3 Essential Building Blocks to Kick-Start a Successful Nonprofit Social Media Strategy: Website, Email and Something Else

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Nonprofit marketing got a lot more complicated over the past decade as we evolved from Web 1.0 (internet) to 2.0 (social media) to 3.0 (mobile). Too many nonprofits still view the technology as largely disruptive, and potentially unnecessary [is someone in your organization still calling this a ‘fad’?]. This mindset allows folks to bury their heads in the sand, rationalizing that it’s best to ignore the digital revolution in favor of focusing on core programs and tried-and-true strategies. And this is understandable.

 Because despite what’s going on outside our doors, inside things haven’t changed that much. Most nonprofits continue to have the same number of staff and volunteers to help them execute. Yup!  That’s why the technology is so disruptive. Dang!

We’re also constantly getting interrupted by board members, volunteers and staff who want to know why we haven’t adopted the newest shiny object.  This leaves us with no time to do our core work – that stuff that brings in the big bucks and helps to improve the world. What’s a reasonable nonprofit development or marketing professional to do?

There are two logical — and simple — conclusions:

1. Build your social media engagement plan in phases.  Just as you’ve got to walk before you can run, you’ve got to master 1.0 before you can tackle 2.0 and 3.0. Heather Mansfield’s new book, Social Media for Social Good: A How to Guide for Nonprofits has some great tactical suggestions of how to do this, and ultimately integrate all activities – online and offline – into one fully realized strategic marketing plan.

2. Don’t try to do everything at oncefind where your audience is online and work from there. Having a single, established social media destination is better than having a dozen, half-finished ones.

Okay, let’s allow that “less is more” philosophy to sink in. You’ll notice I began with a suggestion that you find out where your audience is online. That’s because chances are good that the primary ways you communicate with your constituents are things you already have: Your website and email.  If you start with those – and really maximize them —  it means you’ll need to do less new stuff. And this isn’t lazy.  It’s classic.


The classic Product- Market Growth Matrix  beautifully illustrates why you should build incrementally and stop trying to do everything at once.  Why? Because the element of risk increases the further your strategy moves away from known quantities – the existing product and the existing market. We’ve all got four things in our matrix: (1) Existing Markets; (2) Existing Products; (3) New Markets, and (4) New Products.

The easiest, most cost-effective things to do are:

Market Penetration: Taking existing products to existing markets;

          Product Development: Taking new products to existing markets, and

          Market Development: Taking existing products to new markets.

The least cost-effective thing to do, both in terms of time and money, is:

Diversification: Taking new products to new markets.

Every time you try to do too many things, and try to be all things to all people, you’re in that risky diversification territory.  Let’s say you put up a Pinterest board (new product) and start hoping random folks will find you (new market).  Or you add a Google+ presence (new product) and wait for folks to add you to their circles (new market). Every time you find yourself going in the direction of diversification, pull yourself back. Take a moment to clear your mind.

You must get clarity around your goal: using social media to help achieve your business goals; not having it compete for resources you’d rather invest elsewhere. With this goal being paramount, you must:

FIRST, determine the amount of time you can realistically dedicate each day to your online marketing efforts. The key to success with social media is to outline a reasonable strategy which uses time-saving tools and sets forth clear ROI expectations. And always keep this in mind:  Social media is a marketing tool. Period.  It makes little sense to go nuts using all the new tools you don’t know how to use when your job simply requires a hammer or a drill.  If your hammer is rusty, just get a better hammer (e.g., improve your website or get a better CRM that enables you to integrate email with your fundraising database).

NEXT, find the social network that’s right for you.  Even if you’re playing a small game, you’ve got to get in it.  You’ve got to play.  If not, you will find that you’ve become completely out of touch with your own brand [See 5 Reasons Why Nonprofit Marketing Must Change From Inside/Out to Outside/In]. Because we no longer own our brand; it’s defined by others. Among small businesses Facebook and Twitter are still the most used platforms, with LinkedIn next and Pinterest and Google+ gaining.  In addition, more than half (55%) of small businesses surveyed have a blog. All these activities take different amounts of time (see cool infographic How Much Do Small Businesses Spend on Social Media?). I like these most used business platforms for nonprofits as well, but it’s important for you to define and understand your own community.  No one size fits all.

FINALLY, begin and end with content. As Jeff Bullas reveals in a recent study, Content is King… Not Social Media. Or as thought leader Seth Godin concludes, content marketing is “all the marketing that’s left.” For a better understanding of why content is the lynchpin of your successful social media strategy, check out  Five Killer Content and Social Media Marketing Resources.

So… let’s get down to the practical stuff. 

 THREE ESSENTIAL BUILDING BLOCKS of a successful online marketing program

1.  A great website (and/or a blog)… because it’s the hub of your content.

Your website is the home for your message. Remember, this is the place you must begin. If your website still looks like an online brochure – with very little in the way of visuals or interactive components — it’s time to change.  If it’s difficult to make changes to your website – you find the content tends to quickly get outdated – then it’s time to change. If the lion’s share of content on your website is all about how awesome you are — all the awards you’ve won and a long recitation of your history – it’s time to change. Content is still king. And what people really want to know about is the people you’re helping. And speaking of website content, you should have a blog [Check out 8 Answers to Why Nonprofits Need a Blog].  In fact, more and more businesses – both for profit and nonprofit – are beginning to merge their blog and website so that they’re one and the same. Some folks simply have a blog; others have a blog tab on their website.  Regardless, it’s where all the good stuff is (i.e., the content that’s fresh and relevant and meaningful to your constituents). Your website/blog is the hub of your activity; a point of embarkation/disembarkation for all your content and socialization.

 2.  Email… because it’s still the biggest communications tool we have

Email gets your message heard. And it’s direct and segmentable.  . Plus, research shows that email marketing converts better  than search and social channels. More people complete the transaction with email – 33% vs. 3%. But don’t forget: Building your list is still a big deal.  Why?  Because you can have the best fundraising plan and the best communications plan in the world; it still will do you no good without an audience. So building your email list should be a key part of your social strategy. And you can drive email opt-ins from your social pages/spaces.

 3.  Something else … because you need to find people where they are, be in the 21st century and build relationships.

Social media gets your message shared. John Haydon  explains here why you need both email and social media. Email is unbeatable at this point as a distribution mechanism.  However, it’s not a tool for collaboration. It’s not a place where people collectively come together. In other words, it isn’t “social.”  So, pick something. I suggest you keep it simple. Don’t ‘spray and pray.’ [Check out The 3 Worst Ways to Use Social Media to Grow Your Business (And What You Should Do Instead) from Social Media Today]. But feel free to engage in all of the social-media activities you want to, as long as you’re not just doing ‘transactions’. Think about ‘engagement’. In the early days of social media, organizations thought of it as a tool to push out information — raise awareness, communicate project news and so forth – all with the end goal of asking for and securing a donation.  This is no longer the primary benefit of social media (more on this below).

Okay, so now we know the three building blocks. Don’t jump all over #3 until you’ve mastered #1 and #2.  But do think long and hard about getting to #3 as quickly as humanly possible.  Why?  Because you can’t afford to ignore the dramatic changes taking place in how people interact with brands. When others are giving people choices, you need to do so as well. Your supporters want and expect choices (not too many; just enough).  And you really need all three building blocks to have a strong marketing communications foundation.  And here’s why # 3 is so important.

Social media amplifies the very essence of YOU. It’s where you and others can talk about your content. Your story. Your mission. Your vision. Your values.  When your content get distributed and discussed across different social channels it becomes more authentic.  You aren’t just puffing out your chest and talking about yourself.  Other folks are talking about you!  In other words, social media is the time-honored and very best way for folks to get to know you – word of mouth. Done well, social media is a way to leverage all the great content you already have.  Take what you’ve already created for your website and email and use it socially.  Voila: two (or three, four or five) for the price of one!

Social media participation reflects the very essence of COMMUNITY.  It’s where others can add to your content.In fact, sometimes social media is called user-generated content or citizen media. Yup. Community. And isn’t that what most nonprofits are about?  Aren’t we building a caring community that comes together to change the world and right what’s wrong? What could be better than engaging in meaningful dialogues with those who share the values we enact in the world?

Social media kick starts a meaningful DIALOGUE. And your social media strategy will not be successful until you engage folks in meaningful conversations. Don’t fall into the trap of passively waiting for folks to come to you. That’s where Nonprofit Social Media is a Waste of Time. Think carefully about the conversation you want to have.  Don’t just ask yes or no questions (like “will you donate?”). Ask folks what’s meaningful to them.  Ask them to share their impressions… photos… advocacy… time… ideas. Unlike your website and email, social media facilitates dialogue.  So be the hostess at the dinner party.  Lead engagement.  Make sure folks have a good time. And then make your Facebook and Twitter and Linkedin (and whatever else) calls to action link back to your website where the potential supporter is encouraged to register, comment, follow, tweet, share and actively get involved. You no longer have to guess what your constituents care about.  They’ll tell you. Repeatedly.  And if they really like what they’re seeing from you, they’ll tell their friends.

Wow!  Do you know what this means?  It means your brand can become refreshed on an almost daily basis.  It can evolve in a way that truly meets your constituents’ needs, values and desires.  It will never become stale. And – the ultimate — your constituents will become engaged as goodwill ambassadors on behalf of your mission. Now that’s what I call success!

You are not alone. Don’t despair if you feel like a Johnny-come-lately to social media. Less than half of for profit businesses in a recent survey have integrated social media into their business processes. 43% of U.S. firms are just getting started, or are still in the process of, evaluating whether or not it’s effective [See 3 Reasons Why Building Social into Marketing is a Significant Competitive Advantage.] So you’re in good company.  Now… let’s get started!


¨ Website

¨ Blog

¨ Email provider

¨ Email list

¨ Social media channel(s)

 Would you add anything else to this checklist? 

Is there a building block I’ve omitted? 

Please share.

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
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