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.