It’s up to Facebook—but there are steps nonprofits can be taking to deal with Facebook problems.

If you’ve been frustrated by Facebook lately, you’re not the only one.

Facebook keeps changing things behind the scenes, and it seems like every time it does, nonprofit and business users suffer. While individual users complain whenever the company changes the site interface, organizations have it much tougher. I recently spoke with a colleague who does communications consulting for a number of California nonprofits, and she’s noticed some pretty decided trends. I’ve seen many of the same things. So I reluctantly decided I had to address this, and let you know two things:

One, I do still think Facebook and nonprofits can have a future—but Facebook is going to have to make some changes pretty soon. Two, there are some important steps nonprofits should take to make life easier for themselves, regardless of what Facebook does.

The problems with Facebook

The problems I’ve seen with Facebook boil down to three things:

Cost.

You might have noticed the recent changes to Facebook ads. I, for one, noticed that they don’t let me automatically promote my most recent post any more (which had been a big time saver). I also noticed that the dollars don’t seem to go as far. With a 5,000-like page, I used to be able to reach 2,000+ people with most posts in half a day with $3-5 in ads. Now I’m lucky if I reach 1,000 in 24 hours. This, of course, was on top of the changes from a few months ago that had already made your page likes nearly worthless—because instead of being able to, you know, post things to the people who had told you they wanted to see your stuff, you had to pay to do it. Organic reach, i.e. the percentage of your followers who see your posts without you having to pay for it, was already way down. Now, so is paid reach.

If you’re Burger King, that’s not a big deal. What was once free advertising became cheap advertising, and now slightly more expensive cheap advertising.

But if you’re a small nonprofit, the cost-benefit ratio starts to go way down when the cost starts to go up. And I’m not just talking about the ad cost. There’s the time cost; staff has to put in a lot more hours keeping a page active hour by hour than they do to send an email update. And there’s the financial cost of the almost inevitable consultants (like me) you have to hire in order to know how to use a constantly changing platform effectively--not a problem with, say, Twitter. (To see more of how all this is affecting nonprofit customers, look at B. Traven’s graphs here—I’ve had similar experiences; this is real.)

On which note…

Unpredictability.

The algorithms. The interface. The options. Facebook changes all the time, and rarely is it easy to figure out where something went or why. When nonprofits are making tough budget decisions about how to spend their precious communications and development dollars, it’s a little hard to get excited about an option that keeps changing. Can we reach 100,000 people this month with X dollars? Will it be the same next month? A year from now will it cost us thousands of (nonexistent) dollars a month just to stay in touch with our own followers?

Nonprofits make their budget decisions a year in advance. Things that aren't predictable enough to fit into that model often don't make it into the budget (or not in significant numbers). It's tough for even the most Facebook-loving communications director to sell his boss on a major expenditure when he can't show with any expectation of accuracy what it will buy. (Here's a good look from Hubspot at the kind of conversation he SHOULD be able to have with his boss!)

Value.

The unpredictability question, in turn, leads to very reasonable concerns about the value of investing time and money into Facebook. Fewer younger people are using it (a small but noticeable number of my friends have eased off it over the past three years). Initial addiction to the platform tends to lead to dropoff as it becomes more of a time-waster at the expense of real life. Thus engagement rates go down more and more the longer a user maintains an account, so does investing in a Facebook “relationship” with someone actually mean something, or will it just taper off?

What about fundraising results? I monitor the nonprofit social media scene daily, and work with dozens of clients directly, and while I’m aware of many Facebook ad success stories, I haven't spoken with a single nonprofit that has seen a major increase in donations due primarily to Facebook. One of my clients put all its eggs in one basket and did a Facebook-only fundraising campaign for four months, checking most of the right boxes along the way, with minimal results.

A lot of nonprofits are concerned Facebook has just become another big, untrustworthy corporation that’s more interested in its investors than its customers. And yes, organizations are customers, not “users of a free product who have no right to complain,” now that they’re paying for so many things--contrary to some of the snark I've seen, they do have a legitimate reason to be upset.

What's going on?

At this point, Facebook has a lot of priorities to juggle. Besides investors (and that’s a big “besides”), its priority at the moment is individual users. As a user, you don’t see every post from every friend. Facebook tries to prioritize things for you so that you’ll see the things that will most interest you; for example, posts from friends you’ve interacted with a lot in the recent past (comments, likes, etc.). The motivation is understandable—they want to make sure you enjoy using the Facebook product! But the algorithm doesn’t do a very good job; there’s clearly something wrong if I can like a page and stop seeing its content soon afterward, or lose Facebook touch with a close friend because I ignore the snapshots of her lunch for a couple weeks.

I asked a friend at Facebook about this situation, and she suggested there needs to be a significant shift in the way organizations think about Facebook. Instead of the newsfeed approach, where the goal is engagement levels, they need to think of Facebook more as a paid service for reaching a targeted audience for a specific initiative. This is a huge change. It means not only ceasing to put Facebook in the same camp as Twitter in marketing conversations, but also throwing out years of accumulated best practices in terms of engagement strategies.

Meanwhile, new social networks are being invented practically every day, and even Google+ already offers a superior array of services to Facebook that works better (and gives huge discounts to nonprofit customers via its Google Grants program). The audience isn’t quite there yet in any other given network, but sooner or later, nonprofits that want to use social media will trickle into alternative options. A number of my clients have quietly started pushing their content to a Google+ page or maintaining an Instagram account, mainly to stay in touch with their growing number of users who have stopped using Facebook, but partly (in Google+’s case) as a fallback option in case Facebook keeps making life difficult for them.

I recognize the different needs that Facebook is trying to juggle, and I don’t pretend to know The Answer to all of it. But if Facebook wants to retain the business of its nonprofit (and, for that matter, small business) customers, it needs to address the three concerns I outlined in the previous section—most of them with real changes, not reassuring words. The occasional case study of that guy who grew his pet turtle business using Facebook ads won’t cut it, because nonprofits have tried driving (say) event turnout with a modest investment in Facebook ads, with limited success.

What nonprofits can be doing

In the meantime, what can nonprofits be doing?

Have a comprehensive supporter engagement strategy.

If Facebook is the heart of what you do outside direct mail, you’ve been doing it wrong anyway. The real question is how to engage your supporters (including finding new ones) in a way that makes them feel up to date, involved, and important.

On the communications end of things, that starts with your content creation (your blog posts, videos, images, and whatnot that are the primary vehicle for telling your story), and branches out from there into different distribution mechanisms (direct mail, email, RSS, different social networks, Google Ads, etc.). So the first questions to be asking (and to never stop asking) concern who you’re currently reaching, who you want to reach, and what kind of content resonates with those people (free tip: shorten everything you write by 50%). The next (though NOT the last!) questions are about how to reach those people. Facebook should only be one small part of the answer to those questions. (For more on what this should look like, read my piece on “Enlisting the Amateurs.”)

And keep refining what you’re doing so that you spend the most time and effort on the pieces of the infrastructure that get you the best results. Most of the nonprofits I’ve seen that get upset about their bad Facebook numbers also have terrible email open and click rates, terrible website traffic, etc.—usually due to terrible storytelling (more on that in a moment). Social media might be the easy culprit to blame for an ED that thought it was fishy to begin with, but nonprofit communications problems, in my experience, rarely start with any one delivery system.

Use Facebook wisely within that strategy.

A smart supporter engagement strategy is the core of a successful social fundraising effort—“social” fundraising means treating all your supporters like personal friends of the organization who are, potentially, powerful ambassadors for you. (More on that here.)

Don’t ditch Facebook just yet. It still offers the biggest and most diverse audience of any social network, and the most powerful tools for growing your audience. It also provides the most organic-feeling way for people to stay up to date with you in an interactive way. But as long as it keeps hamstringing you, be smart about how you use it.

  • Don’t spend disproportionate amounts of time on it, where 30% of your day is being eaten up by something that’s likely generating a much smaller percentage of your revenue—generate universal content (e.g. a blog post) and be disciplined about the time you spend optimizing that content for Facebook (e.g. by creating a visually attractive graphic that draws attention to the blog post).
  • Focus more on drives for specific goals (e.g. event turnout) than on engagement rates, recognizes that that costs money. And yikes, I know that's a big change.
  • Spend your ad dollars wisely; only boost posts that are likely to get significant interaction (why are you making the other kind anyway?), monitor your results, and target your ad audience well.
  • Also keep exploiting holes in the system, which make it more cost effective, as long as they’re around (ask me about those sometime).
  • And keep giving Facebook feedback—let them know when you’re unhappy about something, why, and what you think they can reasonably do about it.

Recognize that “Real life is more interesting!”

In B. Traven’s post (mentioned above), the writer points out that some of the people who go from Facebook addiction to Facebook abandonment have noticed that real life is more interesting.

As Barney Stinson would say, that’s the dream!

Social media is at its worst when it ends up as a substitute for real life. It’s at its best when it serves as a catalyst for it. One challenge I’ve seen with a couple clients in the past is that they were trying to generate strong Facebook content, which meant making people a day-to-day part of what they did, when what they did day-to-day was unbelievably boring. If there’s no life to the organization, how can you plug people into it?

Good Facebook use, like good use of emails, phone calls, in-person meetings, print materials, website updates, and everything else, should connect people to real-life benefits. Relationships, glimpses into what’s going on in the office, real-world results with a human face, events, radically rethought volunteer opportunities, and the like. (More on what this can look like here.)

Whether Facebook chooses to make itself the powerful nonprofit social ally of the next five years, or whether it decides to drive out its nonprofit customers, your nonprofit should be setting itself up as the hub of a community that is passionate about what you do. That starts with thinking about people (both your supporters and your clients) and their needs first.

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