printed and mailed, they have to be engaging, relevant, and otherwise interesting and valuable to the recipient.  Otherwise, they’re trash.  But if you’ve provided reasons for people to read said newsletters, you get the opportunity to make powerful solicitations within their pages.  So too with social media – focus on making each account relevant and interesting to your followers/friends/readers.

But if you succeed in communicating, you’ll start to see who follows you on each platform.  Does Jane Smith always “like” your status updates?  MAKE NOTE OF THAT.  If she’s capable of huge gifts, knowing how to get information to her before a meeting is a very valuable trick up your development sleeve.  You know she retweets your updates on a particular advocacy project, but doesn’t seem to care so much about the capital campaign?  Broach that with her.  “We’re obviously very focused on the roof renovation, but of course we still need ongoing support for our advocacy work.  Should we be talking about that instead?”

I can’t say this enough: unless fundraising and social media are integrated, you won’t be getting much development value out of your social media.  Maybe that’s OK – it’s your organization – but that’s the kind of strategic choice that has to come out in the creation of a plan with stated objectives…because it’s terribly hard to turn on a dime with a choice like that.  At a very very basic level though, you have to treat social media interaction as a touch…and if you have a good data management plan in place, you’re keeping track of touches.  Don’t ignore these – they’re real.  (I’m not sure what the right balance is, of course, that’s going to be highly variable between organizations.  But think of these “virtual” touches in IRL analogies.  You might not track each time you pass someone in the hall, but you might well make a note if you see them every day – it shows a passion for the cause.  Etc.)

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