Social Media Challenges for Preservation Organizations


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Social media technologies are here to stay—and these diverse and rapidly changing tools are transforming the way organizations conduct their core activities and even organize themselves. Nonprofits are struggling to assess the impact of these new information channels, and to harness them effectively for such activities as fundraising, advocacy, membership development, and stakeholder communications.

What, then, do preservation organizations, historical societies, museums, and sites need to know to develop a social media strategy?

Social Media Defined

SocialmediaboxSocial media is the term most often used to describe the electronic, networked communication channels that rely on internet and mobile technologies. Examples include, but are not limited to, e-mail, traditional websites, mobile apps, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Foursquare, and text messaging. The distinction between newer media—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube—and more established digital media channels—e-mail, websites—is quickly disappearing as these technologies converge and are joined by other hybrid channels—mobile phones and applications, text messaging. For that reason the term social media is used in this article to describe any and all of these digital channels, as they must be considered as a whole when crafting an effective social media strategy.

New Ways of Doing Things

A comprehensive social media strategy influences the work of the entire organization at all levels and in all program areas.

In some respects, it is easier to integrate social media programs into smaller organizations, where marketing and communications are the responsibility of one or two people. In larger organizations, these functions are spread out among more staff, often involving specialized teams in discrete organizational silos. Website management, media relations, information technology, member relations, fundraising, and subject matter expertise are dispersed through the various departments. In such situations, the financial and staff resources needed to maintain a social media strategy may be seen as competing with other organizational priorities.

But social media should be the net that pulls all of these functions together at a foundational level. In a July 2010 interview, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said: “You have to plan your corporate strategy around what the internet does.”1  To be “digital first” turns everything on its ear, and the older and larger the organization, the harder it can be to adjust. It is not uncommon for an organization’s fundraising goals to pit online donations against direct mail, rather than thinking of them as one activity and two channels that accommodate different donor preferences. Instead of offline campaigns driving digital priorities, offline activities should be tailored to complement digital campaigns.

An effective social media strategy is comprehensive and invasive, affecting and changing each task, job, and project. To be successful, nonprofits must learn to accept that social media has become as important a core competency as direct mail or the services they provide. When choices are made wisely, social media should make it easier to meet the goals of existing programs and achieve organizational goals in new ways.

The transition can be a painful process, as those with expertise in other areas may feel pushed aside by “trendy” new tools. Never lose sight of the fact that the rise of social media means that the old ways of doing things are becoming less effective. For instance, those born after 1945 are far less likely to respond to direct mail and far more likely to give through a digital channel than their elders.2   To resist social media is to accept obsolescence.

New Roles and Structures

No matter the size of the budget or number of staff, nonprofit organizations are always trying to do more with less. Adding social media responsibilities to existing job descriptions can be overwhelming and allows less time for other activities. Hiring new staff means less money is being spent on other core programs.

The instinct is often to segregate social media responsibilities into a separate unit, merely adding to the existing organizational structure. But separating social media staff from program staff means missing out on opportunities. To create high-impact websites and digital strategies, all management and staff must have an understanding of what is possible and at least a basic understanding of how it works. To some extent all communications and marketing professionals need to add some level of technical knowledge to their understanding of media relations, fundraising, or advocacy, so that they can put these new tools to use. Simply adding computer programmers to your staff misses the point.

It is critical to give staff the training they need, permission to experiment, and space to be creative. It also means giving them the hardware they need. Up-to-date computers, software, and a fast internet connection are too often treated as luxuries by nonprofits, but they are critical to social media success.

For a comprehensive social media strategy to work, there must be one person or one body that serves as the ultimate decision-maker, the driver behind the wheel of the social media strategy. The strategy might have tendrils in every aspect of an organization’s work, blurring the line between technology and content, but one person must have the authority to decide priorities and manage some aspect of every program’s work.

This cuts across traditional hierarchical structures, empowering one office or manager to direct the work of those at all levels of the organization. There must be clarity regarding who is responsible for deciding and implementing online strategies, especially when there is a difference of opinion among program managers. And the social media manager explicitly shares responsibility for achieving certain goals in all aspects of the organization.

Implementing a Social Media Strategy

For a social media strategy to be effective, there are several areas that require careful consideration. Most of the tools are so new that it can be difficult to determine best practices available to help guide the strategy. But as with any organizational endeavor, it is important to be upfront about your goals, your audience, staff responsibilities, and the ways you will measure and respond to results.
Set Goals
Social media change quickly, and organizations often charge ahead with including a specific channel (such as Facebook or Twitter) without considering whether it is the best fit for the goal they are trying to achieve. There is no discussion of the un-met need this social media tool will answer. The goal seems to be simply to have a Facebook page or a Twitter account because it’s the thing to do, but to what end? Define your goals—increase donations, get supporters to take action on a specific issue, reach a new audience—to determine the best channel to use.

Even deciding that your goal is to build an online community as a first step toward deeper engagement will help focus your effort. If your goal is to create an online community that you can call on later, that work needs to start now. Too often organizations wait until there is a crisis or a need to mobilize but they have not built the community yet.

Assess Your Audience
Because so many social media channels and tools are new, it can be difficult to assess the audience demand for your information or your services via each channel. In the beginning it may seem to you like the tree falling in an empty forest, so it is important to use your existing communication channels to build audience awareness and interest. Diversifying your channels of communication—online and offline, old media and new media—allows your audience to choose how and when they interact with you, but only if they are aware of the options.

Look at the user stats that are readily available for most media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. If your target audience doesn’t align with those users, the channel may not be the right one for you. Also see online resources such as and the Pew Internet & American Life Project  (, which aggregate and analyze new research that is produced every day on social media usage.

Determine Responsibilities
Determining who will be responsible for implementing the social media strategy is as important as the strategy itself. Consumers of social media culture expect many authentic individual voices to humanize a large organization, but those in charge of marketing and communications may want to speak in a single unified voice through a few designated spokespeople. The single voice is easier to enforce with traditional media—press releases, speeches, op-eds, even websites—but contrary to the culture of social media.

One approach would be to consolidate all communication into the same office as your social media, carefully controlling the outgoing message and enforcing a single decision-making path for setting priorities and allocating resources. But to do so risks losing the authentic individual voices that consumers of social media expect. They want to hear from program officers in the field and to feel like they know each personality. They do not want either the formal corporate communication or a fake congeniality from an anonymous source.

At the other extreme would be to set up guidelines and basic rules, then empower all staff to communicate through social media, in the same way that most organizations allow anyone to answer the phone. This approach increases the likelihood that someone will say the wrong thing and the whole organization takes the heat. It also risks flooding the audience with unfocussed or contradictory messages, too many channels competing for their attention, and a confusing organizational image.

There is not a single answer for finding the right balance. 

Experiment and Adapt
Nonprofits as a whole must carefully steward their resources and invest each penny and minute wisely. The hot social media trend of today is not necessarily going to be here next year. The technology changes fast, and many nonprofits are ill-suited to the speed of innovation.

To excel in social media, an organization must be prepared to risk investing in a strategy or technology that might not reach widespread acceptance. Such early risks are a key to long-term success, which means also accepting that some strategies will not last. You can't control what will be the next be technological breakthrough or future changes to the way specific applications and platforms work. And you can’t control the habits and behaviors of your constituents. But you can control your willingness to explore the technology to meets the needs of your audience. Sometimes you will be wrong and sometimes the technology will change or audience needs will change. You need to measure success partially by a willingness to try, and then learn from and build on each success or failure.


1Charles Arthur, “Eric Schmidt talks about threats to Google, paywalls and the future: Google chief Eric Schmidt tells Activate summit that the future of newspapers is online–and mobile,” Guardian, July 2, 2010. (accessed July 18, 2010).

2Convio, Edge Research, and Sea Change Strategies, The Next Generation of American Giving, March 2010, 6. (Available at