I worked for 30 years in the nonprofit trenches as a fundraiser and marketer. We rarely went the route of paid advertising. It was just too gosh-darn expensive.
Every now and then we’d get a nonprofit rate on a billboard or bus shelter ad, but that was about it. And they were never located in the prime neighborhoods. We took what we could get. Hand-outs. We were in the position of beggars can’t be choosers when it came to getting our share of the advertising pie.
Today we have a lot of choices for getting the word out.
With Web 2.0 advertising became democratized. At least, it offered up that potential. Anyone can share almost anything (catchy slogans, glossy photos, videos, cartoons, podcasts and more) – still mostly for free – on social media.
We’ve gone from being able to do next-to-nothing in advertising to almost-everything, seemingly overnight.
It’s a lot to process, and maybe a bit too much freedom for most nonprofits to handle. It raises many questions because just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should.
- How much social media advertising should you be doing?
- What type of content should it contain?
- How often should you do it?
- What resources are needed to implement a thoughtful, measurable strategy?
- How do you measure success?
Let’s break this down.
When it comes to how much advertising you should do, it’s useful to begin with the old-school definition of the word advertising (emphasis is my own):
“the act or practice of calling public attention to one’s product, service, need, etc., especially by paid announcements in newspapers and magazines, over radio or television, on billboards, etc.”
You certainly do want to make people aware of what you do and how you can help.
Of course, it only makes sense to call folks’ attention to needs that your organization’s products, programs, and services meet. Needs that they have. Needs that they perceive as relevant. Not needs they couldn’t give a fig about. Right?
That’s where old-school advertising broke down. It was a broad-based, scattershot approach that completely missed a lot of its marks. And that’s what made it so expensive and wasteful.
If I’m not thirsty, your coke ad won’t work on me. If I don’t have a baby, your diaper ad won’t catch my attention. If I’m not a nerd, your clever encrypted hexadecimal “Red Bulls Gives You Wings” billboard (below) will go right over my head.
Red Bull knew, of course, that not every Tom, Dick and Harry would understand this billboard. So they targeted it by putting it on a well-traveled corridor near the headquarters of Twitter, Square, Adobe, Uber and Dropbox in San Francisco. They know where their audiences hang out.
You can do the same thing with virtual billboards on social media.
But you’ve got to know first where your constituents hang out.
There’s no point in an Instagram or Pinterest strategy if very few of your peeps use it. Or a Facebook strategy for donors who primarily use LinkedIn.
And now we come to one of your challenges as a nonprofit. Just because folks are on social media doesn’t mean they want to hear from you there. A recent “Donor Engagement Study: Aligning Nonprofit Strategy with Donor Preference ,” by Abila generated some interesting results about how donors connect with nonprofits.
- Of the donors interviewed, nearly 50% indicated that social media is not where they want to engage with nonprofits.
- Of those who do welcome social media engagement, receptivity varies by generation. Millenials (72%) and GenXers (66%) are very welcoming. For Baby Boomers (38%) and Matures (21%) far fewer indicated this is a good channel or believe hearing from a nonprofit “every once in a while is OK.”
This doesn’t mean the older generations aren’t using social media. Quite the contrary. The DMN3 Institute reports that 91% percent of Boomers use one or more social media sites, with Facebook—at 85%—being number one.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and you don’t want to make assumptions about your donors or prospective donors. It can be helpful to look at other studies to see what’s true in general, but you also must find out what’s true for you.
The best way to find where your constituents hang out and how they feel about connecting on social media is with a quick survey.
Once you’re clear on the social networks your constituents use, then you can move on to developing the type of rich content and engagement that will meet their needs. Not puffery, but information that has “youtility.” Not static, one-sided monologues, but communication that opens the door to active dialogues.
Based on your results, you may even want to segment your audiences into groups (e.g., people who care about children vs. seniors; advocacy vs. direct services; performances vs. scholarships; patient care vs. research). When I worked at the San Francisco Food Bank we targeted Mommy bloggers (information about after-school snacks; school lunches) differently than food bloggers (information about general food distribution; nutrition).
You’d be well-served to also target “influencers” within these groups and ask them to specifically share your social media communications far and wide. You couldn’t do this with a stand-alone billboard because it was stuck in one place. Social media communications can have wings.
Now ask “What’s in it for folks to hear from you?” What matters to them?
Knowing where people hang out and how to reach them won’t matter one whit if you don’t know what floats their boat. So this is another question to ask in your quick donor survey. In addition to what you learn, there are two across-the-board truisms.
1. Everyone cares about the fundamentals.
- Show how donor money is being used wisely. Concrete outcomes.
- Show you are a reputable organization. Testimonials.
- Show your mission is meeting a demonstrated need. Real problems addressed.
- Show contributions make a demonstrable difference. Happy endings.
2. A majority also care about building relationships and staying in touch with friends.
According to Global WebIndex, 55% of Internet users use social media to stay in touch with their friends.
Even those who said they don’t particularly welcome social media engagement said they do welcome peer-to-peer fundraising! In fact, a majority of all generations are receptive to peer-to-peer (Younger generations 84%; Boomers 83% and Matures 63%). This presents a tremendous opportunity for nonprofits.
Could it be that you’ve been using social media the wrong way to connect with potential supporters?
Have you been thinking about it as a broadcast medium rather than a friendship-building medium? And have you been broadcasting out self-centered hyperbole and data (e.g., “We’re the biggest” “We served 78,000 people” “We’re volunteer-led”) instead of stories demonstrating outcomes and first-hand accounts testifying to the needs?
What if instead you shared personal stories and asked folks to join you in creating a happy ending?
Guess what? The Abila study revealed that outside of volunteering and making a financial contribution, donors feel most engaged when getting updates from nonprofits and especially when hearing personal stories.
Social media has changed the advertising game.
- It’s no longer about simply saying you’re an expert; it’s about showing your expertise using online forums and groups.
- It’s no longer about putting up a billboard with a sales pitch, and then hoping that enough of the right people will see it. You should find out where the right people hang out, and you should know they don’t want to be sold; they want to participate.
- It’s no longer about simply targeting donors by donation amount, pretty much ignoring those who are low on the totem pole. It’s about using multiple data points (e.g., age, channel preference, content preference, acquisition source, etc.) that take into account donor preferences.
People want to engage. They want to help. They want something they can do while their awareness is being raised. They want to be part of your nonprofit’s transformative story.
Here’s what’s changed in the internet age:
- You can better target your formerly scattershot approach to the folks who follow you because they value your mission.
- You don’t have to spend an arm and a leg (though don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s free).
- You can significantly amplify your results through social sharing.
Let’s talk about what these changes mean for you.
- Understanding why people use social media is critical. Why? So you can create a dynamic where your followers will share your stories and opportunities with their networks.
- People don’t want “advertisements” from you on social media. They want relevant content that’s so interesting and compelling it inspires them to share and become your advertisers. In other words, you don’t have to worry a lot (yet) about paid social media advertising. But it’s coming, so it pays to understand the data and be prepared for opportunities. In particular, nonprofits will probably want to look at Facebook ads and promoted tweets. You can check out some of the pros and cons on the top four networks here.
- Calling folks’ attention to what you do is less expensive than in the past, but it does require dedicated resources to collect compelling stories, create rich and user-friendly content and actively engage with users.
People of all ages today use social media to catch up on news about friends and family. Your goal? To create the type of content and engagement experience that will make them want to hear from you too, whenever they’re online. Become their friend. Give them useful, inspiring content. Stimulate them to want to share that content.