Thursday, May 2, 2013

FOOD for Lane County: Harvesting social media

For those of us who didn't grow up in the age of smartphones and constant online communication, social networking can present a professional dilemma. For every success story about a company making its mark online, there seem to be a dozen cautionary tales of public figures putting their virtual foot in their mouth in real time, or worse.

More importantly, from the perspective of a nonprofit organization, cultivating a social media following and
All images courtesy of FFLC.
maintaining multiple online profiles takes time and effort. Is the potential payoff worth it for an organization devoted to helping people in the community, not bolstering its bottom line?

Last week, I sat down with Dawn Marie Woodward to talk about adding social media to a nonprofit’s traditional communications toolkit. Woodward, the president of the Greater Oregon Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, serves as events and media relations coordinator for FOOD for Lane County (FFLC).

With a 30-year career in Pacific Northwest television journalism under her belt, Woodward knows how to get the most out of traditional media. Before becoming FFLC’s events and media relations coordinator, Woodward served as news assignment editor for KVAL in Eugene, Ore.

As part of the food bank’s development team, Woodward splits her time between organizing major events and managing FFLC’s outreach to the news media. A marketing coordinator handles the food bank’s fundraising communications, including direct mailings and a triannual newsletter.

Cultivating the brand

One of the largest food banks in the state, FFLC serves about 80,000 people a year who need emergency food. FFLC’s brand encompasses its identity both as a food bank and as a part of the local food web.

The nonprofit runs three high-volume vegetable gardens and a youth gardening program, as well as nutrition and cooking classes. “Everything we do comes back to our mission: creating access to food,” says Woodward.

Branding is crucial for nonprofit organizations, says Woodward, which have to operate like for-profit businesses when it comes to its public identity. For FFLC, that effort includes carefully selecting corporate sponsors and monitoring how partners use their connection to FFLC to promote themselves.

“Brand integrity is everything. It’s our name and face out there,” says Woodward, adding that as one of the
area’s bigger nonprofits, FFLC is accountable to a wide range of stakeholders. “I believe we have a very good name in this community and we want to keep it.”

The food bank leverages social media in its branding and communications effort to complement traditional strategies. FFLC, like many nonprofit organizations, does not have the resources to devote an employee to full-time social media management.

Woodward sits on a social media committee that directs FFLC’s social media campaigns on Facebook and Twitter. Three employees share social media profile management and posting duties.

Nurturing the audience

During her four and a half years at the nonprofit, Woodward says, FFLC has worked to create a balanced social media strategy to directly engage donors, clients and partner agencies. While social media presents a good channel for direct appeals to core supporters, Woodward says it is important not to inundate the audience with pleas for cash.

“We want our social media to be fun,” she says. “We do some serious things on Facebook too,” she adds later.
About 70 percent of FFLC’s posts are educational, with the remaining 30 percent focused on generating support. Woodward says the nonprofit updates its social media accounts about three times a week to keep fans engaged without overwhelming them.

This policy is flexible when it comes to covering FFLC-sponsored events. For example, Woodward uploaded photos on the spot in order to capture the flavor of a recent FFLC-sponsored plant buying event. The organization appears to have adaptive social media use down cold.

In order to engage younger supporters at this year’s Chef’s Night Out, one of its most important events, FFLC created a series of hashtags. To encourage attendees to tweet about their experience in real time, the social media crew installed monitors and live-streamed these hashtag feeds during the event.

To add a touch of fun to its Facebook page, FFLC’s social media team employs tactics like posting food-related trivia and recipes created by the nonprofit’s staff and partners. The fanpage’s photo gallery is filled with compelling images of children and FFLC supporters gardening and participating in other programs.

Cross-pollinating campaigns

On a daily basis, FFLC’s development team spends more time with social media than it does on traditional outreach efforts like news releases. But Woodward says nonprofits like hers won’t be ditching traditional media campaigns, which are typically event-based, anytime soon.

Every article and opinion piece Woodward places in a daily newspaper reaches tens of thousands of people. A typical social media post reaches 1,609 Twitter followers or 3,722 Facebook fans.

A recent FFLC Facebook post – a giveaway for Chef’s Night Out – went viral and reached 26,000 viewers. But that doesn’t happen with every post, Woodward says, predicting that social media’s reach won’t surpass that of traditional media, at least during her career.

Traditional media and social media, she says, complement each other. The savvy strategy, she says, is for
nonprofits to balance their use of both communications channels and make the best use of limited resources. Because social media reaches a more targeted audience, it can increase the impact of a traditional outreach effort.

The key is to take the time to understand social media and develop the right strategy for your audience. “You can’t just put up a Facebook page and expect people to follow you,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s important not to overwhelm people with too many posts.”

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