To understand the non-profit industry's unique place in the social media landscape, it 's critical to examine what prominent blogger Kevan Lee calls "the pinnacle of engagement." For some businesses or industries, shares may be the most highly coveted form - or pinnacle - of engagement. For others, it may be retweets, reblogs, followers or likes. For others, the most valuable form of engagement may be comments.
For the non-profit industry, the pinnacle of engagement is, of course, donations.
This reality separates the non-profit industry from essentially every other field, every other sector and every other segment of the economy - and it's also spurred an inefficient over-reliance on email at the expense of social media.
According to a study by the Case Foundation, in collaboration with Social Media for Nonprofits, the vast majority of nonprofit communication personnel - a full 88% - consider email and their websites to be their most powerful tools.
That's not to say that nonprofits aren't established on social media. They are - 97%, in fact, have a presence on Facebook. But since they generally only pursue retweets, follows, comments, likes and shares as part of the larger goal of gaining donations, most nonprofits - nearly three out of four - ignore best practices regarding engagement and thought leadership, and instead use social mostly as a megaphone to broadcast information about events and organizational activities.
An over-reliance on Email
For engagement, nonprofits still put the vast majority of their eggs in the email basket.
The reason for this industry-wide reliance on email is not irrational - according to the most recent Nonprofit Benchmarks Report issued by Nonprofit Technology Reports, email still reaches far more supporters than social media. For every 1,000 email subscribers, nonprofits receive just 285 Facebook fans and 112 Twitter followers.
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy - nonprofits neglect social because most engagement comes through email, so they put a lopsided focus on email, which reduces social engagement even further.
The result: a crippling lack of resources dedicated to social-media strategy and manpower. At least half of all nonprofits surveyed dedicate fewer than one person to social media, with many organizations assigning all social media responsibility to one-quarter of one team member. And although around 25% of respondents reported having an articulable social media policy, the vast majority of the industry simply appears to be winging it.
Getting Serious About Investing in Social Media
The nonprofit sector lags behind its counterparts in the public and private sectors when it comes to developing effective social media campaigns, and most of the sector engages in a dangerous over-reliance on email.
The good news, however, is that nonprofits can achieve dramatic improvements if they:
Allocate resources to dedicated staff - If social is going to be anything other than an afterthought, nonprofits can not leave social to a single individual who is being tugged in other directions by other responsibilities. Sadly, this model is currently the industry norm.
Develop an articulable, written social media policy that outlines strategies, goals and tactics - This should include a social editorial calendar, which assigns responsibilities and creates accountability.
Track the social media accounts of donors within a donor database - Most nonprofits don't take this basic step.
Catch up to corporate counterparts on time invested - Half of private-sector businesses spend six hours or more on social media. Half of nonprofits, on the other hand, spend just two hours or less.
Stop using social media only as a megaphone to broadcast announcements - Instead, develop a formula to come up with a blend of content that positions themselves as authoritative voices. Traditional formulas - such as 4-1-1, 5-3-2, the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio - don't seem to work as well for nonprofits as they do for entities in other sectors. One expert suggests instead utilizing the "three As": appreciation, advocacy and appeals (one post out of three thanks donors, one engages with niche-relevant content and one solicits donations).
Ask questions - Research shows that posts that end with a question mark generate twice as much engagement as those that end with a period, especially when they begin with the words "should" or "would."
Developing a Benchmark for Social Engagement
Nonprofits must establish a yardstick by which to measure success. The nonprofit sector is plagued by an industry-wide failure to develop a benchmark that gauges the value of different kinds of engagement. According to Nonprofit Quarterly, more than one out of three nonprofits doesn't even believe that one exists.
Those that do have a benchmark often measure success in page likes or follows. These metrics are far too general and don't reveal anything about the people doing the liking and following. Instead, nonprofits should track likes, shares and comments on individual posts, which are much more effective at taking the pulse of their donors. Most importantly, setting up a conversion funnel and tracking conversions would help to understand specific ROI for social media.
What Tools should be used?
When it comes to measuring metrics on the sector's - and the world's - favorite social site, teams should use Facebook Insights. They should also use sites like Sprout Social, Radian6 and Bit.ly to measure other metrics, such as clicks and retweets. Google Analytics is a powerful way to measure the behavior of social visitors, including conversions from each platform and engagement with the site and content offered.
A Sample Strategy for Non-Profits
Below is a methodology that non-profits can follow to create a successful social media strategy:
Make sure all of your social profiles are descriptive and branded - All of the "About" sections should be adequately filled out with further information.
Determine How often to Post - Should you post 2-3 times a day? A couple of times a week? Use a tool like TrueSocialMetrics to identify how often your competitors post, and their engagement rate.
Determine the Best Time to Post - Is your audience available in the evenings? Mornings? Mid-afternoon? Again, use a social media tool find the time when your audience is the most engaged
What type of content should you share? - Creating an editorial calendar with topical themes is important. Your calendar may include different types of content, such as: Informative, Humorous, Inspirational, Blog / Site Content, Custom Images, Behind-the-Scenes content. In your editorial calendar, you can organize the type of content share on specific days to help keep the strategy organized and cohesive.
What Visuals Resonate with your Audience? - As more and more people prefer consuming visual content, sharing the right types of images and videos can determine the difference between a successful or unsuccessful social strategy. From the colors that your audience prefers to the illustration style, whether your audience responds to the content you're sharing is intricately connected with these details.
Track Track Track - Make sure you are tracking the success of your profiles. Don't stop at follower growth, really look at metrics like conversation, engagement, amplification, and conversion rates so you can identify what resonates with your audience and share more of what works.
Making sure you have a structured social strategy will help you to improve the priority of social media in your non-profits. Going beyond email and towards social engagement can provide a fundamental shift in strategies for acquiring new donors.
In 2016, it's essential for non-profits to pursue true engagement on social media.
Main image via Gisela Giardino/Flickr