“How can you squander even one more day not taking advantage of the greatest shifts of our generation? How dare you settle for less when the world has made it so easy for you to be remarkable?” This quote by entrepreneur Seth Godin perhaps sums of the collective opinion of hundreds of businesses already involved in social media.
The implementation of social media tactics through the use of leading platforms like Facebook and Twitter have given organizations immense marketing and branding opportunities that some only dreamed about prior to the digital revolution. It has given companies the chance to reach out to their audiences with the same amount of power and leverage (or perhaps even more) than multimillion-dollar companies who hire outside firms to produce expensive advertising campaigns. But perhaps for more than any other kind of organization, social media have changed the playing field of nonprofit organizations.
The digital age has created a whole new growing environment for nonprofits. Writer Melissa Jun Rowley illustrates this point in her Mashable article How Non-profits Are Using Social Media For Real Results. “From spreading awareness about the issues to connecting with other non-profits and sharing the stories of their constituents,” Rowley says, “non-profits are finding that social media can be a huge help in achieving their objectives.”
A challenge is that nonprofits usually have smaller communication teams, more limited budgets and a wider variety of stakeholders than a typical business. Social media give nonprofits a unique set of challenges, but they can overcome them by becoming more strategic, knowledgeable and careful about how they act and react to social media.
Here in Wichita, numerous nonprofits are implementing social media into their marketing efforts. Two local examples that have taken full advantage of digital opportunities are Heartspring and the local division of the American Red Cross Blood Services.
Heartspring is a worldwide center for children with special needs. Their mission, as stated on their website, is to “ help children with special needs grow and learn on a path to a more independent life.” Their communication department consists of Director of Marketing Katie Grover and Image and Branding Specialist Jennifer Harjo, who take care of all of the organization’s marketing and advertising efforts as well as oversee internal, public and media relations.
The American Red Cross Blood Services, specifically the Central Plains division serving Kansas and Northern Oklahoma, is one of seven regional divisions and is a dedicated supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. Jennifer Keller is the sole communications manager in charge of the Central Plains division and is responsible for all of their public relations efforts.
Through the implementation of social media, Heartspring and the Red Cross have created empowering habitats for their organizations and its supporters. In interviews, Grover and Keller explain how digital tools have given them even more ways to reach their audiences.
“Being able to share information about Heartspring- our successes, special events, news, etc.- through social media has increased our exposure exponentially,” says Grover. “We have so many friends and followers who, most likely, would have never taken the time to get to know about our organization.”
These digital-savvy women have had success with social media because they share similar attitudes and ways of approaching the challenge. The following are some of the more significant similarities that appear between the two and are presented as excellent examples of how a nonprofit organization can flourish with new media.
Strategy is king
The digital arena is constantly evolving, suggesting there’s no such thing as perfection in the industry. Calling people social media savvy or social media explorers therefore seems more apt for this discussion than social media experts. But regardless of what term is used, those immersed in it are well aware that in order to successfully tame the social media beast, one must implement good strategy in every step of the way.
Northwestern University’s Media Management Center lists being a platform strategist as one of the competencies of the next generation news organization. This competency does not just apply to those in news organizations, but can refer to anyone involved in organizational communication. Being a platform strategist means understanding the different platforms, knowing the audiences and spotting their interests and needs, and leveraging the company’s strengths in a way that satisfies those interests.
The communication practitioners at Heartspring and the Red Cross have done exactly this. They haven’t implemented leading platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and FourSquare just for grins. They’ve focused on learning about the tools, experimenting with them and figuring out ways to put them to their most effective use.
For example, at Heartspring, Grover differentiates between using their Facebook page to share photos and stories or simply strike up conversations with friends, using Twitter to keep up with day-to-day conversation as it relates to children with special needs, and using their monthly publication Heartspring Connections and quarterly magazine Heartspring’s Dialogue to educate readers on the achievements of their children. Each platform is used for specific and distinct tasks.
When asked if they plan to use smartphone apps in the near future, she says it’s not out of the question, but that they need to find the right app and the right use for it. “We’re not in the business of developing an app, just because it’s the cool thing to do. We would want it to be meaningful,” she says.
At the Red Cross, Keller also acknowledges the importance of understanding different platforms before implementing them into their strategy. She’s been dipping her toes in Foursquare and YouTube to first learn how they work. She realizes that social media is as much a learning process as it is an advertising strategy and she takes the time to learn as much as she can.
In a sense, these organizations’ limited budget is a blessing in disguise because it pushes them to master strategy with every social media move so as to achieve maximum reach and response from their audiences.
Danielle Sacks in his article The Future of Advertising describes this paradox of having to work harder to create more specific work for less money than was the case in the age of mass marketing. Keller agrees in this respect, saying that while the greatest benefit to using social media is that it’s free, “the greatest challenge is to develop a strategy to really use social media to the fullest.” Fully aware of this challenge, Keller hasn’t shied away but immersed herself in it in order to figure out a strategy that works for her organization’s cause.
Engagement is queen
Beth Kanter’s Mashable article identifies engagement as one way in which social media is changing the nonprofit world. More than giving out information, using digital tools demands that one capture the audience’s attention and invite them to conversation.
While this is crucial for any business involved with new media, it’s especially important for nonprofit organizations like Heartspring and Red Cross who depend on donors and their community for survival. To successfully engage audiences, nonprofits can’t repeatedly tweet about needing donations or continually send emails asking for volunteer help. The key is to tell their story in an honest and transparent way so that audiences believe in and support the organization’s cause.
Lathi DeSilva, VP of Brand Reputation from local advertising agency Sullivan Higdon and Sink, agrees that making engagement in critical. During the problem solving process, especially when it involves digital tactics, DeSilva says the company focuses on making content “authentic, relevant and personal.“ When the organization is represented authentically, transparently and in a captivating way, audiences will respond.
Heartspring and the Red Cross actively engage with their audiences. Grover at Heartspring explains that she focuses on spending time with the children they serve and sharing those stories in compelling ways with the world. She doesn’t see her job as a series of advertising campaigns, but as a long story she tells in efforts to let people know how wonderful the children at Heartspring are.
Grover believes her goal is to engage supporters, not “inundate them with 20 posts a day.” She also adds that at Heartspring “there’s typically something pretty exciting happening just about everyday… I want everyone to see the faces and read the stories of the children we help. They are deserving of so much, and the world should know how amazing they are.”
For Keller at the Red Cross, the tactics are different but the goal is the same. All of her efforts center on engaging the community and getting them to donate blood. A recent event that demonstrates this is the Wichita Bleedup.
As a Twitter-specific event, Keller spent a year on Twitter concentrating on developing relationships. Once she felt she had enough of an audience, she put together Bleedup, a one-day event similar to tweetups, except that in this event people also gave blood. The cherry on top to this imaginative event is Keller’s creation of an avatar for FourSquare. Donors who are members of FourSquare can earn a donor badge and use it in their social media profiles. Such ingenuity transforms a simple, local event into one that fosters inspiration and awareness among onine friends.
Keller believes that the use of social media and events like Bleedup have made her feel more engaged with the community. “Like anything,” she says, “the key to social media starts with building relationships.” And Keller definitely knows a thing or two about that..
A downside to digital media is that it has encouraged the jack-of-all-trades philosophy that is increasingly being accepted in organizations. One way digital platforms have encouraged this change is through their interconnected quality. For example, a company’s blog may consist of photos pulled in from Flickr, include links to their official website or have a Twitter Feed within the blog page itself. No longer do communication practitioners need to be good copywriters, they also need to be skilled in brand strategizing, communicating, advertising, designing, creating concepts and using social media.
The benefit of this shift for nonprofit organizations like Heartspring and the Red Cross is that because they have small teams and limited resources, dealing with this shift comes much more naturally.
“Working for a nonprofit organization, I wear a lot of hats,” says Grover. In addition to all marketing and advertising efforts, I also oversee all the public and media relations, internal and external publications as well as our social media initiatives.”
Keller at the Red Cross seconds this. Her job includes “writing stories, writing news releases, taking photos, working with media, organizing events- really whatever it takes to promote the Red Cross.” For these multi-disciplined individuals, adding social media to the mix was a challenge they could easily conquer.
Marriage of old and new
While Heartspring and the Red Cross have positively welcomed digital tools, they haven’t forgotten the power of traditional media. Society has entered the digital era, but it hasn’t necessarily said goodbye to traditional practices. Papers are still published, books still printed, and regardless of what some like to believe, traditional media will still be in business years from now.
For Keller, the majority of her PR efforts for the Red Cross begin with traditional media. She believes it still has a larger reach than social media and it’s not until much later in the process that digital tools come into the picture to enhance and further the reach of a particular message.
Grover is also aware of the power of traditional media. As a matter of fact, more than seeing benefits in using old and new media simultaneously, she has also found that implementing both can bring unexpected yet very positive situations. Through her use of Twitter, Grover has been able to strengthen relationships with traditional media organizations in ways she never expected.
Furthermore, for nonprofit organizations like Heartspring and Red Cross, excluding certain media resources would be unwise, and an option that a very small number of nonprofits can have as a luxury. Grover and Keller both know this and do “whatever it takes to promote… and help [their] organization rise to top of mind,” as Keller states.
Exploration and adaptation in all things
As stated earlier, the realm of new media is constantly evolving. Resisting digital tools inherently means neglecting chances to reach an audience. But at the same time, immersing oneself in it proves to be time consuming and at times disheartening because of the realization that one can never be an expert at it. In this kind of environment, there’s no room for egotism. Accepting that there is no such thing as knowing it all when it comes to digital media is crucial.
Because Grover and Keller have accepted this condition, it’s put them ahead of those who see themselves as social media experts. They both know the industry involves constant learning and re-learning and while it’s a challenge to keep up with, they have maintained a realistic perspective.
Keller realizes the time-consuming nature of this industry but accepts it and strives for improvement. “What I’ve been doing during my time here is really just learning about the tools and experimenting,” says Keller.
As part of her experimentation, she’s created a couple of videos on Twitter that she acknowledges have been “VERY time consuming.” Although not personally satisfied with the results, the mere fact that she is testing it out gives her all the more knowledge she previously didn’t have about video production and allows her to add YouTube videos to her list of skills.
For Grover, the focus is more on remembering that social media is a conversation medium and accepting that it requires plenty of hard work. As part of the ongoing, learning process of using social media, Grover emphasizes the need to use analytics to see where visitors are coming from and what they are interested in to know what information and what kind of conversations need to happen through Heartspring’s online platforms.
What Keller and Grover make plain to see is that they accept, and almost embrace, the ever-changing quality of the digital environment. Sherry Chisenhall, editor at the Wichita Eagle, hits the nail in the head when she says that to grow, you have to be “willing to change your mind and say, ‘this is what I think I know today’ and realize that your strategies and philosophies change.” Then, she says, you figure out what worked, what didn’t, and strive to do better next time.
It is this kind of attitude that Grover and Keller also express, and that in the long run will help them stay ahead with their communication goals at Heartspring and Red Cross. These professionals both realize that those who fail to keep up with digital media may be left behind. “EVERYONE is struggling to find the best new (and old) ways to reach their target markets,” admits Keller. What keeps you going, then, says Grover, is to “put in the time and effort necessary to keep your audience engaged.”