by Steven Hacker | July 01, 2016

Social media and nonprofit associations have an important shared mission: They are all about creating communities. And with social media’s maturity and near-absolute integration into the workplace, it may be the most effective modern tool with which to build our associations. According to Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes, president of mdg, a marketing agency that caters to associations and trade shows, social media keeps up with the changing times in a way that leadership can’t always manage. “Often association leadership doesn’t move as fast as the audience changes,” she said. If you’re late to board this train, or perhaps have headed down the wrong track, there are a few things to keep in mind for social media endeavors that will help build your association’s brand and generate new revenue.

The Benefits of a Knowledgeable Staff. Association professionals new to social media wrongly believe that the same strategies and tactics they use in other marketing channels will apply to social media. That is why Hardcastle-Geddes’ advice about retaining staff that understand social media marketing is key. “Social media should be evaluated with different metrics than those used to measure the success of other marketing channels,” she said. “There won’t always be instantaneous increases in membership or attendance that can be tracked directly to social media activity. That’s why it’s important to also consider the value of social media in other aspects of your association—member relations, content development, thought leadership, enhancing an on-site experience, etc.—to more accurately reflect the return on investment.” In other words, using social media correctly can be effective in achieving more than just building brand equity and driving revenues. But that can only be done if you have people who know how to effectively use social media to those ends.

A key question for many nonprofit groups is: When does it make sense to either hire full-time staff to manage digital content or to seek support from an outside agency? Santana Inniss, mdg’s social and digital marketing strategist, offered these three tips:

1. You’ve grown your social media followings to impressive numbers. But with great numbers comes greater engagement. If you’re neglecting a significant number of engagements from your followers, it may be time to bring in help.

2. When your association starts to move from community management to multi-channel, paid social media marketing, it may be time to bring in an expert. There are many ways to integrate social media into larger efforts to grow and maintain membership or event attendance. Bringing in an expert can help you efficiently develop and execute long-range tactics.

3. Have you recently seen a decline in your social media return on investment? Or are you simply failing to see results? Social media is a powerful tool for driving awareness and conversions, and if you’re not seeing the public involvement you’d hoped for, it’s time to get help. Someone with expertise in social media can revamp and improve your association’s efforts without pulling staff away from other important work.

When you do decide that it’s time for help, you can assess the ROI of bringing in your own full-time staff or hiring an outside third party. One option you should eliminate, of course, is doing nothing and allowing your social media progress to stall.

Creative Cross-platform Ideas. The IMEX Group, which produces two IMEX events each year, in Frankfurt, Germany, and now in Las Vegas, is lucky to have Miguel Neves as its digital content and community manager, as his expertise in social media is one of the reasons the events attract a combined 27,000 meeting professionals. Neves recently shared some excellent examples of how he and IMEX event organizers have used social media to build both brand equity and revenue.

“We built a giant hashtag for IMEX in Frankfurt 2016 and it was a big success,” Neves said. Attendees from around the world stopped to take a selfie, and because many of those photos were shared on social media, it ended up serving as free exposure for the event.

Neves said the group also wanted to try out the new live-streaming video option available on Facebook, so organizers collaborated with social media expert Gerrit Heijkoop to go live. “The quality of the video produced admittedly was low,” Neves said “but the live interaction was the key. We felt that, for the first time, we were able to give an online audience a good sample of the buzz on the IMEX show floor.”

With social media channels opening up to advertisers, there is tremendous power in using them to promote a product, Neves said. It’s also cost-effective, he explained: “The target audience can be made very specific.” At IMEX, organizers opted to focus on LinkedIn for its visitor registration promotional message. “Within the LinkedIn advertising engine, we were able to deliver this message to a very focused group. This resulted in over 60,000 people seeing our message, none of whom were part of our LinkedIn group or the IMEX company page.”

Campaigns That Inspire. It’s no secret that the last several years have been tough for the nation’s law enforcement personnel. So when the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) was planning its 2015 annual meeting and expo, organizers made a point of creating a campaign that would appeal to members and reinforce the importance of their public service.

With the assistance of the brand-experience agency FreemanXP, the IACP launched the “Why I Wear the Badge” campaign. At the IACP Conference & Expo, held that October at Chicago’s McCormick Place, FreemanXP displayed meter boards printed with officer photos and their statements attesting “Why I Wear the Badge,” along with pictures drawn by students from local elementary schools thanking police officers for their work. A large wall outside the general session allowed attendees to write down their own responses. The campaign produced tremendous buzz during the four-day event. A Twitter campaign concluding on the final day generated 9,725 mentions by 4,500 users and 52.8 million impressions.

#HashtagsThatWork. When the National Association of Secondary School Principals wanted to publicize its National Principals Month celebration and enhance efforts from prior years, mdg recommended a more straightforward hashtag: What was #prinmonth became #ThankAPrincipal. The NASSP promoted the new hashtag using social media and email newsletters. The results were impressive.

The number of #ThankAPrincipal tweets and the number of contributors who used the hashtag increased by 21 percent and 43 percent, respectively, from 2014. Tweets that contained the official hashtag grew by 74 percent. And, notably, several top influencers including the U.S. Department of Education, Google for Education and the National Science Foundation used #ThankAPrincipal. The number of deliveries for #ThankAPrincipal between September 1 and November 1, 2015, was more than 16 million. The association’s social following also increased as a result of the revamped campaign.

There are numerous ways associations can take social media to a new level and offer value to prospective parties, current members and partners and even the general public. Creative hashtag campaigns, live videos and interactive expo exhibits that strike a chord with even those not in attendance and are just a few of the tools event planners are using to appeal to the masses with messages that resound within their industries—and beyond.