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Nancy Schwartz 9 min read

There’s More to Marketing than Social Media

I’m facing a difficult challenge and would love to hear your ideas.

The challenge was seeded years ago, as soon as social media began to take the nonprofit world by storm. I treasured (and still do) the vitality and vibrancy of blogging to generate succinct, timely content and discussions. That’s why in 2005 I launched the GettingAttention.org blog to complement our long-form e-news articles.

But as we’ve been deluged by social media tools, I’m concerned to see nonprofit marketers forsake the basics to do all social media, all the time. 

I get it.

It’s hard to resist jumping on what’s hot. Social media is practically all you hear from marketing experts and nonprofit leaders alike. So much so that many nonprofit leaders have social media fever and pressure their teams to jump in, even if they don’t really understand what the “in” is.

This human services agency is using Facebook’s “safe space” to build awareness of its family violence prevention services. That international aid organization is bringing front-line stories of its far-away work to supporters back home via online video. An online organizing superstar dramatically increases email list counts and quality for his client organizations via social-media advocacy campaigns.

It’s incredibly seductive. Lots of success stories, lots of experimentation and lots of attention. Finally we communicators are on the leading edge! That’s why so many of you spend a huge percentage of their time learning and implementing social media tools.

Don’t get me wrong. The excitement generated by these tools has dramatically changed the marketing landscape and invigorated our field. And I do value the distinctive benefits of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and other tools for GettingAttention.org and for nonprofit clients.

But they should never lead your marketing agenda. Your intense social media focus all too often comes at the expense of nonprofit marketing basics.

The basics are your route to breakthrough marketing—beginning with a thorough, realistic but ambitious marketing plan defining your org’s steps to make the most of what your organization has to offer in a way that connects with the supporters you need to engage.

Social media tools won’t do that. Marketing basics—from getting to know your audience, planning your path, crafting meaningful, memorable messaging that connects their wants and yours, defining the best ways (likely to include social media plus “traditional” online channels such as email and your website, and offline outreach as well) to engage those folks in productive conversation and action, and measuring the impact of your work—will.

Here’s the dilemma. Many times when I talk marketing basics to nonprofits I get a nod, but that’s about it. I’d say that it’s only half the time that I succeed in convincing a nonprofit marketer that basics come first, social media second or even third; or find one who agrees with me. But these are the folks who report dramatic marketing wins to me down the line.

That leaves at least half of you who are missing out on your nonprofit marketing potential.

In the last two months, others I respect greatly have articulated the same perspective.  Social media wizard Chris Brogan highlighted the problem with social-only nonprofit campaigns, cautioning us to avoid littering the online communications landscape.  MarketingProfs contributor Elaine Fogel asked Isn’t Anyone Using Offline Marketing Anymore?

Most significantly, nonprofit innovators Beth Kanter (the nonprofit social media guru) and Allison Fine published The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, in which they position social media as a principle means, not the end, for effective nonprofit operations today.

Chris, Elaine, Beth and Allison all say that social media tools are just that, tools. And warn of the dangers of mistaking them for strategies. But despite the fact that the choir is growing, I bet many of you remain skeptical that there’s much more important right now nonprofit marketing wise than finding ways to use social media to advance your organization’s mission.

I want to ask for your help…

For those of you who believe in the value of marketing basics, and maintain them at the core of your nonprofit marketing work: Why do you do so in the face of so many social media options? How do you respond to leadership and colleague pressure to do more with social media when your resources are already limited? How can build understanding among our peers that the basics must come first?

For those of you feel that social media is your MOST important focus now: Please tell me how you decide what to do social media wise and how you evaluate your results. How do you communicate effectively without having to tackle the marketing basics I rely on?

What I know is that there’s no single way to do it right. But I also know that a lot that’s been done before is the right way to go, even in the shadow of glittering new tools. Baby and bathwater; we can have it all. Your suggestions will help.

Thanks, in advance for sharing your thoughts. I’ll share your feedback with the nonprofit marketing community.


Nancy E. Schwartz helps nonprofits succeed through effective marketing and communications.  Nancy and her team provide marketing planning and implementation services to nonprofit organizations and foundations nationwide. She is the publisher of the Getting Attention e-update and blog. For more nonprofit marketing guidance like this, subscribe to her e-update.

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