Thursday, November 07, 2013

Strategic view: Q&A with Case Foundation communicator Allyson Burns

(Editor's note: I'm starting a new Q&A interview series on the blog, to bring you the strategic views of top communicators who are working creatively. Allyson Burns is senior vice president for communications and marketing at the Case Foundation, a leader in using social media creatively in the nonprofit sector. This year, she's one of the finalists for Washington Women in Public Relations' "PR Woman of the Year Award, which I was fortunate enough to win 10 years ago. We met as members of the nonprofit Communications Network a few years ago, as private foundations were beginning to consider how and whether to use social media. Since then, I've had an eye on the foundation's effort to provide technical assistance to grantee organizations as they, too, began incorporating social media. I asked Burns to share that approach and the insights she's gained.)

DGC: Go back to when you were considering how to use social media. What did you decide on as an approach, and how did you come to that decision?

Burns: I think we're in a somewhat unique position because our leadership have always been inolved in social media. Going back to the early days of AOL, they were involved in some of the early precursors to the online communities we use today, so to them, the idea of social media is inherent. When Facebook opened up to non dot-edu email addresses, Jean and Steve Case mandated that everyone on staff join Facebook, and when pages opened up, the foundation had one of the earliest Facebook pages. Steve joined Twitter early on and did it so much that at one point, people thought his account had been hacked--but it was just his frequency of sharing. That's now part of what we look for when we recruit new team members. We want everyone, the whole organization, to see the value and participate in the conversation on social media, not just communications.

In terms of extending our mission with social media, we started in 2007 with the America's Giving challenge. Our goal was to introduce to a wider audience the idea of micro-donations and donating online. We wanted to demonstrate to consumers that it was easy and safe, but also to introduce new platforms like Causes and leveraging social networks to raise awareness. We saw a real opportunity to help nonprofits get comfortable with these platforms for raising awareness, for communications, and for going where their supporters were. 

Did your grantees agree?

One piece of feedback we got from our grantees was "Boy, we sure could have used some training" before the America's Giving challenge. So in 2009, we launched a video series with folks who were experts in social media and marketing. Sarah Koch from Causes did one of the videos; today she's our director of social innovation. The reaction told us there's a huge appetite for this kind of help, and it was our first real eye-opener into opportunities to teach not just nonprofits but people in the sector writ large.  So we've created a topic hub on our website with content and videos on how to use social media effectively, what's the value in using social media, the strategies, the platforms. 

Is that common for foundations, have you found? If not, why not?  

It is starting to become a bit more common. We've seen a shift for foundations, which are used to lifting up their grantees but not lifting up themselves, and that may have contributed to the philanthropic sector's slow approach to social media. In our case, after we decided to be a resources for our grantees, we needed to do social media well ourselves--we want to walk the talk. Some of that capacity has to be in a communications function. We have the luxury to take some risks and try new things so we can help the sector. There are other organizations moving in that direction. Some foundations are embracing social media as a storytelling tool. Nonprofits have really led the charge there.

What do your grantees think of it? How are they taking advantage of it?

I think they like it. The feedback we've gotten from grantees and larger nonprofit community is it's a real gift we give even if we're not giving a grant to their organization. One of the organizations we've worked with as a grantee is Water for People out of Denver, which has a communications staff and a person dedicated to social media, who shadowed our digital marketing manager for a couple of days. Out of that, they got an idea for a campaign. 

Is training part of your focus?

We have not been offering trainings. From a resource perspective, there are lots of organizations filling that gap. We don't necessarily spend a lot of time doing training, but find the best of what's out there and share it. Our role is more to curate and share the information, and help to drive traffic.

What's a big lesson you've learned in this immersion in social media?

One of the lessons we've learned over the last couple of years in terms of social media campaigns is that you should keep it simple when trying to engage with the community. We've had success with season-driven campaigns, which are traditional in a consumer marketing approach. So we think about the opportunities to celebrate Mothers Day or Fathers Day. The campaigns that are more effective ask people to do something...but not too much. So we might do a holiday campaign featuring small and large volunteer actions you can do, and give you the chance to win gift cards for your own holiday shopping plus a donation to the charity of your choice. In contrast, we ran a back-to-school Instagram video campaign with several layers. You had to submit a short video, and enter on Facebook. The videos were solid, but the process became complicated for the user.

Which platforms is the foundation using now?

Of course, we want to engage with people where they spend most of their time, so we are on Facebook and Twitter for that reason. But we also are trying to learn and see what the opportunities are for us on LinkedInYouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr and Google+

How do you measure results?

We're currently undergoing a big evaluation of our digital strategy. It's important to reset every so often, and to ask are we meeting our goals and are they the right goals? On a day to day basis, we use Google Analytics, Facebook Insights, and Radian Six as broader social media monitoring tool. We don't just look at numbers--we look at numbers when trying to grow community. But we are also trying to look closer at engagement and thinking about how to measure engagement. On Facebook, we look at shares and even Facebook has struggled with that. On Twitter, we look at retweets and interactions. We take a weekly topline look at our overall measures, and dig into the numbers on a monthly basis.

What would you like to be able to do that you're not doing now?

Figure out what the magic engagement formula is. One thing we've struggled with is how to smartly grow your community while engaging your community. How do you bring people in and what do you want them to do? I would like an answer to that, going into 2014. Because we're not a typical nonprofit, our call to action is different--we're not asking for donations, but for people to share this piece of content or go volunteer. If we figure that out, we'll share it.

In addition to the links above, here are more of the Case Foundation's online resources related to social media:

(Photo courtesy of the Case Foundation. Used with permission.) 

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