What’s All The Chirping?

September 15, 2009       Michele Donohue      

Kristiana Kocis, major gifts officer at American Red Cross Santa Barbara County Chapter, met resistance when she pitched that the 117-year-old organization should delve into the social micro-blog Twitter.

Some people in the organization doubted its usefulness, but the organization gave Kocis two months to test the technology.

Then, on May 5, the Jesusita fire broke out in Santa Barbara County. Before news of the fire, the Santa Barbara ARC had 166 Twitter followers for its account, @SBRedCross. Kocis said after the organization first Tweeted about the fire, the number of followers started “exponentially growing.” She started sending out minute-to-minute updates about the fire — from directions to shelters to what to grab during the emergency evacuation.

“This was something I envisioned when I initially pitched the idea of doing the social media program. People are going to be turning to us for the information and looking to the Red Cross immediately to know where the shelters are going to be and how to get there and what’s going on,” said Kocis.

The Twitter community grew to more than 600 followers, with many people retweeting the information Santa Barbara ARC provided. Many local and national news outlets, such as CNN, started following the Santa Barbara ARC Twitter for updates.

Even a board member started following the organization’s Twitter the day the fire started, and contacted upper management about how useful Twitter was to the community. That impact now has the organization “totally converted,” according to Kocis. Now the organization has more than 700 followers.

“It shows it is valuable and people are listening to us. It’s not just us blasting to open space and no one is listening. People are paying attention and it really caught on,” said Kocis. “It’s not your grandma’s Red Cross anymore.”

Twitter is a social media site where information is sent out in 140 characters or less. For example, the previous sentence was 91 characters. Information is sent in real time to those who opt-in to your communications and can be searched by anyone.

And this tool has exploded in recent months. Unique visitors to Twitter grew from nearly 1 million unique visitors in June 2008 compared to 21 million unique visitors in June 2009 — a 1,928 percent increase in a year, according to latest statistics from The Nielsen Company. And the largest Twitter growth demographic is ages 25 to 54, comprising 64 percent of the site’s audience as of June, according to Nielsen. Those 55 or older compromise 20 percent of the growth and those under the age of 24 come in at 16 percent, according to Nielsen.

Some nonprofits are getting behind this social marketing trend. Even though Twitter publically launched only three years ago, in July 2006, it’s become the third most popular commercial site for nonprofits to create a presence, according to a recent survey.

More than 43 percent of survey respondents said their organization had a Twitter presence, dwarfed only by Facebook (74 percent) and YouTube (46.5 percent), according to The Nonprofit Social Network Survey Report, completed by Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), Common Knowledge and ThePort.

And it’s a new channel for most — 93.9 percent of the organizations using Twitter reported using it for one year or less, according to the survey. That means most organizations are just out of the gate and that more organizations have plenty of opportunities to join the race. “I would say if you’re a small or a large organization you have an equal voice on Twitter, so it’s a good place to start,” said Danielle Brigida, social media outreach coordinator at National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in Washington, D.C.

Brigida signed the organization up for Twitter, @NWF, two years ago. NWF’s Twitter account has nearly 16,000 followers, but Brigida said most of that growth happened recently — skyrocketing by more than 10,000 followers since late last September.

The @NWF serves as an immediate touch-point with followers and those interested in wildlife. The updates range from a video of baby raccoons saved from a vending machine to signups for the Great American Backyard Campout. The updates are meant to inform and entertain, and ultimately draw people into NWF and the mission.

Brigida also Tweets from her personal account, @starfocus, as another way to communicate with supporters and tie in her love of wildlife. “It just gives me more freedom with what I can say and I use a lot of smiley faces. It may annoy them if I do that from NWF,” she said.

Rachel Weidinger, marketing director and senior consultant at San Francisco-based Common Knowledge, explained that Twitter messages should have some personality if you want to gather and keep followers. “I think part of it is being able to show the human-side of the organization,” she said. “I wouldn’t recommend Tweeting out links to dresses that you like. But when you show a more personal side, or your personal attachment to the mission, it has big wins on Twitter.”

And, don’t think like an organization. Twitter isn’t a channel to just repost your press releases. “If you are on Twitter, I would say don’t just broadcast,” said Brigida. She said the “give and take” Twitter community doesn’t work if your organization is just putting information out, without interacting with any followers.

“I think being a part of the conversation is really the key to Twitter, and for that matter is important in all forms of social media. Twitter as a tool is about conversation so just sending out links is not going to help you be a part of the conversation. That’s the megaphone style of social media — and it doesn’t work,” said Jon Dunn, social media manager at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah, and @bfas on Twitter.

Dunn explained that sending out links to your followers is fine sometimes — but Twitter is more about conversation than self-promotion. “For example, the largest response we ever had on Twitter was when I asked whether or not you let your dogs sleep in the bed with you. Dozens of @replies and new followers later we were part of the conversation. Then people were more likely to see us as a friend and then follow and retweet links we sent out,” he said.

Jeff Patrick, president and founder of Common Knowledge, said Twitter is a “great way to build a relationship with someone,” especially if the organization’s Twitter has some personality. “It’s not so much the organization as it is someone in the organization and that personification of that organization through that person on Twitter,” he said. He said that Twitter is just another tool to help followers climb the ladder of engagement. The difference is that instead of an eight-page direct mail piece, the relationship grows over shorter, more frequent communication.

The first step would be to decide if you even want a Twitter presence. “You want to be forward thinking but you also don’t want to invest in tools that don’t have a future or won’t evolve long-term tools,” said Juliana Minsky, partner of SurfMedia Communications in Santa Barbara, Calif. SurfMedia helped Santa Barbara ARC set up its Twitter, as well as the organization’s blog and Facebook presence.

Dunn explained that Twitter, like any other social media, isn’t the be all, end all. “You never want to do anything in life half way, social media is no different,” he said. Figure out which person in the organization would be responsible for Twitter and ask yourself if that person has enough time to take on this new responsibility.

“The tricky part becomes thinking about how you break messaging up into 140 characters and do that over time and apply the manpower that makes it cost effective,” Patrick said.

The time and energy put into Twitter varies by organization. Santa Barbara ARC’s Kocis said organizations could always find a spare 30 seconds to send out a Tweet. Minsky explained, “I think the quality of the communication and the quality of the Tweets will be key in the growth” and nonprofits shouldn’t bombard followers with hundreds of messages a day.

Brigida said most days she Tweets around five times a day and more on special days honoring wildlife, such as Endangered Species Day. Dunn said he spends around 10 hours a week on Twitter, but that includes the weekends.

And sometimes it’s not what you send out that’s the most important. “The listening alone and tracking your name is really valuable,” said Brigida. She said, for example, a man was determining on Twitter from which organization he should make a symbolic adoption, which is actually a donation. Brigida was able to send him a Tweet about NWF’s adoptions and that personal connection led to his donation.

Brigida said she sometimes searches for people Tweeting about NWF and its programs, such as Ranger Rick, and general Tweets regarding wildlife. She tries to make a connection with people by responding to their Tweets or signing up to follow them. In turn, she hopes the people she elects to follow from @NWF decide to follow the organization.

Dunn recommended nonprofits use the tool http://search.twitter.com to see if there are Tweets about the organization or affiliate programs, as he does for DogTown, a Best Friends Animal Sanctuary department featured in a National Geographic Channel show with the same name. That way, fans of the show can make the connection to the organization’s program.

“There are major fans out there of every organization, and finding them and connecting is a real key to success. They are likely to be the ones to retweet your stuff and respond to your requests,” he said.

“I also think growing the followers organically is the right way to do it. I have never once run a contest to get more followers. The followers we have I want them to want to be there to hear what we have to say, otherwise what’s the point?” Dunn asked rhetorically.

“At a certain point when you become a good citizen within the community, your need to search for new followers will slow down as people begin to recommend you,” he said. NPT