Online Marketing Options for Nonprofits

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Online marketing in the nonprofit sector is exploding because it’s much cheaper than traditional print marketing—and because it works. But all those options—e-newsletters, web sites, blogs, texting, tagging, fundraising and advocacy portals, Google ads, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Digg, Twitter, and on and on—can feel endless and overwhelming.

Where do you begin, and where do you go next? First, you should understand how all of these tools fit together. Next, you can follow a simple three-step strategy to make sense of it all.

Understanding the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0
A fundamental shift in how people use the Web is taking place. This transformation has been termed Web 2.0.

But let’s start with Web 1.0, because this is where most nonprofits are today. Traditional web sites, e-mail newsletters and banner ads fall into this category, which is simply about providing information online. You put your content out there and hope someone reads it.

Blogs are a bridge between Web 1.0 and 2.0—call it Web 1.5. You can post articles to a blog like you would to a traditional web site, but on a blog, people can add their comments to your articles and link to them in their own blog posts, creating a conversation around the content.

It’s this conversation, and the collaboration that comes next, that defines Web 2.0. Now anyone, regardless of technical skills or financial backing, can put just about anything online, and people around the corner and around the world can discuss it, build on it and share it with others, all at the same time.

What’s so special about social media?
Social networking sites (MySpace, Facebook), social media sites (YouTube, Flickr), and social bookmarking or news sites (Digg, StumbleUpon) are examples of Web 2.0 and are often lumped together under the term “social media.” The allure of these sites is not just the information you find there, but the conversations you have with others about that content and the new communities you build by participating in them.

For nonprofits that want to reach more supporters and spread the word about their causes, social media holds a great deal of promise. You can connect with people you’d never reach through traditional channels—friends of friends of friends and beyond. Since you are now connecting with a much broader spectrum of people, you can also gain insights you’d otherwise miss, which can fuel creative new ways to advocate for your cause, raise money and build your organization.

If you try to use Web 2.0 with a Web 1.0 mind-set, however, you’ll not only be disappointed, but you’ll also likely be labeled a social media spammer. You can’t just yell into the microphone; you have to sit down and have a chat, listening and responding, and starting new conversations with the friends you make.

A three-step approach
Keeping in mind these important distinctions between traditional online tools and new social media, you can create an online marketing strategy that works for your nonprofit by following these three steps.

1. Create a solid, central online home. Jumping into the hottest social media sites when your web site is a mess is a big mistake. Think of Web 1.0 not as the old way of doing things, but as a foundation to build upon. Create a clean and user-friendly web site and add a blog, or use a blog in place of a traditional web site. No matter how far afield you venture into social media, always link back to your main web site and keep it current. Your web site is your home base.

2. Build your e-mail and RSS lists everywhere, all the time. The two best ways to communicate directly with your supporters online are through e-mail and RSS feeds, which is how people subscribe to blogs, podcasts, etc. You can also use social networking sites, e-mail discussion lists, online bulletin boards and text messaging. But e-mail and RSS will reach the overwhelming majority of people and are the core vehicles for nonprofit communication online. Just as you should always link back to your web site, gently encourage people to also sign up for your e-newsletter and RSS feeds.

3. Dip into social media, but dive into one tool. Several nonprofits, including the Humane Society of the United States and The Nature Conservancy, are leading the way in figuring out how to best use social media in the nonprofit sector. You’ll find both of these organizations on all of the hot social media sites because they have staff dedicated specifically to this kind of marketing.

But that’s unrealistic for most nonprofits. Social media success requires meaningful, ongoing participation in each site, which can be time-consuming. If you are ready to try social media, it’s OK to dip your toes in by limiting yourself to just one or two sites. But once you pick a site, you need to dive in, learn the tools, build your profile and engage other users.

If you aren’t sure where to start, think about the kind of people you are trying to connect with and use the sites they use. You won’t find many senior citizens on Facebook, for example, but you will find people in their 20s and 30s. Find an existing online community that talks about issues or interests related to your cause and participate in it, rather than trying to build something from scratch. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium sponsors a Flickr group for people who’ve taken photos in and around the aquarium. Another example is Susan G. Komen for the Cure; this group ran a “Passionately Pink for the Cure” Flickr campaign where people contributed photos with pink items in them.

Always measure, learn and adjust
One of the best aspects of online marketing is that measurement is built right into most of the tools. You can tell how many people are subscribed to your e-newsletter and RSS feeds and how many people have joined your groups on social networking sites. You can tell how long people are staying on your web site and what links they are clicking on. Keep track of what you can, learn from both your successes and your failures, and adjust your strategy over time.

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