Nonprofits Need to Get Clued In to Social Media

By Sean Carton, ClickZ, Dec 7, 2009

recent survey from Weber Shandwick and KRC Research has me wanting to simultaneously scratch my head in puzzlement and scream in frustration.

Why? Because after surveying a broad cross-section of non-profit executives across the U.S., they found that while 88 percent of them are “experimenting” with social media, only 51 percent are actively using social media in their organizations, and an astounding 79 percent aren’t sure how to demonstrate its value to others in their organizations.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of non-profits and I can tell you one thing for sure: these aren’t dumb people. In fact, they’re some of the smartest people in marketing and, more importantly, they’re committed to what they do. So why are they having such a hard time figuring out how to use social media? The answer has implications far beyond the non-profit world and speaks to marketers everywhere who are struggling to convince clients to embrace social media.

Probably the most telling comment on the report comes from Stephanie Bluma, co-lead of the study: “While two-thirds of nonprofit executives believe social media has a positive impact on their communications with external audiences, they are less convinced about social media’s resonance with donors, journalists, and policymakers.”

Sound familiar? Unless you work on big consumer brands all the time, chances are you’ve had similar push-back from your clients, even if they aren’t non-profits. “Well, that social media stuff is all well and good,” they say, “but our customers are too old/wealthy/poor/whatever to be ‘tech-savvy’ enough to use that stuff. They’re not a bunch of kids.”

As non-profit execs and other clients reject social media and deny that their audiences are actively engaged with the Web, newspapers are going out of business, civic engagement is at an all-time high online (especially, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, “the wealthy and well-educated”), and nearly half of U.S. adults are using a social networking service. As far as the “digital divide” goes, 79 percent of U.S. adults are now Internet users — a 67 percent increase from 2005 — and 59 percent of Americans have accessed the Web from a wireless device. Clearly, we’re past the point of “oh, our folks don’t use the Internet or social networking!”

So, why the reluctance by so many non-profit executives?

The answer consists of three parts: 1) a misunderstanding of how to use the medium; 2) difficulty measuring results; 3) ignorance. If I had to add a fourth, I think the “we’ve always done things this way” inertia effect is probably a very prevalent (but unspoken) factor.

Luckily, conquering these objections isn’t difficult. It just takes education, logical thinking, and flexibility. Here are some tips:

  1. Help your clients (or your colleagues) understand they shouldn’t get hung up on the technology. Most of us don’t fret over the technicalities of how radio or TV works, yet we’re able to use them in our marketing all the time. What’s important is understanding that this is a medium for communicating with people, not at them. What’s also important is helping them understand that social media is not some magic bullet that’s going to solve all their problems (or create more), but rather another tool in the communications toolbox.
  2. Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come. Any social media initiative must be accompanied by a communications plan that will let people know what you’re doing and encourage them to participate. If you create a YouTube video or Facebook page and fail to promote it, you — not the medium — should take the blame when no one shows up.
  3. Measuring results in social media is no different than measuring results with any communications activity. How much did you spend? What did you get back? Divide the two to figure out your ROI (define). Done. The difficulty comes when organizations don’t clearly define their success metrics before beginning a new initiative. You need to understand your goals (Donations? Members? Comments?) before you can know if you succeeded.
  4. Ignorance is one of the easiest things to cure: just educate your clients. There are loads of resources out there (some linked in this article) that provide enough demographic data to convince even the most hardened skeptic that the Internet has now reached the point of near-ubiquity. Unless you have some very special, very niche audiences who have been resisting the Web (charities that target the Amish, for example, probably won’t have much luck), chances are your people are using this stuff.
  5. Finally, breaking past the “we’ve always done it this way” objection is tough, but can be done. It may take time and some small-scale experimentation (and expectation management) to get there, but as we’ve seen over the past decade with the Web in general, eventually most folks will come around. They have to. It’s the way things are. Wishing for things to be different is a recipe for irrelevance at best and eventual defeat at worst. Just ask most of the “old media” industries how well fighting the changes worked out for them.