Is Social Media a Time-Waster for Nonprofits?

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March 11, 2016; The Guardian

While we have written about the variety of different ways nonprofits may use social media to further their social cause or mission, we have also written about its limitations as a fundraising and marketing tool. Since the inception of brand pages on major social sites and apps, nonprofits have viewed social media as a great platform for outreach. Many consider the operation of a social media page to be cost-free. However, Matt Collins, a director at a London-based digital marketing agency, wrote last week that charities tend to waste time and money at platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, stating that social media is not always “the best tool we have.” If nonprofits on a budget are looking to effectively invest their time and money into harnessing social media, they may want to look into the facts and figures of each platform first.

Collins cites a recent report showing the reach of posts made to Facebook, by far the biggest social media player. The average reach for organic Facebook posts to a business page—those posts that aren’t promoted through Facebook’s paid advertising program—reach only about 2.6 percent of users who have liked the page. While hashtags are a great way to reach users otherwise out of the organization’s pool of followers, a tweet on its own is destined to reach only about 10 percent of Twitter followers because tweets likely get lost in the barrage of other posts the nonprofit is competing with. When the tweet does reach followers, very, very few of those followers—think under one percent for a large organization—will click through a link posted to Twitter.

Marketing analysis suggests that that percentage will continue to creep downward, as Facebook alters the algorithm that serves Timeline content to users. Moreover, it’s long been obvious to entrepreneurs and digital marketers that social media is a free-to-play, pay-to-win game: In order to get views, page owners must pay up. For local organizations seeking exposure, paid social media advertising can actually be helpful. Facebook’s paid program, for example, allows users to run promoted posts and ads per impression (how many users see the ad) or per click (how many users click on the ad), letting the user set the goal for the campaign. It also allows targeting by age, gender, location and interest. Still, paid social media campaigns may work for outreach, but as we’ve written about before, Facebook’s innovations for nonprofits are not as helpful or useful as they may appear to be. They don’t tend to be great fundraisers, and they’re out of budget for many nonprofits.

And, if an organization is paying for clicks, Google’s AdWords program might be a better route, as Collins points out in the Guardian article. Under Google’s massive advertising program, advertisers can set ads to appear above Google’s own results when users Google certain terms. Try Googling terms such as “animal shelter” or “food pantry,” and you’re likely to see these ads. Google also runs image ads on partner websites which target users based on the sites they visit—think of those ads that “follow” you after you visit a favorite retail website. By reaching users who are searching for related topics, advertisers can find Googlers who have the topic on their minds.

For an organization that isn’t looking for paid advertising options, the Guardian article suggests reinvesting in search engine optimization (SEO). A website featuring highly-searched, relevant keywords is invaluable—as is a usable and mobile-friendly interface, as more searches happen on mobile devices than on desktops.

Social media can be incredibly useful, as it has the potential to disperse information quickly. But as with any practice, to be fully effective, social media must be a part of a holistic digital marketing strategy. Because social media has become a necessary evil, it would behoove nonprofits to estimate the various benefits and detriments of each unique social media platform before investing their money. Being cognizant of the limitations, and putting social media to use as one part of a fundraising or marketing strategy, is more likely to elicit the benefits nonprofits are looking for.—Lauren Karch