Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

8 Tips for Effectively Using Social Media for Social Change

March 20, 2013

The past few years has seen the critical rise and mass adoption of social media for social change.  As global conversations have escalated around using social networks to reach new audiences and spread philanthropic and charitable messages, questions still remain about how to effectively use social media to achieve measured results in communication strategy.

As an early adopter of social media and as the creator of a year-old 1000+ member influencer network of mothers who use social media and blogging for good I would like to share eight easy social media for social good tips any nonprofit can utilize even in a resource-strapped economy.

1. Gather advocates: One of the most insightful interviews I have ever conducted was with Tom Staggs, the chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts who presides over the company’s worldwide vacation and travel businesses. When I interviewed him about Disney’s approach to online advocates and social media he said that bloggers and those in social media can tell the Disney story better than they can. And I would add, also have a level of influence and authenticity that large brands and nonprofit organizations cannot replicate. Stagg’s insights have stuck with me to this day and I share them with as many people as I can because the notion is brilliant.

Everyone knows that it’s important to gather and activate advocates, but do you realize how critical they are to telling your story?

How can you find and activate online advocates? You can always start internally by identifying key donors and volunteers. Nearly everyone uses social media these days, so go to those people first and engage them where they are – whether that’s on Facebook or Twitter. Invite them to also follow and “like” members of your organization’s management to add a layer of personality and “realness” to social media communications.

You can also identify advocates by forging relationships with those who are already talking about your nonprofit on social media channels and on blogs or are part of larger networks that fit your organization’s niche.

2. Allow ideas to develop:  Still in its infancy, social media communication requires smart idea creation, purposeful development and careful execution. Because of the immediate, real-time inherent nature of social media it is far too easy to abandon ideas that don’t provide immediate results and social media stickiness. Don’t be deterred by early results that fail to meet the metrics your team forecasted. If the idea is smart and you see gradual pick-up on social media, let the idea ride out for a while before you completely throw it by the wayside. The lesson: Give good ideas a fighting chance in social media!

3. Forge an authentic voice: Do you know the social media voice of your organization? Is it more news-based, academic, youthful, global, female-focused?  Draw off of current print and web communications of your organization and replicate that voice on social media channels. Make sure those two voices sound alike. There is always an impulse to sound more youthful on social media channels, but if that voice sounds different than your organization as a whole that can be problematic. That is, however, not to say social media cannot be used as a conversational tool because it should be. It’s just to say that the voice across the organization should sound alike no matter the medium.

Two organizations that have very unique social media voices are @hope with their mix of rallying cry for good, philanthropic quotes, and community building tweets and @dosomething with their causes for good geared to the youth demographic and content targeted to young do-gooders.

4. Create sustained conversations: Social media allows nonprofits the unique opportunity to claim a corner of the social web and create sustained conversations. At Rio + Social last year while discussing social media activism Mashable Founder and CEO Pete Cashmore said, “There needs to be a lasting function – a way to coalesce as a group. People need to use organizations, groups, and hashtags to keep the conversation in one place.”

Look at social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Google+, as an opportunity to keep conversation going about your organization’s mission. For example, every week at the same time and on the same day host a Twitter chat with a hashtag unique to your organization to talk about key issues. Look at #FundChat, a weekly Wednesday conversation about nonprofit fundraising, for ideas about building community through social media. You can also host a Google+ hangout with experts from your organization to further spread the message about your organization’s goals.

In a recent survey we conducted with online moms, 86% said they donate to nonprofits they are already familiar with. Building sustained awareness about your cause through sustained conversations is also pivotal to bringing in donations.

5. Be approachable: Social media is best used for two-way conversations, not simply to push content to followers. Scott Steinberg is correct to tell brands: “Thou shalt not hog the conversation.”  It is important to be conversational on social media whether that is responding to a tweet or commenting on a Facebook or Google+ post. As the feedback loop grows bigger it becomes harder to always be conversational with fans and advocates. That said, it is still important to acknowledge those who care about your organization whether that’s through a simple re-tweet or a liked comment in a Facebook thread.  It shows that your organization is approachable and cares.

6. Identify your core demographic. Engage them on social media: I mentioned this briefly above, but it bears repeating. Use your resources to create social channels that reflect where your core demographic hangs out online. Some nonprofit organizations are using Pinterest like Save the Children to spread its message while others don’t because their donors and advocates aren’t there. Some organizations use Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest in lieu of adopting Google+. Others are heavy Google+ users. Use the platforms that make sense for your social strategy.

You can either cast your net wide to be everywhere at once or be extremely strategic about where to allocate social media resources. Also, keep in mind that you will need to determine a social ratio for how you will communicate on social media sites. Which one tips the scale in importance and effectiveness? Also, create a ratio for your general conversation. What percentage will be devoted to donation requests, issue awareness, and conversations with the public as well as with industry leaders and sector partners?

7. Don’t equate social media with dumbed down conversation:  Some who have been schooled in traditional communications believe conversations have to be dumbed down on social media because of the restrictions of the platforms – 140 characters, one-minute videos, storytelling through photography, but that’s not the case – even for really heavy, pressing issues.

Social media can be a useful tool to discuss important issues especially through transparent communication. The World Food Programme does a fantastic job relaying information via social media about everything from logistics (which may be a tweet about a WFP truck breaking down in the Democratic Republic of Congo) to tweeting about providing food in conflict zones.

None of this communication is dumbed down, just far different than a blog post or article in a donor newsletter.

8. Be innovative in your approach: Much of social media is straight forward, but there is always room for innovation. Look at innovative ways brands and nonprofits are using Twitter’s new video app, Vine. For example, consumer brand Green Work’s use of Vine for its St. Patrick’s Day promotion was creative and engaging. They used short Vine videos in a game of online charades. It was the most creative use of the app I have seen to date. Read @GreenWorks recent stream to see their promotion including its use of Vine. While Green Works is a consumer brand you can still glean a little inspiration from the shot of creativity they put into social media last week.

Remember, as you create and execute your social media strategy it will always be fluid and changing. Some ideas will work and others will fail. The key is to stay in the laboratory and keep cooking up recipes for social media success.

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