I recently had the honor of speaking to some of the best nonprofits at Action Camp San Antonio 2012. I tried my best to compress into 45 minutes the incredibly detailed and complex topic of not just building an actionable blog but building one that uses volunteers for storytelling and content. I skimmed the upper 5% of the topic, but at least laid out the bones of the effort. I loaded my slides to slideshare.net but I wanted to take my speaker notes and incorporate them into a blog post for additional information. This post is a compilation of my speaker notes (so they are in talking format) and some of my slides.
I’ve spent my professional life as a writer and editor. The last decade I’ve been creating content and content strategies for organizations and companies. I’ve written for a lot of different types of blogs as both a volunteer and paid employee. I have developed and launched blogs with diverse purposes and goals. But they all had one thing in common: be seen and heard to advance the mission.
Some people have experience blogging, in fact, most do in some way. I’ve learned that there are learning curves inherent in each new effort of blogging. Whether it is new subjects, thinking about new ways to post, new balance of tasks, new tools, or new objectives, you can port what you already know into what you need to know, and if you need more, there are always a plethora of resources online.
One of the best ways you can find instructions or ideas for what you need to do with your blog is by reading other blogs!
Core values — the crucial characteristics of a successful blog
Before we get into any breadth or depth of how–we need to discuss why. A lot of people are currently questioning how well online outreach and marketing works. It works very, very well if you do it well.
Most nonprofits are familiar with principles of persuasion and principles of influence. These are important stepping stones to fundraising and recruiting volunteers. It’s how you get people’s attention, persuade them what you’re asking is okay and worth their while (and resources), and convince them not only to take action but to ask their people to do the same. It’s what you do with your organization and it’s what you need to do within your blog. When you do, you accomplish your goals.
A few points I made during my talk were about engagement and the art of storytelling:
- It’s too easy for organizations to receive – take the time or money and let the relationship end there.
- A blog is a way to keep in touch, share where donated resources go and how they help, progressively, in a timely way.
- It’s also a great way to keep up that engagement and build trust.
- You do all of this and you can up not only your initial donations and participation but also your repeated ones.
I then asked participants to write 3 things they could share on a blog, and 3 things they’d hope to get from a blog. The point of this was to learn an important lesson:
- One thing is what you GIVE – a value add for your community.
- One things is what you GET – a return on your investment.
- It’s important to keep these both because a blog is not intended as a space for constant broadcasts and pledge drives.
- You need it to be a real VALUE – that brings readers, builds engagement, and ultimately makes them want to support.
That relates directly back to the principles of persuasion and influence — see how crucial those are? What is real and true (authentic and transparent) behind your content is as important as how good your content is.
One thing I know about nonprofits and their people is that they have so much heart and passion. Show that, share that. Your people are a tremendous asset to building a successful blog.
How to make it all happen
You need a solid, integrated plan. Each organization — of any sort — has a plan. A business plan. A communications plan. A fundraising plan. A volunteer plan. All of these are relevant to a blog plan, and can serve as templates and guides. Most importantly, the blog can be the hub where all of these come together in an actionable way.
Several audience members were unaware of SMART objectives as a the basis of a good plan (strategy). These are useful guidelines, sure, but also important underlying principles that ensure you have a comprehensive plan. To quickly recap what this acronym stands for:
SMART or SMARTERS
- S Specific, Significant, Stretching, Simple
- M Measurable, Meaningful, Motivational, Manageable
- A Attainable, Appropriate, Achievable, Agreed, Assignable, Actionable, Adjustable, Ambitious, Aligned, Aspirational, Acceptable, Action-focused
- R Relevant, Result-Based, Results-oriented, Resourced, Resonant, Realistic
- T Timely, Time-oriented, Time framed, Timed, Time-based, Timeboxed, Time-bound, Time-Specific, Timetabled, Time limited, Trackable, Tangible
- E Evaluate, Ethical, Excitable, Enjoyable, Engaging, Ecological
- R Reevaluate, Rewarded, Reassess, Revisit, Recordable, Rewarding, Reaching
- S Satisfactory, Satisfies, Strategic Vision
Step 1: Choose Your Method
I’ve worked on a variety of blog styles. None are hard and fast and each can be blended into a hybrid. Pick elements that appeal to you and work for your org.
Your biggest issue is getting that consistent and constant content that accomplishes your goals and engages readers/community. Your biggest problems will come from dealing with humans and their needs and egos, and turnover.
Example 1: Open access free posting volunteer blogs. A trusted group is selected and given free access to the blog to post at will. There are guidelines and a general “don’t step on toes.”
- The pros are strong, dedicated volunteers who can post at their convenience, low time demand on staff, and a ready-made draw into the community since the contributors are influencers.
- The con is when everyone ends up busy at the same time, posting drops, traffic drops, and key events may not get covered.
Example 2: Editor style blog: 3-5 dedicated volunteer writers with “beats” and assignments, deadlines, etc. Submit posts to editor, who reviews and ultimately posts.
- The pros are consistent and constant content, oversight to ensure quality and compliance, all necessary areas are covered as needed, content is managed and coordinated, ensuring connection to overall org.
- The cons are time demand, “wrangling volunteers,” managing feelings about being edited, possible beat dry spells or boredom, contributor turnover, editor may need to fill gaps.
Example 3: Single Contributor/Manager. One person is the voice and persona of the blog and writes the majority of the content. This person is the point person between the blog and org.
- The pros are solid and consistent voice and persona that represents the org well, key point person, no scheduling conflict or overlap.
- The cons are time demand, this is going to be a daily task that will take time – planning posts, researching and writing, responding to comments.
Comments are IMPORTANT. You need to respond to these. Plus they can sometimes lead to really engaging content. I shared an example of how a reader question in a comment one time lead to a very popular regular weekly series. I shared another example of how comments from blog posts and social media lead to some great guest posts. These things and people are your very best friends: they help you find a rich vein of content that is engaging and timely, plus it often helps you fill that content need with lower effort.
Plan the direction of your blog: voice and persona, style, content. Who is a shining light in your org or community who people respond well to? What is your community reading frequently and in large numbers? When people from your org speak, how do they behave? What’s the general culture? Remember that blogs tend to be more casual in tone, so seek the “casual Friday” version of the voice versus the “Monday suit” voice.
Step 2: Be organized
Create an editorial calendar: it helps to have regular and consistent content, featured events can blend in. Coordinate with your organization and communications calendars and ensure you highlight and spotlight relevant and timely things. The biggest challenge is getting all areas of your org to talk with each other, especially if you’re large. The blog can – and usually should – be the one spot where everything comes together.
This integration is crucial. Your blog is your outreach and while it ought to reflect back things that interest community, it also needs to reflect out important aspects of your org. Share the calendar with collaborators. If you can use the Cloud, it’s a good spot, such as Google Spreadsheet, to create and share a calendar. If you create a general Blog Folder in Google, it can also be where you store and coordinate article documents.
You need to determine a system of organization for receiving and storing content and posts. Consider different tacks: do you prefer to organize based on topic or date, or by author? You can also subcategorize.
Set a schedule and ensure that you build in time for receiving content, editing it, and posting it. Make sure assignments are clear, and keep everything as much in one place as possible, such as the Editorial Calendar.
Be clear about this schedule with people. Let them know how the process works; for example: submit on 1st, edit by 4th, post by 8th. Put this on the calendar so it is clear. Also let people know where and how to submit ideas for your blog. Internal folks may be great resources. Be clear about the selection process and final say, though.
That’s a great segue to step 3, which focuses on this being clear and communicating.
Step 3: Be Clear
You need guidelines and policies – for everyone who touches your blog.
You need an up-to-date profile.
You need clarity and transparency – about your org, about people at your org who are relevant, about blog contributors.
And OH MY GOSH INCLUDE CONTACT INFORMATION!
This includes things such as:
- Policies for contributors – what to write, how to write and submit, your expectations, what they get in return, what the writing and posting process is, including any editing that may happen
- Policies for guest posts and suggestions for posts – who to contact and how to do it
- Policies for commenting and being a community member – eg bans on profanity or attacks on commenters
- Policies for any promotion or advertisement on your blog (hint: generally? Not a good idea.)
By golly also be clear WHO OWNS THE CONTENT and your and the contributors’ rights to repost elsewhere. This site offers some good information about copyright laws, especially this article about who owns copyrights in works by volunteers.
For the open access free posting volunteer blogs…we allowed contributors to repost something they had written for elsewhere, such as their own personal blog. The caveat was: it had to be germane, it had to be accurate and in line with posting policies, and it had to contain an fresh introductory paragraph, including any appropriate attribution. At that blog, we let each contributor run their own comments but the group had a backchannel communication space to discuss issues or ideas and to ask for assistance. Each of us complied with a general foundation: no profanity, no trolls, and no deleting unless it was a serious issue or threat.
For the Single Contributor blog, the content I posted became the property of the nonprofit. I did not reuse it, and after I completed the project, the content remained there for them to use and reuse as needed elsewhere. Comments were mine to manage but I adhered to a pretty solid “this has to be PG” criteria and was pretty strict about backlinks and promotional comments.
Also consider how you want your good resources – employees, in house volunteers, etc. – to help promote your content. Constant irregular asks can be annoying and net little result. Choose a set time, such as once a week and ask folks then. Provide all the information they need – your trackable links (for measurement) and wording they can use, for FB, Twitter, etc. The easier you make it the better your results.
Step 4: Recruit Volunteers
Yes I saved the best – by which I may mean the most fun challenge — for last.
A lot of people would rather donate a little time – on their own time (and availability) than money. You can always make time.
Choose your method
- Guests — will you use occasional guests, special guests, spotlight volunteers, or use regular – such as weekly – guests? Determine how you will find and recruit them and what goal they will further.
- Regulars – Will you create a “stable” of contributors, with whom you work regularly? How much content will you ask them to contribute (frequency) and what type of content, including length, do you want?
Think of this like DATING – find a compatible person, court that person, select and recruit that person, TRAIN THAT PERSON, SHARE YOUR POLICIES AND PROCEDURES, BE CLEAR ABOUT EXPECTATIONS AND WHERE THIS IS GOING…and make sure they get something that is for them like a “big payoff.”
What are other types of rewards/incentives?
- Publicity and association with a good cause – some celebrities wanted the affiliation and also a pulpit to promote their own health program. It was a way to build interest and get celebrity spokespeople without the big spokesperson fee. Sometimes they wrote their own posts, and sometimes they sent in written answers to written interview questions.
- Promotion of an ally group – sometimes you have friendly organizations in your community. At times, your topics might meet neatly. In that case, some cross content and mutual promotion can benefit you both.
- “Exposure, awareness and impact” – I read this from a volunteer blogger in a volunteer blogger chat. She said that volunteer bloggers are often committed to the cause but also want to build awareness of their own blogging and writing efforts as well as their passion for this cause. So offering big promotion – not just on the blog, but also via your mail list and so forth can help them build cred. It may also give them space to speak about something that they care about but that they may not be a fit in their own space. My own blog was not a big political space, so being invited to volunteer at a political site gave me space to talk about economics, a pet passion topic of mine, and policy. Also, when the blog went national and we got special access and invitations to events, we shared these, allowing us to meet major elected officials, sometimes in very intimate venues, and share our views. I’ve met with policy advisors, heads of parties, presidential candidates, Senators, Speakers of the House and more. It provided that growth and access I craved, and by working with a group, I built bigger and faster than I ever might have on my own.
- Super special volunteers – make your bloggers feel inside the organization, a special part of it. Include them at events – gratis whenever you can – and when possible offer a “VIP” experience. Give public recognition. Show appreciation. As a part of a volunteer group, I’ve often been asked to represent the organization at events such as conferences, sometimes as a guest, sometimes in the booth. It gave me the chance to connect face-to-face with readers and potential new readers. It let me speak passionately aloud versus in writing about something I believed in deeply. It let me feel important and a part.
- Pay them. If you can offer any kind of stipend, do. It creates a business relationships, which is a HUGE pro, and shows how much you value what they do. If you can’t pay in money, pay in other ways. Have a blogger lunch party. Like I said earlier, give them free access to something if you can. Be creative and find ways.
Things to consider:
USE IMAGES and MULTIMEDIA– all sorts. You can use a photograph from an event to tell a little about the event and what happened. You can do a regular profile of employees and volunteers, even better, recipients, using a photo and short biography. Share some video, share drawings, collect photos from attendees at events and in action. Pictures can be worth a 1000 words but also, they grab interest and are easy ways to tell a story.
Other quick ideas for creating content: Collect tweets and Facebook and other posts in Storify and create a quick and fast wrap-up using the great words of others. That’s a short quick, easy way to have content and accomplish that connection and persuasion. Send out 4 questions interviews and get back answers — copy and paste with an image. Do a regular round-up of questions from community members and spotlight an expert from your group to answer these questions. This also builds that sense of openess and dialogue.
Because a blog is NOT A PRESS RELEASE ENGINE or a bully pulpit. Remember the 80/20 rule. That’s 80% about your community and what they want, what is of value to them. Talking about others. 20% talking about you.
More points to ponder:
- ALL Create a spreadsheet with name, contact information, start date (and end date if you agree to a time period), and “beat” or areas of knowledge, as well as a bio Add a tab for potential folks you run across – other bloggers, committed volunteers who are great storytellers and reps, regular commenters (great way to build that and tap interests), frequent connections in social media, etc.
- GUESTS It’s common to use guest bloggers 4-5 times per month. If you have 4 or 5, that’s a once a month ask. Keep a “brainstorm list” of their ideas and plug any relevant ones into the editorial calendar as you can – this is a reward too
- REGULARS Also important to have a spreadsheets. Editorial calendar and clear timeframes (1 week between submitting and posting for edit etc time, for example) crucial
And most of all…believe in yourself. You can create something wonderful and worthwhile.
NTEN – your nonprofit technology community
Things I wish we’d had more time to talk about:
25 SMART social media objectives for nonprofits by Beth Kanter