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Social Media Effectiveness for Public Engagement: An Example of Small Nonprofits

When small activist nonprofits work with social media, they are faced with any number of considerations, including the ways that various constituencies wish to communicate; what those communications might produce in terms of engagement, social action, or donations; how widely used and well suited various platforms of social media are for the task at hand; and how well staff and volunteers understand each medium. On top of that, the basic control mechanisms of the organization may present barriers: Are staff and volunteers trusted as spokespeople as long as their work conforms to a central design or are the number of spokespeople and the message more tightly controlled? The good news is that some small nonprofits are unflaggingly inventive and agile. This article, excerpted from a larger study, describes how twenty-six small environmental groups approached their social media work in the midst of such complexity.

The nonprofits we studied work with a diverse group of stakeholders via social media sites, had at the time an average of fifteen staff members, and fall into three general categories: affiliate and university (six of the nonprofits), network and policy (eleven of the nonprofits), and community (twelve of the nonprofits). Affiliate and university organizations are programs associated with larger governmental agencies or universities. Network and policy organizations primarily advocate for policy change surrounding environmental issues on a statewide or regional level. Community organizations are often dedicated to their local waterway(s) and organize at a community level.

The interaction with different stakeholders segmented based on the characteristics of social media and the popularity of social media among the various stakeholder groups, which include the following:

Nonprofit members. Nonprofit members are local citizens who show an interest in the organization’s cause and sign up for membership, which usually includes sharing their contact information with the nonprofit. Membership size among the organizations we examined ranged from four hundred and fifty to seventeen thousand, and members were the most reliable sources of financial support and event participation. As a consequence, one of the most vital motivations for using social media was to expand membership. For daily communication, however, the nonprofits mainly used e-mail and newsletters to communicate directly with members.

Volunteers. Social media sites enabled the nonprofits to post information about volunteer recruitment and give recognition and thanks to volunteers who helped with previous events or activities. In addition, the organizations frequently posted photos of volunteer activities on Flickr, Instagram, and in Facebook albums, and shared these images via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Funders. The nonprofits used social networking sites to engage with funders by posting donation information and giving recognition and thanks to donors. Nevertheless, as financial donors are usually older adults who are relatively less active on social media sites, the organizations felt that the most effective way to contact and engage with funders was still via traditional communication channels such as e-mail lists and face-to-face meetings.

Other organizations. A third of the nonprofits frequently used social media to strengthen existing partnerships with other organizations by cross-promoting one another on social media—for example, liking each other’s content, reposting each other’s posts, promoting each other’s events, sharing news and tools from each other’s sites, and recognizing and praising each other’s work. The nonprofits saw this as a way to “scratch each other’s backs,” support and build relationships with other organizations, get updated about each other’s work progress, and, especially, “double the poll of viewers” and expand the follower influence on social media sites. These nonprofits appeared to be primarily connected to other organizations, and didn’t reach out much to the general public.

Reporters. Building a positive relationship with reporters and media has long been an important outreach and communication goal for nonprofits, as reporters can help to attract press attention and disseminate information. Twitter was perceived as the primary platform for media reporters to reach out to nonprofits. Reporters frequently use Twitter features such as retweet, favorite, and @ to interact with nonprofits, pick up their tweets as news sources, or ask questions on Twitter, which greatly increased the nonprofits’ online influence. In addition, the nonprofits’ social media point persons proactively interacted with reporters in order to strengthen the relationship. As one interviewee explained, one might use the nonprofit’s social media to “post [reporters’] work, credit their work, and try to generate discussions with the individual reporters.”

Diverse Stakeholders and Engagement Goals: Information, Community, and Action

The work of these small nonprofits over multiple social media sites to engage with a variety of stakeholders fell into three engagement goals:

  • Disseminate information about their causes and the organization;
  • Build community and engage with different stakeholders; and
  • Mobilize actions like donation and volunteer work.

Disseminating Information

The nonprofits shared a huge amount of information regarding environmental issues and organizational updates via a variety of social media sites, in order to increase awareness of their organization and its mission. A content analysis (see Table 1, below) of nonprofits’ Facebook and Twitter pages illustrates that about half of their social media posts were related to an information goal: news and updates of their website and organization; educational resources and environmental tools; and multimedia content such as photos or videos.

social-media-table-one

The nonprofits commonly used multiple social media sites together to support the information engagement goal. They frequently shared updates from their websites and blogs, tutorials or educational videos from YouTube, and photos from Flickr or Instagram. They also used blogs to aggregate information from the social networking sites and provide longer-form content on interesting topics:

The features that primarily go into the blog site actually originate on the day-to-day news items that I tweet out. And then I compile those in the weekly blog summary under various headings, such as agriculture or water quality or biodiversity. So it’s an aggregate. If there are what I see as more significant issues, then I’ll do a separate article about those significant breaking issues and then sometimes summarize those in a paragraph or two within the weekly issue.1

Multimedia content was also a popular strategy among the nonprofits. Most participants told us that the most effective strategy for soliciting shares and comments was to post appealing photographs, usually containing cute animals or beautiful nature scenes. The nonprofits frequently posted such media content on Flickr, Pinterest, and/or Instagram, and shared through social networking sites. Participants felt that the practice helped to provide “a better entry point” for the public to learn more about nonprofits.

 

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Read the full article at:NonprofitQuarterly.org

 

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