Nonprofits have their lingo as much as any other segment of the economy. Sometimes we get so engaged in the minutia of what we’re trying to change in the world that we forget the rest of the planet uses totally different words for what we do. Some people (Demand Media, for example) have made a business out of learning how the general public asks questions and then trying to translate that into something for the Web.

Response media has a bad rap, and most of it is deserved. The idea is to comb through search queries on the Web to see what people are looking for and then create a page that specifically answers that question. In a perfect world, this would mean that if enough people searched for “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” and there was no good answer for that already, some really well-informed people at the Woodchuck Research Institute would be kind enough to write a Wikipedia article explaining the answer succinctly, and then we all move along with our day.

In practice, what often happens is that people present a human-language question—“my stupid phone won’t work…help!”—in the search box. They find out that there isn’t a good answer so they modify the search—“BrandX phone won’t dial out”—and hopefully get a better result. A response media company might see enough “my stupid phone won’t work” searches and create a page titled “What to Do When Your Stupid Phone Won’t Work.” The page title matches the search query, and so it gets bumped higher up in the results—so high up, in fact, that given its specific response to the question typed, you may even click on it. What you would like to have happen here is for someone to give you the info on what to do next, but often these pages are just horrible, useless sets of keywords that don’t give you any info. But they do show you a pop-up ad, which was really all they wanted in the first place.

Nonprofits, however, can take the idea of demand-and-response media back to that Wikipedia-style answer approach and use it to both inform customers and gain new supporters. The trick is in getting outside of our own jargon. We may think of “serving youth without permanent shelter,” but the search terms out there are probably for “homeless kids.” If we structure our content to be found based upon how we would like the public to think, rather than how they actually do, we won’t get the chance to meet someone who really needs our help. So let’s do some research on the language that we choose, find out what people are looking for, and help structure a response that brings people to your site to learn the answer to their question.

Adwords are a great way to learn about popular search terms that you may have missed and can inform you as to how to optimize your page to help bring certain questions your way. (Yes, optimize is jargon. Do a response media search on it for fun.) Put in your jargon and you may find lots of suggested searches happening for terms you didn’t think to use. Here’s your chance to help answer questions that people who aren’t finding your site just yet are asking. You may want to create a whole new page just to answer that question, or simply re-title and re-keyword an existing page to include the new search terms.

When you answer their question, be sure there’s a call to action (hey, more jargon!) to keep involved with you. Provide an e-mail sign-up, sharing links, or something to say, “Glad you found us! Keep in touch, okay?” Please—skip the pop-up ad. Some things are best left to the private sector.


Steve Boland lives at the intersection of community, policy and technology. Steve holds a Master of Nonprofit Management from Hamline University, and is a regular contributor to Nonprofit Quarterly. He can be reached at [email protected] or