The numbers are important—likes, follows, retweets all show that your audience is paying attention—but it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that numbers are the goal when what you really want is bigger. Engagement—interaction that is meaningful and furthers your organization’s impact—is what your communications need to deliver.

So how do you do it? How do you develop relationships online that your viewers just can’t quit? Following are two case studies of small organizations that are developing engagement strategies that go beyond the usual Facebook post or email blast to generate a virtuous cycle of content, engagement, and contributions. For both organizations, the basic rules are the same:

  • Understand your audience and give them what they want (not just what you think you want them to have).
  • Develop a strategy that outlines tangible steps toward reaching your goals.Use the numbers to learn what works and what doesn’t and keep testing and learning over time.
  • Give them a read and think about how you can apply the lessons they’ve learned to your own nonprofit’s strategies.

The Oregon Environmental Council (Portland, OR)

When Marketing Director Simon Tam joined the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC), he noticed its communications were full of mountains, rivers, and beaches. What was missing? People.

Oregon’s oldest statewide environmental organization assumed what a lot of environmental organizations assume—that environmentalists are motivated by the beauty of natural places. That theory isn’t entirely wrong, but what Tam discovered is that it’s also leaving out a much bigger motivating force. People care about more than just the aesthetic enjoyment of wide-open spaces. Anyone who saw the Cuyahoga River on fire or has a child with lead poisoning from the paint in their house or saw their home burn down in one of the massive forest fires of the past decade knows that when we make decisions about our environment, people’s lives are on the line. OEC needed to make a change.

People-Centered Communications
OEC’s approach today puts forward a diverse range of faces and connects its audience to people who have a story to tell about living in Oregon.

“We want to go beyond just informing people,” Tam said. “We want to tell personal narratives that draw people in.” The idea behind this approach is simple. Good content that viewers can care about will help OEC reach its goals. Compelling stories make viewers want to stay close to the organization, to be part of it in some way.

Tam capitalizes on this instinct in a number of different ways. He posts content to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook often and actively comments on and shares user content. He also makes sure to note which viewers are most active on social media and reaches out to them directly to ask them to share their stories.

“You shouldn’t be shy, or afraid of making the ask to share a post or retweet something,” Tam said.

The personality of OEC is also a big part of making the organization’s online presence interesting and welcoming to its audience. Tam encourages other marketing or communications directors to “show some flair.” “You have to give them a reason to feel something,” he said.

Mapping OEC’s Success
OEC’s communications strategy starts with reviewing the organization’s goals and thinking through the steps along the path to get there. Then, with those goals in mind, Tam works with subject matter experts to plan out specific pieces of content with an angle that puts the audience first. It’s this balance between OEC’s needs and the needs of its audience that provides the clearest path to success. “We have to ask ourselves, if we want them to form a deeper relationship with our organization, what would it take?” said Tam.

OEC’s approach to social media is often more improvisational. Tam works in unplanned social media content so that OEC can be part of real-time conversations happening across the state. However, these on-the-fly posts are created within the framework of the larger strategy.

Before a new campaign, his team spends a lot of time thinking about the audience experience. What’s the next step after basic awareness? How can one comment lead to attending a meeting or giving a donation? Tam and his team create journey maps that chart every hypothetical interaction with the viewer and plans out how each viewer will progress from general awareness of a topic to active support and deep engagement.

Tam says you need to keep planning for how you’re going to move your viewers forward. “You should always include in your content a clear ask and a call to action,” he said. “Always try to think through what the end goal is. There has to be a point.”

OEC uses the Salesforce Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) system to track its many donors, members, constituents, and partners. This system is an important part of the planning process. Knowing who your audience is and segmenting them into meaningful categories help improve the effectiveness of emails and other targeted communications. According to Tam, the key to building a list is knowing your goal. For example, if you need momentum on a particular piece of legislation, your list should be made up of people who have expressed interest on that particular issue or have complementary experiences. Then the call to action can be clear—sign this petition to support this issue.

Experimenting and Learning

Metrics are an important part of measuring the success of your communications. OEC uses Sprout Social to manage its social media posts and looks once a week at the analytics it provides.

This easy access to in-depth analytical tools frees up OEC to experiment with different kinds of content. Tam often posts the same link with different messages or images to learn what OEC’s audience responds to most strongly. He also experiments with post timing and frequency. The data he gathers on each of these posts help him revise his strategy and inform future campaigns. “You need to learn how to use your metrics in a way that’s meaningful,” Tam said.

For Tam and OEC, it’s important not to get too focused on raw numbers or to get complacent with something that worked once. For example, image posts on Facebook had been very effective, but recently he’s discovering that other kinds of media, especially video, are getting more clicks. What Tam discovers as he continues to experiment and learn is that the platforms, and how OEC’s audience uses them, are always changing and OEC has to be ready to change with them.

Tam’s vision is to make OEC a place where every Oregonian can go for engaging content that shows what’s at stake for them and the people they care about. His team’s strategy continues to push OEC closer to that goal.

National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (Washington, DC)

The National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD) was founded in 1992 to represent the chief state health agencies across the U.S. As a member organization with a small and clearly defined membership, it initially did not make communications a high priority. In fact, until a few years ago, it had no dedicated communications staff.

What changed, according to Meico Whitlock, Associate Director of Communications, is the growing recognition that to solve a global problem, you have to reach out to the world.

Today, NASTAD is a prominent voice in the movement to strengthen leadership, expertise, and advocacy to reduce HIV and viral hepatitis and provide care to those affected.

“A lot of what we do is translating really technical policy into practical steps for health department staff,” said Whitlock.

Recognizing its Audiences
NASTAD has two distinct audiences with very different needs. Its members look to it to provide valuable information to support its work, including publishing reports, leading trainings, alerting them to political action and advocacy progress, and providing technical assistance. But other organizations, funders, and many millions of concerned citizens are also following HIV issues and look to NASTAD to provide the latest news in the fight against these deadly infections.

For Whitlock, the different audiences mean that he needs to reach out to each one in a unique way. To reach partners, funders, and the public, social media is often the best method. For example, he sets up Twitter chats with various partner groups to get real-time feedback on NASTAD’s work. He even opened up NASTAD’s annual report on Twitter and invited commentary from a diverse group of individuals. By making all interested and engaged individuals active members in the creation and refinement of its content, NASTAD is building strong alliances that can support future work.

However, Whitlock has learned that health department and other government employees don’t spend time on social media throughout the day. Whitlock has found that email is the best way to reach this audience because they are often on the go and are very reliant on their BlackBerry devices. Now, when Whitlock needs to send an urgent message to rally support with a government employee audience, he sends targeted emails with direct subject lines and clear calls to action.

Whitlock also strives to learn from his audience and tailor content to its needs. He monitors who is clicking, what’s being shared, what questions come up, and what debates seem most heated. “We try to find out what people understand and don’t understand, then create materials responsively,” Whitlock said.

Developing a Strategy
“Your communications won’t really make any difference if you don’t have a strategy,” Whitlock said. “You have to know who your audience is, what you’re trying to achieve, and how you measure success.

”Whitlock works closely with staff to learn about their work, find opportunities to communicate valuable content to NASTAD’s audiences, and develop a strategy based on that knowledge. He leads regular staff meetings and manages a publication calendar that builds on the product schedule of NASTAD’s different programs.

His organization is also in the process of moving constituent data from spreadsheets to its Salesforce CRM and uses Sprout Social and Hootsuite to manage and track social media posts. These tools allow him to recognize patterns in how his audience interacts with NASTAD and come up with new tactics to further develop his audience-focused strategy.

Whitlock is also leading an organization-wide effort to think through the audience journey and what conversion—a frequently-used sales term that is shorthand for the moment the consumer decides to buy—looks like for NASTAD.

One way his team already works to deepen engagement is by following an engagement checklist. The checklist includes simple tactics such as making sure new Twitter followers get a thank you and that comments get a timely response. By making these small efforts to keep lines of communication open, Whitlock and his team are setting a foundation for long-term engagement with his organization.

Measuring Success
The primary measure of success at NASTAD is direct feedback from members, but Whitlock has also won some important victories through his organization’s communications. NASTAD recently negotiated a discount with a large drug company and used its voice in the community to spread awareness of this monumental success and pressure other drug companies to come to the negotiating table.

Whitlock has also noted that many more government and foundation funders have set up meetings and proposed ways they might partner with NASTAD as the organization’s communications have improved. In fact, they often cite publications and social media posts as a central reason why they want to work with the organization. These are just a few ways that NASTAD’s communications strategy is producing tangible results.

NASTAD’s communications strategy is still in the process of being developed, but already Whitlock has established a strong foundation that is making NASTAD a compelling voice in the struggle to end HIV and hepatitis infections. In part, this is a result of Whitlock’s focus on the audience. “If you’re going for impact, it’s not enough to say you’re on Facebook and Twitter,” said Whitlock. “Engagement has to be defined by the audience.”

Further Reading

How Can My Nonprofit Expand Its Online Presence?, Grant Space
10 Online Engagement Ideas, The Nonprofit Times