Social media jargon confusing? It’s all about starting a conversation

By Shannon Ritchie

RT.@. #Hashtag. DM …. If you have no idea what any of that stands for, you’re not alone. The social media learning curve is steep and daunting – jumping in requires learning a new language! But with almost three-quarters of adults in the U.S. now using social networking sites, the desire of nonprofit organizations to be more connected to an online audience and community is stronger than ever.

In the last 2½ years, the percentage of Internet users who are on Twitter has more than doubled, currently standing at 18 percent. Facebook is still the most widely used social networking site, and Instagram and Vine are signing up new amateur photographers and videographers at record speed.

You might be ready to jump on board, but when strapped for time and resources, you want proof that using these sites will lead to results.

But … not so fast. Don’t rush out of the gate focusing on growing your base, analyzing the click rates of your content and designing innovative online campaigns. Take a step back and recognize what these sites are mainly used for – conversations.

I often hear from other foundations that they’re “not sure what to say” or “don’t have enough unique content to produce” because they’re not direct service organizations. But these same folks are asked to attend important events and conferences and readily jump into exciting conversations offline, so they definitely have a unique and valuable perspective to add, online or offline.

Start by listening. Use hashtags and a trusty search bar to find groups and individuals who you’re already connected to offline. On Twitter, create lists and save searches to organize those you’re following by topic or geographic area so you’re not overwhelmed by the feed. Following people on social networking sites is no different than showing up at a networking event with a “Hi, my name is …” tag stuck to your lapel. You’re in front of them now, and you’re listening to what they have to say. Being online just makes networking easier and more efficient.

#Hashtags? What are Hashtags?

Originally created on Twitter, hashtags are now used on Pinterest, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr and Vine. They consist of a word/phrase, preceded by a # sign and allow you to see various social media posts together, related to one topic. For example, I often use #nced in posts, an abbreviation for “NC Education.” If I click on the hashtag, I can see any other post that also uses it and ties my content into a larger conversation.

One of the easiest ways to use hashtags is at events and conferences (those of us who work in philanthropy go to many!). Most groups are developing a unique tag for each event, and if not – create one and spread the word. You’ll be surprised at how many people you “meet” on social media while attending conferences that you’d never meet in passing.

Over the summer, my intern Elizabeth Byrum researched which hashtags were relevant to our work, and we came up with a few on own. Here’s our very own defined list that is tailored to our current funding priorities and goal of reaching North Carolina users who also are interested and talking about these issues.

  • #ncnonprofit (NC nonprofits)
  • #ncphil (NC philanthropy)
  • #nced (NC education)
  • #ncnpnews (NC nonprofit news)
  • #ncearlyed (early childhood
  • #eDurham (East Durham, NC, a
    geographic focus of our foundation)

Interact with Grantees

Several months into my work creating a social media presence for our foundation, I began to get discouraged. Our engagement rates were high but we were far from becoming an influential presence. People weren’t really sharing what we had to say.

Now I see these early results differently. Sure, we’d like more people to follow us and hear what we have to say, but more importantly, we’re connecting with our grantees (staff, board members, clients, champions) in new and exciting ways. Social media facilitates more informal dialogue, opening up windows to each other’s work that weren’t present before.

Have questions? Nervous to engage and need a cheerleader? Be in touch.

Shannon Ritchie is director of online engagement at the AJ Fletcher Foundation. She can be reached at @shannon_ritchie, @AJFfoundation and

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