The easiest way to spot an organization that completely misunderstands the role of social media is to look for those boasting that it’s cheap or free. It’s not. And it hasn’t been for a while now.
Social media arguably represents your single most impactful marketing channel. Believing social media is free is especially dangerous for nonprofit organizations. Carrying out an effective content strategy and monitoring online platforms takes time…a lot of it – not to mention talent, buy-in, strategy, cooperation, and integration. While social media may have initially boomed among nonprofit organizations due to the ability to set up free profiles on various platforms, that certainly doesn’t mean that maintaining an effective online presence is “cheap” – let alone free.
If you still think social media is cheap or free, then you are doing it wrong. Here’s why:
1) Time is money
And executing effective digital engagement strategies takes a lot of it. This point, however, is especially exacerbated for nonprofit organizations that frequently stretch employee responsibilities.
What executives often refer to as “social media responsibilities” encompasses much more than simply “posting stuff on Facebook.” It involves the development and ongoing evolution of content strategy, constant content creation, real-time and ongoing “listening,” social care (e.g. Did you know that 42% of folks who post a question on your Facebook wall expect a response within one hour?), and keeping abreast of engagement strategies and evolving platforms in the digital media realm – which move at a breakneck pace. Cut corners on these and you may not reap the benefits of social and earned media, negating any investment in this powerful method of communication.
Think one person can do all this well while they are stretched thin with other responsibilities and expected to manage social media “on the side?” Organizations that treat employee time and energy like bottomless renewable resources risk resource depletion, burnout, and speedy staff turnover. In terms of social media, turnover without a clearly defined social media strategy often results in inconsistent tone, sporadic postings, unclear calls to action, and alienating or inappropriate content (such as “selling” too hard or promulgating marketing messages that appear “spammy” and result in negative feedback).
2) Talent is money
Successful online engagement necessitates an understanding of how the market communicates and makes decisions – as well as a keen ability to align aspects of social media communications (like the Four T’s of Online Engagement) to optimize initiatives and individual posts. It takes an understanding of public relations and a knack for communicating with an open authority mindset.
What all this means is that it’s not likely that, say, Jack Smith – who suddenly has free time on his hands after serving as an A/V tech at last month’s donor event – taking over your online engagement efforts is a good idea. In fact, it’s probably a very, very bad one. Social media (and earned media and word of mouth resulting from social media efforts) are incredibly potent communication tools and they are easy to mess up…and the consequences can be colossal in terms of trust in your brand.
3) Hiring more people is money
Don’t have the time and talent on staff? You’ll have to hire someone. And as social care needs increase (i.e. as more and more people turn to social media for real-time conversation, information, and question-answering – a need which is already rather aggressive) you may need to hire more people.
4) Good content is money
Facebook’s algorithms generally aim to deliver more effective content to more people, while suppressing content that is unlikely to merit significant engagement. This means that your content needs to be engaging in order to reach the most people – or even to be delivered into your fans’ newsfeeds. Content is still king on social media, and as other organizations improve their content and initiatives, your organization will need to keep up or it will be drowned out by content that is deemed more effective. Time required to create quality content aside (where much of this cost resides), creating this content costs money in terms of cameras and like technologies, staging, design, etc. This doesn’t mean that all videos or content must be “expensive” to produce in order to be successful – but it does mean that if you don’t have the tools to make content that will aid in engagement rates then…well, you just cannot create or maximize that strategy.
5) Effectively utilizing platforms is money
Social media monitoring tools often cost money – and monitoring (or “listening”) is critical for even social media mediocrity, let alone success. It’s possible to find “free” tools, but some require an investment to get to the information that may actually be helpful to your organization.
Also, social media platforms are increasingly becoming “pay-to-play” in regard to promoted or sponsored posts. If you want to stay in the “game,” it is wise to consider these options at least from time to time as they may help your organization rise above social media “noise.”
Finally, learning tools for your staff like conferences and webinars cost money. Unfortunately, this kind of development often gets cut within some organizations, but social media platforms and best practices are constantly evolving. Your organization may benefit to know what is going on so that it may adapt and most effectively utilize digital tools.
6) Buy-in and integration is money
Marketing is the wingman for your mission-based departments so that they may score some action with donors and constituents. In order for PR and Marketing departments to be most effective in delivering engaging messages, they need support (both content and ongoing communication) from multiple other departments within the organization. This means that – for effective organizations – there is a portion of nearly everyone’s time that is ultimately dedicated to social media initiatives. Social media requires time above and beyond “the usual suspects” within marketing and PR departments.
Within a museum, for instance, social media managers need aid from curators and collections staff in creating accurate, expert content. They need to coordinate with guest relations to uncover methods of communicating important dates and museum information. They need to be in constant communication with operations folks to answer questions about logistics and customer service – and in dialogue with education departments to answer content-related questions in real-time. Moreover, they need to work with development to make sure that members and donors are recognized and “courted” on social media platforms. In short, social media is an “every department” job and organizations that deny this are “leaving money on the table.”
Not only is social media NOT cheap, it is a very real investment. And it’s one that your organization would be unwise not to make. At broader, industry conferences, it always looks the same: an organization steps up to discuss their social media practices (presumably, because they think they are good at it) and start with a slide that says, “Why are we on social media?! BECAUSE IT’S FREE!” It leaves me baffled and, indeed, wondering how they do it.
How can you execute social media strategies that bring about monetary support without spending any time on strategy (or anything else related to social media), without creating any kind of content, without any talent, with ignorance of all changing platforms, and without time or support from anyone? Increasingly, you can’t. And if you think you can with a minor investment, then you probably aren’t seeing any of the real strategic, monetary benefits of having an online presence at all.
*Image photo credit goes to Rob Cottingham
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About the author
MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore