The top five things I learned at the Social Media for Nonprofits Conference

By Sanne Stienstra

If you walked into the conference room at Seattle University on Monday afternoon and didn’t know the topic of the day was social media, you might think that this was the most inattentive, distracted conference audience ever. Attendees of the Social Media for Nonprofits Conference in Seattle were glued to their phones, tablets, and laptops—most of them tweeting, Facebooking, or otherwise documenting all the catchy tidbits of tech and social media advice floating around the room. It was a very “meta” situation with which current attendees were likely already familiar—using social media to talk about social media.

While I was only able to attend the second half of the day’s conference, I went away with several useful tools and even more interesting anecdotes to remember. Here are my top five favorite things I learned:

1. How to be a good “social citizen.” Colin Downey from the American Red Cross discussed how to approach storytelling in sensitive situations—specifically, the recent Oso landslide, which provided a particularly relevant and recent example. But his advice for how to be a good “social citizen” was the most interesting part of his presentation to me. He said there are six things you should always remember when using social media, both as an individual and as an organization: “Be accurate. Be relevant. Be considerate. Be transparent. Be human. Be compassionate.” You can see how these tenets would easily apply to discussion of the Oso landslide, but I think it’s true that they apply to practically any topic or planned approach to engaging fans through social media.

2. “Stay in your lane.” In response to a question from the audience, Colin Downey advised you should always “stay in your lane” while using social media. He pointed out that you’ll both send the most effective message and avoid getting in trouble if your discussion is always focused on what YOU are doing. His example was if you’re a Red Cross volunteer being interviewed by a reporter while making sandwiches and they ask about what you’re working on, simply tell them that you’re making sandwiches for hungry people—don’t try to speak to what other volunteers or employees might be doing.

3. Create a “culture of testing.” NTEN’s CEO Amy Sample Ward presented some recent examples of how nonprofits are using new social media tools, like Snapchat and Instagram. For nonprofits wary of new technology, she advised cultivating a “culture of testing” where you can try new things and fail fast. She suggested creating a space for conversation, encouraging employee’s personal use of technology, letting staff across the organization (not just in the marketing or communications department) test and try, and standardizing the process for suggesting new projects or pilots.

4. “Tweetouts.” Social Media for Nonprofits Co-Founder and Executive Director Ritu Sharma laid out a clear plan for utilizing social media and tech trends when promoting an event. My favorite suggestion of hers, which she used throughout the conference that day, was making time for “tweetouts.” She allowed room in the program for a minute or two here and there to ask the group a question and encourage them to tweet their response. This was fun in the conference setting and could certainly be an effective way to drum up buzz online at other events, like fundraisers or retreats.

5. Engage your audience by using your audience. Cara Egan, Director of Marketing and PR at Seattle Art Museum, offered the crowd a behind-the-scenes look at planning and promoting an event that hadn’t even happened yet—SAM’s “Teen Night Out.” The museum wants to reach more teenagers and with this event, they tried getting to their target audience by using members of that audience to help spread the word. And she didn’t mean having a few teens share the event on their Facebook page—SAM literally handed over its Twitter account to these teenagers and let them craft their own messages about why their peers should attend this event. They also changed their normal PR strategy to meet their audience. Knowing teens make last-minute decisions about their plans, they sent out initiations and announced the event headliner just a couple weeks before the event—instead of a couple months in advance like they usually do.

What takeaways have you found from your experience with Social Media?

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