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Building membership with social media

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Bob Cramer

Bob Cramer

Bob Cramer

Nonprofits have a need to communicate with their constituents – to keep them engaged and informed on key issues – and to keep themselves at the top of contributors’ minds. Social media can make that communication more vivid and interactive by adding features that make it possible for supporters to contribute content and participate in discussions online.

Think about it: Most nonprofits depend on a website to relay their mission and the good they are doing in support of a cause. For the most part, though, these sites provide only static content.

Instead of sticking with a stale website, many groups are choosing to “socially enable” their web presence.

This can entail the addition of commenting capabilities to preexisting site content such as articles or blogs, allowing readers to easily share their perspectives.

Another simple social-media feature is forums, where users can post information, opinions or questions, and others can respond in kind.

The ability to become part of an online community’s discussion in this manner is truly transformative, helping to engage supporters and take them from passive to active participation.

Because social-media platforms are based on user-generated content, it also helps to solve one of the bigger challenges many organizations face – namely, how to keep their website fresh and dynamic so interested parties return more frequently.

With social media, active members are continually adding new information. Whether it’s postings in forums, comments to blogs, or uploaded photos or video, there is always something new for site visitors to view.

Getting to know your supporters

Social media can change website communications from unilateral to bilateral, enabling nonprofits to establish a dialogue with supporters.

Such two-way conversations build and strengthen relationships, engendering loyalty to your programs and cause. Imagine being able to blog about a key initiative or issue and immediately receive comments and feedback from online readers.

At the same time, nonprofits are able to collect valuable data about their constituency simply by seeing who has joined their online community. Registered site users develop “profiles” that provide a view into who they are, including such information as gender, geographic location, employment, hobbies and special interests.

Additionally, it is possible to see what topics are timely and most relevant to your supporter base simply by perusing the latest posts in member forums.

In other words, you get a glimpse into what constituents are really talking about and where their true passions lie.

For example, an international nonprofit might see a large number of supporters engaging in forum discussions about Darfur or the Congo. The nonprofit will then know to increase content and programs focused on those areas.

Phasing into social media

When considering investing in social media, nonprofits should talk to their supporters and find out what types of online tools are of greatest interest to them.

Blogging, member forums, photo- and video-sharing, and even user-customizable news feeds are typical features. Having an understanding of your constituency’s demographics, what other websites they visit, and their technology comfort levels can help you decide what to choose.

Regardless of the approach you take, it is important not to get bogged down in thinking that everyone needs to be part of your new social-media initiative. If you can get even 10 percent of your supporter base to use the new tools, you will likely establish a return on investment in terms of greater website traffic and enhanced participation in programs.

Different groups adopt social media at different paces, with younger professionals typically embracing new Internet technologies faster, since it is already a core part of their daily lives. In fact, as more baby boomers head toward retirement, social media will be a critical component for attracting a new base of supporters.

Consider this: When websites and web surfing were new concepts over a decade ago, they first rose in popularity among early adopters before spreading out to more mainstream use. Today they are ubiquitous.

Social-media tools are experiencing a similar growth trend. The social-media features first used on sites like MySpace and Facebook are starting to have applications on other sites as well. It is clear that nonprofits that begin now to weave social media into their member-outreach strategies will be ahead of those that do not.

That being said, it is important to take a long-term approach to social-media integration and adoption. A pre-launch buildup that uses all your existing communications channels – website, direct mail and email – is key to introducing website changes and new social-media tools.

Every organization knows whom they can go to for support – who their most active, vocal and influential evangelists are. Get your arms around those people and get them involved in your social-media strategy well before the launch.

At the same time, get your staff involved internally. Buy-in from the top level down is essential for social media to become a sustainable part of communications activities.

Bringing members together

All social media platforms need to have an intelligent profiling process. As mentioned previously, a registered user develops a profile – meaning that he or she fills out an online form that tells a little about them, such as their geographic location and interests.

While this collected information is invaluable to the nonprofit’s membership-building and fundraising efforts, it is also important in helping online members find others with whom they have things in common.

When a constituent finishes registering with a social-media platform, it can be a little like walking into a big room at a cocktail party – you usually gravitate to someone you know personally or professionally.

To this end, it’s important for an organization to have a “group” strategy for building smaller communities around particular topics in order to draw new members into a comfortable setting. Try to have a few of these groups established pre-launch, but also allow members to set up their own groups as like interests are identified.

After all, social media as a concept is inherently about bringing people together in order to actively engage them in common interests and pursuits. Nonprofits that use social media to build communities online will be able to derive much greater value from their websites and compete more effectively for supporters’ attention, time and dollars.


Bob Cramer is co-founder, CEO and chairman of ThePortTM Network Inc., a leading social-media solutions provider. He is also co-founder and Chairman of A.D.A.M. Inc. For more information, go to www.theport.com.

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