Do Your Online Outreach Efforts Fall Flat? Stop Looking at the Tech

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There is no shortage of guidance on the practical aspects of new technology, especially when it comes to new outreach and engagement channels. Right now, there are probably a half dozen “5 Things You Need to Know About [Social Media X]” posts on Twitter. Less often addressed are the internal, non-technological barriers that stand in the way of effectively deploying a good online strategy. Many a motivated staff member has attended a seminar on some technological tool only to return to the office, attempt to implement it, and watch it fall flat.

For any strategy that relies heavily on new technology, it is critical that organizations do not become so focused on the technical or tactical aspects of the platform that they fail to address the non-technical—i.e., structural, operational, and cultural—barriers to success. By following some basic guiding principles, organizations can take steps toward overcoming the non-technological barriers that get in the way of good technology implementation.

Break out of Silos and “Fail Fast”

In their book Social Change Anytime Everywhere, authors Allyson Kapin and Amy Sample Ward provide in-depth instructions on how to implement constituent engagement strategies via multiple channels. “Many people have asked us whether multichannel campaigns are still just focused on Facebook and Twitter,” says Amy Sample Ward. “A true multichannel campaign connects your constituents and your call to action across social platforms, e-mail, your website, and even offline.”

Kapin and Sample Ward also address some of the internal, non-technical barriers that get in the way of integrated communications, fundraising and community mobilization strategies. One of the common roadblocks occurs in organizations that are siloed along functional lines. “Organizations that silo content and constituent engagement will have the most difficult time deploying a multichannel engagement strategy, because each department is trying to ‘own’ the people and the content related to their department goal,” says Ward. “From the inside, that almost makes sense. But from the outside—the supporter’s perspective—it means communications come without the full context of that supporter’s history, actions, or preferences.”

Breaking down silos leads to greater organizational transparency and helps to create a safe space that leverages individuals’ talents. That safe space doesn’t crush people’s spirits by punishing them when a strategy or campaign fails. By creating this type of open, collaborative, “fail fast” culture, ideas can be surfaced, tested, evaluated, and implemented quickly. Nimble organizations, for example, often deploy a hybrid staffing model with a digital team that is spread across different departments, yet connected through a centralized communications or marketing group that ensures a strong digital experience—one that aligns campaigns with organizational strategy and brand. The goal of the extended team becomes less about successful individual departments and more about successful coordinated campaigns.

But Ward acknowledges that, in some organizations, breaking down silos can be a challenge. “It’s going to be more difficult at an organization that is still really siloed to start failing quickly and iterating on campaigns,” says Ward. “It really is required that organizations start creating systems and process that bring staff together across departments first, so that changes to staffing can be identified, and failing fast can be embraced. Those we are serving expect us to recognize all of the ways they can be engaged with us and to treat them accordingly.”

Invest in Capacity to Keep the Shelves Stocked

For the bulk of overextended nonprofits with limited capacity, one of the largest operational challenges is managing the time it takes to deploy a multichannel communications strategy effectively. A simple online editorial calendar, such as this one by Lightbox Collaborative, can go a long way in helping to align resources to map relevant, compelling content across media channels.

In addition, organizations that have built out a new media channel need to guard against running out of relevant and compelling content. Darian Rodriguez Heyman, co-founder of Social Media for Nonprofits, calls this the empty store phenomenon. “We often encounter organizations that have brought in a summer intern to set up a Facebook page or a Twitter profile, but then don’t have a plan to sustain activities,” says Rodriguez Heyman. “Think of Facebook as the online equivalent of Main Street. You wouldn’t set up a storefront and then not have a plan to keep the shelves inventoried. In the same way, nonprofits that embark on social media need to be committed and make sure that there are cycles allowed to maintain the channel.”

The good news is that in the case of social media, less is often more. Rodriguez Heyman cautions organizations against flooding social media channels with too much activity. “If you’re posting on Facebook more than twice per day, you’re probably posting too often,” he says. “Once or twice a day makes a bigger impact.”

Remember That Technology Is Not a Strategy

According to Allen Gunn, executive director of Aspiration, a San Francisco-based nonprofit technology consulting organization, many organizations make the error of treating technology as a replacement for strategy: “In the same way they’d order up pizza delivery, some nonprofits think they can order up a piping hot enterprise technology strategy. We tell organizations to take a step back and think about your business processes first. Look at things from a process-centric way and not a tech-centric way.”

Before settling on a technology platform, organizations need to understand their underlying business processes. Even with a technology as seemingly straightforward as e-mail, different organizations’ business processes will lead them to different platforms; an organization primarily involved in distributing content might select an e-mail marketing platform like MailChimp while an organization that requires mobilizing community members may choose a platform like NationBuilder.

The key to realizing good integration across the organization is the involvement of mid-level facilitators who lead by example. These facilitators should be transparent in engaging team members in technology decisions across the organization and should hold themselves accountable to the rest of the organization. Online collaboration tools like Basecamp can allow all staff to ensure that business process requirements are thoroughly evaluated and documented before multichannel strategies are employed.

“Linger in the problem space a bit longer,” says Gunn. “Engage the people that will be using the technology and think about the business problem you’re trying to solve. Our mantra is ‘tech last.’ Don’t jump too soon into a solution without really understanding the problem.”

John Hoffman has more than 15 years of experience in marketing and development within the nonprofit and technology sectors. You can follow him on Twitter here.

  • Marc Baizman

    Lots of great advice here, and it’s more generally applicable to all technology efforts at nonprofit organizations. The real money quote here is from Allen Gunn (“Gunner”): “We tell organizations to take a step back and think about your business processes first. Look at things from a process-centric way and not a tech-centric way.”

    It’s often tempting to jump into the tech, but it’s much more effective to look at the business processes and understand what behavior change will be needed, especially if you do decide to bring in technology. Also, don’t forget to engage the people who will be using these system(s) if there are multiple options – that way they’ll have a stake in the outcome, and they’ll have had a voice in the process.

  • John Clese, Avectra

    “Thanks for the article, John. Breaking down silos and centralizing communications and data is a key benefit of having a Social CRM. When all departments can share information together, it makes their outreach stronger and message/brand and each touch point to donors and constituents that much more impactful. Changing your system and process will lead to higher returns on investment when communicating with key stakeholders. It is also vital when communicating with a donor to let them know what their money is being used to accomplish. They want to know they are making an impact.”

  • Mitch Arnowitz

    Technology Is Not a Strategy- what a great comment!

    We like to say that: “it’s never about the technology but always about the people.” Infrastructure, process, culture, integration and the other internal points raised are also mission critical. To many organizations (and companies) don’t address basic relationship building requirements.

    Nice ‘thought’ piece and thanks, Mitch