If Social Networking Isn’t Marketing, Why Bother?

Photo by kevindooley on Flickr

The nonprofit blogerati have been weighing in lately about how nonprofits are bad, bad, bad for looking at social networking as a way to market their organizations. And “communications” seems to have become a dirty word too.

Here are a few samples:

Online Social Networks are Not Mailing Lists by Michael Gilbert of the Gilbert Center. “Once the idea of ‘online social networks’ starts tugging at their sleeve, these are the unfortunate kinds of questions that nonprofits start asking: How do I reach new audiences? How can I get my message out? . . . ”

Holly Ross at NTEN agrees in R-E-S-P-E-C-T. She sums up Gilbert’s points this way: “He argues that thinking about how to use social networks as communications channels is disrespectful” and says that she agrees with him.

In last week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy chat on online marketing, in response to a question about creating online publicity, Beth Kanter said “The word ‘publicity’ implies communications, broadcasting – not social media.” And to a question about using Twitter, she replied “Twitter is not a promotion device!!”

Why I Disagree

Their key point seems to be that nonprofits should use social media/social networking only for listening and learning through engaging in conversation. You cannot expect anyone to listen to what you have to say, unless you are listening too and responding in kind. With this basic premise, I do agree.

However, I strongly disagree with this whole notion that nonprofits who want to use social networking as part of a larger communications strategy, including as a way to get their messages out and to reach new people, are somehow being disrespectful for even considering it.

I’ve gained immeasurably from Michael, Holly, and Beth’s work and insights on technology issues. But this kind of flagellation of nonprofit communicators makes me want to pull my hair out.

How It Looks from Here

It feels to me like they are giving special golden status to what is really just one more set of tools (albeit some very cool ones) that help people communicate with one another and connect in different ways.

Maybe they are talking about the big nonprofits with budgets in the many millions of dollars with staff whose job descriptions actually include words like “social networking.” And maybe those organizations should be much more sophisticated than they are about their approach to social networking.

But those are not the kinds of organizations I work with and train on a daily basis. The nonprofits I work with are much, much smaller and have much more limited resources. They often don’t even have a full-time staff person dedicated solely to communications or even to fundraising.

So for these groups, let’s get real: “listening” and “learning” are luxuries.

“Listening” is something that might happen once a year in a survey. I know many readers of this blog don’t even have a budget line item for traditional training, let alone some extra hours in the day for “learning via social networking”. The to-do list is already miles long, and unless they can find a way to show their executive director or board how using social media is going to pay off in some tangible way, it will stay way down at the bottom of that to-do list.

In other words, the decisionmakers will ask “If we can’t use social media to market our cause, why bother?” And if you listen to the voices above, your answer will probably be, “Listening and learning are important. But you are right — we just don’t have time for that right now. We need more than listening and learning as an outcome. Nevermind.” And that, I think, would be a real shame.

A Better Way to Look at This Issue?

Instead, I turn to my friend Katya Andresen’s definition of respectful nonprofit marketing: “Asking people what they care about and then relating our cause to their values is respectful. Good marketing is a conversation.” This is from her post, Is Marketing Slimy? and I believe that it applies to social networking as well. The harm is not in using social media as a communications tool, but in treating that tool as if it were a megaphone. “Communications” is NOT automatically one-way (as many nptech bloggers seem to think), but includes one-way, two-way, and every-which-way movement of information and insights.

When you use social media/networking tools as they were meant to be used — to engage in real conversations where you neither control nor dominate the dialogue — then I see no problem with using them to talk about your cause and your work and to make new connections too. And when you do that the right way, you will also learn a whole lot in the process, too. It need not be an either/or situation.

UPDATE on 7/24/08: The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Give & Take section picked up this post. Leave a comment here and continue the conversation over there!

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  • Kivi,

    I think we have a vocabulary issue as you mentioned.

    I totally agree with what you are saying here …

    “The harm is not in using social media as a communications tool, but in treating that tool as if it were a megaphone.”

    I think of communications and publicity approaches as megaphones – so wondering if you have examples of how they aren’t?

  • Beth,

    Maybe it’s my love of marketing, but I don’t think of communications or publicity approaches as megaphones. Marketing = understanding customer desires and communicating how you can meet their wants and needs.

    The website I listed above is the blog for the animal department at the Museum where I work. The primary purpose of this blog is to create a deeper connection with visitors, with a secondary goal of educating the public. We want to create this connection in order to encourage repeat visitation and joining as members. Thus the blog is a marketing and education tool, but primarily marketing.

    We have hoped for conversation, but thus far we have mostly been pushing info out.

    Perhaps this is just semantics/vocabulary, but I really connected with Kivi’s post.

  • Kivi Leroux Miller

    Hi Beth,
    Publicity and communications aren’t the same thing at all – publicity is one small subset of communications, which is a much larger, overarching term. Some people use “communications” and some use “marketing” — I tend to use them both interchangeably, and while we could argue over those subtleties, they both refer to a whole suite of strategies and tactics, some of which are “one-way” (e.g. sending out a newsletter that does not encourage responses in any way) and some are “two-or-more-way” (e.g. a blog that allows comments.).

    I think of publicity as trying to get others to talk about you without you paying them to do so (as opposed to advertising, where you pay for placement). If someone tweets about a blog post you wrote, they are giving you “publicity” – whether you are comfortable calling it that or not.

    For me, anything you do to share information or insights with others falls under the term “communications” whether those people can talk back directly to your not. But to say that *all* communications is only one-way really misrepresents how I believe most of the people in nonprofit sector use the term.

  • Suzy


    I work in evaluation in my organization and we consistently find that the number one way people hear about our programs is through one-on-one interaction (staff, past participants, current partners, board members, someone on an email list, etc).

    I remind our communications team of this often and ask them to consider generation of tools that make it easy for others to tell our story.

    In my mind, web 2.0 is just a technological extension of this. Of course, as you say, listening and learning are important, but, as you also say, this is a 2 way street.

    (And all due respect to Ms. Kanter; she has done a fine job sharing what she stands for -marketing?- using social media. How else would someone like me from the sticks have any idea she even existed?!?)

  • Kivi Leroux Miller

    You make a great point, Suzy, and that’s the incredible value of word-of-mouth marketing. WOMM is ideal for nonprofits because it’s free AND its reputable. People trust their friends.

    And social media can really help generate the buzz that creates long-lasting WOM, which is one of the reasons that I think it’s a shame if nonprofits don’t at least try out one of the more mainstream sites, whether it be Facebook or YouTube or whatever.

    To borrow a line from my kids’ Berenstain Bears books, there’s good, better, and best. I think it’s OK to start out with good intentions (which is probably more promotional than Beth would like) and work your way up to using the tools in the best way possible (which is more about listening and bringing the social media conversations back into the heart of the organization’s management and decisionmaking).

  • Jim Hafner

    I couldn’t agree with you more, even though I’m squarely a social networking neophyte… as is our organization. But it seems to me that the question of why bother with social networking is one of priorities and cost-benefit… not whether it’s marketing or not! As a child sexual abuse prevention NPO, we know there is a huge market out there for our messages (esp. among survivors) – and we’ve been doing social marketing campaigns in local markets for over a decade.

    We were recently faced with the question of how to use social networking as a communication channel – and the reality that social media is way down on our priorities list as it is for most groups, as you point out. We recently ‘discovered’ that a Facebook cause had been started for our organization about a year ago and how has 16,000+ ‘members.’ We were grateful that the cause administrator did a great job of expressing our mission and values. An intern had established a skeletal organizational profile for us under a staffer (not on the NPO section)- and had also done some research on social networking and online communities for us. It was a few donations trickled in this spring which tipped us off to the existence of the cause. We claimed the cause, established an organizational entry in the NPO directly – and connected with the founder/manager of that cause. We also connected him with one of our donors who had set up another cause for us earlier this year…

    Result: the conversation is started, connections made, and at least there’s a basis for supporting this volunteer network as they have demand and we have capacity. It’s not really any higher a priority … but continuing to understand what, how and how often communication can move through this network for mutual benefit is a higher priority. We see it as a volunteer-driven resource with certain types of limited returns – and will invest in it accordingly.

    What’s perplexing is the view that social networks online are any different than off line. As you say, what gives this community any special status? Sure, we don’t want our friends giving out addresses and phone numbers so we can be solicited or market to by any cause. But if we’re doing a charity run, wouldn’t social networks be the first ones to notify and ask to support something meaningful?

    What I find more troublesome on Facebook are the causes that utilize a bait and switch tactic – that is, the title of the cause uses a known campaign or organization, but the beneficiary organization of that cause is not related in any direct way. That said, in many cases this can’t be attributed to the NPO itself, but rather to one of its supporters. And, we can’t get too indignant since it’s a buyer beware, opt-in environment that should be self-policing to a large extent.

    Appreciate your blog and resources. Sorry for the long post!

  • OF COURSE Twitter is a “promotion device.”

    According to Merriam Webster online, “promotion” means:
    1: the act or fact of being raised in position or rank : preferment
    2: the act of furthering the growth or development of something; especially : the furtherance of the acceptance and sale of merchandise through advertising, publicity, or discounting

    So logically, every time a nonprofit staffer posts on a blog or sends a tweet that is work-related, it’s promotion.

    And yes, Twitter can be abusive, one-way communication. So can blogs and direct mail and phone solicitations and face-to-face calls. (Ever had to endure lunch with a boorish person who talked nonstop about themselves?)

    People won’t follow someone on Twitter unless their tweets are at least mildly interesting. Whether it’s personal or professional, make it count.

    The bottom line is that social networks are for both talking AND listening. Real communication (and good manners) would seem to demand that nonprofits do both. Social networks like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and others are great places for nonprofit leaders to see AND be seen.

    As Simone Joyaux says, “It’s not what you’re selling. It’s what I’m buying.

  • Hank,

    Wow, your take on this is brilliant. Thanks for sharing. You really understood what I was saying! Thanks.

  • Hi Kivi:

    Excellent topic — and thanks for pointing to the live discussion with Beth. She and Jonathan Colman presented some great ideas during that conversation.

    The great thing that social media tools do is they open up a two-way conversation. My industry, for instance, has long been a largely one-way medium. We’d go out,conduct interviews, gather information, and
    tell you what we found.

    Today, it’s much different. We still go out and report, but readers now have the opportunity to talk back and amplify what is written through comments.

    We can engage people on Facebook and twitter. We can hold online discussions in which we can put readers in touch with other readers. The smart news organizations are definitely using these tools as ways to listen to their audience and to push the discussion in new directions.

    But they are also marketing themselves. We are using twitter, for instance, to point out our latest news and blog posts. We are using Facebook to alert folks about our live discussions. And we’re finding that we’re able to reach a whole new group of visitors to our Web site whom have never seen our work before.

  • Great post, Kivi, and great comments especially from Hank. Reminds me of another mantra I like: Good marketing is not about getting your message out, it’s about an audience taking it in… and talking back.

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  • i love your blog!

  • Well said, finally a good report on this stuff

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