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There’s More to Marketing than Social Media

We, as nonprofit communicators, are facing a difficult challenge.

The challenge was seeded years ago when social media began to take the nonprofit world by storm. First came blogging. I treasured (and still do) the vitality and vibrancy of blogs as a source of succinct, timely content and discussions. That’s why in 2005 I launched the Getting Attention blog to complement our long-form e-update articles.

But as we continue to be inundated by a plethora of social media tools, many of us have caught the fever, allocating our never-enough-time to experimenting with whatever’s new and shiny—frequently in response to pressure from above. I’m concerned to see nonprofit marketers forsake the well-tested cornerstones of effective nonprofit marketing to do all social media, all the time. Or even 40% of the time.

I get it.

It’s hard to resist jumping on what’s hot. Social media is practically all you hear from marketing experts and nonprofit leaders alike. So much so that many nonprofit leaders frequently push their communicators to jump in, even if they don’t really understand what the “in” is. Several of you have shared with me the pressure you’re feeling – whether self-inflicted or coming from other sources.

This human services agency is using Facebook’s “safe space” to build awareness of its family violence prevention services. That international aid organization is bringing front-line stories of its far-away work to supporters back home via online video. And an online organizing superstar dramatically increases email list counts and quality for his client organizations via social-media advocacy campaigns.

It’s incredibly seductive. Lots of success stories, lots of experimentation and lots of attention. Finally, we communicators are on the leading edge!

Don’t get me wrong.

The excitement generated by social media tools has dramatically changed the marketing landscape and invigorated our field. And I do value the distinct benefits of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and other tools for and for nonprofit clients. Twitter is fantastic for sharing and discussing hot news. Facebook is an ideal way to nurture an engaged community, and enable community members to extend it to their friends.

But these are just tools, and should never lead your marketing agenda. Dedicating 40% or more of your organization’s marketing resources to social media all too often comes at the expense of the fundamentals that form the foundation for effective marketing. I promise you that for every nonprofit social media success story you hear, there are three or more failures. They are there—but folks are just too shy to share them.

Core marketing is your path to breakthrough results—beginning with a thorough, proactive, ambitious, but realistic marketing plan that defines your steps to make the most of what your organization has to offer, in a way that connects with the network you need to engage.

Social media tools just won’t do that. But focusing on the cornerstones will—from planning to getting to know your audiences, crafting relevant messages, defining the best channels  to engage those folks in productive conversation and action, and measuring the impact of your work.

Here’s the dilemma. Many times when I talk marketing cornerstones to nonprofits I get a nod, but that’s about it. It’s only about half the time a nonprofit marketer agrees that the cornerstones come first, with social media somewhere down the line. These are the folks who most frequently report dramatic marketing wins to me.

That leaves at least half of you who are missing out on your nonprofit marketing potential.

In the last two months, others I respect greatly have articulated the same perspective.  Social media wizard Chris Brogan recently highlighted the problem with social-only nonprofit campaigns, cautioning us to avoid littering the online communications landscape. MarketingProfs contributor Elaine Fogel asked Isn’t Anyone Using Offline Marketing Anymore?

Most significantly, nonprofit innovators Beth Kanter (the nonprofit social media guru) and Allison Fine published The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, in which they position social media as a principle means, not end, for effective nonprofit operations today.

These social media and marketing experts join me in asserting that social media tools are just that, tools. And warn of the dangers of mistaking them for strategies. But despite the fact that the choir is growing in size, I bet many of you remain skeptical that there’s nothing more important right now, nonprofit marketing wise, than finding ways to use social media to advance your organization’s mission.

I want to ask for your feedback.

For those of you who believe in the value of marketing cornerstones, and maintain them as the heart of your nonprofit marketing work:

  • Why do you do so in the face of so many social media options?
  • How do you respond to leadership and colleague pressure to do more with social media when your resources are already limited?
  • How can we build understanding among our peers that the basics must come first?

For those of you feel that social media is your MOST important focus now, please share your strategies:

  • How do you decide what to do social media wise?
  • How do you measure results?
  • How do you communicate effectively without having to tackle the marketing basics I rely on?

There’s no single way to do it right. But I also know that that marketing cornerstones remain the right way to go, even in the shadow of the new and shiny.

Baby and bathwater; we can have it all. Hearing your ideas and experiences will help. Please share them here.

Thanks, in advance for participating in the discussion!

Nancy Schwartz in Social Media, Strategies and Campaigns | 18 comments

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  • Nancy, thank you for speaking out on this! I share your concern about folks neglecting the fundamentals in favor of whatever is bright and shiny at the moment. ROI is ignored in favor of cutting costs.

    Case in point: A large, well-established organization slashes its four-color magazine-format newsletter — which over the years has been the single most important touch point for folks who make planned gifts. ROI was many-1000-percent, but the “cost” looked high on the budget, so let’s trim it down and substitute an email newsletter.

    What, no email addresses for those folks? They like to have something to hold in their hands and put on the coffee table? They read every word and keep it forever … and then respond to the planned giving ad that’s always on the inside back cover?

    Oh, who needs bequests and charitable remainder trusts when you can have $10 online donations instead?

    Pardon my sarcasm, but these kinds of short-sighted decisions really concern me.

    Much more could be said about the offline work people seem to be shunning — especially face-to-face outreach and personal relationship-building. Not to mention other fundamentals, like making sure the organization is doing amazing work so there’s something to talk about.

    Again, thank you for getting this conversation going.

  • This is such an important article, Nancy. My approach, as you know, was outlined in my guest post on your blog.

  • You couldn’t be more right with this post, Nancy. As much as I love the promise of social media, it’s simply another set of tactics … sometimes very effective, sometime not as effective as other more traditional tactics. Social media is NOT a substitute for a well-crafted marketing plan that ties marketing goals to business objectives, lays out strategies that attempt to meet those objectives, and THEN identifies those tactics that best execute on strategy. Jumping directly to tools and tactics has never been a good idea, and yet we see it all the time. Thanks again for this cogent reminder.

  • For those of you who believe in the value of marketing cornerstones, and maintain them as the heart of your nonprofit marketing work:

    Why do you do so in the face of so many social media options? I believe that the majority of donors are on the older side and like the traditional methods of being contacted. It is about people and personal contact – that is a fundamental that will not change.
    How do you respond to leadership and colleague pressure to do more with social media when your resources are already limited? My assistant, who is in the early 30 age bracket, just could not accept the fact that I was not willing to get into the social media sceen. However, given time constraints of being a part time director I always felt that my time was better spent else where. Citing articles, such as yours and an earlier one from Chronicle of Phil, helps refute the ‘buzz’ around this subject.
    How can we build understanding among our peers that the basics must come first? By continuning to address the issue and providing facts which point to where success lies.

    Nice article, I was thrilled to read it as it again recomfirmed my gut instinct about social media being the end all!

  • Nancy,

    Thanks for this — so thought-provoking I had to answer your questions on my own blog!

    I’ve really been working to help my clients incorporate social media into their direct mail strategies, and I think there is a lot more to be done. But I get nervous when a board member suggests tossing out the tried-and-true to save money or be on the cutting edge, reaching younger, hipper donors. Lots of food for thought here.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks, Richelle, for your thoughtful note and blog post. What shouts out to me from you post is that proven is the way to go with most of a nonprofit’s marketing. It’s the only way that makes sense.

    That being said, I’m in favor of knowing what the newer and untested channels are and, perhaps with 10% or 20% max of communications resources, putting them to work to find what works. Those become the new “provens.”

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Pam, your example is no surprise. A colleague recently interviewed for a communications/fundraising position with a well-known nationally-renowned nonprofit organization in the advocacy. She was asked for her response/strategy to their plan to devote 100% of development resources to social media in the coming year!

    As dramatic and hard to believe as these stories are, they are true. So beware. Embrace social media, but remember that it is indeed a toolset and working through your marketing cornerstones – planning, knowing your network and prospects, message development, etc – will show you whether it’s a tool that will have meaning, or not, for your organization.

  • “How much marketing should an organization do?” That answer is almost as easy as choosing the egg or the chicken first.

    The Cultural Center of Charlotte County, which is the nonprofit organization that holds my heart has been in our community for 49 years. With that, the whole community is aware….of the name. As the community has changed, so has some our cultural responsibility to the community.
    There are some things that will never change:
    We are the “Place that Friendship Built”
    Our building blocks are our founders. They wanted something for the community.
    Our lifeblood is our volunteers. Over 600 volunteers come to help grow the Center with their love
    Our donors are our shelter. They have been so great in keeping us strong, even in the midst of storms.

    Marketing is the pathway to the organization. The more paths you have, the more traffic it will bring to your organization

    We haveadded social media to our marketing a few years ago. From email marketing, to facebook, these avenues have created new pathways to addition awareness of our organization and all 12,000 happenings we have going on here each year. Each event brings in new builders to our organization.

    Do we credit social media only for all those who come to the Cultural Center for the first time? No. But we credit some. Less than 10 minutes a day is supported by staff. About two hours a week total is done in social media- and our computer savvy volunteers jump on the opportunity to share what is going on at the Cultural Center, and promote using social media.

    But never forget the highways that helped so many lead to your organization. Sometimes there may be some construction, or uplifts that have to be done on these roads, but the repair is worth the expense.

    Is social media right for you? Answer this: Can you give 15 minutes a day to build your organization?

  • Nancy–I was reading your article while waiting to get my coffee this morning at my local coffee shop (I live in Seattle…it’s part of the mandatory morning routine here!) and I actually yelled, “Amen to that!” while reading your piece. You are spot on.

    Frustrated and saddened that, in their rush to embrace social media, so many organizations were losing sight of the importance and efficacy of the basics, we created the ‘1, 2, 3 Marketing Tree’ (, a poster-size planning tool for nonprofits who want a marketing plan that is simple, doable and grounded in their mission, goals and audience. In the upper right-hand corner is the space for mechanisms. It gets maybe 10% of the total real estate because first you have to think through WHAT your goals are and WHO you need to reach to achieve them. Then, finally, it gets into the HOW. How will you talk to those people who believe in what you’re doing and how will you reach them.

    I love, love, love social media and it can be a fantastic tool, but the bad rap tried n’ true tools are getting is downright worrisome, as you so eloquently note.

    Thank you so much for your wonderfully balanced and discussion-provoking article!

  • Dawn

    I think social media represents an opportunity for smaller non-profits to gain and capture a wider audience than they might have through more traditional opportunities. For small non-profits in particular it represents a significant challenge and one I’ve had to face on a very real level with my little non-profit. After much time studying the various tools — and you are correct they are tools we have decided to embark upon a social networking strategy, but only in conjunction with the full development of our “marketing messages” and an editorial calendar.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    I’m with you, Donna. That 15 minutes a day dedicated to social media is, in the case of some organizations, all the organization should be spending. It should never be nothing (have to be comfortable with all communications channels, so you know when to put each to use) and it may be more, or much more!

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Thanks for sharing the marketing tree, Erica. It’s always so useful to see different approaches to key nonprofit marketing cornerstones. The “visualness” of the tree makes it particularly accessible!

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Yes, Dawn, social media can indeed be a leveler when used strategically! Thanks for raising this very important point.

  • Everyone wants to get on the “it” train and they seem to forget that “it” doesn’t run without a solid rail bed, rails, etc. Without developing a clear message, without a plan, without the tools needed to cultivate the people “discovered” via social media an organization will quickly sputter. Unfortunately, we are some times thrust into Social Media before we have a good foundation laid. So, we don’t get the “most” out of this new tool.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Love the analogy, Christina. You’re right on track!

  • Tony Mariani

    Great article.

    I would suggest to you that nothing will happen without a plan!

  • Thanks for a thoughtful article Nancy. I’m just wondering…do you think the cornerstone vs. social media-laden strategy is more than anything, demographic in nature? The younger marketers have been spoon feed on social media while their elders have been practicing the cornerstone approach for some time and maybe supplement their strategies with social media. And if that theory holds true, that we might see a trend continuing to grow toward developing more extensive social media strategies than anything else?

  • Social Media onlyy works for people who are already deeply envolved and engaged with your org. I may pay a quick “Like” to you, but I will quickly grow bored and delete your email newsletters and hide you from my newsfeed if I don’t have a real life engagement with you. It reminds people who already love you that you’re around during the in between of your tried and true methods (newsletters, anual reports, letters to the editor, articles in local paper).

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