Building Your Social Media Fan Base

If you post a message on Twitter and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a noise? The fact is, there isn’t much reason to tweet if you don’t have an audience—a fundamental truth of all social media channels. As you think about ways to engage constituents and advance your nonprofit and its mission through Facebook, Twitter and blogs, you should also be thinking about how to promote each channel and build your audience. 

Whether you call them “friends,” “fans,” “subscribers” or “followers,” they all mean the same thing for the purposes of this article: you need an audience for any social media strategy to work. The good news is, because of the “network effect,” attracting a few followers can often increase your potential audience exponentially—the very nature of social media makes it easy for your friends to spread the word to their own networks of friends, and so on.
 
So how do you attract people to “like” your Facebook page, follow your Twitter feed or subscribe to your blog? We’ll walk through the key steps one-by-one.
 

Ensure There’s Something Worth Paying Attention To

It should go without saying that if you want people to pay attention, post something they’ll find useful and relevant. This is true of all communications, not just social media. If you’re launching a new blog or Twitter account, start out by posting a few interesting things—even though no one is “listening” yet—to show the audience you hope to gain that your resources might interest them.
 
How do you know what will interest the type of people you’d like to follow you? Ask them. Find a good representative sample of your desired audience and start a discussion with them, through conversations, phone interviews or a survey, about what kinds of posts they’d like to read.
 

Seed Your Community

No one is ever drawn to an empty restaurant, no matter how good the food. Social media is similar—even with brilliant content, it’s difficult to attract supporters to a site that no one else is following. Reach out to your staff and other core supporters of your organization and ask them to follow your tweets, or “like” your Facebook page—and to invite their personal friends.
 
Getting them to post comments or reply to your posts can help show an active community. A small, critical mass of followers will make it easier to attract others to your channel.
 

Include Social Media Information with Your General Contact Information

Once you have a few core posts and a reputable-looking number of supporters, it’s time to open the doors to the general public. An easy way to begin doing this is to add your social media profile information anywhere your contact information is given. A Facebook or Twitter logo on your website can link people directly to your pages, and if you have a blog, make sure people can easily find it through your website.
 
Email signature lines are often overlooked as useful places to distribute information. You put your title, phone number and email address there—why not include a link to your Facebook page and your Twitter profile? Part of getting people to be part of your social community is simply letting people know you have one.
 

Promote Channels to Your Existing Friends

People who already know you are more likely to join your social media communities than strangers, and you can reach people who already support your organization through email, print newsletters and other social media channels. It’s common practice to launch a new communications channel by telling your audience why they’re likely to find it useful or interesting. For instance, if you’re launching a Facebook page, include a blurb in your eNewsletter describing all the great things they’ll only find on Facebook.   
 
You might also consider an ongoing, recurring communication to spread the word about your social media world—for example, a “best of” email that rounds up recent blog posts, or a “resource of the week” highlighting a particularly good Facebook discussion or resource you posted on Twitter. Make it clear where the information came from initially, and let people know how to follow or “like” you on social media.
 

Post to Attract the Attention of Like-Minded Communities

Useful content will encourage people to read your posts and spread the word, but using specific words can help you reach a particular audience. On Twitter, a “hashtag”—a pound symbol followed by a keyword—flags a tweet to make it easy for others to follow. Because so many people who work in nonprofit technology follow the #nptech hashtag, for example, marking a relevant tweet with it will help you reach that specific group.
 
Similarly, you can “tag” someone in a Facebook post by using the @ symbol followed by their profile name. For example, the post “I just attended an interesting training put on by @Idealware” would show up on your Facebook page—known as your “wall”—as well as Idealware’s. This can be a great way to attract the attention of big players in your field.
 
Responding to other people’s posts is also a good way to attract attention from a certain crowd. For instance, responding to a question on someone’s blog or on Twitter with a helpful resource might prompt people to follow your link, and, ultimately, you.
 

Ask People to Post on Your Behalf

Social media makes it easy for other people to post on your behalf, and taking advantage of that benefit is a good way to spread the word. Ask key supporters, like your board or core volunteers, to invite their own friends or followers to follow you or post about you.
 
You may know people with a substantial social media audience. Such people are called “influencers,” and can have a disproportionally large impact—one mention from them can send a huge number of people your way. For instance, you might have a board member who seems to know everyone, or an organizational friend who’s well known in your community. It’s worth the effort to build online relationships with people who have a wide following in your area of interest, and to encourage them to pass on the word.
 

Consider Giveaways, Games or Contests

Want to build a sizable audience in a single, quick push? Create a specific incentive for people to join your community—offer people who join your Facebook page a discount to something, for example, or a free book to the 20 people who post the most useful comments on your blog. Contests or games are another way to draw people. You might host a scavenger hunt and tweet the clues, or a Facebook photo contest which requires people to “like” your page.
 
Remember, though, that the sheer size of your audience is not an accurate measure of your influence. Make sure to reach out to an audience that might actually be interested in what you have to say—it doesn’t matter how many followers you have if none of them pays attention to you or does anything to help your cause.
 

Participate in the Online Conversation

Finally, it’s worth keeping one simple fact in mind: social media is meant to be social. Participating honestly in the online conversation about topics of interest to your organization will build an audience more successfully than any other tip or trick.
 
Look for other blogs on related topics, read them, and start conversations with those bloggers. Follow interesting organizations on Twitter, and “like” them on Facebook. Post relevant comments that add to the conversation, and tweet and retweet the resources other people offer. By becoming a regular, reliable part of the conversation, you’ll put yourself top-of-mind for other people who are looking for interesting resources to follow or to distribute to their own community.
 
 This article originally appeared on Third Sector New England's site.
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