If you’ve read my ‘About Me‘ section, you know that my educational background is in English Literature. A lifelong devotee of the written word, my insatiable appetite for language and voracious love for reading ultimately lead me to a Master’s degree in English. And my (also lifelong) passion for helping others lead me to want to use my love for language in the nonprofit world.
In the image above, I’ve adapted an exercise I learned as a student learning to write essays to create a worksheet for crafting social media content.
Although I’ll always support fiction and storytelling (see my other blog), I spent much of my undergraduate and graduate education focusing on the art of rhetoric and persuasion. For however much I love a good novel, some practical part of me yearned to truly understand how language can be used to persuade, to change, and to argue in the real world.
In teaching rhetoric and persuasion, many of my professors (particularly at my undergraduate school Marywood University) rightly stressed the importance of something called Audience Awareness. At first glance, the definition of Audience Awareness seems simplistically obvious: understanding who your readers (or listeners) are and, perhaps more importantly for our purposes – what they care about. Hundreds of years ago, classic rhetoricians like Plato and Socrates argued for the importance of audience awareness, and today it’s still a foundation for teaching the craft of writing. And, as I’ve come to learn more and more, both Audience Awareness and social media management are far more complex than they initially appear.
But what has amazed since I began working in the nonprofit world is just how applicable many elements of English and teaching are to nonprofit marketing. I love seeing how seemingly abstract concepts like ‘Audience Awareness’ can make or break things like donor retention, brand awareness, and audience engagement when crafting content for social media posts and email blasts.
Many resources and blog posts offer advice for what does and does not work in generating social media engagement. You probably see posts on a daily basis with titles like, “6 Tips for Effective Facebook Posts.” Certainly, some generalized, universal principles exist.
However, generalizations for effective social media engagement are only a starting-point. What works for one organization will vary tremendously from what works for another organization.
Take, for instance, this example from The Nature Conservancy. This post was quite successful. A cursory audience analysis reveals why it’s so successful: followers of this organization are likely to be nature lovers; they are likely to be inspired by images of nature; they know enough about nature to engage with the post; because nature generates feelings of happiness or awe in them, the post is light-hearted enough to engender both inspiration and humor.
I don’t know enough about the followers of this organization to say for sure, but I’m also willing to guess that (in general), many of their followers are educated and possibly of liberal political affiliation. The many successful educational and environmental-advocacy posts on the organization’s page supports my theories on their audience.
Importantly, my guess would be that the same post (even with a different image, of course) might not be as successful for an organization whose cause is to support people with a chronic, incurable disease.
For one thing, scarcity theory (proposed by Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir) suggests that when the brain is struggling for insufficient resources fundamental to staying alive – think food, water, social interaction – it has little room or time left to think about anything else. (By the way, as a side note, if you haven’t read Mullainathan and Shafir’s Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, I highly recommend it – especially for people working in the nonprofit world.)
Therefore, while people with a chronic disease are no less creative or fun-loving than anyone else, their minds may be preoccupied with basic needs: money, if they’re struggling to make ends meet while paying for their healthcare needs; companionship, if their disease makes them feel ostracized or lonely; or ridding themselves of physical pain, if their disease is one that causes chronic pain or fatigue.
Certainly, posts that are humorous or inspiring have their place and can, in fact, even be effective coping mechanisms for followers of a chronic disease organization. However, posts that attempt to do the following would be more effective for use on a regular basis:
- Recognize a common value amongst followers
- Use that value to fulfill a fundamental need
With that said, I’d like to advise a word of caution: while audience awareness is an extremely effective tool, we have to be careful that it doesn’t lead to stereotyping or pidgeon-holding of a group of people. Not everyone who advocates for nature is educated or a Democrat voter, and not everyone with a chronic disease is money-deprived or lonely. Stereotypes are likely to create the same types of problems (or worse ones) that nonprofit causes exist to remedy in the first place.
But, when used properly, principles like Audience Awareness derived from Classical Rhetoric can be extremely useful for predicting successful social media posts.
Stay tuned for a soon-in-the-future post, in which I’ll work through an example of the worksheet I provided above! In the mean time, feel free to share your own findings, musings, and experiences with crafting content for a nonprofit organization.