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OMG, STFU! How to Engage & Not Annoy Your Supporters Online

Posted by Brooke Binkowski on Aug 27, 2015 10:00:00 AM

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Engaging Nonprofit Supporters

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We are a generation of multitaskers, living in a world of non-stop distractions.

The kindest way to describe our attention spans in this era is “evolving.” Another way to put it is that there are always screens, ads, phone calls, text messages, emails, flashing and buzzing and competing for everyone's time and energy.

This means that there are a lot of unexpected challenges for nonprofits, especially when sometimes it feels as though the entire world is jumping up and down and clamoring for everyone's attention at any given time.

How do you keep supporters engaged in the digital nonprofit world? It may seem like a crapshoot, because you're just a lone drop in a veritable sea of information, but the truth is that you really can set yourself and your message apart, and you don't necessarily need a lot of bells and whistles to do it.

First, a presence on the web, social media, and email is important. It just makes it a lot more difficult to find you if you maintain a totally analog presence. Not having an online presence is akin to moving your office into a building and not putting a sign up, which is all very well if you don't want to be found, but you probably do or you wouldn't be reading this.


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Clean website design and structure is also important, as is having a good copywriter and proofreader. Nothing weakens a great message like distracting, irrelevant typos, and there's always going to be someone out there criticizing your spelling. It's the internet, after all.

But while a well-developed online presence with clean writing and web design is crucial for nonprofits that want to disseminate their message in the digital world, that's just surface stuff. Once you learn it, it's relatively easy to maintain and keep updated. The real work is in your actual content and message. Assuming you have decided on your specific goal and message, here's what you need to keep in mind in order to get people to get involved and stay engaged.

Stay in touch, but not too much

Send out email updates and calls for engagement, but valuing quality over quantity, no matter what marketing and content mavens might tell you, is essential. The time of day, the keywords you use, the titles of your emails – all these things are important to varying degrees, but not as important as ensuring that every time you send something out to supporters, they'll actually read it because they know it will be something good. People won't forget about you – they sought you out to support you for a reason, after all.

Be interesting and relevant

On a personal level – do you know the people who #hashtag #everything, humblebrag, and put up photos of every meal? Don't be that person! Be a source for news and information about your field, not a walking ad campaign. We are fully into the age of content, which is a double-edged sword. If content is ubiquitous, quality content is, and will always be, king. And be reliable – while you really may truly believe that the moon landing may have been faked by reptile people, ask yourself – is that relevant to your nonprofit's message? And even if it is, do you really want to spend precious time defending that perspective?

That dovetails with the next commandment of engagement…

Don't be personally controversial

Don't be the story. There's absolutely nothing wrong with controversy and talking about controversial issues, especially if the support you're trying to rally is around a seriously controversial issue (as it so often is!) But if you're getting people to foam at the mouth just because you think it's funny or because you like the web traffic, or you are fighting with people online, you're going off-brand and just plain being obnoxious (see #2.) Also, that, once again, takes your valuable time away from the real work that you need to do.

The other problem with controversy and confrontational behavior, both online and off, is that while some people may enjoy it, in the end it turns off more potential supporters than it keeps around. It's difficult to gain trust by yelling at people. Again, it may be truly tempting sometimes, because it seems like so many people get so far just by being loud and in your face, but if you want to build lasting, long-term, loyal relationships with supporters who trust and respect you, it's not the way to go.

And last but not least, the most important commandment of keeping supporters engaged in the digital world. Above all, give your supporters the tools to help. You've identified the problem, you've updated them on what needs to be done in the long term and the short term, you've analyzed it – now tell them how they can help. Tell them how supporting you helps them do something about it. Tell them your frustrations and tell them your successes. But tell them, most of all, how invaluable they are to the work that you do – because they are!

In the end, the world of digital engagement isn't really all that different from the real world, except for the way the message is delivered. People want to help, so make it easy for them to help you. Be engaged, be yourself, be kind, and be human, and that will go a long way to building a loyal base of supporters for whatever cause you and your nonprofit champion.

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Topics: Online giving, online fundraising, online activism

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