Not-for-profit organisations still have a tendency to be reticent to fully embrace social media. For some it’s due to lack of funds, time or resources, for others it’s lack of confidence about technology. As not-for-profits are sometimes staffed by volunteers, social media duties may be handed to junior staff who aren’t adequately trained, or it’s otherwise done ad hoc by personnel who are looking after social media in additional to their main job.
In the past, I have worked as a research and social media consultant, running large national accounts for businesses and not-for-profits. I have also run social media and blogs for state government and national not-for-profit organisations, and I co-manage several international social media communities for education and science (on a volunteer basis). Currently, I run the newsletter and social media for a boutique state agency with 3,000 followers. My personal social media following across my personal Twitter (@OtherSociology) and various not-for-profit groups I volunteer with total around 250,000 people. At its peak, when I also co-managed communities on Facebook and GooglePlus,* I was responsible for 2 million followers. (The latter platform was shut down by Google in April 2019.)
Ideally, social media should be a properly resourced endeavour that is approached professionally. That is, through training, a focus on analytics, an integrated social marketing plan, the creation of original and quality content cultivated on a regular schedule, and dedicated community moderation.
Not for profits lack funds at the best of times, so this ideal may not be achievable. So here are some general tips on how you can get started and how to improve engagement. I’m focusing on a case study of social workers, but the general tips work across other industries.
Setting up your account
There are many online guides about how to set up your new Twitter account. This post is intended to only give you the highlights.
Choosing your username
Be straightforward. Choose a username that is a no-brainer, ideally a name that is identical to your organisation’s name. If your company has a “nickname” that most clients are familiar with that would be the ideal username to choose.
Keep it short and consistent. If you’re starting from scratch, aim to claim the same name across all social media platforms, from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat and beyond. If your not-for-profit has a long clunky name, choose a short version that will work across different social media platforms. For example, my account @SociologyAtWork is a play on our mission, which is to promote applied sociology – or sociological work outside academia.
For example, your trading name might be Not For Profit For Social Good. People will want to @ mention you (that is, use your name in a tweet that sends you an alert that someone is talking to you or about you). It is important for people to communicate with you directly, so you can respond to questions or concerns. So you might choose the name that shortens your trading name. Your clients already shorten your name to Social Good… but @SocialGood is already taken. So another meaningful option is to use @NFPSocialsGood (which is not taken at time of publication).
Make your profile attractive
Set up your profile. Before you even think about tweeting, upload a profile photo right away. This the picture people will see. If you leave it blank, many people distrust as a bot or as a troll (an account that is set up to annoy or abuse others). In some cases, it might make sense to use your company logo. Just be aware that unless your logo has clear branding, it might be off-putting. People respond better to images of faces.
Use a photo with impact. If you have a spokesperson it might be ideal to use their photo as it personalises your Twitter interactions. In these cases, companies might wish to clearly label tweets using the spokesperson’s initials to distinguish from general company tweets.
Upload a good cover photo. This will act as a header image for your Twitter profile. Avoid using words, low-resolution images, photos that you do not own the copyright, or confusing symbols.
Whether it’s your profile or cover photo, create original, high-resolution images that have been optimised for Twitter (tips in the box below).
Tip: Creating good images
Many companies fail to recognise that people consume social media on a myriad of devices. Using a small image will look terrible on a large screen. A large image may be cropped in a strange way on a tablet.
Buffer keeps a useful, up-to-date guide to the correct dimensions for profile images on Twitter and other social media.
If you do not have good editing software, there are lots of online options. I used PicMonkey when I first started to resize, edit and create images, but for many years, I’ve invested in Adobe Creative Suite. The latter is expensive, so if you can find an older version of the Photoshop software, it can be a good investment at around AUD$30 monthly for Photoshop. Educational institutions currently receive a 70% discounted rate that is very affordable. Otherwise registration through groups like TechSoup also provide not for profit discount access to Adobe.
Twitter has a 280 character limit and most people tend to cram as much text as possible into their tweets as possible. Research consistently shows that too few words or too many are less likely to be retweeted.
Tip: Aim for 100 characters. Use your original wording and include a relevant link. For example, lift a quote, highlight an interesting fact, draw out a statistic, or ask a question to pike interest and show people your account adds value through carefully curated content.
An obvious way to generate content is to tweet your organisation’s blog posts, resources or media interviews. Avoid simply tweeting the title. Make your tweet count by telling a story or imparting advice. I make sure my tweets stand alone so people learn something, but will also be interested to read more by clicking on the link.
Hashtags are a function that connect individual conversations through a specific word or phrase. Some people try to create their own hashtags, but be aware that other people may already be using your hashtag for different conversations, which will make it hard for your audience to follow you, or for new followers to find you over your shared interests. Beware that you may align yourself with a group that you may not want to associate with if you choose the wrong hashtag.
Read hashtags before you use them. If you make up your own, then be prepared to routinely check it for responses and contribute to the conversation, and defend it if you need to. This is part of a suite of behaviours that is called curation; where individuals or companies collect, disseminate and share resources under specific themes. If you create a hashtag, you need to look after it. Retweet people who are using your hashtag to show your support and to show appreciation of their dedication and time to your common cause, service or product. More on retweeting below.
Hashtags carry with them social responsibility.
If there is a cause that connections with your organisational mission and values, then be sure to contribute tweets! It can be a wonderful way to forge strong connections with like-minded people. For example, my personal account is about sociology, and using this solitary hashtag (#sociology) is enough to connect me to optimal conversations in my field.
Avoid forcing yourself into hashtags that are in poor taste or can otherwise damage your reputation (see the case study below).
What to do
Use succinct and relevant hashtags. Your main hashtag should relate to your work, interests or audience, such as #SocialWork #NotForProfit #NFP #Education and so on.
Remind people to use your hashtag. Promote your hashtag especially in the lead up during special events, such as during events your organisation is running or during the release of a new service, product or report.
Visit your chosen hashtag regularly. Twitter is not an one-way promotional tool where you can tweet and expect people to retweet you, without reciprocation and care. Check to see what people are tweeting and respond or retweet good tweets. This helps us make connections with new people who care about the same cause, but it ensures the hashtag stays relevant and “healthy.”
Use hashtags strategically. Tags are not there for decoration or just for fun. When you use hashtags, you are connecting yourself to national and world-wide conversations.
It means people whom you aren’t connected to may comment on your tweets, which is great as you meet new people! But if you wonder into a hashtag without full context, you could alienate yourself or cause offence. Hashtags are routinely adopted by activists or hijacked trolls when companies and organisations try silly gimmicks.
Tip: Choosing your hashtag
I’ve been on Twitter since 2009. Over the years, I have curated hashtags for not-for-profits who have employed me to manage their public communications, as well as volunteer organisations. Hashtags as well as a regular publishing schedule of useful, original content, have helped me raise the profile of organisations. In some cases I was establishing a new Twitter profiles, in other cases, I was taking over an already established, but dormant follower base. I have been able to create a new follower base of over 4,000 in six months without any paid advertising or contests; and I have also doubled clients’ existing follower base from 1,000 people, amassed over two years, who never retweet any of my clients’ content, to an active community of over 2,000 followers in less than two months who retweet everything.
A good hashtags to consider is your organisation’s name, such as for STEM Women (#stemwomen). I am one of the co-managers of this community, which has been on hiatus for the past few years. Yet people still use our hashtag, tag us in their posts, and we continue to grow our follower base. This is in large part due to the quality blog that my colleagues and I founded. But having been thoughtful about our social media set up also helped us grow our “brand” and build trust.
I began by checking if this tag was already in use. In the case of Stem Women, hardly anyone used it on Twitter. We promoted the tag and our work during a curated Twitter conversation, which we co-hosted and interacted with 10 other science accounts. We tweeted under our #StemWomen tag and retweeted others using our tag. Now many others are contributing to a wonderful conversation about better supporting gender diversity.
One of my most popular tweets was straightforward, telling my followers of my latest article in early 2016. It alerts my readers that it’s my work succinctly (“my latest”); it includes the title to my article with a punchy tag line that is taken from my article (“reboot the system); and it includes a meaningful hashtag that activists have been using to discuss a serious social issue (sexual harassment in astronomy, #astroSH). As I regularly contribute to this hashtag and collaborate with volunteer groups who are using this hashtag to organise collective action, this tweet was relevant and to the point.
What not to do
Hashtags are often poorly used by novices or organisations that do not understand how to create organic engagement. Companies often make the mistake of putting in excessive number of hashtags that make the tweet annoying at best and illegible at worst. Some people write entire sentences with tags and it makes their tweets look like spam and it can lead to miscommunication.
Avoid using multiple hashtags. If you do not have the resources to curate thoughtfully, stick to promoting one key hashtag. Many not for profits will see big companies using special promotional hashtags and they want to jump on board. Bear in mind that those companies have multiple people looking after their social media marketing, often 24/7.
Refrain from adopting counter-intuitive hashtags. If your organisation’s name is Social Science Company, shortening your hashtag to #socscico is unlikely to help you connect with new followers unless you invest heavily in promoting this tag regularly.
Take care of your “brand.” Be aware that users will also expect you will be looking after hashtags that match your username. They will tweet at you using a hashtag version of your name, so be sure to look after this hashtag.
Brevity is important, but promoting a misspelling in your hashtag will likely prove unproductive.
As with all things social media, quality is paramount, from choosing your hashtags, to creating meaningful relationships with your clients or audience.
Case Study: Hashtags and tweeting during a crisis
Never lose sight of the fact that Twitter is a living, breathing microcosm of societies. During unfolding events, tweet responsibly, or refrain from tweeting altogether during a social crisis if you cannot address the issue.
During a hostage crisis in Sydney in 2014, many people around the country used the hashtag #SydneySiege to update one another on the unfolding events, to question the media reporting and to show concern for the people involved. Laurel Papworth is a social media personality with over 55,000 Twitter followers who infamously tried to capitalise on the hashtag with a lightweight comment demanding to know where the company social media manager was – the company whose staff and customers were being held at gun point. As if promoting social media was important during such a time.
Thousands of people who were tweeting under the #SydneySiege hashtag wanted to stay aware of events and to create social accountability over the way the media, national leaders and police were handling events. For me and many others, this meant being cautious about jumping to conclusions about the gunman’s political ties (which, as it turned out, did not lead to any political group).
Hashtags can be used by social networks who share things in common, but remember they are global. Hashtags can connect your organisation to groups around Australia, and potentially the world, as with global movements like #BlackLivesMatter. Rather than tweeting empty platitudes, consider the social and political implications of hashtags. Join in when you have something meaningful to say, which will expand the conversation or bring new insights to your audience. Use hashtags when you attend events or to educate and support causes relevant to your organisation.
Twitter has increasingly put an emphasis on images, and especially on video. Photos and gifs do especially well on Twitter (gifs are moving photos made from a three-second clip).
Make sure you own the image or that your tweet includes acknowledgement of the creator. This is where “hat tips” and “@ mentions” are not only good practice, but can help you forge meaningful relationships with content creators, artists and their followers. If you can’t fit it in your tweet, make sure that the linked blog post includes full credit and a link back to the original image.
For large organisations, I tweet at least three to four times a day and I vary from text-only, to various images, to videos, quotes and more. Generally, tweets with the greatest engagement and reach (the number of people who saw my tweet) incorporate images and video.
Videos are very popular, so if you upload a seminar to YouTube, be sure to tweet the direct link to YouTube, and consider uploading a short preview video directly on Twitter. People will prefer to watch directly on Twitter rather than clicking on a link to your website.
Tip: Be sure to include relevant photos and videos with your tweets.
Tweet pictures of your latest community event. Consider sharing an infographic from your latest report to get people interested in your organisation. Otherwise, try a graphic with a quote that will encourage people to read your latest blog post.
Threads are a Twitter function that allows users to link their content, so they can tell a longer story. If you use these sparingly, they can be a perfect way to promote “microblogging” if you don’t have your own blog, or they can be a quick way to respond to emerging events, or to educate your audience. I often use threads as a way to explore ideas that I will later expand on a longer blog post.
Live tweeting conferences, movies or documentaries, and news are useful ways to make the most of threads. Below is an example where I provided sociological commentary on a live press conference about the COVID-19 crisis.
Different people use the “favourite” function to different ends. Favouriting can have many divergent meanings:
- “I agree.”
- “This is interesting.”
- “I neither agree nor disagree, but I’d like to read this later.”
Often times, favourites are simply a way to bookmark links that you don’t have enough time to read. A few people may or may not go back to these to read later. Many people integrate their Twitter favourites with an external app to read links later, such as Pocket and IFTT.
In any case, favourites generally means that people are unlikely to return to your tweet to retweet you. That’s fine, they still found some value in what you wrote! But if you generally get favourites but aren’t being retweeted, then you should think about the relevance of what you’re tweeting for your specific audience. Try new ways to engage people to generate comments. Answer people when they respond to your tweets.
Thank-yous on Twitter are greatly appreciated. There are tools that will automate this, but I would caution against using them, as the tweets are mostly seen as a hindrance, especially for large accounts that get these formulaic tweets often.
Another way to say thank you is to retweet or “favourite” all original tweets that mention my material and I answer direct questions and comments.
Don’t thank people who favourite your tweets. It can be annoying because if someone has favourited you but not retweeted you, there’s a reason for this, often personal preference. Despite their appreciation, and for whatever reason, they chose not to retweet you so thanking them is not useful.
Building Your Community
- Decide on your audience: Why do you want to use Twitter? Is it to connect with other social workers? Do you want to communicate with clients? Do you want t reach out to stakeholders? It is rare for people to be able to connect with several different audiences at once, so pick one and write especially for them
- Stay focused: Some people will tweet about their personal life as well as work issues. If you’re using Twitter to connect with other experts in your field, it may be ideal stay focused on professional issues until you find your “voice.” There’s no need to exclusively stick to work issues. After all, even at work, we should still be able to have fun!
- Be consistent: Try to tweet at least a couple of times a day – and remember that the times you’re tweeting may not be the best times for your audience. Mornings (8am to 9am) and evenings (7pm to 9pm) have the greatest impact in most industries, including social work. For educational accounts, mid-afternoon can also be good, as people head to Twitter for a slight reprieve (2pm-4pm).
- Share what you know: Don’t just reshare other people’s material, provide general advice about your line of work (that won’t breach confidentiality). Solve problems and provide advice, whether it be on community development, mental health, supporting youth, or whatever your specialise in. Keep it informative- you can’t cover everything about life as a social worker, so stick to advice, facts, resources and support that you are confident about.
- Be engaging: Many people make the mistake of being overly focused on getting a high follower count, rather than meaningful connections. It’s relatively easy to amass a couple of thousand dormant followers, either by paying (avoid this!) or by aggressively retweeting accounts. You may find that despite your follower count, your tweets have little traction, with relatively few retweets, comments and “organic” traffic to your website. You’re better off having a small but dedicated group of followers that you regularly engage with, and who will reshare your content. Another mistake some organisations make is to jump on Twitter to tweet your own stuff – such as your latest blog post – and then leaving. Twitter is for conversation, so reach out to people and comment on their material if you expect them to engage with your tweets.
- Stay generous and kind: Twitter thrives on reciprocity. This means retweeting other people. The general rule of thumb is 80% original tweets by you and 20% tweets from fans and others as a minimum. There are days where 100% of my time on Twitter is spent resharing and engaging on posts by other content creators. Be generous and treat Twitter like any other social place. Think of it as a party or a shared location like a park or local town hall. You wouldn’t ever walk into communal spaces, yell about yourself and take off, so don’t be purely focused on yourself when you’re on Twitter. Be good to others, learn as much as you can, and pay it forward.
- Don’t feed trolls: There can be some nastiness on Twitter that can seem overwhelming if you’re shy or just starting out. I speak up on causes that I believe in. I am never rude, and nor do I expect to put up with personal attacks. Offer constructive critique on hashtags that matter to your cause and organisation, but don’t attack individuals. It’s personal on how you want to deal with conflict. For my personal Twitter and the organisational accounts that I represent, I do not tolerate trolling (that is, being abusive or excessively annoying). In these instances, mute or block accounts, and report abusive tweets you see, even if they’re not directed at you. To make your expectations clear, it’s ideal to have a clear social media policy in place. Publish it on your website, or periodically remind your followers about the rules you are enforcing. For an example, see my commenting policy, which is uniform across all my personal social media and websites.