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Six tips for using social media to boost community development work

Related story:  "Why tweet?  Five reasons." and "The value of integrating Twitter into your communications plan -- explained in 140 characters or less"


Using social media is a lot like going to a high school dance, according to the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. Both make people nervous. It takes effort to get a conversation going.

But if you put yourself out there, “there's a payoff in popularity,” said Nora Ferrell, vice president of the Chicago-based Workshop, which provides communication coaching to non-profits.

At a minimum, every non-profit should at least experiment with Facebook, Twitter, video and blogs, she said.

“Organizations that aren't using these tools are missing out on opportunities to grow their audience.”

Even non-profits that use these tools could probably use them more strategically, Ferrell observed.

Here are six ideas for using social media to boost your group's profile. (For previous tips from Ferrell, check out "Ten steps to better news coverage" and  "Is it news?  Well, maybe.")

Post it.

Given that the majority of people who log onto Facebook do so daily and for hours at a time, “it's a great way to get people to see something you're working on, as opposed to just hoping that somebody finds your website,” said Ferrell.

Facebook posts should generally be a sentence or two in length and may include a photo.

Asking readers a question about a priority issue (e.g., "What kind of transit options would you like to see in your neighborhood?") is a good way to jump-start a conversation. But make sure to direct readers to leave comments on your website by following a link to a related post and comment space there. If the conversation stays on Facebook, they'll miss out on all the other interesting information your website has to offer.

“The main purpose of social media is to drive traffic to your website and spread the news about your work,” Ferrell explained. 

“What you do should be represented on your website.”

Tweet it.

Too few non-profits are taking advantage of Twitter, in Ferrell's experience.

“I think there's a misperception that people on Twitter are always tweeting, 'I just ate a sub sandwich.'”

In reality, Twitter is less personal than Facebook, she explained. “On Twitter, anybody can follow anybody. I follow people I don't know but I think are interesting, that share information and news that I care about.”

Use Twitter to attract readers to your website with brief messages and links to your latest web articles, blog posts, announcements and upcoming events. (For a related interview with Ferrell on using Twitter to attract a following and keep informed, check out "Why tweet?  Five reasons.")

Tape it.

One or two minute videos filmed with an inexpensive flip camera can also attract website viewers. 

“People like short things they can watch and then get back to work,” said Ferrell.

The simplest approach is to interview someone impacted by one of your programs or issues. “You can ask anyone in your neighborhood something that gives valuable information and that other people will probably want to watch,” she said.

Keeping videos short and simple will allow you to post without edits. Just download videos to your YouTube account and embed them on your website as part of a blog post or with a headline and brief description.


Blogs are time-consuming to maintain, but they're worth the effort, Ferrell insisted.

“Websites with blogs that are kept up-to-date get the most traffic. They show up higher in search engine rankings because they are being updated more often.”

Keep blog entries short and informal. You can post a personal observation about a project underway in the community, give your opinion on breaking news related to your organization's mission, introduce a new staff member, share an idea from a conference you attended or post your flip-cam video or a photo of an event with a brief note.

“It’s a different way to talk about what you’re doing,” she said.

Get in a groove.

Juggling all your social media tools can be a challenge, so establishing a routine can help.

Morning, mid-day and evening, check your Twitter and Facebook accounts. Respond to any direct questions and remove any inappropriate comments from Facebook.

To maintain a visible presence on Twitter, plan on “tweeting” at least three times a day. Facebook, by contrast, should be updated only once or twice a day to avoid clogging up your readers' news feeds.

“That's just going to get you un-followed,” Ferrell warned.

At least twice a week, post a new blog entry. Updating your blog daily is ideal although unrealistic for most organizations, she acknowledged. But asking each staff member to contribute two blog posts a month is likely doable, she said.

Updating your website at least once or twice a week should be a priority. “People are not going to keep coming back to your website if there's not new content,” Ferrell insisted. “They aren't going to see it as an up-to-date resource.”

Web stories should be reviewed by more than one person to ensure that they are relevant and error-free. If staff has time, blogs should get a quick read-over, too, especially if a writer is prone to typos.

But Twitter and Facebook move too quickly to wait for review, said Ferrell. Instead, appoint a staff member who can be trusted to communicate the organization's messages and maintain the right tone.

“You’ll never get anything done if it has to get approved.”

Take measure.

Analyze the success of your social media efforts with a tool called Google Analytics, which you can access for free at

It will report the number of visitors to your website and how many arrived through each link you posted on Facebook or Twitter, and which website stories, videos or blogs attracted the most attention. You can even tell which words readers searched for to reach your site.

The results will help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your social media campaign and refine the content of your website, tweets and Facebook posts, Ferrell explained.

“In the long run it should make a difference because you aren't posting things blindly. You have a lot more information about what your audience cares about.”

Other resources

  • Community Media workshop has compiled this quick guide to social media tools.
  • Facebook released a guide earlier this year on how to market your organization (or yourself to potential employers.) Read it here.
  • Fenton Communications in New York, a public interest communications firm, created a handy Twitter guidebook for new users. Download it for free here.
  • The Mashable blog is considered one of the best on-line sources for timely tips and news on social media and technology. Find them at or follow them on Twitter (@mashable).
  • Hootsuite or TweetDeck to view all your incoming and outgoing tweets and retweets at a single glance. Both of these free applications can also organize your other social media tools in one location.

Posted in Communicating

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