by Steven Hacker | September 01, 2015

In less than 10 years, social media has solidly embedded itself into the nucleus of American business. In his recent book “100 Days of Growth,” Sujan Patel shares that a recent Nielsen study found that “four out of every five corporations in America are now leveraging social media to help expand their client base and build relationships with customers.”

What’s curious is that many associations were slow to get out of the social media starting gate, according to Jennifer Jones, director of communications for Marketing Design Group, a leading national agency specializing in event and association marketing. “In general, associations tend to hold on to older, slower and more costly ways of communicating with stakeholders because they believe that’s what their members want and because some groups fear change,” she said. “The good news is, it’s not difficult or expensive to get up to speed with social media implementation now.”

Why jump on the social media bandwagon? For any number of reasons, said Jones: “It’s a powerful tool to build member engagement and communities, cultivate new members, increase revenue, fundraise and expand reach and public awareness on important issues. Some associations have leveraged social media in amazing ways, such as the ALS Foundation with the ice-bucket challenge.”

Another group that recently put social media to good promotional use was SPI, the Plastics Industry Trade Association. Marketing Design Group developed two characters—MATT (machines and technology of tomorrow) and his gal-pal POLY (polymer)—to pitch the group’s national trade show, NPE, in a more relatable way. Creating Bitstrips (app-created comics) that ran on social media, graphic emails and blog posts, the duo promoted event features and benefits using industry-related humor, contributing to a 19 percent increase in attendance and the largest show in NPE’s 69-year history.

The adoption of social media by nonprofit associations is now soaring, based on the findings of the 2015 Social Media Impact Study, an annual project of Kellen, an international association management and public relations organization. The recent study revealed that the nation’s nonprofit associations have substantially increased their use of major social media channels in the last year. While LinkedIn remains a popular social media channel of nonprofit associations with an adoption rate of 88 percent because of its business orientation, Facebook is the most popular channel (93 percent), with Twitter a close second (91 percent) and YouTube following (73 percent).

Narrowing Down the Right Network. Wendy Holliday, vice-president of attendee acquisition and experience at the consulting company Velvet Chainsaw, believes that nonprofits are making good progress adapting to the complexities and challenges of social media. “A fundamental early step must include determining which social media networks to utilize,” she said. “And to make intelligent selections, you need to know what your members’ preferred networks are.”

It was initially commonly accepted that people used LinkedIn for business and Facebook for casual discussions, but that has since morphed significantly due to the launch of so many additional networks. Even so, LinkedIn remains the world’s preeminent business network, with 380 million users, while Facebook still commands considerable attention, with 1.49 billion active monthly users. Twitter also remains a very strong presence, with 300 million active followers worldwide.

Particularly revealing and important are the demographics of social media users. About 43 percent of Twitter’s American followers—some 23 million people—are Millennials (ages 18 to 34), while only 13 percent of LinkedIn users fall into the same age bracket. These critical differences can be extremely important when trying to decide where your organization will have a presence and how frequently. In most instances, it’s not a matter of one or the other but both.

The intensity and frequency of messaging will vary depending on your group’s demographics as well as its industry and even member habits. Said Holliday, “In addition to the obvious questions about social media use, you should probe issues such as: Which times of the year are the busiest for your members? Are there dominant themes at certain times of the year that might be especially important, such as ‘Back to School’ for anyone involved in education? If there are, you can use social media to share highly relevant resources with members during these key periods.

“Your role should be to serve as the aggregator of useful and valuable information, to create ‘Aha!’ moments for your members,” she said. “But what you share doesn’t all have to be new or original content—you can repurpose existing resources, yours and those of other cited sources, into very handy packages that members will find of high value.”

Small But Powerful Channels. In the shadow of giants like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, there are other valuable social media channels such as Instagram and Pinterest. Each is unique and has followers with different interests, so some networks may be more relevant to your association than others. There are also hundreds of much smaller, niche social media channels to engage members; examples include Care2, which is dedicated to social philanthropy, Dogster or Catster for pet owners, or Wiser for those interested in sustainability issues.

While email remains the primary communication tool for most associations, it is nevertheless dwarfed by the adoption rates of both Facebook and Twitter, according to Kellen’s study. The study also reported that 45 percent of the nonprofits surveyed devote one to five hours every week to social media activity, while 24 percent allocate six to 10 hours to social media and 11 percent spend 11 to 20 hours every week on social media activity.

The 4-1-1 Rule (and Others). Social media messaging is often confused with advertising, but the two are fundamentally different. Advertising is about selling products and services. Social media is about creating conversations and participating as a community member. “At Velvet Chainsaw, we use a 4-1-1 rule,” said Holliday. “This means we will share the messages of others four times before we issue one message of our own, and we will issue a promotional message also only once according to this self-imposed restriction.”

Holliday also suggested that instead of handing all social media messaging responsibility to one or two staff members, associations spread out the work between staff, including interns. Marketing Design Group’s Jones offered an alternative solution: “If an association’s staff is very small, and using in-house resources is not an option, contracting with a marketing and communication agency can be an effective strategy. A qualified outside agency can do everything from creating social media calendars and setting a strategy to writing posts and monitoring multiple social media platforms.”

According to the Kellen study, only 17 percent of groups employ a dedicated social media manager. This suggests that associations view social media as part of a larger mix of communication tools necessary to achieve their business objectives.

When someone on staff assumes the responsibility of social media, Jones suggested that it becomes a formal addition to that person’s existing job, “meaning training should be provided if needed, a strategy should be outlined and goals should be set and evaluated,” she said. Determining who in the organization will handle social media is key because those individuals will also be responsible for accurately measuring the results of their social media activities.

Simplifying the Complex. The complexity of social media and the time commitment required to properly manage and measure it can be daunting, but it’s all being simplified by emerging technologies like Hootsuite, TweetDeck, Seesmic and SocialOomph. Each makes it possible to manage, review and respond to messages in a variety of creative and efficient ways.

With adequate training, managing social media becomes simple and efficient. So even if your association was not an early adopter of social media, it’s not too late to capitalize on the extraordinary opportunities it provides. Now is a perfect time to take the leap because, as anyone can attest, the speed of technology gets harder and harder to keep up with the longer one stays out of the loop.

Holliday has the right attitude. “We have to remind ourselves frequently that social media is constantly evolving,” she said. “You need to adopt a spirit of adventure when trying to manage it.”