Charities and Social Media Networks – The Reality?

A post by director Paul Fennemore.

Online social networks are all about self-organised communities, organically formed by people who share an interest. Charities are all about communities of people who share an interest. There’s a clue here; if you are a large international charity or on a one man crusade, the recommendations in this article will be have value, but this article is not about all the usual hype surrounding social media, it’s based on facts.

The different factions that charities are made up of face challenges as to how to build communities, keep them engaged, motivated, informed and acknowledged day in and day out, and that’s exactly what social media networks serve to do.  This means that, in theory at least, social networks should the perfect medium for charities. The question is then, how do charities get the best out of online networks?

The truth is, setting up a LinkedIn or Facebook account and posting the odd Twitter update isn’t going to do it for you. In fact, reckless link-sharing and irrelevant or uninspired updates and blogs can do your reputation more harm than good. Anyway, everybody’s on Twitter now, a six year old could set this all up for you if this is what you want from your social media marketing strategy.

Social network users are rightly precious about their social space and they are becoming savvier. They don’t like overt advertising where they are ‘hanging out’. They don’t like being asked outright to donate and they can spot covert marketing ploys a digital mile away. In fact, of the 30 charities I interviewed for an Oxford University research project, many of them reported that they saw a direct correlation between asking outright for donations on social networks and the numbers of fans or followers dropping off – sometimes, in their hundreds. So what are the alternatives?

Remember RIMER™

The first thing to do when employing social media, like anything, is to understand them. There are thousands of networks out there, for every conceivable topic that the human race is interested in; some open, some closed or in ‘walled gardens’. Also, many of the most effective network communities are not LinkedIn or Facebook, but those created and hosted by organisations such as charities and major brands like Starbucks (9 million users), Skittles (6.4 million), Coca-cola (7.3 million), Red Bull (6 million).  These brands understand social networks.

I sum up the main features of social networks using my acronym RIMER™. RIMER stands for R = Real-time, I = Interactive, M = Multimedia, E = Engagement with Everyone and R = Reach.  There is no other marketing and communication channel that offers all of these features. To get social networks to work for your charity is it key to use all of these features.


R = Real-time

‘Real-time’ means you can find out what your communities are thinking and doing and join in with them instantly. Remember, the internet means that we live in the ‘Now Society’. Consumers now expect responses from their brands in an hour but you need to be there with them to do so.

I = Interactive

‘Interactivity’ allows you to have conversations with your communities and move from broadcasting, display ads, e-mail blasts and general spray and pray marketing to relating to people individually.  Traditional demographic and psychographic market segmentation strategies used by bigger firms are not that relevant in the blogosphere.

M = Multimedia

Like never before, social multimedia gives charities the scope to gain the attention of their communities at a low cost with highly compelling multi-media formats.  Videos on social networks tend to be more effective when they are honest and not polished. Check out the Best Buy videos on YouTube and Vimeo – they are simple but very effective, with millions of hits producing a far reaching viral effect. One mid-size charity I interviewed doubled their income in one quarter, primarily due to a video showing the results of the funds they gave to cause in South America. Whilst videos are the most engaging, don’t forget micro-blogs, blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds, web TV and radio, webinars, smartphone apps, widgets, wikis, forums, walls, social bookmarks, Skype, 3D virtual worlds and the most important of them all, user generated content. Confused and worried? You are not alone, but help is at hand.

E = Engagement/Everyone

‘Engagement’ is about being able to gain the attention of your audiences by supporting, encouraging, acknowledging their efforts and getting their ideas and suggestions.  Many firms have learnt to be brave enough to hand over the control of their brand to their consumers by asking them to vote, to get their ideas, to suggest the design of a campaign logo or tee shirts. This technique (sometimes known as the ‘prosumer’) involves your community members and makes them feel some ownership of your brand or cause nurturing brand or cause advocacy. Dell, for example, runs Dell Ideastorm which has had 16,000 ideas posted, with 442 ideas having been implemented. It doesn’t matter what size company you are, you can do similar things.  Charities are starting to use social networks to ask their communities to vote on where their funds should be assigned which is also a great example of engagement.

One charity I interviewed gets 30% of their income from marathon fundraisers. Until they started using social networks their marathon runners set off and run alone, not knowing who else was running for the same cause. Now all the runners are connected online by a community blog hosted by the charity.  On marathon day, the runners meet up at the same point and hundreds set off and run together, fostering a kindred spirit. They post their pictures as they run via their smartphones (real-time) and afterwards they share their tales of joy and woe. Since using this technique, the charity has considerably increased the number of runners (fundraisers) and has more of the same people running each year.




R= Reach

Lastly, we have ‘Reach’.  There are no geographical or temporal boundaries in the web, and social networks provide unlimited reach. This is a very powerful feature and creates the scope to stretch out your market reach, build your communities and knit them together, connecting donors with benefactors with sponsors with volunteers and so on. The issue of course is that this gives the more ambitious charities the scope to operate internationally and chase after the same wallets as the local charities, so watch your back door.

Smart and not so smart practices

Code of Conduct Policy

You need a code of conduct for all members of your communities.  It is important for your social places to be open and transparent and not overly moderated, as participants tend to back off if you impose restrictions.  However, this leaves you exposed to inappropriate comments or employees and associates using the wrong ‘tone of voice’. I have seen examples of even very large organisations not setting in place a code of conduct policy and regretting it later.  Some charities have closed down their social sites in a panic reaction to tactless or obscene posts, but ended up getting more bad press from the community as result of shutting down the site than they did from the bad posts.

It takes some courage, but you should allow your communities to self regulate. If someone is making inappropriate posts you will find that other participants will ‘shout’ them down and do the job for you. Remember, online communities are owned by the community members not you. Charities should act as the community catalyst and host, facilitating, informing and supporting but not controlling. Avoid corporate or official responses, be sociable and personable.  A list of guidelines can be found at For a good example take look at the Red Cross handbook.


Every good marketer will have a marketing strategy and social media needs to be folded into it.  My research finds that social media initiatives are much productive when used to support and integrated with marketing programs online and off-line.

Decide what networks are the most appropriate for your business. LinkedIn is for business users, Twitter is an information network, Facebook is for communities of friends and now allows company sites and has a special site for charities, MySpace is declining and is mainly for music, and Meetup is good for community building.  Look up the top 15 sites on the web via Google. If you are an international business there are different networks for different countries. China uses QZone, Brazil and India use Orkut, Mixi for Japan, Baboo in Itlay, Russians use V Knotakte.  It is important to know where your audiences are ‘hanging out,’ get involved in those sites and discover and nurture the ‘community or cause evangelists’.


Make Your Web Site Social

Is your web site a dead end in the desert or a busy intersection in an oasis?  Static, magazine format web sites are yesterday. Create your own social space by making your web site social.  Set up your own blog page, set up links to your social network pages and makes sure you have ‘follow us’ buttons clearly presented and promote your blog site community on all communications on and off line.  But once you start don’t stop. Keep your content fresh and frequent. Get automatic feeds into your site to save you time. As an example, check out my daily news paper which is done entirely automatically aggregating posts from Twitter and costs nothing

Also think ‘Social’ Engine Optimisation and not Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Make sure your content on all social sites is using the same metatags or keywords throughout. The more links you have to the most influential blogs and web sites the higher your search engine rankings. All this will drive traffic to your web site and landing pages.


Investment – Is Social Media Marketing Free?

The biggest mistake firms make is assuming that social media marketing is free. A myth often propagated by self-professed social media gurus.

Investment of knowledge, skill and time is required.  Larger firms are finding that using an intern to handle what turned out to be their most exposed communications channel is not good enough. Companies need the right skills, such as community managers who know about marketing, brand reputation, social networks and listening and monitoring technologies.

However, small charities can nevertheless use social networks to good effect providing they invest the time. Say ½ hour each day to post and maybe a couple of hours a week to refresh their web site blog page.

Listen, Monitor and Measure

There is a bewildering array of social network monitoring tools. Some are free and others cost tens of thousands of pounds a year. If you’re not measuring the return on your investments and findings ways to improve your efforts then you may be wasting your time and money.

Small companies can use free or low cost tools such as Google Analytics, MentionMe or Hootsuite. Larger companies are listening and tracking brand sentiment and service reputation with sophisticated surveillance systems, but whatever you do listen, manage, respond, learn and improve.

In conclusion, charities stand to gain the most from social media networks. In the USA many are already ahead with their thinking than the for-profit business sector.  Charities can start with their own blog linking it to their accounts on Facebook, Twitter and online services such as JustGiving.  But this is not enough, in order not lose out it is important to invest time in understanding and getting the best from the RIMER features of social media networks.

Paul Fennemore is the Managing Partner of ViaPoint. Viapoint is the leading social media network services firm. Paul holds an MSc in Digital Marketing from Oxford University where he researched social networks. Paul is publishing academic journal articles on social media with Oxford Brookes and has started to lecture on the topic at Henley Business School. Paul is often called up to speak at main conferences and seminars.  Tel: 01869 345579