When a nonprofit executive seeks out Andrea Berry, director of partnerships and learning at Idealware in Portland, Maine, for social media advice, she more often than not directs them to Facebook or Twitter. These two tried and true sites are the best ways for nonprofits to get into the social media scene.
But, it’s becoming increasingly clear that organizations are at least considering other options.
Many challengers to Facebook and Twitter have emerged over the years with varying levels of success. The two social media behemoths have remained on top of the game when it comes to active users. Facebook has more than 1.1 billion users, while Twitter is a distant second at a paltry 500 million. While these numbers are impressive, they don’t tell the whole story, according to Berry.
“I don’t find it very useful to rank social media platforms,” she said, explaining that she is more interested in looking at emerging trends. Berry is seeing a trend that bodes well for other up-and-coming social networks: Pictures.
While Facebook and Twitter are primarily focused on text-based messages, some of the newer social networks have made pictures a priority. Lindsay Nichols, public relations and social media manager at GuideStar in Washington, D.C., said at least one picture should be in every post made to a social network. People tend to gravitate toward more visually-appealing posts, she said.
Nichols sees the rise of images as just another way to better tell an organization’s story. Using applications such as Instagram, which is used to take stylized photos to share with followers, nonprofits can tell a visual story of how the organization functions.
Nichols noted that the younger generation is moving toward Instagram and sites like it because of its immediacy. Like Twitter, it uses hashtags (symbolized by #) as a search method, so people can easily find photos if categorized under a particular hashtag. For example, a nonprofit posting a photo of its annual gala could categorize it using #nonprofit or #party.
For Beth Kanter, a blogger and co-author of the book Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, Instagram has a lot of potential for nonprofit marketing precisely because visual marketing has become very important. It also has the added benefit of being compatible with other social networks.
“If you are already using Twitter really well, you can easily integrate with Instagram,” said Kanter, who explained you can connect your account with both Facebook and Twitter to share photos with your followers on those platforms.
Kanter believes that the most effective way to use Instagram is as a tool to engage users. She cited The Nature Conservancy (TNC) as a good example of this concept. The Arlington, Va.-based environmental advocacy nonprofit had a scavenger hunt last year that called for supporters to use Instagram to take photos of specific things in nature and tag them with #natureIDgram. The nine photos with the most likes were posted to the organization’s Facebook and Tumblr page.
According to Kanter, this type of engagement campaign has a number of benefits for nonprofits:
Trevor Martin, social and mobile marketing manager at TNC, said that contest had 600 submissions. The biggest sign of success for him was what happened after the contest was finished.
“I think the real success metric is that people are still using our hashtag within Instagram,” said Martin, who noted they have received more than 300 photos using #natureIDgram since the scavenger hunt ended. That brings the total to a little more than 900 photos received using the campaign hashtag.
Martin said TNC joined Instagram because of the continued goal of reaching new audiences through as many platforms as possible. As of this writing, the organization has 412 photos and 3,139 followers on Instagram.
Despite the usefulness of Instagram as a marketing tool, Kanter has been seeing even more traction on another picture-based social network: Pinterest.
Pinterest is one of the more popular social networks that make images a priority. Launched in 2010, the site has 48.7 million users. Kanter has been seeing more nonprofits flock to Pinterest, especially during the past six months. “It’s gotten a lot of hype and now that the numbers are up on users, organizations are starting to take notice,” she said.
“It’s best to use Pinterest as a resource page to direct constituents to,” said Berry when asked how nonprofits should use the site. She pointed to the Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center Pinterest page as a prime example of the best way to use the site. The page has multiple pinboards on a variety of children’s disabilities that link to more information about them.
“They created a really powerful resource page about all different kinds of information they can direct families to,” said Berry.
Given its typical user base — moms, people interested in do-it-yourself crafts, food, etc. — Berry thinks it’s most useful for food banks, environmental nonprofits, or any other organizations that want to target those groups.
Amy Sample Ward, chief executive officer at the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) in Portland, Ore., agreed that nonprofits need to evaluate whether they are the right fit for a site like Pinterest before making use of it. She said the real draw of social media is that it allows organizations to give supporters an insider’s look at your organization.
“You should show the people behind your work instead of just promoting your projects,” Sample Ward said in explaining why it’s not a good idea to join a social network just because everyone else is doing it.
“I think people need to figure out how to use it and who is using it,” said Berry.
On the other hand, Nichols said she would recommend Pinterest to everyone. “It will force you to think visually.” She mentioned how she initially didn’t think the site would be a good fit for GuideStar, which publishes federal Form 990s and other sector data, simply because data doesn’t translate to “pretty pictures.” She soon realized that she could use Pinterest to promote the images of organizations.
For example, GuideStar’s “Nonprofit Rankings” boards includes images of nonprofits ranked by Philanthropedia, a division of GuideStar which looks to improve nonprofit effectiveness by directing money to and facilitating discussion about expert recommended high-impact nonprofits.
Despite this, Nichols did agree that you shouldn’t go into these programs without a plan. “You should at least grab your name on all social networks, but you shouldn’t use something just because everyone else is,” she said.
That is a point that Michael Gilbert, founder of the Gilbert Center, stresses to all nonprofit leaders interested in social media. “Almost every time I have seen a nonprofit use a new tool, they have neglected to see if their users are actually using it,” he said. “The first thing a strategic organization does is to know their users. They won’t just wander off somewhere because something is the new hot trend.”
Gilbert said that data should be the driving force behind a nonprofit’s use of social media and Nichols shares that belief. She and her colleagues at GuideStar constantly check Google Analytics to see what is driving traffic to the site. This tool is also a useful way to determine which social media platform is right for your organization.
“If people are staying on long-form text, you should stay with something like Tumblr or blogs,” said Nichols. “If people are leaving the site quickly, you should think of using something more visual” to grab their attention, she said.
Nichols also said that organizations should pay less attention to how many followers they have and more about the level of participation. “It’s about what’s being shared, what’s being said about you.”
Despite the new advances in social media, Nichols doesn’t see Facebook or Twitter going anywhere anytime soon. In the case of Twitter, she thinks that it is transitioning into more of a newsfeed rather than a way to connect people and, although it could lose a little bit of popularity over the years, it’s unlikely it will totally fall of the map.
This is especially true for grantmakers who, according to Sandra Lund Diaz, executive director of the Stoller Foundation in Houston, Texas, are just starting to see the use of social media in their mission.
“I have seen a radical change in the philosophy of foundations. Thirty years ago we had this idea that we were a different breed of animal,” said Lund Diaz. “Today, we seem to be in the mode of recognizing that foundations make investments. If they can reach the people they need to partner with, they need to use these tools.”
So far, Lund Diaz said she doesn’t see that many of her colleagues gravitating toward social media platforms beyond Facebook and Twitter, and a February 2013 survey by the Conference of Southwest Foundations (CSF), of which the Stoller Foundation is a member organization, appeared to back that claim. Facebook and Twitter were used at least once per month by 84 percent of respondents. YouTube came in at 34 percent, Google Plus was at 30 percent, and Instagram was at just 7 percent.
Berry said there is some decline in the popularity of Facebook, as younger people flock to Instagram and other sites, but not enough to dethrone it. “We still feel it’s the tool to go to because people are using that tool to find out about other organizations.”
“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the platforms do because it matters what the users do,” said Ward. “If people want to move to a new platform, they will. If they want to post only pictures, they will. If they want to do whatever is easiest without starting a new profile somewhere else, they will. I think that Facebook and Twitter have enough of a daily user base that they aren’t going to see that tomorrow no one logs on and uses the tool. Even if the best new site pops up tomorrow, transition will still take time.” NPT
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