PR and social media strategies for charities have historically been grounded in a combination of partnerships, events and traditional media relations. Although these elements of the communications mix make up a great proportion of necessary activity, charities now have the opportunity to properly engage with their audiences and increase donations, by maximising their social media presence - and this means more than the odd tweet or Facebook post about a community project.
Charities that fail to embrace this trend are seriously missing a trick and although not without its pitfalls, the risks for charities in not getting involved can be far greater.
The highest profile recent example is undoubtedly the “ice bucket challenge”.
A Charities Aid Foundation survey of more than 2,000 UK adults carried out in September found that one sixth of respondents had taken part in the challenge.
However, not all participants donated as a result, with only 10 per cent of total survey respondents saying they gave to charity as part of the challenge with an average gift of only £5 to boot.
The ice bucket challenge followed the so-called #nomakeupselfie drive, and the campaign launched by teenage cancer patient Stephen Sutton, which gained widespread exposure online and raised millions of pounds as a result for the Teenage Cancer Trust.
But there are risks and challenges for charities attempting to use social media to their advantage. The open and uncontrolled nature of social media has raised questions over whether charities and causes can maintain ownership of their fundraising and awareness campaigns.
There are also issues around the effectiveness of using social media.
The disparity between participation in initiatives such as the ice bucket challenge and actual donations is worthy of examination.
Charity technology supplier Blackbaud recently published its 2014 SONI (State of the Not-for-Profit Industry) report, which surveyed how NFPs are fundraising and using technology.
The research found that the use of both peer-to-peer fundraising (when backers promote the cause to other potential givers) and social media is on the increase, with 96 per cent of NFPs now using social media in some form and 69 per cent reporting income from peer-to-peer marketing (a dramatic increase from 38 percent in 2012).
But SONI also showed NFPs felt they “continued to struggle” to use social media effectively. Most NFPs felt that they did not meet expectations in executing their social media efforts in the past year, with more than 60 per cent rating themselves lower than seven out of 10 on a scale of effectiveness.
General manager for peer-to-peer business at Blackbaud Europe John Bird says: “The importance of peer-to-peer fundraising should not be under estimated, and social media is one of the main channels for supporters to ask others for donations.
“But NFPs on the whole feel that they aren’t using social media as effectively as they could. Is this true or is it actually a case of having unrealistic expectations about what social media can achieve? Either way, NFPs are taking it seriously with 62 per cent adding staff or responsibilities that focus on social media during the past year.”
Bird says all organisations need to see social media for what it is - “low cost, transient, informal, occasionally powerful, occasionally disruptive but certainly not controllable”.
Charity staff involved with a social presence need clear guidelines and support from their executive to be allowed to react to any opportunities which may arise. If the organisation is scared of social, they will always be behind the action, he says, and will never be able to “take control of the conversation”.
According to research among 130 charity sites carried out by digital and direct marketing agency equimedia, charities have been slow to capitalise on their supporters’ shift to online donation methods. This has led to a potential shortfall of millions of pounds in lost donations per year, as 20 per cent of all UK charity donations in the last 12 months have been executed online.
CEO of equimedia Andrew Burgess says: “The charity sector is just not keeping up with changes in online behaviour amongst its donor audience. The occasional instance of a high profile, viral social media craze like the #ALSicebucketchallenge can drive massive engagement and spikes in donations for many charities.
“However, when potential donors reach charity sites, they are let down by poor performance and many organisations do not do enough to convert interest to support.”
Even the biggest charities can be caught on the hop when it comes to the interest generated by social media. The #nomakeupselfie campaign, which is said to have raised £8 million for Cancer Research UK in its first six days, sparked so much unexpected web traffic to Cancer Research UK’s website, that the head of the charity’s IT believed the site was under cyber attack.
Michael Briggs told business IT website ComputerWorldUK.com that the charity’s IT is “playing catch-up” with the fast-paced nature of digital data, spiked by outsider viral campaigns like #nomakeupselfie.
During this campaign, which was not started by the charity, social media is said to have driven over 25 times the average amount of traffic to its website. This led to Briggs thinking someone had started a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against the website, when attackers try and crash a site with automated and repeated requests to access it.
Imitation often demonstrates the success of a campaign. The WWF in Denmark and Turkey recently used Snapchat to promote its work around endangered species.
The Snapchat app sends images to app users that are only viewable for a few seconds before disappearing. The WWF’s use of the app mirrored what’s happening with endangered animals, after tagging those endangered animals’ close up images with the hashtag #LastSelfie after the words “Don’t let this be my last selfie”.
To further illustrate how existing ‘trending’ social media items can be taken advantage of, several charities used this year’s tube strike in London by building short campaigns around the #tubestrike hashtag.
While ‘hijacking’ hashtags isn’t generally seen as the thing to do on Twitter, many thought the move was innovative and fair play considering it was charities doing it.
Save the Children used the #tubestrike hashtag to raise awareness of the problems caused by the civil war in Syria, through creating a colourful custom tube service status graphic. This gave a list of issues affecting Syrian citizens on a daily basis - like no running water, no vaccines and closed schools - instead of showing how well the underground lines were doing.
“By Thursday this week’s #tubestrike will be over, no one knows when the disruption in Syria will end,” read the tweet and graphic.
On the debate of social media control, social media consultant Andrew Gape told Charity Times, “One element that links the recent campaigns we’re talking about here is that they didn’t start off as a brand (charity) campaign. Branded hashtags don’t tend to get the same level of traction as a spontaneous hashtag.”
Overall, he says, it would be very difficult for charities to plan a hashtag and get the same level of engagement. Even when partnered with TV programmes, such as Battersea Dogs Home and Paul O’Grady’s dog programme, the level of online engagement is still not as high as the #nomakeupselfie effort, for instance, points out Gape.
Gape says, “Charities need to simply be part of the social conversation and support their supporters in their campaigns and challenges to help raise as much money as possible.”
Blackbaud’s Bird stresses that NFPs should “keep things in perspective” when it comes to social media use. “Charities should invest in staff and time to develop a social strategy and maintain their presence, as much as anything to ensure they have the loudest voice on the subjects they care about,” he says.
“However, they should keep things in perspective, because social media content is so dynamic, unpleasant conversations among the public that may cause significant internal concern, tend to pass by quickly with little or no lasting damage to the charity.”
And Alia Al-Doori, account manager at content marketing firm Smarts Illuminate, says charities can learn a lot from previous social media campaigns to ensure that any mistakes are avoided in the future.
She says, “A campaign that is being fronted largely by the public can ring alarm bells for charities as the control is passed over to people who perhaps may not have their best interests at heart.
“Relinquishing control of a campaign goes against a charity marketer’s instincts but opportunities are proving too good to miss. If charities continue to keep these types of campaign at arm’s length then they may be left in the wake of their more daring counterparts.”
On the ALS ice bucket challenge, she says, “In the beginning, although the celebrity-studded videos raised widespread awareness, it was common for the challenge to be taken on in order to dodge the donation. As the campaign grew in popularity, the message inconsistencies grew with it.
“It was only after a few well-known names highlighted the issue and reiterated that the aim of the campaign was to raise money that the primary objective was brought back to the fore. In real terms, these message inconsistencies could have cost the charity thousands, or even millions in donations.”
Al-Doori says: “Handing control over to the general public means that message communications become more important than ever. Messages are always open to interpretation, so leave no room for manoeuvre. You have to keep the objectives and the messaging of the campaign simple and consistent to ensure that the general public knows exactly what is expected from them, how they can get involved and of course, the call to action - how they donate to the cause.”
The simple strategy will avoid the teething problems that the ice bucket challenge experienced and will ensure that charities don’t miss out on donations.
Antony Savvas is a freelance journalist