Nonprofit Marketing Essentials – How to Build a Network with Social Media

I have been experimenting with marketing some of the services my organization provides. This experience has taught me a few essential lessons. Nonprofit Marketing Essentials is a series of posts intended to share some of those lessons so that we can learn together.

How to Build a Network with Social Media

Nonprofit organizations have an opportunity to leverage social networks in a way that most businesses do not. Typical businesses attempt to engage customers and potential customers in social networks through compelling marketing, conversations, and viral content. The network (or market) can become saturated with marketing, creating noise, so we must make an effort to do this well. Nonprofit organizations can engage constituents effectively via social media by developing an effective social media strategy. The first step is to understand social networks.

Use Social Media to Replicate Your Real-Life Network

Social networks do not just exist online. Facebook, Twitter, and the rest simply mimic, and sometimes exaggerate, our real life social networks. Engagement does not require a nonprofit to create their own social network, but it does require them to understand how the existing network functions and what is expected.

Communicate Your Social Media Strategy

A strong social media strategy should not be confused with a style guide or a social media guideline. Style guides are documents that outline the design and copywriting tone that will best reinforce the company’s brand. Social media guidelines are a list of rules and expectations what employees must follow in order to preserve the company’s reputation. A social media strategy is the way in which a company will leverage social networks to engage constituents.

Know Your Social Media Basics

You probably know this, but have never thought about it. According to Beth Kanter and Allison Fine, all social networks operate with two basic parts, nodes and ties. Nodes are the people or organizations that comprise the network and the connections between them are called ties. There can be strong ties and loose ties. Hubs are larger nodes within the network that have many connections. Well connected hubs influence others, which can cause something to go viral. An organization must not only understand who it is directly connected to, but who is an influencer and who occupies the edge of their network connections that might be better engaged.

Empower Free Agents

While employee behavior can be directed, social networks are comprised of free agents. A free agent is an individual working outside of the organization who participates in supportive activities such as organizing, mobilizing, fund raising, or communication and advocacy. Free agents can be powerful influencers in a social network. In order to empower free agents, non-profit organizations should get to know them, connect them to each other, allow them to explore the issues on their own, engage newcomers such as young people or those without credentials, welcome them, allow them to come and go as their passions shift, and follow their lead. On the surface, this sounds relatively straightforward, but this sort of fluid and interactive behavior is the opposite of the brand management behavior seen in most businesses and non-profits.

Raise Social Capital Instead of Managing the Brand

Typically, brand management involves creating content that reinforces the brand and controlling the narrative in the public sphere. Networking on the other hand involves quality interactions and transparency. While this may result in some communication that is off message it also generates social capital which is what makes relationships meaningful and resilient.

Have Quality Interactions

Quality interactions require an organization to listen more than it broadcasts. There are technical tools that organizations can use to listen to the conversation online, such Google alerts, but listening also requires an organization to respond to what they are hearing. For example, negative comments or reviews of products and services can give an organization an opportunity to respond that helps the constituent feel heard and clarifies misconceptions while not appearing defensive. As a general guideline a networked organization’s social media activity should be roughly 30% about themselves and their work and 70% sharing or engaging with the work of others. This builds social capital and encourages more conversation, which helps the organization seem more accessible to free agents.

Have Quality Content

Quality interactions are also only possible with quality content. All social media content that an organization broadcasts should be useful, unique, and have a clear call to action. There is a lot out there about search engine optimization. Ignore all that and write for humans.

Be Transparent

Some organizations are like fortresses preserving their intellectual property and trade secrets through a lack of transparency. Other organizations are more transactional, and their relationships are based on fulfilling agreed upon expectations. Networked non-profits are transparent. They achieve this through straightforward communication, clear value, letting external stakeholders know about their operations and communicating their result, whether positive or negative.

Be Authentic

Transparent organization must also be authentic. The founder of Whole Foods damaged the authenticity of his brand by spending seven years pretending to be an investor online; praising the company and attacking the competition. These may be basic lessons, but I find that many small nonprofits struggle with social marketing and those that do it well often limit their engagement to soliciting donations.

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