9 Social Media Platforms and A Primer on How Nonprofits Can Use Them Effectively

The web is awash with tips and tricks on how nonprofits can use “social media,” but few of these articles ever mention more than the best known networks like Facebook and Twitter. The fact is, there are many more types of social media sites, and your supporters and donors are interacting on these sites every single day. And you should be there too!

That’s why we at OrgSpring have put together this handy little reference post as a primer to the 9 major social media platforms and, more importantly, how your nonprofit can use each platform effectively to accomplish your online advocacy, and even fundraising goals.

With any social media network, your goal as a nonprofit is always to build a community of supporters. Also, with the world’s 24/7 news cycle, social media is effective at delivering real time program updates to your fans.

As you continue to deliver your message, along with timely and relevant content that your viewers desire, lookey loos will move and grow into supporters, advocates, and eventually become donors. The speed at which that process takes place can be different for each social media source, each nonprofit, and each campaign you develop. But generally, the more supporters and advocates you have the easier it is to raise money, both online and offline.

Remember, you don’t need a presence on every social media network, just the ones where your potential supporters spend the most time and are the most active. Concentrate your efforts in just a few networks at first and build your list before spreading to other networks which may take more work to spread your message and not deliver as high a return on your investment.

 

Blogging has quickly become one of the most influential types of media. Today, blogs cover nearly every topic imaginable, and a even a few that we can’t explain or sum up in a few words. And, as print and broadcast media continue to lose revenue while rising in cost to produce, blogging platforms will likely only get more popular.

A blog is a combination of the two words “website” and “Log.” A log, in this sense, is a written post that is updated on a regular basis, and the website comes into play once that log is posted online. Put them together, and you get a BLOG. A blog is a perfect medium for news and other educational content. It can be ordered chronologically, by category, or vy any other number of tags you could potentially assign to its content – typically calles “posts.”

Blogs can be hosted for free on sites like WordPress.com or Typepad.com. With these free sites you are typically limited in terms of design and functionality, but they offer a way to get started quickly and for very little money out of pocket – FREE!

Blogs can also be custom designed and hosted on your own accounts with custom domain names. In these situations you’ll need to search for and order a unique domain name, and then purchase the hosting account which will serve your files. This can be done for just a few dollars a month and is certainly worth the investment in your new organization.

How Your Nonprofit Can Take Advantage of Blogging:

A blog works just like a regular website in that it is available to the public on the world wide web, and if you choose to have your blog indexed by major search engines, your blog can be read by millions of potential viewers. This makes a blog a fantastic place to spread the word about your cause.

Through targeted articles on specific topics you can disseminate information, educate, inform, thrill, or entertain your readers, while driving traffic to your site and raising awareness.

A 2011 study from Hubspot shows that those who blog often receive more leads for their business, and this can be translated to the nonprofit world as well. You should try to blog at least once a week, but if your schedule allows, blogging more often is even better.

Also, blogs with 51 or more total posts receive a bump in leads and readership too. That doesn’t mean you can’t launch your blog until you’ve reached that number, it just means that in the process of writing 51 posts, you will be on your way to being recognized as an authority on your subject and your viewership will likely grow naturally, if your content is engaging.

If you create a blog separate from your website, make sure it includes links back to your main site to encourage traffic between the two entities. If you have a place where you can take donations, make sure there is a link on your blog for that too. As people read your posts and decide to take action or get involved, you want to be able to direct them to your donation pages.

Blogging Sites You Should Check Out:

Places to Create a Free Blogging Site Which is also Hosted Free:

WordPress.com – A site which offers free blogs based on the world’s most popular blogging platform.

Blogger.com – One of the original blogging platform sites, now integrated with and owned by Google.

Squarespace.com – Another free blogging platform site.

Stay tuned if you’d like to learn more about hosting your own blog using WordPress. OrgSpring is planning to release a series of more than 30 videos showing you how to create and manage a blog from start to finish. We’ll be announcing the video release soon. You can also sign up for our tech tips and tutorials email list to be alerted automatically.

 

Microblogging sites are likes blogs, but instead of writing full messages or posts, you are sending out short bursts of text, usually limited to 256 characters or less. Twitter is probably the best known microblogging site, which confines you to 140 characters to send your message. It also allows you to post links to other sites, pictures, and videos, all which expand on the site’s utility.

Microblogs are setup to allow you to “follow” other microbloggers, by which you agree to receive their status updates in your feed on that particular site. Other people can also opt-in to follow you, by which they will see your status updates in their feed.

The power of the microblogging community is message amplification. Every message you send has the potential to be seen by your direct list of followers, and should they choose to share your message, it has the potential to be seen by that person’s followers too. Should that person’s followers share that original message – it could go out to even more people.The number of people with the potential to see your message grows exponentially as you acquire more followers.

 

How Your Nonprofit can Take Advantage of Microblogging:

Microblogs have been used to rally supporters around a cause, and even to mobilize people in real-time around a single event. For example, movements such as Occupy Wall Street use Twitter to alert followers to locations where demonstrations are taking place. Independent political organizations have used Twitter to move massive amounts of people in other countries, some of which contributed directly to government regime changes in those locations. When you tap into a powerful network on a microblogging site the potential results are almost limitless.

Microblogs are a great way to find potential supporters for your organization. Search the individual microblog network for keywords centered on your industry and you’ll discover hundreds, if not thousands, of similarly minded people with interests that align with your organization. Some microblogging sites categorize users around a single topic or even a physical location.

Take a moment to interact with those people and inform them about your cause. If you like what people are saying, follow them and participate in the discussions they create. Share content from other users and create a conversation of your own. Eventually, your following will grow, as will your influence, and your ability to move people to action with just a simple status update.

Many new microblog sites interact well with mobile phone technologies. Applications are easy to download, and most are free. Mobile phone usage of microblogging sites is steadily on the rise too. If you would like to get your nonprofit in the mobile media arena, a microblog might be a good way to start.

Microblogging Sites You Should Check Out:

Twitter.com – The largest (400+ million users) and most popular microblog. Get your nonprofit started on Twitter with this handy tutorial video.

Chatter – a great tool for those who use Salesforce.

FriendFeed – another popular microblog with a good network of users.

Daily Booth – includes ability for photo and video link sharing, with a clean interface.

 

Social Networking can be an all-encompassing term. Just look at the Wikipedia entry for social networking, and you’ll find a list of hundreds of social network sites, that include everything from microblogs to education portals and even online donation pages.

Social Networks are ones which allow people to discover other users by their interests and experience, and then to network with that person online. Social networking sites offer photo and video sharing, not as an optional link in a status update, but through its core functionality.  They offer a robust platform for creating and marketing yourself, or your organization, through dedicated profile pages, and, in some cases, even the ability to create multiple profile pages for multiple organizations. Social networking sites also allow you to create groups based on your interests, and to engage other network users interested in those same subjects. Those groups can be publicly displayed through your streams, or they can be marked private – by which only group members can view or post updates. In this way, social media networks gives you more privacy and granularity of control in the messages you create.

Social networking sites include a status update area which works like a microblog within the network itself. Facebook calls it a “Wall” and Google + calls it a “Stream.” Opting-into to someone’s status updates will show those updates on your own system, much like a microblog does. In fact, many people consider twitter a social network, spending hours upon hours on the site conversing with friends and family, but at it’s core, it is simply a microblogging platform – and does not contain the functionality that even the simplest social networking site offers.

Some social media networks like Facebook and Google + also offer applications and games which integrate directly into the network. Facebook allows you to play games online from within their system, and also features hundreds of thousands of applications giving you the ability to do things like taking donations to posting live updates on your websites and blogs. Google + gives you the ability to host web chats and video meeting rooms, and to share your screen with other network users.

How Your Nonprofit can Take Advantage of Social Networking:

If you plan to exist online you should take part in at least one social network. It can help expose your cause to a number of supporters you just can’t reach using traditional marketing methods. Which social network you join depends on where your potential supporters exist. Poll your existing users through email to find out where they exist online, or if you’re just starting out you can get that information from your support base in person or over the phone. At the least, we’d recommend starting on Facebook and Google Plus.

One mistake you could make is to join every social network just to have a presence there. If you don’t plan to update your status on a regular basis, don’t join that network. Social network users appreciate other users who post compelling material regularly.  Like blogging, the content you place on social media streams should engage your user base.

Using your social media streams to promote only your own posts or services is not the way to use a social networking site. Popular blogger Chris Brogan has a formula for sharing on social media sites. He uses an 8:1 ratio, which suggests that you should share other people’s content 8 times before you promote yourself.

Social networking sites also allow you to tap into message amplification. As your message is picked up and shared by more and more readers, the number of potential viewers who can see your message grows.

Social Networking Sites You Should Check Out:

Facebook – The largest social media network with more than 800 million users worldwide. To get your organization started on Facebook, view our video tutorial here.

Google + – Quickly becoming one of the more popular social networking sites, with more than a 100 + million users. Integrates seamlessly with other google products and services. To get your organization started on Google Plus, view our video tutorial on how to setup google plus for your nonprofit.

Linkedin – Started as a portal for job seekers and has grown into one of the largest overall social networking sites on the web. This site is wildly popular site for business to business networking, human resource professionals, and for discovering new employment opportunities.

Myspace – One of the first social media networks. It’s been losing market share since it was purchased several years ago, but still an active community of users.

Meetup – a place to take your online networking offline and arrange actual meetings and events.

If you want to create your own social networking community look into a site called Ning.

 

Everyone knows the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” and for nonprofits this is also true. Telling your story through pictures is one of the most powerful ways to get a message across, and photo sharing sites can help you do that.

An organization where I’ve been a long-time board member experienced this very phenomenon early in its development. We had been reaching out to potential funders asking them to donate to our organization so we could continue helping deaf children learn to speak through theatrical arts. After dozens of turn-downs we started sending the same potential funders pictures of the children – in costume, up on stage, learning in class, working with speech teachers, etc. The pictures melted their hearts and eventually the funders accepted our invitations to visit our center and our theater productions. Soon thereafter, our grant proposals were accepted and many of those original funders continue to give today.

At its most basic level, a photo sharing site allows you to share personal photos with other users on a network, or to message your own network of friends and family through their system. Most photo sharing sites offer a massive amount of free storage space allowing you to host nearly all your photos online. Others charge a small fee to store or share files over a certain size. However, it’s likely you’ll never hit that limit with the photo sharing sites listed below.

How Your Nonprofit can Take Advantage of Photo Sharing:

Rather than posting single pictures with no theme, try posting a series of pictures and arranging them in a way that tells a story about your organization or a recent event. Use a photo editing program like photoshop to touch up your photos or to add dramatic flair with filters and screens. You can even add text to the picture to help tell your story. Make sure each picture has your organization’s watermark logo or website address. Once something goes viral online, it’s virtually impossible to track the source, so you want to make sure your name gets in front the viewers and points them back to your site.

Most of the photo sharing sites below also allow embedding pictures and slideshows into your website. This is a great feature because you don’t have to send followers over to another site, you can simply embed your photos into your own site. Again, if you can arrange your photos to tell a story, thematically, a slideshow can be a very effective way to tell your story.

Photo Sharing Sites You Should Check Out:

Flickr – probably the most popular photo sharing site used by individuals and professional photographers alike. The site is owned by Yahoo and you’ll either need a yahoo account to access it, or to sign in with one of your other accounts like Google, Facebook, or an OpenID. Flickr has a great creative commons section which allows you to reuse photos on your own sites. Of course certain restrictions apply to certain photos. Be sure to check them out.

Picasa – Picasa is Google’s answer to Flickr. It integrates with Google’s services and offers many ways to share your photos online, like embedding on your site as a gallery, slideshow, or in links on social networks. Picasa features a free editor which you can use to touch up your pictures before posting them online. Picasa also doubles as a video sharing site, which we’ll discuss later in this article.

Instagram – A popular photosharing site based on an application for your mobile phone. Take pictures on your phone and automatically upload them to your account – and then share across your social media networks and microblogs.

Pinterest – Quickly gaining market share and popularity in the photo sharing world. This site is a virtual pinboard for showcasing your own photos, or photos you find on the web. It also allows you to share those photos with other users who can follow your boards and get updated any time you add new photos or pins. To join pinterest, you must get an invite from a current user.

Deviantart – a photo sharing site which also allows for the purchase of art and pictures. Beware, Deviantart allows pictures with adult themes, and does not automatically filter such images like the other sites mentioned above.

 

Forums go back as long as the internet has been around. In fact, they were one of the earliest methods of communicating online. Back then, they were called bulletin board services. The site admin would post a message in a “forum,” which was a list of comments grouped around a particular topic. And then other site users who subscribed to that forum could respond with their own comments, which would then thread as long as people kept commenting. Today, there are thousands of forums on millions of topics, which house billions of posts.

Forums are popular sites for customer support, educational institutions, and membership websites. Open forums are very effective as crowd source learning platforms, because anyone can post a question, and many people could potentially post an answer to that question – that is, if the question hasn’t already been answered somewhere else on that forum.

 

How Your Nonprofit can Take Advantage of Forums:

There are two main ways your nonprofit can use a forum: to give or gain information, and to develop an active community around a common interest.

One of my favorite examples of an active educational forum is Christian Personal Finance, which deals with all topics finance related, and from a Christian point of view. The site admin, Bob Lotich, wanted to create a place where people could share their knowledge about finance and how that intersects with their christian beliefs. The site grew quickly from just a few visitors a month to nearly 1 million visitors per month on a regular basis.

Forums are an amazing way to increase traffic to your website, for several reasons:

  1. Your page count will increase with each new forum topic, helping to make your site become recognized as an authority on your topic by search engines
  2. Each forum post is assigned its own unique url and can be linked to from other areas like email, social media, etc.
  3. Viewers stay on your site longer, posting topics and answering questions from other less experienced users, and building your community for you and with you.

Forums You Should Check Out:

There is no “one” forum that does it all, and by their nature forums are designed around a specific topic. However, you can find forums on niche topics by searching for them. There are two sites we like to use to search forums:

Omgili  – A simple search engine specifically for online forums. You can enter a forum name to pull up its links, or just enter a term and find all the forums on which that term is currently posting.

Board Reader  – A popular search engine for forums and bulletin boards. An easy to use interface and well formatted search results make it easy to identify forums in your niche.

Sometimes those board engines are over-inclusive and return many more results than you want. If you need to be more restrictive with your search you can use custom variables in a regular ‘ole Google search box.

If you were a nonprofit that worked with deaf children, you’d probably want to restrict your search to that niche. By placing quotes around the terms “Deaf Children” you are telling google to restrict your search to the exact term “Deaf Children” using those words in that order. Using the operator inurl:forum tells google that you are restricting the search even further to only site which have the word “forum” in the site url.

Because many sites that have forums place those forums in a section of the site called “Forum” it will usually show up in the url as well. As you can see in the search results below the search box, it returned only sites that have forums. Of course this search method probably wont contain all the forums in the world, but as you can see from the results it returned enough to keep you busy for the next few years. You would then click on those forums to take part in the discussion.

For a few more tips on how to restrict searches to related content you can read these resources:

Google Guide and Google Search Operators.

Creating your own forum is much like creating a website or blog. You can go with free services based on other sites or host your own. A great free service for nonprofits can be found at Inspire. The only draw back with using a forum hosted on another site is that you lose the search engine juice that would be sent along to your site had the forum been hosted there.

A few great self-hosted forums include the following:

Buddypress – a free forum which integrates with WordPress blogs.

Vbulletin – a premium forum program which integrates with most websites and blogs. It’s not free, and it’s not cheap. It does feature quite a few advanced options and is the preferred forum choice for many professional system administrators.

Mingle Forum – Another simple, and free, wordpress forum which was designed as a plugin for wordpress site. It plays well with most other plugins on WordPress, and is amazingly easy to setup, but doesn’t offer alot in the way of functionality.

 

 

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication in common parlance, is a web feature which allows you to automatically syndicate your content on blogs and websites. That means every time you write and post an article, it will automatically be sent to people who subscribe to your “feed.”

RSS can be delivered by an RSS reader like Google Reader, or through browser based solutions. Firefox has a built in reader, as does internet explorer. There are also RSS applications you can install on your computer which offer additional functionality. Still, the free browser based readers provide an ample amount of features and sharing capabilities.

Sites called “Aggregators” cull the web for XML files, the code basis of RSS feeds, and then categorize and sort those feeds into lists to which you can search and subscribe.

RSS feeds are popular because they allow people to read your posts without actually having to visit your site. This saves the reader time and energy, and allows them to focus on reading only the content in which he or she is interested.

How Your Nonprofit can Take Advantage of RSS Feeds:

If you are blogging, there’s nothing special you need to do here because nearly all blog platforms allow for automatic RSS feed creation – certainly all the popular blogs do. Just create a post and it will be included in your feed.

Some custom themes may require you to input your exact RSS feed address for RSS Sharing to become active on your site.

If you want more control over how your feed is delivered and how much content your subscribers will see, we suggest burning your own feed through Feedburner. This is another Google owned site which helps you manage your RSS feeds. Feedburner can even deliver your feed to users via email, which allows them to spend even less time browsing the web to read content in which they are interested.

RSS Sites You Should Check Out:

Google Reader is the obvious choice at http://reader.google.com. It’s free, easy to use, and has many features allowing you to quickly organize, read, and share your favorite articles from around the web. You can pull in feeds from any valid xml or atom rss source, and you can even use Google reader to monitor your social media accounts by setting up site specific feed searches. We’ll soon be adding a tutorial on that for nonprofits who want to monitor social media but might not have the big budget to pay for expensive monitoring tools.

Feed Demon is a popular RSS reader for Windows based computer systems.

For the mac, a few popular readers include:

These are application based programs, and require downloads through the App Store, but once installed they reduce down into the system tray and allow for monitoring your feeds with ease. Feeds popup in small streaming windows in your notification areas and minimize nicely so as not to take up much screen space.

For burning your own feed, Feedburner is the Gold Standard. Just type in your site’s feed address and Feedburner will take it from there. You can control how many posts your subscribers will see and how often. You can use Feedburner to automatically share your content via Twitter and Facebook – which means every time you post on your blog Feedburner will do the social sharing work for you. You can also embed your feed with a graphical chicklet on your site – a great way to showoff how many subscribers you have – which can actually encourage other people to subscribe as well.

 


Podcasts are audio recordings that can be served up on your website or through a content delivery system like Itunes. Most podcasters run their program like a radio show, producing episodes on a regular basis: daily, weekly, monthly, etc.

Podcasts can also be served up in a feed like RSS, and distributed automatically once the podcast is completed and posted to your site. This is where the social part comes in – listeners can opt-in / subscribe to a podcast and download the content to their computers or on iphones, ipods, and other mobile mp3 players.

Podcasting is on the decline, and studies show it is losing market share to other media channels, but we mention it here because it is truly a social communication method, and some people have used it very efficiently, and with great results.

If you plan to add podcasting to your organization’s offerings, we suggest checking out the resources listed below.

How Your Nonprofit can Take Advantage of Podcasting:

Universities have been making use of podcasting for years. Professors record individual lectures and make them available via class intranet sites so students can go back and re-listen to lecture notes.

Other organizations run membership sites through weekly conference calls are recorded and distributed for member learning.

You can also record board meetings and make them available to members who missed meetings.

Podcasting Sites You Should Check Out:

Pocast Answer Man is probably the best online resource for podcasting information. The site contains both free and paid learning exercises, and answers to just about every question you could imagine on the topic of podcasting. It’s geared toward using podcasting to make a profit, but the principles and tips can be easily applied to nonprofits and other organizations.

Itunes is the kind of all podcasting sites, and if you plan to make a podcast and list it only one place, this would be where you go. Apple makes directions available for submitting your feed: http://www.apple.com/itunes/podcasts/specs.html

PodoMatic is another great podcasting site with an active community and tools to help you start your own podcast. http://podomatic.com

If you want to take your podcasting further, check out BlogTalkRadio. They’ve taken podcasting to the next level of social by creating a thriving community of people hosting their own live radio shows over the internet. Listeners can subscribe, download, and even make their own shows. They even have options to brand your show and charge for content delivery and membership.

Finally, if you want to host your own podcasts on a wordpress blog, I recommend using the Blueberry Plugin for WordPress which has worked well in the past. It’s a free plugin, integrates with your wordpress blog, and can even manage itunes submission for you.

 

Video sharing has gained market share where podcasting has lost it, and as video quality among mobile devices gets better and better, video sharing will continue to gain in popularity.

Video has long been an effective way to get your message across, and using the internet for this purpose is no exception.

Video sharing sites work much like podcasting, but with videos instead of just audio files. Most video sharing sites allow you to upload your personal videos for hosting on their servers. The videos are processed and turned into a format which allows for the most efficient playback. You can create your own video channel on most sharing sites, which can be tailored to your brand with custom graphics and other personal touches. You can feature videos in playlists, or in portfolio view for easy retrieval by viewers.

Videos can be tagged to facilitate easy searching, and viewers can subscribe to your channel to be notified whenever you post new clips.

How Your Nonprofit can Take Advantage of Video Sharing:

Video sharing sites make it extremely cost effective for your organization to get a high impact message out to your supporters. The most popular video sharing site on the net is YouTube, owned and operated by Google. It also happens to be the second most popular search engine, behind only Google search.

Video sharing is a great way to show off video from your events, and to pass on vital educational opportunities to your supporters. For instance, OrgSpring uses YouTube to show off its Tutorial tech videos, You can view those at the OrgSpring YouTube Channel.

At OrgSpring, we’re helping nonprofits blend video into their grant proposals, for a more high impact grant request. So far, the responses have been amazing.

Video Sharing Sites You Should Check Out:

Youtube – If your organization exists only on YouTube you could still build a very effective messaging system. Youtube allows viewers to subscribe to your content and to receive automatic updates every time you post a new video. It also offers very powerful (and free) editing features that just a few months ago would have cost you several hundred dollars purchasing video apps for your computer. You can add text overlays and other graphic elements, slice and dice clips, add photographic filters, and even royalty free music tracks. If that’s not enough, you can integrate youtube with your adwords account and offer advertising directly in your videos to earn income on clicks and views.

YouTube allows you to embed your video in your website, and also provides you with a link you can use to access the video directly. This is great for sharing your videos on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Of course, organizations on Google Plus can link directly to their Youtube videos with direct sharing on the +1 button.

You can also apply for the Google Grants program, and if approved you will be given a YouTube partner account which allows for links inside your videos and a custom YouTube Channel that allows custom headers and links to your other web properies. As an added bonus, you can include a Google Donate button right on your page which links to your Google checkout account, a payment processor similar to PayPal.

YouTube does have some limitations. At first, you’ll be limited to movies 15 minutes in duration or less. If your account remains in good standing and you are posting original material with no copyright violations you can verify your account and raise your upload limits. In our experience, that usually happens after 15 or 20 videos have been uploaded, and as your channel views increase. You can find out more about limitations by reading the Youtube Upload Limitations page.

Other video sharing sites of note include:

Vimeo – Similar in function to YouTube, and also features free editing and sharing capabilities. Also have premium memberships which unlock more features like larger uploads and more bandwidth.

Blip.TV – Another popular free sharing site.

Viddler – Viddler is a premium video sharing services used by businesses and personal accounts which want to protect content for membership sites or one-off purchases.

 

Thanks for sticking with us in this long post. We hope it was helpful for you.

If you have another resource we missed in this post, please leave a comment below and we’ll include it in an update.

 

 

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Craig Grella

Founder and Executive Director at OrgSpring
Craig is the founder and executive director or OrgSpring, a nonprofit dedicated to helping other nonprofits achieve their missions online. Through tips and tutorials, Craig's goal is show nonprofits how to use technology to become more efficient, grow their list of supporters, and increase online donations.