Social media symbolsWhat skills are now necessary for nonprofit professionals navigating the new Wild West of virtual communications?

by Jennifer Thorne

In a recent survey of 266 nonprofit organizations conducted by association management company Virtual, Inc., 82% of respondents reported having a presence on Facebook. 54% were on Twitter, with LinkedIn and YouTube also popular, at 49% and 42% respectively. And M+R and the Nonprofit Technology Network’s 2014 Nonprofit Benchmarks Study of 53 top nonprofits revealed that online giving rose 14% in 2013, making it the best year ever for social media messaging.

With results like those, it’s no wonder that communications and development departments are investing more and more in internet-savvy staff members. But amid a constantly shifting online landscape of increasingly popular sites like Instagram and Pinterest – and surprisingly stagnant endeavors like Google+ – along with a constant barrage of online noise surrounding the people that organizations hope to reach with their messaging, how do employers define social media know-how when hiring staff? What skills are now necessary for nonprofit professionals navigating the new Wild West of virtual communications?

Rule One: Find Staff Who Know Where Your Audience Lives

Not all communication outlets are created equal, says Nicole Sheahan, national Vice President for Development at the DC-based Colon Cancer Alliance. “We’re not seeing a huge rate in opt-outs of emails,” she notes. “But we are finding that people are much more engaged online. Email has become work – not what you do for fun. You’re staying up to date with your real life via social media. And people are starting to do that with the charities they support as well.”

For Brian Perillo, Associate Vice President for Alumni Relations at New York University, that means a focus on two main social media avenues – Facebook and LinkedIn. “We have over two hundred thousand alumni on Facebook,” he says. “Over one hundred forty thousand on LinkedIn. Our LinkedIn group is the second largest higher education group on LinkedIn – we’re very proud of that and we’ll continue to put resources into it.”

LinkedIn and Facebook are also the main platforms used by Amy Siperstein, Executive Director of the Central New Jersey Division of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, and her team. Her organization uses widgets on these sites, along with apps on smart phones and iPads to both take direct donations and disseminate important public health campaigns in a way that will connect with online constituents. The most recent app they’ve rolled out has been tied into a larger stroke awareness campaign. “There’s a button on the app that will connect you with 911 if you feel you’re exhibiting the signs and symptoms of a stroke,” says Siperstein. “A lot of people drive themselves to the ER, which is the wrong thing to do. Lives are saved in those extra minutes you can be treated in the ambulance.” Now that the app has been released, Siperstein, her staff, and her counterparts at other chapters are working to get people to download and use it.

Siperstein also sings the praises of Twitter for those who have an aptitude for it-and that doesn’t just mean staff members. “At March of Dimes, I worked with a board chair who really utilized Twitter,” she says. “He had amazing reach. People were following him from all over the country. He used Twitter to solicit donations for his fundraising team, to spread the word on Prematurity Awareness Day and other initiatives. How he worked with it was a great example of how it can have impact.”

Rule Two: Look for Results

Perillo, who supervises a Director of Communications charged with her own team of five content-producing staff members, keeps an eye on key figures in helping steer strategy for social media. “We’re measuring how many people are interested in what we’re doing – liking, favoriting, following our posts,” he says. “We also look into how people engaging with us on social media behave offline. Are people giving at a higher rate, for example? The alumni giving rate [overall] is around 10%. When we look at people engaged on social media, the rate is about 50%.”

Siperstein agrees that giving is the starting-point for measuring staff success in social media. “The easiest measure and the most recognizable one is through revenue. We know that when people utilize social media, they exceed the average amount of revenue they could otherwise bring in.” But in making hiring decisions, she looks beyond hard numbers. “We want somebody who has a basic understanding of not just the functionality of social media, but also how it can tie into the bigger message. We look for out of the box ideas – is it an incentive? Is it a mission piece? Do they really understand that tie in? You can be really great at social media, but if you don’t have that connection of how it can feed into the bigger picture, you’re missing an opportunity.”

The big picture of mission-based messaging is key to the approach of the Colon Cancer Alliance’s communications team as well, says Sheahan. “It’s less about having a direct ask and more about using social media to tell the story and sell the impact of our mission. It’s a great way to showcase donors and the unique ways people can get involved with the organization.” Sheahan says that the Colon Cancer Alliance has been especially successful drawing new people in through strategic use of Facebook-ads, planting key words, encouraging shares, posting funny photos and “awards” to highlight signature events, like their Undy Run/Walk.

“One time, we posted an image of two toilet paper rolls side by side, each one turned a different way, asking people which way was right,” Sheahan recalls. “Several hundred people responded. It created a positive interaction, even if people haven’t donated in a while. Those people shared it with others and it built the donor relationship in a non-threatening way.” She points out other key facets to a successful social media strategy-getting messaging out in real time as trends emerge, creatively pushing for new audiences, tying every message to the organization’s homepage as a central hub. “Everything can be tested. We look at metrics and measure our results after trying different messages, as opposed to an approach of, ‘This cracked me up, so everyone else is going to love it.'”

Ultimately, Sheahan says, there’s one sure-fire way to tell whether your staff is having impact in their social media communications. “If you’re boring, people will let you know by simply not engaging with you. That’s the biggest tell of all-nobody cares.”

Rule Three: Beware of “Butterflies” and “Gurus”

“‘Social Media Guru’ is the worst self-given title,” laughs Sheahan. “Some people really do have a passion for social media, but do they have it because they find it an amazing communication tool or because they’re self-absorbed? I wouldn’t want to put a social butterfly in that role. Before hiring, we look at their own pages. All of those red flags stand out.”

“Before I meet with someone, I Google them,” agrees Siperstein. “Facebook is the first thing that pops up, or LinkedIn, or Twitter. You can see how people represent themselves in their personal life.” This is important, not just because it provides a clue to how candidates will communicate on behalf of your organization, she says, but also because of the transparency of the Internet age. “Five years ago, your Facebook friends were actual, personal friends. Now, I have donors, volunteers, staff members connecting to me. It changes how you represent yourself – on the practical side, it puts an emphasis on being able to have a virtual relationship with your donors, to be in tune with that and adjust in order to be able to connect with them distinctly and appropriately.”

Sheahan also cites the importance of looking at track records. “Years ago, I remember interviewing people, and if someone said, ‘I have a Facebook account,’ that was good enough. You were seen as an expert. You’d never have asked, ‘What have you accomplished on social media?’ because nobody was doing it well, or getting any buy-in from CEOs. Now, with social media, candidates have to come into an interview prepared to answer questions like ‘What’s the one thing you would change in our approach?’ or ‘How do you engage new donors through social media?’ People need to have a portfolio and a track record-show impact in terms of donations and registrations – and be a jack of all trades.”

At NYU, Perillo also values staff members with many tools in their belt. “We’re looking for people who can come up with creative initiatives that span the entirety of the channels available to us,” he says. “We still use print, email, and internal channels like our magazine. So although the communications model has changed, we’re looking for the same skills-people who can come up with creative ways to sell the story.”

Rule Four: The Future Favors the Bold

Sometimes, those broad-based skill sets come from unexpected places, notes Perillo.

“We’re starting to work with current NYU students, who seem to know this space as well as any of us. We’ve launched a program where we’ll bring in student employees to help us produce short videos and other content.” In addition to tapping into in-house talent to stay current, Perillo and his team make sure to stay on top of new online communication channels as they become increasingly influential. “The big thing for us is keeping an eye on where alumni are. As younger generations go, there will be other social media sites they’ll jump into. We’ll develop a strategy to make sure that when there’s a critical mass of people using it, we’ll have a presence there, so that NYU can be a part of their daily online lives.”

“I’d love to have an Instagram,” says Sheahan, “and there’s a lot we can do with Pinterest too – but it’s important not to jump the gun, because every time you add a platform, you have to put more resources into it. I’d rather not have a Pinterest account than have a really mediocre one.” Still, she notes, hiring staff members willing to take small risks can be crucial to social media success. “It’s more important to be a visionary in the social media role than in other roles. It’s uncharted territory, a chance for organizations to try something different and really stand out.”

Siperstein shares Sheahan’s enthusiasm for new websites and online communications channels. “With Instagram and Pinterest, there’s a real opportunity to enhance relationships and add value,” she says. “In the future, we’ll see more and more people sharing their personal stories. Years ago, people didn’t want to talk about having heart disease or having lost an infant. Now there’s a coming of age where the Internet is providing a platform for people to be more open.”

And staff members who understand the value of that openness – that genuine connection to mission – will be the ones to thrive professionally in the years to come.

“Fundraising will be tied into it. That’s probably the direction it will grow in,” she says. “I think it’s a great direction.”

Jennifer Thorne is director of communication at DRG executive search.