In my career I’ve managed the IT functions of several third sector organisations, and my work has given me plenty of exposure to the ways in which the web can be used to market a charity. I’ve seen and heard enough to form a balanced view of the potential benefits and pitfalls it offers.
Without question the digital age has opened up numerous opportunities for NGOs to enhance their reach, develop their brand and further their missions.
But it’s also true that a lot of charity money has been poured down a number of technology drains for little or no return.
Senior third sector management are naturally aware of the revolution that the wired society and social media have created, and it seems to me that many of those executives are terrified of missing the boat. As a result some have made poor decisions in haste.
There are certainly a very large number of "communications specialists" falling over themselves to pitch their ideas to NGOs for a juicy fee, offering to find a niche that they can use to make that charity stand out from the cyber crowd.
The old ways of reaching your target audience could be expensive and new media has offered a means of getting to those same supporters with little cost, so inevitably it’s very attractive to organisations whose marketing budgets are slim.
Obviously the one thing that every organisation has to have now is a website. At their most basic, websites are cheap to set up and cost little to maintain if you’re not looking to regularly update them.
But if you want your site to act as more than just a static repository containing key information about your organisation, you can end up spending potentially significant amounts of money on changing content and regular redesigns.
Pretty much every charity now has a Facebook page too. Again, setting it up takes little time, it’s free and the page can act as a great tool to get your message out to people. Content again is the issue – is it just there as a shop window or do you want it to be dynamic? If you do, the creation and management of that content is going to cost and you need to think about whether that will pay you back.
A charity I worked for had more than 100,000 likes and used Faceook as a tool to regularly inform people about campaigns, posting two or three status updates a week. That easily justified the fact that one person maintained that channel pretty much full time. Another charity I know employed a person full time to maintain its Facebook page. It had just 700 likes, which didn’t seem good value.
Remember that Facebook needs monitoring since not everyone will write nice things about you on your page, and some charities update their page so often that they can annoy those who have liked them.
Once you’ve invested in the content creation, particularly if it’s time sensitive news information, then of course Twitter and RSS feeds can be harnessed to get it out as far and wide as possible too. YouTube channels are starting to be used by larger charities, but again the costs involved in producing the content itself can be substantial.
The two biggest wastes of money I’ve seen involved a charity creating an immersive 360 degree platform to enable the viewer to virtually visit one of its operations. It cost a six figure sum to create, was heavily advertised and after an initial flurry, sank without trace. The same charity also spent a fortune building a presence in Second Life, which you may remember was the next big thing in 2008 but is now very much out of fashion. Those niches turned out to be cul-de-sacs.
At best, the internet is a low cost way of developing brand at minimal direct and indirect cost. At worst it’s a money pit with little tangible return.
Andrew Brenson is an IT consultant for the charity IT specialist itlab