Blogs, forums and other social media provide new ways for charities to get their messages across to the public. But they are a far cry from traditional PR, as Helen Barrett reports
Your charity is about to launch its biggest-ever campaign and the PR team has been briefing key journalists for weeks. But is it enough? What about your social media strategy?
More and more charities are including social media - coverage on blogs, forums and social networking websites - in their PR mix, and some are making it central to their campaigns. What's more, the art of managing, tracking and becoming part of conversations online is rapidly becoming a professional discipline, which has prompted some charities to hire outside experts to help them in this area.
Late last year, ActionAid joined a handful of charities on the books of social media agency We Are Social. The agency is working to influence opinion online as part of the charity's Hunger Free campaign. Its work includes persuading bloggers to mention the charity and the campaign, and monitoring how people talk on social networking sites about the hunger cause.
"We will be carrying out an audit of existing online conversations about hunger, then working out where ActionAid fits in," says Joanna Juber, digital engagement officer at the charity. "We've dipped a toe in social media marketing in the past few years, but this is the first time we've hired a bespoke agency. We hope ActionAid will become a facilitator for bloggers to talk about hunger."
But what will the agency actually do on ActionAid's behalf? Simon Collister, an account director at We Are Social, says: "We search the web for relevant names and keywords to see who's talking about the charity, and then we look at how influential those people are. That allows us to build up a picture of the charity's online presence. From there, we form a strategy for approaching bloggers and other influential people."
This process, he says, throws up surprising insights. For example, when Collister worked with a domestic violence charity that wanted to know where women were discussing personal violence online, he found most did not behave as everyone had assumed they would. "Women were not talking about their experiences on women's sites, but on parenting forums," he says. "And many of them hadn't realised they were experiencing domestic violence, so they weren't using the obvious keywords." Such information, says Collister, was useful to the organisation when it formed a strategy for approaching people online to offer its services and help.
But not every charity is happy to outsource the social media aspects of its campaigns. Amnesty International UK created its strategy in-house, and Fiona McLaren, online communities editor at the charity, is sceptical about the benefits of outsourcing such work. "I don't think we'll ever be in a position where we want an agency to be managing day-to-day comms with our supporters in social spaces," she says. "For social media to work for us, it needs to be understood and accepted as part of our work across the organisation."
Cancer Research UK is also making its first forays into social media marketing, but it prefers to concentrate on promoting fundraising events. The charity has recruited social media agency 1,000 Heads to help spread the word online about its Shine and Race for Life events.
As part of the campaign to promote Shine, a running race in Manchester due to take place in April, more than 100 people were asked by email to be online advocates for it. Michael Docherty, head of online marketing at the charity, says more than 40 of the 100 have pledged to talk about the event and the charity on Twitter, Facebook and their blogs. "We're trying to understand how beneficial this activity is compared with other marketing techniques," says Docherty. "Keeping up the momentum around the content requires resources, and we need to be sure it's as effective as display or pay-per-click advertising. The jury is out on how effective it is. But after the Race for Life finishes later this year, we expect to be more confident about whether it works or not."
Molly Flatt, who has the unusual job title of 'word-of-mouth evangelist' at 1,000 Heads, accepts that charities might be sceptical about social media marketing. But she points out that the methods for measuring the value of such work can be much more thorough than those available for other types of promotional activity. "You can see where people have talked about you and track those conversations," she says. "People are already talking about charities online, whether they are aware of it or not. We're just taking the next step by talking back."
For charities, building support on Facebook and Twitter is relatively straightforward compared with the challenge of approaching bloggers, a breed with a collective reputation for being fiercely independent. Leah Williams, community and social media manager at Breast Cancer Care, says conventional PR methods are usually ineffective with bloggers. "You have to approach them in a completely different way from journalists," she says. "I would never contact a blogger cold with a story, because they would not be receptive. They think of themselves as independent, and they openly complain about generic press releases. They want a personal approach because ultimately a blog is a personal thing."
Collister from We Are Social agrees: "It's true that press releases don't work. The trick is to build a good relationship. But in many ways, it's the same as approaching journalists. If you have a good enough story that resonates with what they are writing about, it's possible to achieve a good strike rate."
HOW A COMMERCIAL BRAND SPREAD THE WORD AMONG 'FANS'
Next month, Unilever will introduce a new variety of Marmite, Marmite XO, and social media marketing has played a key part in promoting it in advance of the launch.
The company hired agency We Are Social to identify about 40 people who had already written about the product on its Facebook fan page, on Twitter and on their blogs. These 'fans' were invited to a mysterious party in London with a Victorian theme in November last year.
When they arrived, they were inducted into the 'first circle of the Marmarati' - a club seeking new members to help create an extra strong version of Marmite. They were asked to taste three different recipes while blindfolded and were instructed to spread the word on social media sites and to recruit new members. The event was reported on key food blogs such as Hollow Legs and I Can Has Cook?
"We haven't monetised the value of the campaign, but we have measured its reach," says Tom Denyard, marketing manager for Marmite.
"In six weeks, we have reached 650,000 people through the Facebook page, blogs, Twitter and other channels. Social media is the right route for us. It allows us to have a conversation rather than present content, and it will form the bigger part of what we do in the future."