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Tips for starting, fine-tuning your cross-platform communications

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Amy Sample Ward

Amy Sample Ward

Jill Warren Lucas

See related story here.

Amy Sample Ward offers the following tips for nonprofits that are just getting started to those interested in fine-tuning their communications outreach.

Do your homework

Creating social media pages and posting clever content won’t yield results if you don’t first do some homework. Ward says this can be as simple as asking for a show of hands in response to questions at your next constituent meeting.

“You might find, for example, that no one says they use Twitter. Or every single person says they use it,” Ward says. “It’s not enough anymore to know someone’s mailing address. You need to know where they live online.”

An online survey also may be used to learn about who follows you, what they like and – perhaps even more importantly – what they don’t like. If what they don’t like is essential to your mission, find a better way to position and share it.

Create personal accounts

If you are completely new to social media, create personal accounts in the platforms your audience likes so you can practice before posting on behalf of your agency.

“Inevitably, you learn some things the hard way in the beginning,” Ward says. “You don’t want a lot of ‘test’ posts, and you need to learn how to ‘like’ pages and communicate with friends. Watch for what has tags work on Twitter.”

Hashtags connect your Twitter content to other users who are interested in that topic but may not be aware of your role. If you click on terms like #nonprofit or #volunteer, you will discover a huge audience with common  interests.

Know that people who follow your agency’s accounts may follow your personal ones as well, so consider carefully the image you present. It’s one thing to share a recipe or a video of your adorable cat; it’s quite another to engage publicly in disputes or endorse political views inconsistent with your nonprofit’s mission. Consider a social media policy for your agency and, at least initially, limit who may post on its behalf.

Frequency of posting

“Focus on the quality rather than the quantity,” Ward says. “Be responsive to the community.”

Again, review your survey results. Does your audience check posts first thing in the morning before getting down to business? Are you communicating primarily with parents who go online after they’ve put their kids to bed? Just before noon is a great time to reach a broad base of followers who scan postings during their lunch break.

Ward strongly recommends using a platform’s scheduling feature to place messages at key times or throughout the day. “You can spend five minutes setting up multiple messages at one time and schedule them to move when your audience needs it,” she explains.

Have a reliable set of “evergreen” messages on topics that can be posted at any time to keep your feed active. Philanthropy Journal, for example, uses social media to foster registration for our free weekly e-newsletter and to draw readers to nonprofit sector job postings.

Don’t auto-post everything, however, and be especially sensitive if major news breaks. Many organizations were criticized in the wake of the Boston bombings for not suspending cheerful messages, fundraising pitches and other content that suddenly seemed inappropriate.

Use analytics to measure success

Most free social media platforms include built-in analytics to help users gauge the relative success of different types of postings, as well as when they are opened or shared. Paid services also are available.

“A lot of the technology out there is free, but the staff time you invest is not,” Ward says. “Our technology and staffing surveys shows increases each year that organizations are investing in technology. You need to review analytics to make sure that time is spent creating connections, building  community and adding value overall.”

Set modest goals in the beginning but increase them over time, Ward says. “Just as you have deliberate goals that come from your mission and strategic plan, you can be doing that as part of your social engagement. Tie everything you do directly to what you’re talking about online.”

Resist judging your success by the number of likes on your page. “It’s the people who comment, who read something and react, that’s important,” Ward says. “If you are posting information that your community finds useful, they will share it with their network. That’s when you know people are excited about what you are doing.”

Create expectations

After you establish a loyal audience, consider engaging them in content that seeks and values their feedback. On a consistent schedule, pose a question or comment – What inspires you to action? Share an example of observed kindness – and solicit replies. Another option is to post a short “snapshot” poll one morning and share the outcomes the next day.

“There is value in creating the expectation, but not if it’s something you can’t hold up,” Ward warns. “It can’t be dependent on a big news story that day. You need a good list of ideas that can be rolled out easily and by anyone in your operation.”

Ward credits @idealist as being especially good in generating user feedback about its resources and for responding to questions and comments. “No one goes into these conversations thinking they will change the world,” she says, “but it does affect perceptions when people know your agency is responsive.”

Ward suggests recruiting a supportive group to help launch such features and ensure replies. After all, if a message is posted in the social media forest and no one sees it, it exists forever as a flop.

“Reach out to that core group of people in your community that are always there,” she suggests. “Let them know, ‘We’re putting up a question today and want to give you a preview.’ It gives them recognition, it ensures that you get a few replies – and it sets the example for the community, which will want to be part of this positive thing.”

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