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Going Viral: Setting Yourself Up for Success with Social Media

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Alison Sutton

Social media can be a powerful tool, especially in the world of nonprofits. If you use it right, organizations with limited resources and budgets can see a huge impact on awareness, engagement and fundraising.  It’s often said that you know you’ve made it in social when you’re your content goes “viral” and while you can never plan to go viral, there are ways to create content for your audience that will inspire and compel them to share. And just maybe, it will be a story that becomes an internet and media sensation!

So, Where Do You Even Start?

While we produce social media campaigns throughout the year, there are two months for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation that bring in some of our best engagement. The first is March, as St. Baldrick’s was founded on St. Patrick’s Day – Bald + St. Patrick’s = St. Baldrick’s! The second is September, designated as Childhood Cancer Awareness month.  As the largest private funder of childhood cancer research grants, our goal is to raise awareness and funds outside of two key months.

In 2014, we were looking for a creative way to increase engagement in June – historically a slower month for the Foundation. As the social media manager, it’s always my goal to create content that our followers are inspired by and moved to share. Of course, I’ve always wanted to have something go viral as well, but it doesn’t seem to be something you can plan for. In an attempt to engage our audience during off-season, we created a photo contest tied to Father’s Day called, #BestBaldDad. We ask our followers to submit photos of their dad whom have recently shaved their head with us. It was the winning photo and story in 2016 that set things viral. With over 100 submissions, one inspiration story stood out amount the rest and received over 27,000 votes to be crowned best bald dad. Here’s what we did that may have had a hand in giving us the highest reach we’d ever seen!  

Give the People What They Want

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One of the most important things in social media is to know your audience and what they want. If they like what they see in their feed, they’re going to become an advocate in sharing your content. Because we know our followers are influenced by inspirational stories, especially those involving our honored kids with cancer, we plan our content calendar with kid updates, people who’ve shaved their heads and breakthrough research news. We also noticed our followers like to share their head-shaving photos with us and what inspired them to shave. From that knowledge, we created our social media campaign, #BestBaldDad, in honor of Father’s Day. The campaign focuses on dads making a difference in the lives of their families touched by childhood cancer. We asked our audience to share a photo of the dad in their life and tell us why he is the best bald dad. We gave our audience what they wanted and in turn, they became an influencer for us and were a pivotal part of our virtual success.

You Can’t Buy Engagement

Facebook’s algorithm is often not your friend. With consistent updates, it isn’t enough to post good looking content. You have to find a way to show up in your follower’s feeds and one of the best ways to get that reach is through shares. For our contest, in particular, we put the power into the hands of our followers, allowing them to nominate, vote and comment on the “Best Bald Dad” photo submissions. Their engagement not only helped raise awareness about the campaign but those who entered shared with their social networks which increased engagement to our page. You can pay for reach, but you can’t pay for engagement.

Standing Out in a Timeline

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With the amount of competition in social media feeds, you want to post content that is scroll-stopping. Something that will literally make the viewer stop scrolling and read your content. Our 2016 #BestBaldDad winner did just that. The winner was a dad who got a tattoo on his head to match his son’s brain tumor surgery scar. In the caption, the dad explained how his son was first self-conscious about the scar, but now feel confident when see his father’s matching mark. What made this scroll-stopping was the uniqueness of the story and the powerful imagery. Given both of those things, it touched readers outside of our current followers, attracting more than 27.5K reactions, close to 9,000 shares and over 1,400 comments. Ultimately, we gained more than 7,000 additional followers on the St. Baldrick’s Facebook page and nearly 20 donations to the Foundation.

All the buzz caught the attention of the major news outlet, Buzzfeed. After they published their article on our contest and winner, national morning shows and websites including Yahoo!CNN, People, USA TODAY, CBS, Fox, Inside Edition and PopSugar all ran the story, securing more than 400 million media impressions.

Our campaign also had an impact we never expected it would! This year we found out another dad who was so inspired by last year’s story, got a matching tattoo of his own son’s scar. This is a great example of how inspiring content can influence your audience past its viral period.

Okay, You Went Viral. Now What?

While going viral was a personal dream come true (and benefited the foundation), it didn’t mean the millions of eyeballs would turn into millions of actions. The fifteen minutes of fame was a wild ride, but it’s figuring out how to maintain the impact that can be a challenge. It was up to us to continually create content that would resonate with our new followers while also staying true to our voice and brand.

You can’t make something go viral. It has to happen naturally. If you try too hard, your audience will notice and start to tune you out. Keep experimenting with your content and continue to learn from your audience, because they are always changing. Although there’s no guarantee your page will be seen by millions, you should always put your audience first, listen to what they want, share inspiring content and never give up on your dream of going viral. You never know when it will happen!


Alison Sutton is the social media and content manager at the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a volunteer-powered charity committed to funding the most promising research to find cures for childhood cancers and give survivors long, healthy lives. The Foundation is a kid’s best chance at a childhood free from cancer and Sutton uses her social media maven skills to spread the word in less than 140 characters.

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