Image used with permission. Copyright: resource

  Image used with permission. Copyright: resource

Thinking About Social Media Advertising

Should we use paid social media advertising?” a friend who is an Executive Director at a nonprofit asked.  “My Board of Directors has been suggesting that I look into it,” she continued.

My first question for my Board, if they asked me to consider social media advertising, would be why.  To what end would we be advertising? Would we simply be working to “raise awareness” or would we have a more specific call to action in mind? If our purpose was to “raise awareness” to what end would we be doing that? 

Eventually, when we raise awareness, we want people to take some other action, correct? The point of awareness raising is to ultimately have people change their behavior or support the cause in some sort of specific way, isn’t it? So what is the end game?

When people learn about an issue or problem, they usually want to know what they can do to help.  We need to tell them what they can do to help. Otherwise, they tend to feel powerless and frustrated or annoyed with us for bothering them with a problem we’re interrupting them to talk about without giving them an opportunity to participate in solving.

After getting clear about the reason for the Board members to want to consider social media advertising, I’d want to consider whether this is the best type of advertising for us. Who are we trying to reach? You can find different age demographics on different social media channels. And is social media really the best way to reach them?

A couple of weeks ago, on this blog, I talked about the value of good, old-fashioned email and how it is still far-more powerful for conversion (making donors out of subscribers) than any social media site.  Rather than advertising on social media, you might want to put more effort into collecting email addresses. There are a number of ways to collect email addresses, some of them involve using social media, but many involve content marketing strategies using your website. Your blog is a powerful way to attract and capture (through sign up forms) email addresses. Blogging has no cost other than the time of the person who blogs and that, sometimes, can be done successfully by volunteers.

When many nonprofit organizations think paid social media advertisements, they think first of Facebook. Most nonprofit organizations have Facebook pages and in years past have built large numbers of followers who have “liked” their pages. Unfortunately, for nonprofits, Facebook has adjusted the algorithm it uses to determine whether or not it delivers your page content to your fans on their pages in ways that has depressed your content delivery, unless you are a paid advertiser. Moreover, Facebook makes frequent, unannounced changes to its algorithm so it is impossible for a nonprofit marketer to anticipate and adjust to its changes in order to plan accordingly. For that reason, nonprofit marketing expert Nancy Schwartz, author of the marketing blog “Getting Attention!” argues that she would not advise nonprofit clients to purchase Facebook ads. John Hayden,  a social media consultant for nonprofits and author of Facebook Marketing for Dummies, is high on Facebook marketing.  “Why would you not want to be where the majority of Americans already are?” he asks in a guest post on Nancy Schwartz’s blog. Interestingly, John was quoted in a Chronicle of Philanthropy article about a year ago as saying that “Social networking is lousy for fundraising.” (July 13, 2014).  

Today, John writes and teaches about the ins and outs of Facebook marketing. Of particular interest are not only his articles about paid advertising, but also his tips on boosting unpaid (organic) Facebook reach.

Earlier this year, Classy, a crowdfunding platform launched in 2011, posted information about a research study conducted by University of Warwick economist Kimberly Scharf which shows that there was actually a negative correlation between having a larger social media network and individuals’ fundraising results. The suggestion was that if people had more social media “friends” or followers, that most people who were invited to support a fundraising campaign thought something like “this person doesn’t need my support” whereas if someone had a small number of friends, a request for support was met with the knowledge that everyone needed to do his or her part.

The conclusion: big social networks do not necessarily lead to large fundraising. However large or small the social network, the key to successful fundraising is keeping the relationships personal – so, again, back to where we began at the beginning:  what is the purpose of the advertising? If it’s just to grab names and addresses to later cultivate—okay, great. But if there is some general idea that simply having followers on social media is good in and of itself, then, don’t count on it.

One thing that almost all nonprofit social media advisors agree on:  the rules, costs, and strategies are changing rapidly and experimentation is called for. When I read that advice, I think: if I’m a nonprofit organization with marketing money to spare, that’s not a problem. I can throw some money at the social media marketing roulette wheel and see where the ball lands. But if I have a limited marketing budget, that’s a problem. I need to go with strategies that are a little less experimental, not that any strategy is a “sure thing.”

If I were a small nonprofit, then, I would probably stick to the free strategies with social media—even if, right now, the results–as with Facebook–are a little disappointing. I believe Facebook will mix it up again at some point. When nonprofits begin making money on Facebook through the Facebook donate button and Facebook gets a cut of the money, it will be in Facebook’s best interest to make sure we show up in people’s newsfeeds. They’ll figure that out in time.  Nothing stays the same forever, especially not with social media.

What’s your purpose? Who do you want to reach? Is social media your best strategy? What’s your budget?  Let these questions guide your decision. If you’re not sure and don’t have money to spare, stick with the free options, blog, and build your email list.


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