April 8, 2011

10 rules for how nonprofits should use Twitter

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Guest post by Robin Stephenson
Bread for the World

As a community organizer, Twitter makes a lot of sense. Organizing is about building relationships and mobilizing people around a cause. Twitter does exactly that. I have noticed that many organizations don’t understand that Twitter is a social network of one-on-one peer relationships.

Organizations, although they enter with brand recognition, don’t always become dynamic members of the community. Rather, they just show up and push their own information out. You wouldn’t show up in a real world community stand in the town square and shout your message, so why behave so in a digital one? Just being on Twitter is not enough, but, like real-world organizing, you need to meet people where they are.

I created the following list of rules for my own organization to help the decision makers understand a little clearer how to be more than a town crier getting lost in the traffic noise and make Twitter work better for us, our time investment, and our cause.

Robin’s 10 Twitter Rules for Nonprofits

1. Follow back. Twitter is social. Communities run on reciprocity so follow back the real people who follow you. Having nearly the same amount of followers as you are following is not harmful to your brand. In fact, it shows that you don’t think you are too important to have relationships with the people you want to influence. Periodically you can follow others and then after a couple weeks, you can go to Twitter Karma and see if they follow back. Drop them if they don’t and if they’re not influencers. If they are, you may want to work harder to get them to follow back.

2. Develop relationships. We often ask what is in it for us, but seldom focus on the motivations of the person we want to retweet (RT) our messages so that we can grow our network, increase brand identification, and inspire action for our cause. To make Twitter work for your organization you need free agents, people who don’t work for you but can mobilize others. An organization needs to cultivate relationships with influencers through interaction. By retweeting their content when it is appropriate, you validate them as important and increase their influence. Just like any real-world activist, motivation is triggered by empowerment and shut down with arrogance. And like any thing else, you need to earn respect in the Twitter community; it’s not a given. Look for major influencers using key words associated with your cause. People follow their interest. One key truth of Twitter to keep in mind is that information and action flow through links between peers.

3. Interaction: Asking questions and commenting back when someone has an answer is creating a conversation. Interaction helps build relationships and digital intimacy. Hosting regular chats as part of your strategy can help create more buzz around your topic of interest and is a great way for your organization to crowd source and make your work more relevant. Tweetups might also be a great tool to energize your network of free agents.

4. Acknowledge: Thank people when they RT you. Once or twice a day put together a list of the names of people you interacted with and give them a communal shout out. People like to see who else is connected with a topic and may follow each other. That’s good for you because it will strengthen network ties in your area. #FF (Follow Friday) is a great opportunity to cultivate relationships inside and outside of your base. #FF acknowledges your hard-working free agents, and you can use it to show influencers that you are courting, you know they are tweeting and you are paying attention.

5. Trending topics: Occasionally check them out. If one will fit with your topic, it might open your message up to a wider and different audience.

6. Be authentic: If your organization puts out a couple of tweets a day of your own content with nothing more, Twitter is probably not working for you. People want to know that behind the curtain a real person exists who authentically cares about your cause. Don’t assign Twitter to someone in your organization who doesn’t have an interest in using it effectively. The community can feel lack of interest. If you are having an office celebration or having an interesting event, share it with a twit pic. If you are reading interesting news articles around your issue, be the hub of information and share. Don’t be afraid to put out the occasional silly tweet that will make your followers laugh or an inspiring quote that makes people think.


7. Partnerships are important: Just like you develop relationships with influencers, do the same with other organizations. Find out what other organizations are working around your cause. When they have appropriate content, RT it. You will soon figure out which organizations will work with you and RT your content to their networks as well. This can help introduce you to a new audience that care about the issues. And don’t forget to partner with other departments in your organization and employees who are pushing out your content. You want them to be enthusiastic free agents as well.

8. Strategize: You can’t build a house without a blueprint, and social media isn’t worth the time and money without a roadmap. Build a team (Twitter takes a lot of time investment), decide what your goals are, and set up a plan to get there. You’ll want to brainstorm the appropriate goals for your organization and decide on the ones you can realistically accomplish.

• Decide on your audience target (there may be more than one).

• Use #hashtag searches to identify who is tweeting around the buzz words your organization is associated with.

Map your network to find out where you need improvements and stronger network ties and decide how to improve them.

• Decide how many and types of tweets you want to get out daily to accomplish your goals (organization content, industry news, interactions, humor, pics).

• Decide how you are going to attract influencers and set goals for recruits.

• Decide how you measure results (ROI). Make sure you have scheduled time on your calendar so you can re-evaluate, make changes and incorporate what you hear.

9. Length of tweets: Try and keep your content to fewer than 140 characters. A potential RT may not happen if the free agent has to shorten your tweet for you. Substitution is O.K. in Twitter. Hashtag major buzzwords. You want to make sure that those who follow certain terms see your content. Very occasionally, when you have content that you really want to get around, use “Pls RT.” It should be used sparingly though because it can quickly become a “cry wolf” symbol to your followers when it is attached to everything.

10. Experiment: Don’t just depend on the big ROI patterns, but pay attention to what is getting the most action. Hootsuite allows you to view daily tweets and the amount of clicks each get. Try tweeting out the same content in different ways and see what gets the most attention. Pay attention to what is working in the community. What is grabbing your attention? Keep a file of good ideas that you may want to use in the future.

Robin Stephenson is a field organizer in Portland, Ore., for Bread for the World. She enjoys tweeting as @breadrobin about everything from the latest SNL funny videos to reforming foreign assistance as a way to end hunger and poverty in our world. This article originally appeared at Beth’s Blog.
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5 thoughts on “10 rules for how nonprofits should use Twitter

  1. Thanks Robin, these are excellent rules not only for nonprofits but for anyone who wants to get the most out of Twitter.

  2. According to twitter @breadrobin no longer exists- too bad, I would have liked to have followed her

  3. I especially like #1, #4, and #9.

    During the 2008 campaign, I followed Barack Obama on twitter and was immediately followed back. It was an automated response, but even that was exciting for me.

    I’ve seen #FollowFriday happen a lot and been the recipient of it, but haven’t implemented it myself. I’ll give that a try this week.

    Nice list!


  4. More or less agree w/ all and will share w/ some Non-Profits that would benefit. I would say that your point about how many characters should be lessened. If you tweet in anything close to 140 characters than people won't have space to comment when they RT or mention you. I usually recommend about 120-125 at most.