It’s the Engagement, Stupid: 6 Keys to Building a Blog to Strengthen Your Nonprofit’s Supporter Base

“Newspapers are just blogs that get ink on your fingers.Stephen Colbert

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Blogs are media.  They’re also social.  They aren’t rocket science.  You can build a great blog.  But why would you want to?  Aha!  That’s the question too many nonprofits fail to ask.  So ask.  Seriously. Take a moment.  I’ll wait.

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Lewis Carroll

Nonprofit blogs may not be rocket science, but they should be rockets.  Where do you want to go? If you’re being honest, my hunch is you’ll want your blog to strengthen your supporter base. And before you argue that, no, you just want to “create awareness,” then answer this question: “What the heck for”?

Speaking of rockets, I like to think of the “Captain’s Log” from Star Trek.  A precursor to the blog (we had no web then), it captivated us through great stories — gripping content shared from episode to episode… from one generation to the next… a compelling record of the mission. You’ll read a lot of articles about the importance of content [here’s a great one from Neal Shaffer with 10 Tips on How To Create High Quality Content for Blogs]; less about the importance of sharing.  Why is that?

Let’s look at the traditional building a blog formula, and then consider a paradigm that will be more effective getting you to your goals.

Traditional Building A Blog Formula:      Content + Promotion

Effective Building A Blog Formula:            Content + Promotion + Engagement Strategy

The traditional blog-building model is too much about youYou decide what you’re going to tell folks; tell them what you’re going to tell them; then tell them.  An ego-centric, one-sided monologue. 

The effective blog-building model focuses on what your constituents tell you they’d like to learn. You have a conversation to probe what questions you can answer for folks; then you answer.  It’s a constituent-centered, multi-sided dialogue.

If you don’t pay attention to what folks are doing and saying you’re missing a huge opportunity. It’s like having a gigantic, super-effective focus group; then just walking away and doing nothing with the lessons learned. You’d never do that, would you? Nope. You’d listen and discover. Similarly, in the process of building and promoting your blog you’ll realize it’s super easy to find the people who value what you do. They’re the ones who open your posts, comment on them and/or share them.

I’m not saying you don’t need great content.  You do!  It’s an absolute must. But it must be something your constituents want. Content must be interesting to be engaging. [See How To Generate ROI (Return On Interesting) With Content Marketing]. A blog (or any other media) will not help you sell something no one wants. So you’ve got to listen to folks.  It’s even a good idea to go so far as to ask folks what they care about. [For ideas about how to do this, see How To Create Reader-Centric Blog Content that Engages – Be Purposeful and this by Bob Geller 6 Tips for Channeling Voice of Customer to Boost Content and Social Media Marketing Efforts].

I’m not saying you don’t need to promote your blog.  You do!  If folks can’t find you they can’t read you.  If you’re not making it clear what’s in it for them, they won’t read you. If they don’t read you, it’s darn unlikely they’ll share you with their friends – let alone be called to take the action you’d like them to take. So promotion is essential. [For blog promotion ideas see The Keys to Nonprofit Blogging that Drives Engagement and 3 Essential Building Blocks to Kick-Start a Successful Nonprofit Social Media Strategy: Website, Email and Something Else].

I am saying your blog needs an engagement value proposition that gets people talking!  What’s your blog really, after all?  It’s online word-of-mouth water cooler talk (that’s what made Star Trek ultimately such a hit). It’s got to be interesting… intriguing… inspiring… educational… funny… something your reader perceives as worth their time. And, if you’re lucky, worth their friends’ time. You’ve got to grab folks’ attention.  You do this by providing something so valuable that people want to provide something of value back to you in return.  Not right away necessarily, but when the time is right.  If you engage people authentically, they’ll be there for you when you really need them.

“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”   Albert Einstein

If you’ve got valuable stuff a strong engagement strategy will help you take it sky highIn other words, if you’ve got meaningful, relevant, useful content (and this could be a great mission, service, product or volunteer/donor experience) engaging folks so they spread the good “word-of-mouth” digitally can mean the difference between just limping along at status quo or gaining strength and growing by leaps and bounds.

So, let’s talk about how to build your blog’s business engagement model.  From 21 Business Blogging Tips From the Pros, you want to think of each of your posts as a product. An engaging, valued product. You begin by putting in place feedback mechanisms that enable you to ascertain your customers’ problems.  In the world of startups this is called the “validated learning loop.”  Imagine your “stuff” [aka mission, program, service, experience, marketing message, etc.] on one side and your “customers” [aka clients, participants, staff, colleagues, volunteers, donors, etc.] on the other. Now boil this “stuff” down to the messaging you’re putting into your blog posts.  And boil the “customers” down to the different personas you anticipate may be reading your blog [see Heidi Cohen on How to Create Marketing Personas].    Then you can develop your post/product to solve your different customers’ problems!

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      Ask yourself these 6 questions:

  1. What are the top three problems we address?
  2. What are the top three problems our constituents have (think about them in segments)?
  3. Where do these problems overlap?
  4. What do we have to offer that folks want?
  5. What’s unique about what we have or how we offer it?
  6. What’s our unfair advantage?

It’s a crowded marketplace, so your blog engagement strategy must emanate from the answers to these questions. To quote Doug Kessler from HubSpot in Why Marketers Need to Rise Above the Deluge of Crappy Content: You’re competing … in an epic battle for the scarcest resource on Earth: people’s attention. And the thin slice of attention that might be called your addressable mindshare — the part that people reserve for the issues you’re talking about — is getting smaller and smaller. Because every prospect is being targeted by even more content across many more issues that have nothing to do with you.

You’ve got to stand out.  What separates wheat from chaff in this brave new world of inbound marketing is not simply content.  It’s engaging content, served up by you through the effective engagement strategy you’ve carefully built. You’ve got to have a plan, and it’s got to be more than broadcasting how awesome you are; it’s got to get you connected to people.  This is called lead generation, and businesses with blogs get more leads than those without them. So, starting with theory and ending with practice, let’s walk through a 6-step strategy to get you engaged!

6-STEP ENGAGEMENT THEORY

  1. Engage from the core of who you are and what you do to make the world a better place. Hopefully you – and everyone affiliated with you — know the leading problems you address off the top of your head.  If not, you may want to engage in some mission definition exercises. And don’t forget – just like in the game show Jeopardy– phrase your mission in the form of a question. A top problem is not having a senior meals program.  It’s “what can we do to prevent seniors from being hungry?”

  2. Engage by knowing what problems your constituents have. Don’t hypothesize. Engaging begins with telling your story; then listening to see if your engaging tale helped a light bulb go off in your constituent’s head. Joe may comment: “Oh! This is what you do to get homeless a warm bed and off the downtown streets? That’s exactly my concern too.”  The real-time feedback you get from blog opens, comments and shares gives you a way to become attuned to what truly resonates with your constituents. [For more on how to get feedback from your constituents, see Get Wise to What Your Nonprofit Blog Readers Want].
                                            
  3. Engage from your sweet spot – the place where what you do and what your constituents care about overlap. In the example above, you might be able to help Joe simply by telling a story about how your organization (with the help of people like Joe) got Emily into a shelter. This helps Joe see himself as a character in your story – hopefully even with a starring role – and that’s what you want! You can then follow up with a call to action that gives you further information (e.g., “Which of the three ways we helped Emily do you think was most effective?”).

  4. Engage by offering folks what they want.  Now that you’ve listened and know your constituents’ problems, do what you can to solve them. Besides listening, do some active research. For starters, find out their most frequently asked questions.  [For research ideas, see 3 Little Understood Factors Affecting Your Nonprofit Blog Readership – and How to Quickly Fix Things].Are you hearing that your constituents want helpful tips?  Access to cutting-edge research? Discount tickets to events? Opportunities to meet your staff?  Behind-the-scenes tours? Fun contests? Guided travel? Volunteer opportunities?  Give them these things in your blog posts.  Then conclude your posts with an engagement opportunity to “click here” if they’d like to download special reports with more tips, sign up for travel information, volunteer and/or donate.

  5.  Engage from how you’re the only one like you. Express who you are in your own unique way.  Understand your brand and find your essence. Give yourself permission to be you.  Don’t copy what others are doing (it’s okay to ‘borrow’ if you find great, resonant ideas). Always speak and listen from your heart.

  6. Engage from your advantage. Figure out how you’re different from your competitors, and let your freak flag (on non-freak flag) fly.  Vive la difference!

6-STEP ENGAGEMENT PRACTICE

Let’s take a real life nonprofit and walk them through these questions. When we’re through you should have a pretty good idea how to do this for yourself. Then, you just need to apply what you’ve learned to build your own blog engagement strategy.  I’m choosing OneJustice (OJ) as an example, as they happen to be a client of mine that recently began a blog.  And they’re already rocketing it! So for fun, let’s do a rocket count down:

6. Engage using your unfair advantage. Let’s face it.  All nonprofits have competition.  OJ is not the only social justice organization on the block. But they do have a few things that can’t be copied or bought.  One of these is their executive director, Julia Wilson.  Julia happens to be awesome. And what’s ‘unfair’ is not that she’s got education, experience, wisdom, honors and accomplishments to burn (which she does!), or that she’s loved and respected by just about everyone (which she is!); what’s really their unfair advantage is something you can’t buy or teach.  Julia is contagiously passionate about OJ’s mission. She’s also a fantastic writer. So she does a lot of their blogging. People respond to her directly.  And she responds back personally.  Can’t you just imagine the contagion spreading?  It takes time, but it can’t be beat in terms of supporter engagement.

5. Engage using what you have that’s unique from your competitors. Personality is often an unfair advantage. But it’s not the only thing that sets your organization apart.  For example, location/breadth of reach can distinguish you. OJ serves as anchor to a network of 100 statewide legal aid organizations, so they’re positioned to attract gifts from folks who appreciate leveraging their investments (a purely local organization could similarly appeal to those who want to give to the neighbors in their own back yard). Here’s a OneJustice blog post example that makes it clear they not only help a network of nonprofits, but also find ways – on their own – to reach out to people in rural areas who are not being served by any existing organizations. Here’s a different OJ post example that gives the microphone to one of their network members, effectively reminding folks of their reach and offering an outside testimonial of their essential role.

Other examples of what may make you unique include: longevity (tried and true? innovative and new? blog from your strength rather than trying to look like something you’re not); resources/talent (don’t hide your celebrated researchers, award-winning professors or other specialists from public view); reputation (having a 4-star rating on Charity Navigator is swell, but it’s boring for a blog post; let others write testimonials on your behalf or link to a wonderful write-up you’ve received by a noted news organization – and then add value by including supporting data, comments or whatever you can to give it a personal spin); constituencies (do you have natural affinity with folks who could be influencers on your behalf? Mommy bloggers? Eco-friendly bloggers? Elementary school teacher bloggers? If you’ve got some ‘peeps’ out there, ask them to ‘peep’ and share your blog posts with their networks); culture (if part of your organizational values is that you’re innovative, then sound hip and plugged-in in your blog; if you’ve got a culture of honesty, then be transparent and open in your posts. Find your voice; don’t try to sound like everyone else). You can no doubt think of more differentiators. 

4. Engage from what folks want. OJ began to understand their constituents wanted to be an active part of the solution.  So on the program side they expanded their Justice Bus Trips that take volunteers to help folks in rural counties. On the blog side they created a simple, heartwarming video that allows these volunteers – and those they helped – to say thank you.  Do you find it engaging?

3.  Engage from your sweet spot – that place where you and your constituents’ values overlap. OJ and their constituents are passionate about equal justice for all.  So OJ tried something fun. A contest! What is your favorite justice-related movie? This got them the most comments of any of their post to-date. Plus they followed up with And we have a winner!, giving their readers instant feedback, not to mention a valuable list of movies they might enjoy.  Very engaging, and not at all “stuffy” and “lawyerly.”   Just fun!

2. Engage from what you know your constituents care about.  OJ wasn’t sure, so they asked folks their dream for 2013. I’ll be honest – they didn’t get a lot of feedback.  But they’re still new at this and building their blog readership.  The important thing is they’re trying, and they’re doing it thoughtfully and according to plan. Effective engagement requires a plan. If you’re just randomly posting stuff, then you don’t know your direction.  You’ll get somewhere, but… will it have been worth your effort?  Put together an Editorial Content Calendar and really use it (this particular ‘dream’ post was planned to coincide with both the making of new year’s resolutions and the coming Martin Luther King holiday).

1. Engage from your core.  In the blog post mentioned above, OJ also seized an opportunity to synopsize their key initiatives for the coming year. They included clear and user-friendly calls to strengthen their supporter base (asking folks if they’d like to click/donate to any of these projects). 

BLAST OFF! Getting folks to support your mission is what it’s ultimately all about! Must your blog go where no one has gone before? Not at all.  But your blog should be your blog.  It should be engaging to your constituents.  It should showcase your unique stuff and competitive advantage.  And… one more practical/actionable tip:

Don’t forget the rocket fuel. One of your primary engagement strategies is getting folks to sign up for your email list. As Stanford Smith of Pushing Social puts it: Trade contact for content. Put a sign-up box front and center on your website and your blog. Give folks a good reason to sign up for your posts.  Always imagine your customer asking WIIFM?  Then answer them.  Maybe it’s simply to be the first to learn about volunteer opportunities or events that tend to fill up quickly/sell out.  Or maybe it’s a chance to be entered into a raffle to win one of your cool tee shirts.  Perhaps they get to download your list of the top 10 justice movies… or eco-friendly businesses… or books for children… or safety tips for seniors. Test it out for yourself.  But give them something they value. And make the sign-up not just enticing, but easy – even from a cell phone [See Best Practices for Optimizing the Email Opt-In Process].

Engagement means emotional involvement and commitment. Humanize your blog. Get emotionally involved. Weave personal stories, experiences, opinions and lessons learned into your posts. Showcase your personality, passions and interests. This is how we connect with others and build relationships. And this can be incredibly effective for connecting with your readers and growing your supporter base.

Keep engaging; don’t give up.  It takes time to build relationships, whether online or offline. Keep giving folks reasons to talk about you and seek you out.  Blog on!

What kinds of blog posts have you found especially engaging?  Have you garnered supporters from you blog?  Please let us know what’s working!

Claire Axelrad
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE contributes a monthly column on Social Media and Nonprofits. Claire brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing leadership experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification. Named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Claire teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, is a web and audio presenter for Good Done Great Nonprofits and was recently honored as “Best Fundraising Blog” by FundRaising Success' 2013 Fundraising Professionals of the Year Awards. Her passion is instilling an institution-wide culture of philanthropy to help organizations build constituencies and drive increased income to sustain and expand missions. +Claire Axelrad
Claire Axelrad

@CharityClairity

Lifelong learner, listener, lecturer, lover, e'lucidator of all things philanthropic, passion-forward and people-centric. Fundraiser. Marketer. Innovator.
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Comments

  1. says

    Very valuable advice and definitely worth integrating this when start a nonprofit. It would take a bit more effort to change an existing company into being a social one, but that can be done as well.

  2. says

    Thanks for your comment. The truth is that everything I’ve written about driving engagement through blogging holds true for just about everything else your business does. It’s ALL about the engagement. And that means no more one-sided, pushy know-it-all type of content development and promotion. We’ve got to be open, multi-faceted and embracing of the value of crowd-sourced wisdom. That’s how we become a truly social business.

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