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What nonprofits need to know about social media

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Beth Kanter is the author of Beth’s Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media, one of the longest-running and most popular blogs for nonprofits and co-author of the forthcoming book, “The Networked Nonprofit,” to be published by J. Wiley in 2010. Beth is also the CEO of Zoetica, a company that serves nonprofits and socially conscious companies with top-tier, online marketing services. SmartBrief on Social Media Lead Editor Jesse Stanchak caught up with Beth to ask about social-media best practices for nonprofits.

What are some ways nonprofits can use social networks that don’t involve raising awareness or money?
I think that nonprofits can integrate the use of social media in many different ways from program delivery, volunteer recruitment and more. Using social media for fundraising and awareness is probably the tip of the iceberg and a great way to get started. One idea that I wrote about in my forthcoming book, “The Networked Nonprofit,” was how social media can help with effective governance. It sounds like science fiction, but I believe it can be a useful tool.

Do nonprofits need to think differently about social-media ROI? Besides seeing an increase in donations, how does an organization know they’re seeing a positive return on their investment?
Nonprofits need to connect their social-media objectives with a theory of change or some specific outcome. Nonprofits are used to doing this because they do mission-driven work and don’t always use dollars as a metric. For example, the Red Cross uses social media — what’s most important is how many lives have they saved because of their social-media use. There are both tangible and intangible results that can be realized through an effective social-media strategy.

Should every communication between a nonprofit and its followers be some kind of ask? Are there other ways organizations should be looking to build engagement?
No! That is a surefire way to create “cause fatigue.”

Not everyone that a nonprofit connects with on the social Web or elsewhere may have the same degree of interest or passion about their cause or organization. Think about all the various ways a nonprofit organization interacts with different groups of people through its communications and fundraising efforts –- through social media or other traditional channels. They have  no doubt discovered that some people engage with them lightly, and others will engage more deeply.

To be successful using social media, nonprofits need to use different techniques, tactics, messages and tools that map to the person’s level of interest.   They need a portfolio of approaches that meet people where they are at and help move them to the next level.

There are many different ways to build engagement. One concept is the ladder of engagement.

Are there any best practices from the world of corporate social media that don’t transfer to the nonprofit sector?
I think what doesn’t transfer is that nonprofits often have much fewer resources available to them for marketing efforts and often will focus on more on their mission and perhaps move a tad slower.

What kinds of cultural barriers do nonprofits run into when trying to put social media to work?
Ah, I’ve written a lot about this. There are many myths and misconceptions about social media. A lot of these can be addressed through a good policy-development process. One of the big cultural differences is the “tower and cloud”  — many nonprofits work in hierarchical structures, and working with social media is a little bit more chaotic and cloud-like.  I’m not saying that institutional structure is bad — but it is a different work style.  Nonprofits need to know to shift between the two ways of working.

For organizations that are just starting out in the social space — are you fan of doing small social-media pilot programs? Or should organizations just dive into a full-scale campaign and learn as they go?
I’m a huge fan of pilots and experimenting — and learning as you go.  But you must use metrics and harvest insights.  I’m an advocate for the small, incremental approach — selective strategies for many nonprofits — unless they have the resources to fully scale.  Most don’t and if they do, the culture may not be ready for it.