The following is an interview I did with Laura Quinn of Idealware on how non-profits can promote themselves online. You can read just the highlights of this interview at my FastCompany.com Expert Blog post, Five Things Non-Profits Can Do To Promote Themselves Online.
Rich: With me today is Laura Quinn of Idealware.
Laura, tell me a little bit about Idealware.
Laura: Idealware is a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide information to help other nonprofits make smart software decisions. We’re kind of a Consumer Reports for nonprofit software, if you will, or for those in the technology sector, kind of a Forrester or a Gartner to help nonprofits understand what is out there in the software realm and how to choose between different packages or different options at a high-level for what kind of software they can use.
Rich: You and I met while we were both doing presentations for some nonprofits. While we were there, we started talking about some of the things that nonprofits could do to promote themselves online.
Why don’t you share with us some of the ideas that you had about activities or things that nonprofits can do to help raise awareness of what they are doing through online channels?
Laura: I think that the most important thing for nonprofits to think about as they start to think about online promotion is to start with the fundamentals. I feel like there’s a lot of talk these days about social media techniques and stuff like that which can be really helpful. But if you skip past all of the other stuff, they’re not going to be nearly as helpful as if they would otherwise.
I would say that it’s really important to start fundamentally, as with any outreach or marketing, to think about what it is you want to say about yourself and what it is that you’re going to actually promote. Are you promoting your organization as a whole? Are you promoting a particular event? Are you promoting a particular campaign? It’s often easier to promote something in particular rather than just, “Hey, we’re here! We exist!”
If you have a sense of what you’re promoting, then make sure you have a good online home base for that, which is typically a website. Make sure that there’s someplace that people can go to get all the good background information.
Rich: So you create your home base, and as you said, it’s most likely going to be a website. How do you let people know that you’ve got this website out there?
Laura: I would personally start with thinking through search engine optimization and ways to help people find you through things like Google search or Yahoo search, so thinking through all the great search engine optimization techniques like keyword optimization. For folks not familiar with search engine optimization, it means a lot of techniques that have to do with figuring out what specific keywords you want people to use to find you in search engines and then placing them strategically on your site.
Nonprofits have a huge advantage in this realm because they can take advantage of Google’s Google Grants program for qualified nonprofits. It’s not a competitive program where they pit nonprofits against each other and decide who to support, but they do have a set of criteria that they use to vet nonprofits.
If you, as a qualified nonprofit, fit their criteria, they give free Google ads to these nonprofits, meaning that when someone searches for particular keywords in Google, your ad will show up on the right-hand side and allow you to direct people to your site for a particular thing. For instance, you could say, “Middle East Peace.” Those are keywords that I care about and want people to see. “Want to support Middle East Peace? Go to MiddleEastPeace.org,” would appear on the right-hand side.
Google Grants provides lots and lots of free Google ads, more money in Google ads money than a small nonprofit is likely to ever spend. So that’s a terrific opportunity.
Rich: Do you have any kind of guidelines in terms of what they’re looking for when they’re vetting nonprofits in this arena? Are there some hard and fast rules or is it kind of touchy-feely?
Laura: It’s somewhere in between. My impression is that they have fairly hard and fast rules, but they don’t really want to share them.
Rich: They don’t want to show you the “Teacher’s Edition.”
Laura: Exactly. One of the things that has become clear just from looking at who seems to be getting approved and who isn’t is that they’re concerned about nonprofits that have religious affiliations that seem to be supporting particular religious communities even on a very broad base. For instance, UJC, the Jewish communities, have often not been approved.
They also seem to be concerned about folks with any kind of vague political affiliation. Some people don’t really recognize their political affiliations, but it seems like Google does.
In general, it seems that there are a couple of other things going on there which aren’t quite clear. Some folks say, “I’ve been declined. I have no idea why.” But, in general, they do approve a lot more than they decline.
It’s also a very easy application process. It’s probably not more than half an hour to an hour to apply, so it’s definitely worth applying. I would say, in fact, it’s definitely worth applying even if you do have clear religious or political affiliations in kind of the off chance that you’ll be approved.
Rich: Obviously, there are a lot of people who are very active online already in conversations. What can a nonprofit do in terms of getting involved in that kind of arena?
Laura: I think that that’s a great first step in getting involved in social media in the online arena. I think that a lot of people skip straight to, “Well, what should I do to create my community or create conversations?”
I think that it tends to be a little more cost effective, and also it’s kind of just a nice way to get your feet wet, to look into the online conversations that are already taking place. Look at what blogs are there that are related to your subject matter that you can read, get to know, start to comment on and start to get familiar with that community and maybe form a relationship with a blogger.
What online communities are out there like forums or discussion boards or groups on social networking sites like LinkedIn or Facebook can you find and get involved in?
Email discussion lists are actually one that people frequently overlook. There are tons of email discussion lists and likely there are some out there about any specific nonprofit cause and they’re a great way to start to meet some of the people who are obviously involved in those communities. Gently, of course, talk to them about the issues that are important to you.
It’s really important in any of these online communities that you not appear to be swooping in and evangelizing your nonprofit, but rather you’re participating in a conversation like a human.
Rich: That’s great advice for ongoing conversations, but what if somebody wants to start their own conversation? What are some of your thoughts on that?
Laura: That’s definitely worth thinking through and worth doing. I would say that the first step in trying to have a broad online outreach and broad appeal to have people talk about you is to create stuff that’s worth talking about. Think about what it is that you could provide that would really be a conversation starter and that would encourage your own supporters to pass information on to their friends and that would start chatter among people who are interested in your cause.
I’m not quite sure why, but my experience is that a lot of people’s minds immediately go to video in this realm. I think that video can be very interesting and it certainly tends to be quite engaging, which I think is one of the reasons why people think about it. But it also tends to be fairly expensive to put together if you don’t have it already.
So maybe start down from there. Think through what are the really compelling stories you could tell. What are the really compelling actual kinds of services that you could provide somebody? So if you’re Friends of the Lake Association Group, maybe you can provide a calendar of events around the lake or maybe you could provide the “picture of the month” about the lake. What can you provide that would really be of keen interest to folks who are likely to be interested in your cause? Think of that as the start to your online outreach.
Basically, have something that you hope people will be interested in and gives them something to talk about.
Rich: Obviously, social media is the shiny new object that everybody wants to talk about. You and I both agree that it has to be part of a bigger message.
Let’s talk for a minute about social media. What can nonprofits do in social media that’s going to help increase their visibility and help them reach more people?
Laura: I think that a lot of the social media techniques are very helpful for doing that. We’re actually in the midst of a bunch of research right now to try to figure out exactly what and how.
Some of the ones that are pretty clearly useful for a lot of nonprofits—actually, I would start with Twitter, which I wouldn’t have believed six months ago I would be listing as one of my top most effective social media techniques.
Twitter has been shown to be really very useful in terms of reaching out to a targeted community and having a conversation with them about things that are of interest. Actually, people will take action off of Twitter, so if you’re trying to promote a campaign or trying to advertise an event, it can be a really interesting way to reach people and to over time start conversations and build community around your issue.
Facebook is another obvious one. It tends to be a little more of an investment than Twitter. As opposed to Twitter, which feels a little more like kind of one-off dialogue, you can use it in a bit more of a broadcast way without ruining the effect.
Facebook wants to be much more interactive and it tends to be a fair amount of work to try to engage people on a Facebook profile and try to get them interacting and interested in what you’re doing. People are finding it a little more challenging to actually move them to action off of Facebook. But it can be a really interesting way.
Both Twitter and Facebook have what we call the “network effect” where you can put something out or you can ask a question or make a statement to your own community and it can easily travel beyond your community. In Twitter, there’s a big culture of retweeting. In Facebook, there’s this idea that friends can see what their friends have done, including, for instance, they signed up for your cause or they posted something on your Wall. So that can be a really interesting way to have your message spread from folks that you know to the friends of your friends who are likely to be people who hopefully are somewhat similarly aligned.
There are a bunch of other techniques that one can be thinking through as well. Blogs are an interesting technique. Blogs for nonprofits tend to depend a bit on what specifically you’re doing as an organization and how you want to brand yourself. If you have good writers on staff and particularly you have writers that you’re trying to brand as experts for the media, blogs can be a really great way to do that.
For organizations that don’t have quite as much of a writing culture—for instance, if you are serving autistic preschoolers—the time commitment can be pretty darn daunting with a blog and it might be useful to look to other techniques.
Also, something that we like the idea of a lot is to engage volunteers in the field or staff who essentially volunteer their time to create that blog for you.
For instance, there’s an organization called Interplast which does reconstructive plastic surgery. They work with cleft palates and stuff like that in third-world countries. They have this tremendous series of blogs where their actual volunteer plastic surgeons are blogging about the “before and after” and the people that they’re working with and what happens and how the surgery changes their life, which is just an amazing thing to have documenting the work that they’re doing in the field and how their work actually changes lives. There’ll come this whole set of stories.
Rich: That’s some great information. Why don’t you tell us some of the stuff that’s going on with Idealware now and where we can find you online?
Laura: Idealware, as I mentioned, is all about research and information.
We’re actually doing a couple of projects right now which should actually be very much in line with this conversation we’re having. We are in the midst, as I mentioned briefly, of a fairly deep set of research into social media techniques to understand what techniques are actually useful for what goals and in what situations to be able to create a social media decision guide for nonprofits to help them decide, “Should we have a Facebook presence? Should we have a blog? How much time is that likely to take? What results am I likely to see from that stuff?”
That’s really exciting and that’s in the early stages still. That will probably be summer when that it is out and we’re excited for that.
In the meantime, we publish about two articles a month, so we have a lot of new information on both social media and the more traditional back office. We run the whole gamut of software areas.
Just today, we are kicking off a campaign for our Idealware Research Fund. It’s a fund to provide seed money to allow us to do research into a lot of these core areas for nonprofits that we’ve been finding a bit challenging to fund in the more traditional nonprofit marketplace which tend to be things like foundations and foundation grants and stuff like that.
The Idealware Research Fund will allow us to take on more flexibly the core needs of nonprofits without the lag and the lead time for other types of funding. We’re really excited about that. If you go to our website www.Idealware.org, you will see on our home page more details about the research fund and ways that you can help. We’re looking to raise $15,000 by the end of the year, so we’re really excited about that.
Rich: Laura, thank you very much. I appreciate your time today.