Founded in 1968, the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC) is a nonprofit, non-partisan, membership-based organization aimed at protecting the health of Oregon. As such, their work champions clean air and water, a healthy climate, unpolluted landscapes, and sustainable food and farms.
Recently we had the pleasure of sitting down with Simon Tam and Michelle McGrath of OEC to ask them about their digital strategy.
Simon Tam is the current Marketing Director at OEC, and a prominent figure in the worlds of social media and digital activism. His approach to activism through the arts has been highlighted in thousands of media features such as BBC World News, NPR, TIME Magazine, TED talks, NBC, and the New York Times. He also designed one of the first college-accredited social media certificate programs in the United States.
Michelle McGrath is the Membership & Engagement Manager. She is a passionate advocate for conservation, climate action and food justice. Her diverse strengths include community engagement, outreach, direct marketing, fundraising, design, content development and digital strategy. She also sits on the board of directors for the Montavilla Farmers’ Market.
How long have you managed social media communications and where did you get your start?
Simon Tam: I often tell people that even though I have a few degrees in business and marketing, everything I learned about the subject comes from being a rockstar. I’ve been managing social media communications for nearly 20 years now, especially if you consider the first type of online communities through America Online channels. I began writing code for sites like Geocities and Angelfire, mainly to develop websites for local nonprofits and artists. When digital marketing shifted into “social media”—at the onset of Friendster, Xanga, and Myspace—I immediately began using those sites to market my music. Social was a great way to learn key concepts like storytelling, online engagement, and brand awareness without a budget.
A few years ago, I began running social media for higher education institutions and started writing on the subject for sites and magazines like Huffington Post, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and the National Council on Marketing and Public Relations. As I began doing freelance work for organizations, I could gather data at a much larger level and used that information to develop one of the first accredited social media and digital marketing certificate programs in the country.
Michelle McGrath: In 2011, I started learning about social media as a tool for non-profit marketing—frankly, because I love social media. I’m an outgoing person with an aptitude for sales, outreach and relationship-building, and when I saw that brands and organizations were able to meet goals in these areas via Facebook, I wanted to achieve that too. During a three-year tenure at a small, local food non-profit organization, I was able to use Facebook as a space for online dialogue and to harness co-marketing opportunities. Our brand reach in the community was significantly amplified as a result. Since then, I’ve been helping small farmers’ markets, farmers, and food justice groups to improve their Facebook strategy on lean budgets.
As my passion for social media has grown, I’ve taken courses in digital marketing, and I am earning my graduate certificate in digital engagement from Oregon State University. I seek learning opportunities in this field whenever and wherever I can.
Today, I’m focused more on engagement and conversion rates than brand awareness per se. I know people care about making the world a better place, and I’m looking at how to get them to engage with a post or an email so we can help empower them to be that change they want to see in the world.
How has your strategy / options about Facebook changed over time?
Simon: Since Facebook’s IPO, there have been constant and drastic changes to the effectiveness of Pages on the site. The biggest reason is financially-driven: promoted posts are an extremely reliable source of revenue for the site, especially if marketers don’t want to run an entire keyword-based advertising campaign. Additionally, the algorithm continues to change, making it difficult to consistently engage with followers. However, several key trends persist: the lean toward mobile-friendly content and video. As Facebook continues to fight for market share, they’ll focus on technologies that increase user time—and auto-playing video is one of the most effective ways to accomplish that. For Facebook Pages, the way to capitalize on that is uploading directly to Facebook, rather than YouTube or Vimeo.
Michelle: A colleague I know summed it up nicely. Facebook lured non-profits in with hopes and dreams of amplifying their voice, and now Facebook is punching them in the gut repeatedly with the new algorithm. It’s still a tool for social change, but there is a huge cost to accessing that tool now. Small non-profits are having to develop larger marketing budgets as a result. It’s not good.
What’s something you wished you learned sooner in terms of social media?
Simon: The under appreciated but vital role of Google+. Though the site is almost useless in terms of reach or engagement, it is extremely vital in terms of search engine optimization and prioritization of YouTube content.
Michelle: Something I’m still hoping to learn is the integration of Facebook engagement metrics with our Customer Relationship Management software. Being able to recognize and develop relationships with hand-raisers is important for grassroots engagement.
What organizational goals do your Facebook efforts support?
Simon: Facebook supports a number of areas: strength of the brand, online donations, membership engagement, grassroots lobbying strategy and outreach to new communities.
Michelle: Metric-driven grassroots engagement goals are somewhat new for OEC. I’m looking at Facebook to drive action, web traffic and new fans of the organization. Most of these goals are measured with a conversation rate metric of some sort.
What kinds of social calls to action do you use?
Simon: Commenting, sharing, liking, clicking, watching, signing, retweeting. Social media is just one channel out of an overall integrated marketing and communications strategy, which involves variations of all of these calls to action.
Michelle: We’ve used many calls to action successfully (and many unsuccessfully), from hashtag campaigns to petitions and beyond. For my job, I’m most concerned with getting our audience to sign petitions, make a donation and contact legislators.
Tell us about a recent successful social campaign or series of posts.
Michelle: OEC has struggled to earn donor support through digital channels in the past. I’m not really sure why that is, but we were able to run a successful campaign for #GivingTuesday in the winter of 2014. We used email, Facebook and Twitter to distribute the campaign. We had powerful images and a fun meme—”Two Is Better Than One”—to highlight the gift match we were offering that day. The emails highlighted stories, and we took advantage of cross-promotional opportunities through our social media.
For example, we gave away prizes throughout the day and tagged the organizations providing the prize, who then reshared our posts. The most innovative gift was a custom digital playlist. When we posted about the playlist we tagged all the featured musicians, which increased the visibility of our post. A fundraising thermometer also helped us drive gifts, and we asked some of our influential social media fans to reshare. It was an experiment, but it worked for us.
What did you learn from this success more broadly? Is there anything you do differently now?
Michelle: I’m pretty concerned about the rumor that Facebook’s algorithm is punishing pictures. Engaging images were the key to this campaign’s success. We only spent $60 on the #GivingTuesday campaign. Although Facebook advertising is still pretty cheap, we’ll have to increase our budget for the next online campaign we do. We’ve done a campaign since then that had a more abstract ask (become a monthly donor), did not use a fundraising thermometer, had no matching gift and was just less intensive overall. It did not work.
What did you learn about your audience from this success?
Michelle: They appreciate deadlines and goals! It’s an old-school fundraising tool, but it’s universally successful.
Do you have any advice for other nonprofits based on your success?
Simon: Don’t focus on vanity metrics like follower count; instead, focus on a more comprehensive look at what a picture of success looks like. Marketing doesn’t always have quantifiable measures of success, with some return on investment on a much longer timescale than simply the immediate aftermath of a campaign. There should also be qualitative goals and as such, strategies to support those goals as well. Goals should be SMARTER.
Nonprofits should also have better listening and brand reputation management systems in place. These kinds of tools allow for a real-time marketing strategy. I recommend 5 free tools here.
Learning the language and trends of social media can be challenging. I often tell nonprofits to treat it like learning any kind of language and applying techniques from code-switching.
Also, nonprofits should learn how to talk with personality; more like a person and less like a brand. It’s part of an important strategy.
Michelle: Don’t shy away from emotional, urgent language and images. It’s really human nature to be more engaged with that type of content. If acquisition is your goal, which it is mine, this type of content will help you reach that goal through improved engagement. Build a narrative that can embrace crisis or celebration as a unifying point in your campaign, and then when that crisis inevitably hits, be ready to strike with great posts and content!