The benefits of social media can be applied to any industry; the basic practice differs very little whether you are a global brand such as Coca-Cola or MacDonald’s, or a small business promoting a niche product to a niche audience. For the third sector however there is an even more obvious imperative to use this channel because of the nature of the proposition, activity and goals. This unique landscape needs to be navigated more carefully and with a far more carefully considered strategy.

There are many examples of careless social media marketing strategies, which can often be attributed to the extreme accessibility of the channel and lack of direction. It is not simply a channel for collecting more donations or an additional sales channel for brands. Neither is it a channel to simply broadcast an NGO’s mission and opinions of issues that exist within the area it operates in. Too often people mistake the channel as a short cut or alternative, to a clear messaging and communications strategy. Instead, the various platforms provide opportunities to engage with existing supporters and also the people or groups that the particular NGO itself supports. To this end one of the most crucial advantages social media provides is the ability to listen.

Before an effective strategy can be developed, NGO’s need to listen to chatter existing around them. They need to understand people’s perception of the brand, its projects, programmes and the perception of competitors operating in the same area. Whilst the idea of competition between charities may seem borderline crass, understanding where the charity fits in the niche ecosystem it operates in is key. Social media is a vital tool to keep abreast of relevant and topical issues which may affect the organisation. They need to tap into as many different networks as possible using appropriate listening tools. The information found here, if analysed effectively, is the most useful way of deciding how to best communicate with your target audience.

Social media is not a platform to advertise information, but a means of actively encouraging participation and discussion between users. As a charity will be by nature attempting to address and improve an area of societal need, it will be a shared passion with many people in different contexts. People will already be sharing ideas, opinion, content, experiences with the various issues that the NGO may be working with. Platforms such as Facebook offer a doorway to becoming part of the dialogue, and provide an opportunity to develop an approachable human presence of the brand. Just as private sector companies such as HSBC are planning to launch their own social media platforms in order to better connect with their customers on non-finance matters, charities can enhance the way they communicate with their existing and potential followers. However, there are certain principles involved with this kind of marketing practice and any activity should remain appropriate and respectful of boundaries. It may be possible to continuously connect with users, but in all likelihood it won’t always be welcome. Sometimes, just listening is enough.

Avoiding coming across as invasive is important for any brand, whether profit or non-profit. The same is true for a number of other principles, such as being open and genuine. It is often the simplest of polite gestures that help build reputation and credibility. Acknowledging others, including individuals outside of the NGO and other “competing” charities in the sector is therefore hugely important. While this may be difficult for commercial brands, it should be far less problematic for charities. Help for Heroes provide a perfect example of this kind of social media etiquette. They were a relative newcomer to the mission of supporting armed service personal injured in conflict. However, they captured the imagination and support of people and grew incredibly fast, raising over £100m in their first 4 years. H4H openly addresses the potential for cannibalisation of donations and its impact on established charities such as Veterans Aid and the Royal Legion who have been around for a long time. They used social media to address concerns and inform on how all service charities benefited from their activities. This has raised awareness and consideration of a much wider selection of people in the UK.

Mothers2Mothers is another example of a NGO who took a careful strategic approach before launching themselves blindly onto the social media world. They developed a strategy for combining social content on their website alongside a separate blog, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other Social venues. M2M’s mission is to reduce the risk of HIV transfer from pregnant mothers to their babies. They do this mainly though training and employing a network of mentor mothers who support women just like themselves. M2M is a network of people. Their social media content focuses on the great stories that represent what they do, and the people who benefit from the money donated. Crucially, they set up a sustainable resource model internally and externally to ensure that content was fresh and new content was published frequently. They are recognised as being a knowledgeable and authoritative voice on Aids and HIV, and consequently respond to issues, concerns opinion in an open, humble and frank tone of voice.

Social media should be an integral part of the marketing team’s responsibilities.  Developing a trusted voice via social media is not just one of those jobs that can just be left to the intern. It is this same mistaken belief that also leads people to think the practise is free. This, however, is far from the case. Charities should not be relying on hiring volunteers to delegate this to. It needs to be supported and constantly engaged with by the NGO. What is gained from free technology, media space and distribution is cancelled out by man hours, expertise and strategy development. An agency partner can provide support in many areas, but the charity itself should define the plan for ongoing sustainability of its activity. Building engagement with audiences needs specialist training and skill.

Keeping up with social media trends will certainly be a challenge for the charity sector. Charities must therefore consistently accustom themselves to new technological advancements. The launch of Google+ brand pages last week is one example of this and it will be interesting to see how third sector organisations make use of this opportunity.

Charities have come a long way in how they market themselves and this is largely due to social media. As the medium develops further still the sector will no doubt continue to produce inventive campaigns which engage users in new and exciting ways, but as in every other branch of the marketing umbrella – strategy and skill are key.

Jason Bacon

Jason Bacon


Jason Bacon is Head Of Digital at G2 Joshua.