4 min Read
June 17, 2011

Online engagement: old favorites and new tricks

Big Duck

One of the great (and frustrating) things about online communication is that the channels and tools, and the way people and organizations use them, are always changing. Great because it keeps things interesting and (hopefully) helps you connect with your audiences in new and deeper ways. Frustrating because keeping up with best practices and new tactics can feel exhausting, particularly when you’re already pressed for time and budget.

Understanding how other nonprofits develop their online engagement strategy and manage their online presence can often help though.

With that in mind, I recently sat in on a my colleague, Farra Trompeter’s Online Engagement class at Milano, the New School for Management and Urban Policy.  At the session I attended, Farra brought in four smart nonprofit online marketing and communications managers to share how their organizations engage people online. Kyra Stoddart from Amnesty International USA, Daniel Buckley from Food Bank for New York City, Danielle Brigida from the National Wildlife Federation, and Johannes Neuer from The New York Public Library, all develop online engagement strategies for their organizations and do the hard work of using the tools day in and day out. Here are some of the key lessons I took from the great insights they all shared:

Old Favorites

You’ve probably heard these before (I know I have), but, for me, they’re always worth reiterating: 

  • Start with your mission and with clear goals.
    Each presenter started by stating his or her organization’s mission and online engagement objectives. A great reminder that, no matter how much potential a new online channel, tool, or feature seems to have, how you approach it and what you do with it (if anything) should always start with understanding how it relates to your organization’s mission and broader goals.
  • Don’t neglect email or your website.
    Even though nonprofit social media usage is growing, websites and email are still at the heart of online engagement. Each of the speakers reminded everyone that they still see more action and traffic coming from their organization’s website and emails than from other online engagement channels.
  • Make it easy for people to take action.
    Whether it’s with a custom Facebook landing tab (like Food Bank for New York City’s, a carefully thought-out online form (like The New York Public Library use), or a campaign page that pulls actions together in one place, all of the organizations that presented take steps to make it easy for their supporters to take action and see great results.
  • Learn by doing.
    Blog posts like this are all well and good, but the best way to learn about new tools is by using them. Danielle in particular advocates trying out social media tools in a small, low-key way to help figure out how they might be useful for reaching and engaging your organization’s audiences.

New Tricks

As for new things I picked up from each of the presenters, these were the ideas that stood out most for me:

  • Use an internal social network to help find content for external communications.
    Social media isn’t just a tool for engaging your external audiences. You can also use it to engage staff, particularly if your organization is spread across lots of locations. The National Wildlife Federation, for example, uses Yammer to allow staff across the country to keep each other updated and connected about what’s going on in their program or region. It also makes it quick and easy for staff who manage the organization’s many social media profiles to find content and answer questions.
  • Find new ways to connect the offline world with the online one.
    Each of the organizations that presented had found interesting ways to connect the real world with the online one. The New York Public Library, for example, uses signs and QR codes in its physical locations to drive people to connect with it online. Amnesty International USA uses Foursquare to expand its reach and educate supporters, by leaving tips at locations connected to the human rights movement. And Food Bank for New York City uses Twitter to involve individual donors in events that they wouldn’t normally be able to participate in, like its annual gala. 
  • Consider investing in a social CRM tool to manage your online relationships.
    Since you invest so much time and effort in finding and cultivating your organization’s friends, fans, likers, and followers, it may well make sense to invest in a tool that helps manage your relationships with them even better. The National Wildlife Federation uses Small Act’s Thrive to identify influencers, understand supporter’s interests, and tailor their communication with people based on that information.

Are there other new tricks your organization is using to engage people online? How can you see yourself applying some of these new ones? Share your thoughts in the comments.

To find out more about how Amnesty International USA, Food Bank for New York City, the National Wildlife Federation, and The New York Public Library approach online engagement, check out their individual presentations at the end of this post.