In the private sector, the shine has come off Facebook. The botched IPO began the slide, and the ongoing weakness in its stock price reflects uneasiness with just how much value is contained in the company. The most fundamental reason for this dramatic shift in perception has been growing doubt among advertisers that Facebook actually drives more sales. When General Motors recently slashed its Facebook budget, there was a question whether the emperor of social media might actually be, if not naked, then at least much more scantily clad than previously thought.

Nonprofits should also be monitoring this emergence of doubt. The adoption rate of social media among nonprofits is still extraordinarily high—almost 90 percent of all organizations. The initial motivation for many of these agencies isn’t that different from General Motor’s: to drive more revenue. Viewed from that bottom-line perspective, the yield has been similarly doubtful. One study showed that only 2.4 percent of all nonprofits were able to raise more than $10,000 per year through social media.

How ought nonprofits respond? Cut back investment? Adjust expectations? Change their strategy?

Unfortunately, in my experience, too many organizations persist in zombie status—that is, they make status updates, but with greater and greater time lag in between; they still prominently display Facebook links on their websites, but without any tracking on what click through rates actually are; and the content of social media pages essentially mimics organizations’ websites in a wooden manner. Too many leaders still feel compelled to do social media because of a crowd mentality ("everyone is doing it"), not because they have a goal specific to their mission.

I believe Facebook and other forms of social media still have value for nonprofits, but it’s not the fundraising silver bullet that some perhaps naively imagined several years ago. Achieving the true potential yield takes thoughtful effort. Here are some ways to get started.

Think of social media as a cocktail party.

The starting point for your successful use of social media isn’t where the button is placed, how many times you post, or even how many followers you have. It’s having the right metaphor for your strategy. What is the best description of your social media strategy: Is it a bullhorn? A billboard? A copy machine? A collection bucket? Our advice to clients: Think of Facebook as your “cocktail party.”  And as with any cocktail party, there are certain social media behaviors that invite people to celebrate with you, and others that ruin the gathering.  Learn the difference.

Measure, measure, measure.

After you’ve got the right metaphor in mind, the next step is defining what success means for you—and determining how you will measure that success. With social media, I believe the costliest mistake is not avoiding the tool, it is investing time and money in it without having some way to determine whether it’s working or not. Beth Kanter, one of the leading thinkers around nonprofit social media, has written extensively how to define goals and gauge effectiveness, including a helpful case study of how a small advocacy NPO did it.

Do sweat the small stuff.

Marketing studies have shown that even small details like the day, time, and choice of  content can make a difference in audience response. The tactical lessons for nonprofits are getting more and more precise. For example, here’s a video on how nonprofits can optimize titles and descriptions on their Facebook updates.

Leave ’em laughing.

Corporations have realized that social media content that goes viral consistently shares one characteristic: It is funny. It’s no different for nonprofits. Nonprofit communications guru Andy Goodman shared the story of how the Center for Disease Control achieved widespread attention for disaster preparedness by posting a blog that illustrated key preparedness principles for two emergencies: earthquakes … and the impending Zombie Apocalypse. Nonprofit communications in general have a tendency to be overly earnest, alarmist, or guilt-inducing. Those are emotional notes poorly suited to Facebook. Think about how you can incorporate humor—even on the most serious of issues.

Read more stories by Curtis Chang.

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