Given the ever-changing landscape of social media, which includes Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, finding the best form of social media—matched to organizational resources and goals—is vital in connecting with an audience, according to experts at Massachusetts nonprofits.
Before launching a presence on social media, an organization must figure out how much time and how many resources it can dedicate, said Charles Howe, the online giving coordinator at Boston-based Partners in Health (PIH). By figuring out early on what resources an organization can commit, nonprofits will have a better idea what types of social media work best for them, he said.
“Like many organizations, we are in a constant process of figuring out what works well for us,” Howe added.
PIH, which works to bring modern health care to poor communities in a dozen countries, saw its popularity on social media platforms soar after January’s earthquake in Haiti. Prior to the earthquake, the PIH Facebook page had about 8,000 “fans,” said Howe. Today, PIH’s page has more than 60,000 fans. Facebook users become a “fan” of an organization’s page to receive updates and photos on their own newsfeed. Becoming a fan of an organization also allows users to comment on anything PIH posts on its page and interact with fellow fans.
Currently, PIH has limited itself to gaining a strong foothold on both Facebook and Twitter before expanding to other forms of social media. To do so, PIH updates its Facebook and Twitter pages at least one to two times a day, said Howe.
The difficult part of these forms of social media is its constantly-changing nature, he said. Twitter and Facebook work on timeline features, meaning the most recent posts are seen first when a user logs into their account. The danger with this feature is that someone who only checks their Twitter account at night might not see something PIH posted earlier in the day, said Howe.
David West, the online community and communications specialist at PIH, said social media allows his organization to “unpack” information for its audience. He said PIH’s six-month report featuring the organization’s relief work in Haiti since the earthquake will be unpacked into smaller pieces so that fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter, respectively, can read it at their own pace.
More Forgiving than Email
West said social media is “a much more forgiving environment than email.” With email subscriptions, West said, PIH would send the six-month report in its entirety to subscribers. With the aid of social media, PIH pulls out pieces of the report and posts relevant information on its pages so as to not overwhelm its audience with too much information at once.
Nora Ganim Barnes, director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, recently published a report on how nonprofit organizations nationwide use social media. She examined how the nation’s largest 200 organizations charities use social media and found that charities are using social media at a higher level than businesses or academia.
Of those 200 nonprofits, 97% use some form of social media. The motivation behind nonprofits building a social media presence is mainly financial, said Barnes. Nonprofits seek ways to communicate that did not cost a lot of money, so they turn to free social media outlets, she said. When she started examining social media and charities three years ago, 25% of the organizations Barnes studied were not involved with social media; today, that number has shrunk to only 3%.
“Social media is very user-friendly and does not have a huge learning curve,” said Barnes.
Although her studies focused on some of the nation’s largest charities, Barnes said the same logic in social media applies to smaller organizations. She outlined three steps a nonprofit organization of any size should take to be successful.
For some smaller organizations, the path to a successful presence on social media is not always clear.
“I don’t know if our social media is helping yet, but we’re setting a platform for the future,” said Margaret Nupp, director of special events and public relations at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Massachusetts/Metrowest, located in Framingham and Worcester.
Although Nupp spearheads most of the organization’s social media, she said Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Massachusetts/Metrowest could increase its online presence if a full-time staff member were dedicated to this area. Currently, the organization has about 10 staff members and covers 40 towns and cities. While social media is important to have, it is not a priority with the limited resources the organization has, said Nupp. Eventually, Nupp said, she would like to see the organization’s page full of interaction among its fans.
Debra Foley, a marketing specialist at Springfield-based United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV), said her organization also faces difficulties with resources.
“We need the time and money to provide for a part- or full-time person who can focus on devoting attention to different social media outlets,” Foley said.
To learn more about opportunities available through social media, Foley said staff at UWPV attended a conference held for United Ways of New England on how to engage an audience in social media. After the conference, UWPV set up a framework for its social media presence, focused primarily on its Facebook page. While UWPV’s page reaches many of its donors, volunteers, and staff, Foley said the organization faces challenges in engaging more fans and providing valuable content to reach them.
Quality Is What Matters
Susan Countryman, director of communications and development at the Public Conversations Project (PCP) in Watertown, said it does not matter what social media outlet an organization chooses to use or how frequently it updates these outlets; what matters more is the quality of what is posted.
Simply updating a page or posting new content just for the sake of doing it will not help an organization’s efforts, she said. What is necessary, she added, is quality content that will circulate among the organization’s core audience and attract a more viewers.
“If you post content that is meaningful and valuable, people will react and respond,” she said.
When PCP first launched its blog in the fall of 2009, PCP staff did not think it was practical to have just one person working on the blog as a full-time position, Countryman said. Instead, PCP asked members of its staff, interns, and guest writers to prepare entries every few weeks so the voices present on the blog constantly change. This switching of voices and perspectives is reflective of PCP’s mission to bring together a wide range of views and voices.
When dealing with the public, it is important “to remember the social part of social media,” said Sofiya Cabalquinto, manager of media relations at the Museum of Science in Boston. The best way to keep an audience engaged and active on social media platforms is to provide information people want, she said. For example, before a recent meteor shower, the museum updated its Facebook page with details.
“You need to stay on top of what the audience is looking for,” said Cabalquinto. “It’s hard because that changes a lot.”
Cabalquinto said the museum is now interested in reaching out to the public on Foursquare, a location-based social networking site that allows users to update their current location and earn points based on where they are. Though the museum does not have any deals with the site yet, Cabalquinto said she is eager to join this relatively new social media platform.