“Social media” is a phrase that nonprofit leaders have discussed in some detail, especially in recent months. From the alleged success of crowd-funding sites and online giving to the preponderance of ways that nonprofits are urged to connect with constituents via Facebook and Twitter, social media as a communication tool has changed the way many organizations frame their messages and communicate with their constituents.

But what is “social media” and why should nonprofits address this as a topic of conversation or strategy?

What Social Media is and What it is Not

In the simplest terms, social media is a system of “channels” that communicate information via an individual or an organization’s networks and groups. An umbrella term for any form of online communication that connects people, social media is increasingly seen as a “cross-platform tool,” with users able to access or utilize social media on a computer, on smart phones or tablets as an application (or “app”), or even as an integral component of some software.

It is important to delineate between static media approaches and social media channels. Static media is the foundation of a nonprofit’s communication plan, and is typified when an organization communicates “one to many.” Social media differs from static media largely because it is interactive.

Social media platforms offer communication that actively solicit and respond to feedback, thereby communicating “one to one.”

The interactivity of social media is a fundamental factor for using these communication tools; therefore, a social media program is only as good as the person running the show. As consultants, we often recommend to client organizations embarking on creating a social media program to designate one key person as the manager of the social media channels. This one person is responsible for gathering, perhaps creating, and posting content, moderating feedback, and responding on behalf of organizations to interactions in an engaging way.

Absent a committed volunteer or staff member who takes the responsibility of managing social media seriously, the program will likely fail.

Should my nonprofit be on Facebook?

YES! As one of the pioneers of comprehensive social networking, Facebook has proven itself to be a reliable platform for engaging with constituents and distributing information, and is best used for broadcasting and gathering feedback. Using Facebook for nonprofits is a great way to spread awareness.

Many tech-savvy constituents now view an organization’s Facebook page as a “second website,” and having a dynamic Facebook page builds donor confidence and enhances the organization’s online reputation.

Membership-based organizations have the most to gain from being on Facebook.

We have a Facebook presence, but how often should my nonprofit post to Facebook?

Posting the right mix of content is the first step in creating a dynamic Facebook page that engages an audience. Page managers should ask open-ended questions and respond when possible, and always stoke conversation between the organization and the fan as well as fan-to-fan interaction.

We recommend posting once a day as the ideal, and once a week at the minimum. Vary the content types: some text, some pictures, and some video. Once in awhile, highlight strong work that complimentary organizations are doing as well as your organization’s own content. This demonstrates to users that the organization is knowledgeable about its area of expertise, sees itself as a thought leader, and is keeping up with trends and changes.

We have a pretty good handle on the basics of Facebook. What is an advanced technique that we can use?

Drawing a Facebook friend closer to the organization using moves management techniques is a great way to utilize a robust organizational Facebook page.

For example, when a fan expresses needs for services or products, or mentions that someone they know might be interested, savvy social media managers can take that conversation “off line” by direct messaging the user and offering to provide a “warm intro” to the proper channel.

For example, if the organization is a community center, and a fan expresses that they have had a hard time finding appropriate day care for their children, the manager can message them on Facebook to get their email address, and then send an introductory email to the center’s pre-k program, introducing the fan and connecting them with the services.

Another advanced technique is to offer followers customized cover photos that they can download and share. Customized cover photos offer fans on Facebook the opportunity to help promote a nonprofit’s mission, event, or an upcoming campaign. To succeed in this strategy, the manager will need to have the right photos, plus some basic graphic design skills.

Always include the nonprofit’s logo and website if possible.

Our nonprofit needs to be on Twitter! Right?

DEPENDS! Does the organization have a young constituency that it is seeking to engage? Does the synagogue host many events throughout the year targeted to millennials? Is there a staff member that has the interest, ability, and time to monitor the Twitter account and engage followers? If so, then a Twitter account might be a good move for the organization.

Twitter is best used for PR, special events, and calls-to-action. However, timing is everything! The most popular times for users to interact with one another on Twitter are during the morning commute hours, lunch, and the evening commute.

That means that unless the organization has a staff member who is able to be active on Twitter during those times, it will likely be losing out on a lot of the traffic and thus, a lot of the benefits.

Remember: Engagement is a Two-Way Street

Engaging with stakeholders on social media is increasingly important for nonprofits, but should be approached thoughtfully and strategically. Remember, social media must be consistent with an organization’s other communications.

There will be diverse users of the social media, so nonprofits must craft messages that appeal to a variety of audience members: staff members and a Board of Directors, stakeholders and clients, plus funders and donors. Therefore, it is paramount to ensure that there isn’t anything online that will compromise an agency’s reputation or prohibit it from receiving funding.

When in doubt, heed our favorite piece of social media wisdom: “Write everything as if your grandmother is reading it!”