Social Media Crash Course

Last Thursday, Indigo’s very own trustees, Fran and William Perrin, in collaboration with the Institute for Philanthropy, hosted a webinar that explored the ways in which donors and charities can harness the power of social media. The previous day, I participated in a Guardian Q and A that examined how charities can benefit from joining the networked world. While it’s hard to predict future trends in the tech space, it’s likely that social networking will become as commonplace as email and phones are today in the work and home environment. It’s not just the realm of geeks, Gaga and Bieber fans! Both the webinar and Q and A resulted in some fascinating discussions and what follows is a set of key recommendations for charities, donors and others looking to make the most of social media:

Getting Started: It’s probably easier than you think. When choosing which platform to select, remember to ask your audience what they use and focus on that. Use existing platforms, don’t reinvent the wheel and remember to integrate your social media activities into a well devised offline response. You should also think about the different audiences you may wish to reach out to, for example, press, donors, beneficiaries and the general public. Find out what your audience would like to hear from you, keep the dialogue friendly and personable and remember to be yourself – if you’re a traditional organisation trying to reach out to youth they’re unlikely to be impressed by you trying to use street language. Find out your audience’s needs both by asking them questions and through using analytic tools such as Hoot Suite or WordPress site stats to find out what interests them the most – you might be surprised. If you’re a small organisations worried by the extra work, consider trying out just one platform initially. Being small can sometimes be an advantage, as hopefully offline communications are easier so messaging is likely to be consistent and different members of the organisation can all contribute. Joining interest groups can also be helpful. For example, Linked In has some fantastic special interest groups focusing on government policy or international development while Facebook is probably a more appropriate platform for attracting youth.

Set out your Policies: Some of the participants in the webinar had concerns about a lack of control as a key barrier, but Fran and Will reminded people that social media is simply a platform and that communications through this medium should be treated like any other public facing communications.  Ensure trusted communicators are designated to represent the organisation and put policies or boundaries in place and this shouldn’t be a problem. If senior management need convincing that social media is a good thing, demonstrate its impact with real life examples. A social media ‘evangelist’ can be instrumental in this process. Consider what you hope to achieve before starting and bear in mind that you’ll need to respond to both positive and negative comments. While it can be scary to use social media initially, the risk of the occasional miscommunication is far outweighed by the increased transparency, ability to really connect with your community and its key role in maximising the impact of an organisation’s work.

Be creative: Don’t just think of social media as a way of communicating about your organisation.  At Indigo, we have used it to identify new funding opportunities. A few months ago, for example, we tweeted asking if anyone knew of any organisations or individuals trying to set up a tech hub in Tanzania and almost immediately received a recommendation from Ory Okkoloh of Google Africa.  After a rigorous process of due diligence, this resulted in us supporting her recommendation, KINU. We also use social media to follow the progress of our grantees in real time, to highlight their success stories and increase their visibility. We’re always delighted to see projects telling their own story in engaging ways. Other uses of social media include crowdsourcing/learning from the ground, identifying events to attend and other opportunities, keeping in the loop with other funders and interesting organisations, increasing transparency and accountability, engaging with hard to reach communities, keeping people up to date with our Trust activities and keeping up to date with your field of interest (research, reports, conference discussions, breaking news). Many charities focus on fundraising and marketing, but ignore the potential it has to contribute to service delivery.  Diabetes UK, for example, uses it to provide support and obtain user feedback which is used to plan campaigns. Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau, meanwhile, have looked at how social media can be used to engage older audiences and people experiencing isolation. Showcasing how technology can support their needs, such as using Skype to save on calls or staying in touch with grandchildren via SMS, has been a powerful tool for Manchester CAB. They also recommended engaging wider family members in your work.

Behave yourself: In order to ensure online enthusiasm translates into something more tangible, keep your messages interesting.  Try to be fun and informative and to link to rich content like photos, videos and audio clips.  Consider providing regular updates on on-going campaigns and project progress. Keep the tone conversational and interactions two-way. Remember that people are more likely to trust an organisation that is transparent and approachable. If you want to increase your number of followers, mention your social media presence in offline communications, follow other relevant accounts, retweet or like content which you find interesting, use relevant hashtags and mentions, and remember to keep it social. Being generous to other organisations and highlighting their successes as well as your own (within a given sector) can also help.

Overall, I’m delighted to see the debate shifting within the charity sector from questioning whether social media is actually needed to how to use it wisely as the proportion of organisations engaging in social media expands and real life examples of its benefits have come to light.

Do you have any recommendations or examples of how organisations are using social media in innovative ways?