The daunting question with the simple answer.

How do I know which social networks to use?

The real issue: technology is moving too fast. There are a lot of social networks out there, and they seem to rise and fall in popularity. You’re wondering whether it’s possible to move forward when all your work to build a Twitter following might fall apart in five years if Twitter loses popularity. Or maybe you’re just wondering where on earth to start.

First off, the easy answer: it depends on your mission. You definitely start with Facebook, which has over a billion users and is easily the largest. But after that, what you do dictates which other social networks you should start with, because each network has its own demographics and its own best kinds of media. Broadly speaking, a few of the heavy hitters as of October 2013:

  • Twitter is about conversation. It works well for any organization that deals a lot with news, or policy issues, or fast-paced developments. If your organization is more long-range and slow-paced, Twitter may not be the most efficient use of your time at first. That said, you’d be surprised: I have a client that runs a food bank, and didn’t use Twitter much…but when Colorado Springs caught fire and people were driven from their homes, they were quite glad to be looped in with local news sources on Twitter, because it enabled them to effortlessly spread the word about their services.
  • Pinterest is about images. It’s most effective when you can work with pictures, and its user base is heavily female. It’s increasingly a popular third network after Facebook and Twitter because it has a good track record of driving traffic to your website.
  • Google+ is Google’s version of Facebook. It lets you post pictures, links, videos, everything. Frankly, it’s a lot better than Facebook in most ways. But while hundreds of millions of people have Google+ accounts, most of them are really just Gmail accounts and their owners never get on Google+. For the moment, G+ is best if you’re in a technological or creative space, because those are the kinds of people who frequent it.
  • Instagram is just pictures. Whereas Pinterest allows you to post anything (for example, a wine shop could post its favorite wine country scenery, or pictures of products with links to their purchase pages on an e-commerce site), Instagram only works through your phone’s camera. So it’s good for photojournalism but not so good for more holistic engagement. Its user base is also much younger.

On a larger level, though, the more important question is what you do with people after they’ve followed you on a social network—having a strategy that is about engaging and developing donors and can be tweaked no matter what social networks go in and out of vogue. This is why I advocate a holistic approach that is more about building a traditional donor base with contact info, e-mails, and so on. “Social media marketing” is about, say, getting thousands of Facebook likes. Social fundraising says those likes are inadequate if there’s no mechanism to translate any of them to donations.

My advice is to think of it in these terms: you want to build relationships with these people. Social media is a key starting point to finding them and introducing yourself, but the relationships need to go deeper.