This article is the first installment of a four-part series examining digital challenges and opportunities for nonprofits in 2018.
Let’s start with the big question: is Facebook worth it?
For individual advocates, I think the answer is almost always “yes”. Facebook can be a powerful tool for peer-to-peer advocacy: when a friend shares a story, a meme or even an action alert, we’re more likely to notice it and take it seriously than if it came directly from a nonprofit or campaign.
But for organizations themselves, organic Facebook outreach (posting content and hoping that followers will share it) hasn’t always yielded much in the way of results, at least in the short run. And while Page owners have lamented the decline of organic “reach” for years, the question is newly salient in 2018. Facebook told us explicitly at the beginning of this year that its content-distribution algorithm will emphasize posts from friends and family over content from Pages like those run by most nonprofits, political campaigns and commercial brands. What’s a digital advocacy campaign manager to do?
One approach is to focus on creating content that is an extremely good fit for their audiences, as my friend Beth Becker spelled out shortly after Facebook announced the algorithm changes. If your goal is to maximize engagement — Likes, Shares and Comments — that advice will ring true much of the time.
But most advocacy campaigns can’t just give people what they want! We often need to show people things they may NOT want to see, from frightening images to terrible policy decisions. For nonprofits, the problem is inherent in the platform — “engaging” content usually isn’t challenging content.
Most of us will take a balanced approach, relying on organic reach when we can, but paying to “boost” content to raise our engagement rates or make sure an important post actually gets seen. Day to day, Facebook marketers should:
- Watch for the kinds of content that appeal to your audience. Facebook Insights will show whether your people tend to go for photos, video, news, personal stories or other kinds of posts, and you can also keep tabs on the topics that stir their hearts. When you can, put your content in the packages your supporters like to open.
- Take advantage of Facebook’s emphasis on video. Post video clips natively to Facebook (rather than sharing a YouTube link), and try Facebook Live streaming when you can find opportunities.
- Encourage conversations. Posts that create back-and-forth discussion are more likely to show up in News Feeds, so it pays to ask questions or otherwise prompt people to leave a comment.
Organizations (particularly those with a grassroots following) can also try a little jujitsu, by taking advantage of Facebook’s new emphasis on content from friends and family.
- Educate your supporters about the need spread the word on social media. Include social sharing options in online actions, and go out of your way to explain how important it is when they act as ambassadors for issues they care about in their own social circles. Of course, it’s great when they spread the word in person, too!
- Consider creating a “social media rapid response team“. Many organizations and political campaigns enlist their most active supporters in programs to will send them links to share content when it’s most important. Typically, nonprofits communicate with these social media ambassadors via email, a back-channel Facebook Group or text message. To learn more, check out the guide to super-advocate programs I co-wrote with Jeanette Russell in 2017.
- Look for opportunities to identify your supporters who are most influential on social media, for instance via a tool like Attentive.ly. Then, reach out to them directly and ask for their help amplifying your work.
- Use cross-channel promotion. For instance, often the best way to have a Facebook post or tweet shared widely is to email a list and ask its members to share it. This approach plays to the strengths of the two channels: email is great for direct response, while social media excels at peer-to-peer “viral” distribution.
Guess who hasn’t been freaking out about Facebook’s algorithm changes: commercial brand marketers, most of whom long ago decided to emphasize paid promotion over organic reach. Many nonprofit communicators instinctively recoil from paid promotion, but paying for distribution is almost mandatory for most of us trying to reach more than a tiny fraction of our supporters with a given post.
Think of it this way: if you’re spending hours looking for photos, editing video or perfecting text, spending a few dollars to “boost” content to double or triple the number of people who see it is usually a worthwhile investment. Paid promotion helps you get more value out of every hour or every dollar you’ve spent creating content and building a following.
In the current environment, organizations might:
- Spend a relatively small amount boosting posts every day or every week. Once people have engaged with one of your posts, they’re more likely to see you in their News Feeds in the days to come. Boosting posts regularly to keep your day-to-day engage numbers up can help make sure that your supporters have a chance to see your truly important content when it matters.
- Reinforce success. If content is already performing well organically, a boost will usually yield better results than if you promoted something that’s performing poorly.
- Raise the budget when it’s important. When you have a story, meme or action alert that really needs to cut through the clutter, pay more to make sure it does.
- Experiment with targeting. Many groups boost content to specific geographic areas or to people with specific interests or demographic characteristics. Pro tip: if you want Congressional staff to notice something, try targeting Capitol Hill.
- Try lookalike targeting. To expand your reach, consider boosting to a Facebook-created “lookalike” audience. By targeting people who are “similar” to your followers (in terms of their Facebook behavior), you may be able to enlist new supporters cost-effectively.
- Target your email list. By uploading your email list as a “Custom Audience,” you can take advantage of more cross-channel opportunities by putting Facebook content in front of your list members. Early research suggests that a Facebook post boosted at the members of an email list at the same time the organization sends a fundraising email actually increases overall donations, and the same effect may hold true for action alerts.
These tactics just scratch the surface of Facebook advertising, and a later post in this series will explore more data-driven advertising options for social media advocacy.
Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat
Of course, Facebook’s not the beginning and the end of social media outreach, though it’s often the most vexing part of it. Twitter is newly relevant in the Trump era, and it’s striking how many news stories now cite tweets as quotes. The 280-character expansion doesn’t seem to have hurt at all, and the platform’s advertising options keep growing more sophisticated — promoted tweets can provide a direct path to journalists and decisionmakers, for example. Plus, Twitter rewards many of the same peer-to-peer tactics that work on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Instagram’s a good option for organizations that create a solid stream of photos, and a handful of advocacy campaigns have found traction on Snapchat. But for most advocacy campaigns, Facebook dominates the social universe, with an assist from Twitter.
Peering into the Future
What can we expect for the rest of 2018? As you might guess, what happens in the social media world depends almost entirely on what the platforms decide to do. Perhaps the most important lesson from the recent changes is that advocacy organizations simply can’t depend entirely on communications channels that we don’t own and can’t control.
Facebook still holds great potential as a tool to educate people and inspire them to take action. Twitter’s still a useful tool for influencing the public conversation and for reaching influencers. But what matters most is what Facebook or Twitter CAN’T control: the relationships we have with our supporters.
When we build emotional connections with our grassroots advocates, those ties can transcend communications channels. Technology will change, and the tools we use for digital advocacy may be completely different five years from now. But if your supporters truly care about your issues – and trust you to help create the change they want to see – they’ll stick with you no matter what Facebook looks like, or whether it exists at all. Our job is to make sure that they do.