By Suphatra Laviolette
Marguerite Casey Foundation
Administrative Specialist, Communication
By 2011, using social media to communicate was no longer just “for the kids.” Organizations in the public and private sectors were hiring social media strategists and asking people to “like” their page or “friend” them.
The rapid adoption of social media – which are transparent, easy-to-use and immediate – democratized communications, creating a more citizen-centered media landscape. That shift, however, had not reached all citizens – namely, the poor. At Marguerite Casey Foundation, we asked: How can we make social media inclusive, providing poor families with an important tool to communicate not only with each other but with the wider world?
In social media, the foundation saw a unique opportunity to lift the voices and stories of poor families out of the traditional media cycle. Our initial effort to report issues of concern to low-income families and communities was Equal Voice, the foundation’s online weekly newspaper. We then used other social media to bring a wider audience to the Equal Voice stories, an audience that ranged from the foundation’s grantees and their constituents to like-minded foundations and other organizations, the public and policymakers. The combination of excellent reporting and social platforms triggered online debates on poverty and attracted the interest of other journalists and policymakers.
Through an aggressive social media strategy, the Equal Voice presence on Twitter grew by 1,150 percent and 767 percent on Facebook in 12 months. Followers include grantees, low-income families, organizations working on poverty issues, journalists and politicians (Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Washington state Rep. Jim McDermott, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and President Barack Obama, to name a few!).
There’s plenty more to do to bring the voices of the poor to the media forefront, but here’s how we increased those following Equal Voice news by more than tenfold in one year:
1. CLEAR GOALS. We outlined our goals and expectations. Using social media was not about promoting Marguerite Casey Foundation but rather to engage the foundation’s grantees in online communications, influence public opinion on issues affecting low-income families, and grow readership for the foundation’s national newspaper Equal Voice.
2. WEB AUDIT. We ran a web audit of our 250 grantees to see which were using social media, and where. This helped ease us into cyberspace, because grantees already online welcomed us with open arms and, with that endorsement, built our brand and esteem with digital allies down the road.
3. ENGAGING OUR GRANTEES. The audit was instructive. About 70 percent of our grantees are active on social media (an astonishing percentage considering all of them exclusively serve marginalized and poor communities). By “liking” their respective Facebook pages as well as following them on any other social media outlets they participated in, we began the flow of conversation.
4. CONSISTENT ENGAGEMENT, MEANINGFUL CONTENT. We built the grantee online network through constant monitoring of the news landscape, reciprocal and mindful engagement, link sharing of high-quality content, and e-mail messages and personal calls. We used HootSuite to schedule daily tweets, posted content on the weekend, and strictly followed self-imposed rules: Don’t tweet more than once every 20 minutes; don’t post to Facebook more than twice a day; share only the best, most interesting and poignant information relevant to our focus on national poverty.
5. TELL EVERYONE. We told everyone about our adventures in social media: Our Twitter curates news articles trending on poverty – check it out! Did you know all our photos are on Flickr? Before we knew it, people told others about our social media successes and trials.
6. ENGAGE LIKE-MINDED ALLIES. The good will and rapport built with grantees in our newly created digital network began to attract allies and shape our web brand as a resource on poverty. We nurtured the referral relationships and cultivated more. The free services like Mention Map helped us discover new allies, and we engaged them the same way in which we had engaged our grantees.
7. LEARN NEW TRICKS. We consumed information about social media voraciously: all of Clay Shirky’s books and TED talks, Beth Kanter’s blog, NTEN’s 2010 Benchmark Report, Allison Fine’s social media podcast (Fine interviewed us in September 2011, check out the podcast here). We even attended the traveling Social Media for Nonprofits Conference. We reached out to those successful in digital advocacy, like Internet politics veteran Alan Rosenblatt at Center for American Progress. He confided that when Center for American Progress started out in digital advocacy in 2009, the center faced a lot of skepticism: Poor people aren’t online! Organizations working for the poor aren’t online! Today, they have a social media following in the tens of thousands. His story gave us a lot of hope.
Just a second ago, someone tweeted to us, “Thank you for all the good work you do to improve our world. Blessings!” Those messages remind us that even if we’re not face-to-face, we are still reaching real people. That is perhaps the most important lesson we learned this year on how to succeed in social media: Lead with authenticity and goodwill. People are people, not “users” or “fans” or “followers.” In an age that struggles with authenticity and trust – online and off – if you can be open and candid about your identity and intentions, you’ll go a long way. Treat people like people, and they will like you, trust you and, maybe, just maybe, follow you.