Market or Promote Your Cause on Social Media? Yes, You Can!

The conventional wisdom these days seems to be that nonprofit organizations should not use social media for marketing, communications, promotion or anything like that. Instead, the CW goes, social media is only for listening and learning (call it market research and professional development if you actually want it to survive your work planning process). Ironically, people who support this point of view generally seem to have no problem with the idea of using social media for fundraising.

I think the conventional wisdom is wrong, because

(1) it assumes that all marketing, communications, and even promotions are one-sided sales pitches. That’s just flat-out false. Good marketing, as Katya Andresen points out all the time, is a respectful conversation. I fear I’ll be making this point forever, but I guess marketing comes with so much baggage, that’s just the way it has to be.

(2) it creates this illusion of  social media “conversation cops” out there waiting to bust anyone who talks about their own programs without first being asked about them. I think this illusion may be scaring off some nonprofits who could really benefit from participating in social media.

Look at a couple of recent tweets from two nonprofit social media rock stars . . .

From the National Wildlife Federation — tweets promoting their photo contest:

  • 12 days left to enter the National Wildlife Photo Contest. $25,000 in cash prizes for Pro, Amateur & Youth divisions
  • Amazing Wildlife Photos and the True Stories Behind Them:

From the Humane Society of the United States — tweets promoting their work to protect dogs:

These tweets and links clearly promote the organizations, their programs, and their positions. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!

Rather than saying that nonprofit marketing doesn’t belong in social media, I’d say this.

Good nonprofit marketing via social media is:

  • Genuine. Real, specific people at the organization are doing the talking. They never hide behind the 501(c)(3).
  • Generous. You promote others, as well as yourself, and freely offer resources, info, help, etc. that advance your mission. You do so by commenting, retweeting, linking, etc.
  • Grateful. You acknowledge the support and generosity of others in accomplishing your mission.

Conversely, bad nonprofit marketing via social media is:

  • Greedy. Always promoting only one’s organization, programs, and points of view at the exclusion of everything and everyone else.
  • Grandstanding. Holding up yourself or your organization as the be-all, end-all, know-it-all.
  • Grabby. Always trying to latch on to others or using unrelated posts or tags to get your message out.

(OK, I admit that I entertained myself on an otherwise boring flight this morning by coming up with six alliterative words to describe what I was thinking about. The time crammed in the flying tube really does go by faster when you are working a good word puzzle!)

The reason that NWF and HSUS are social media rock stars is because of their Twitter-stream as a whole (and similar streams on other sites). They include plenty of tweets linking to their own websites and promoting their programs, but also many, many retweets and replies. They aren’t simply talking about themselves, but retweeting people who are talking about aspects of their own lives that are related to the nonprofit’s mission and participating in back-and-forth conversations. We know the staff members behind the organizations. In other words, they are genuine, generous, and grateful. And they are marketing the heck out of their organizations at the same time by being that way!

So, yes, nonprofit friends, you may market, communicate and promote your organization and your cause through social media. But just like any other set of tools, there are good ways and bad ways to go about it. Keep these six Gs of social media marketing in mind, and I think you’ll be just fine.

P.S. I’ll be talking a little more about this on Wednesday, during The Personal/Professional Mix: Getting it Right in Social Media.

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  • Greg Banecker

    I agree. Social media can be an extrememly cheap and effective way to reach plenty of people. But as non-profits, we are often times serving lower-income and under priveleged populations who may not be twitterring or facebooking or whatevering, in fact, they may not even have regular access to the internet. Is there a way to harness social media to work for these people?

    • Great point Greg and one I’ve been talking about a little bit with some clients who serve primarily low-income communities. One option might be cell phones with texting or mobile web abilities. Granted, people would have to have both the right phone and the right plan, but something like 90% of U.S. adults now have some kind of cell phone and many of the wireless companies offer low-income plans. It might make sense for nonprofits to build very targeted mobile versions of their websites for specific groups they are trying to reach, including low-income audiences.

  • Brendan

    This was a great post – I agree with you that when it is done in a responsible and correct way, marketing through social media can be a great tool. It definitely is more than a one-sided effort but rather a collective conversation, with everyone sharing what they bring to the table.
    It is also really important to make sure that you’re effectively communicating with those who have a vested interest in your company. In addition to social media, we’ve recently been incorporating teleconferencing (with to communicate with stakeholders as we find that it is a much more affordable option than we expected.
    I also think that’s a good point that Greg made – social media can often be largely irrelevant to those belonging to low-income communities. I also think, however, that they can still be very useful to non-profits as a way to promote awareness amongst the general public and possible future donors.

  • Meri McCoy-Thompson

    Thanks for thinking of the six G’s! The G’s help me to think about why I like certain tweeters (generous) and don’t like others (grandstanding or greedy).