In 2010, Beatbullying saw its profile soar with the success of its Big March. The virtual protest for children's rights involved more than 750,000 supporters creating avatars - digital representations - to march across the websites of 63 partners to show their opposition to bullying.
While some charities have been slow to embrace the potential of social networking, the campaign serves as proof of how having a well thought-out social media policy can be immensely powerful for a charity's brand.
Sarah Dyer (right), director of new media at Beatbullying, says: "Last year we found out that individual fundraising grew by just under 200 per cent as a result of young people getting involved with Beatbullying on social networking sites. First they interacted, then they went out and made money for us."
Such social media initiatives are not restricted to charities with large budgets. Jude Habib, founder of digital media training company sounddelivery, believes that social media provides opportunities for charities of all sizes.
"Smaller organisations needn't look at what larger charities such as Save the Children are doing and compare themselves, but instead find out what will work for them," she says. "Facebook and Twitter are a great opportunity for small community groups, for example, because they give them a chance to get their opinions heard."
But charities need to proceed with caution when using social media. Habib cites an unnamed charity that created a podcast that it sent out to 16,000 supporters as an example of what can go wrong. "The podcast was terrible and might have really damaged its brand," she says.
To help organisations make the most of social media and avoid the pitfalls, there is now a range of training on offer to charities. These include courses that provide a general overview of social media to those offering specialist training in areas such as Twitter, Facebook and podcasting. The Media Trust, a charity that offers communications support to third sector organisations, runs Social Media Essentials, a three-hour introductory session covering the basics of social media.
Participants in the course are taught how to use Facebook and Twitter, among other social media sites, how to identify their audiences and find them online, and how to set achievable goals, through group work and practical exercises. The course costs between £75 and £150 depending on the charity's turnover.
The trust also offers specialist training in podcasts and the use of the photo-sharing website Flickr. Gavin Sheppard, marketing director at The Media Trust, says: "These other social media are often overlooked in strategy. It is difficult to be present on every social media site, but it is worth exploring sites other than Facebook and Twitter because your audience might be more prevalent on those."
When deciding to provide staff with social media training, Habib says, the factors that charities should consider include whether it is best to send staff to seminars or workshop-based courses, how many people there will be per computer on courses and the experience of the trainer running the session. "There are all types of training courses around, so have a look and see what would suit your charity," says Habib.
Charities will also need to identify which members of staff are best placed to undergo social media training. Vicky Browning (right), director at CharityComms, the professional membership body for charity communications staff, says a common mistake charities make is choosing a single member of staff to take responsibility for an organisation's online presence.
She believes that staff from across the organisation should be involved: "It shouldn't be a ghetto activity, but something everyone is aware of and involved with. It's always important to get senior management on board as much as possible."
Nevertheless, she feels it can be a good idea to appoint a single champion to inspire others.
At Beatbullying, Dyer says that responsibility for using social media was initially limited to two members of staff. Now all of its staff are trained in using websites including Facebook and Twitter. "We decided to shift our strategy and make using social media cross-departmental," she says. "We have numerous audiences of different ages and they can be found on different social media sites, so we identified the members of staff who were best placed to oversee them."
To prepare for this change, the charity decided to train its staff internally using in-house personnel rather than bring in an external training company. "We have learned a lot from the campaigns we have done and decided to use our own expertise to inform all members of staff," explains Dyer.
But before taking that first virtual step online, an organisation needs to understand the commitment involved, says Chris Smith, founder of Ecotube, a social media training company. He says: "The internet is filled with what I call 'digital litter' - websites that were set up and abandoned. So be prepared to continue what you've started. Be authentic and don't just spam. It's a great way of connecting with people."
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