A 10-step social media plan to engage donors and volunteers

purple heartSocial media activity within not-for-profit organizations is moving ever faster, but intended results don’t always keep up. Disappointing outcomes are usually not due to a lack of posts and tweets, but rather to neglecting to apply thoughtful strategy to this evolving marketing channel. While social media might seem to have taken on a life of its own, it’s one piece of the communications whole and needs as much informed direction as any other component.

Changing the way we give
The 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raised over $230 million, as well as awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The challenge is credited with numerous benefits: financing discovery of a new gene as a cause of the disease, the donor base broadening to a younger generation, and contributions rising and staying 25% higher than prior to the challenge. Social media delivered the key elements of success — the competitive and peer-to-peer elements, and celebrity participation.
When activity is not thoughtful — as in blatant requests for funds or assistance, or too-frequent dispatches — followers unfollow and disengage. When social media is strategically planned — as in pinpointing audience interest and channel choices — it can attract a loyal following and engagement.

Productive social media activity can be guided by the following 10 steps, aided by real-world examples from Habitat for Humanity International. Habitat’s Chris Clarke, senior vice president of marketing and communications, described his organization’s social media strategies and experiences during the Grant Thornton webcast Creative ways of using social media to further engagement.

STEP 1 Communicate your mission with stories and pictures

Informative, inspirational posts that highlight successes are received more positively than negative reports and pleas, and result in greater likes and shares.

Clarke explained that Habitat has found through research and experience that the best way to communicate their mission is by telling the story of a single family or an individual volunteer: “When we talk about the magnitude of the problem, it’s overwhelming for most people, and they don’t respond as well. [By focusing more narrowly,] we can better establish that there’s a critical need for affordable housing in every community, and we highlight the definitive role that Habitat can play in partnership with homeowners.” Posts feature family members working on the construction site and being assisted through the process of receiving a loan for their mortgage. Social media followers are shown that they can support families through volunteering, advocating or donating. 

Purposes vary by tool
Facebook is the most widely used platform and the most frequently visited, captivating 79% of internet users (68% of all adults), and most (76%) log in daily, according to the Pew Center for Research. On the other hand, LinkedIn is visited the least often (29% of internet users, 25% of all adults) among the most popular platforms, i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest. From a content perspective, Facebook is likely better for more frequent postings and LinkedIn for more in-depth articles.
STEP 2 Use different tools for different goals

It might be tempting to leverage as many platforms or tools as possible, but with limited time and resources, it is better to take a targeted approach based on communication goals.

“It’s important to balance your bandwidth with your aspirations,” Clarke said. “We want to make sure that if we venture into an area, we can be there for the long term.”

“We rolled out a refreshed approach to our branding, and Twitter started recommending us for the new look and feel. Our following rocketed past Facebook, which had been our largest audience. We think in the next few months [our Twitter followers will] be double what we have on Facebook.” Habitat has discerned the tools that work for specific purposes. The organization’s most engaged audience is on Facebook, typically the best driver for click-through traffic. Twitter is the organization’s largest audience, useful for monitoring conversations about Habitat, volunteers and homeowner stories; and general Q&A. LinkedIn is reserved for deeper conversations, career-related posts, benefits of volunteering and Q&A with executives. Instagram comprises the youngest demographic, and YouTube and Pinterest have the smallest audiences.

Fundamental social media goals
   •  Increase awareness
   •  Drive traffic to the website or event
   •  Boost engagement
   •  Learn from the audience
   •  Build community
   •  Grow donations and/or volunteers
STEP 3 One post should accomplish one goal

Select only one intention per post. Typically the least successful posts are those that have multiple goals, e.g., asking people to donate and also volunteer.

For Habitat, said Clarke, the three main engagement goals are those that motivate people to 1) like, 2) take a specific action and 3) donate. For example, a goal for several Pinterest posts is increasing organizational awareness, highlighting additional activities and programs that might not be commonly associated with Habitat. This provides users with the opportunity to engage in ways other than physical labor. “It broadens the entry points they might be willing to consider,” he said.

“This post is a teaser that asks a question rather than provide information. Its primary goal is to drive traffic to our website to find the answer. Likes, comments and shares are metrics we observed to measure its effectiveness. Each of those actions helps increase the number of people viewing the post on Facebook.”

STEP 4 Interact with your followers

Unlike traditional forms of marketing, social media allows for a two-way dialogue. Time and energy must be planned for both posting and meaningful interaction with users.

Habitat’s two full-time social media staff work to create conversations by monitoring direct messages and Habitat-specific hashtags and posts that tag the organization. They answer followers’ questions and concerns, thank them for comments, and suggest sharing or retweeting.

STEP 5 Stay clear of ads and direct requests

Already inundated with pop-ups, followers tend to ignore direct pleas or posts resembling ads.
However, requests — used sparingly — can be appropriate as a conclusion of sorts when preceded by sufficient information.  

“We strive to not overuse [direct requests], but because we require support, we occasionally incorporate them,” Clarke said. His research shows that it can take from 10 to 12 interactions for a person to move from initial interest to active support. “Social media gives us a great opportunity to build a relationship with that person so that when they do see an ad or a donation request, they’re more likely to consider it.”

STEP 6 Capitalize on celebrities, milestones and events

Users tend to follow people at least as much as organizations, making celebrity partnerships a valuable element of a social media strategy. Another effective element is focusing efforts around special events.

At Habitat, said Clarke, “we leverage our celebrity supporters and volunteers on our channels whenever possible. We try to repurpose [content] for both [our website and social media], and promote it with a single hashtag.”
Habitat for humanity

STEP 7 Have a plan, but be ready to adjust it

While integrated with the marketing plan, the social media plan needs to be malleable. Content can be planned well in advance, but the social media team should be ready to respond during events, such as natural disasters in Habitat’s case, reporting about activities in real time.

“We create a calendar of organizational events, milestones and campaigns,” said Clarke. “We try to schedule content; six weeks is ideal but not always reality. Having the calendar built out gives us the opportunity to do the things that are critical to our larger strategy but also gives us the flexibility to respond to current events or breaking news.”
Habitat for humanity

STEP 8 Know your target markets’ platform choices

With target markets identified, platforms are chosen based on the demographics they’re known to draw. Facebook’s user base has the broadest demographic representation of all the platforms; though particularly favored — along with LinkedIn — by baby boomers, it is fairly well-balanced by age, urban-suburban-rural and income levels. Users tend to be those who wish to linger longer for understanding and learning. Instagram is a great attraction for millennials, and Twitter, out of all the most popular platforms, has the highest proportion of users under age 30. Instagram and Snapchat use is greatest among Generation Z, generally those born 1990 and later, and younger millennials. The same message can be delivered across platforms, depending on the mix of audiences targeted, and results separately measured.

Foster follower engagement by keeping track of posts and activities that have worked, monitoring those attracting positive attention to other organizations, presenting your organization in creative and fresh ways, and being on the lookout for tools and trends.Habitat’s broader marketing team creates content ideas and posts for the social media messages, and repurposes them through multiple channels, e.g., an in-depth story on Facebook might be tweeted as a driver to Facebook or the website. Clarke explained: “Other times our posts are more focused on engagement rather than driving referral traffic to our website. Image posts for #FeelGoodFriday would be a good example of a post where we’d measure effectiveness simply by the number of likes and shares.”

STEP 9 Stay on or ahead of the curve

To be continually active and relevant, organizations must utilize new tools as they become popular. Current trending tools include Facebook Live event posts, Twitter parties and Twitter chats.

These tools, like all others in social media, have unique purposes and appeal. Facebook Live events are broadcasted videos. A Twitter party is an online event sponsored by an organization to educate followers about itself, conversing via tweets. It is more formal and structured than a Twitter chat, which usually takes place spontaneously — rather than at one specific date and time — and is a conversation about a particular topic. Both parties and chats can increase brand awareness and authority, and build a community and attract followers.

Of these tools, said Clarke, Habitat uses Twitter parties, but only selectively. “We have maybe only one or two every year. The parties are great for increasing awareness of an event or a special campaign. We’ve found that during some of our successful parties, we’ve become a top trending hashtag in the U.S.”

For the 2017 Home Is the Key-themed Twitter Party, Habitat tweeted a photo and essential information:
Join @Habitat_org's #HomeIsTheKey Twitter party on Wednesday, April 5 from 2-3 p.m. EDT!
The bitly linked to a detailed press release; the details, the tweet and copious retweets of Habitat affiliates, partners, volunteers and donors contributed to the party’s success.

STEP 10 Leverage the power of friends and connections

Some social media challenges for users to pit themselves against their peers have been remarkably engaging. In addition, recognizable names of businesses and other organizations curry curiosity and interest, and prompt retweets and shared links that hold more sway than direct contact from the not-for-profit itself.

Social media is an opportunity to celebrate important partnerships. On the 10th anniversary of its National Women Build Week, Habitat featured a Lowe’s Home Improvement executive volunteering on a home construction site. Lowe’s has been a longtime supporter, and the executive has been a longtime volunteer. Habitat used LinkedIn to post a photo and the story of the executive volunteer, showing her working at the site and quoting her about a mission in which she strongly believes. Engagement continued with Lowe’s picking up the Habitat story in its Corporate Social Responsibility reports, and the executive citing Habitat on her own LinkedIn page.

“Our supporters want to be associated with and recognized by our brand,” said Clarke. “In the Lowe’s example, that was a very engaging way to do that. One of our challenges is to be creative in how we approach opportunities with our partners because our work can’t be done without the support of communities and businesses in those communities. How do we tell the story of that support in a way that people will find interesting and engaging? We know the stories are out there; the challenge is the bandwidth to capture them and create the content.”

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