9 Ways Nonprofits Can Succeed With Social Media Ads

Children in Nepal who have been helped by World Vision.
World Vision created this moving ad on Twitter to help raise funds for survivors of the Nepal earthquake. World Vision

It’s time for nonprofits to stop thinking about social media platforms as free marketing channels.

There are millions of eager users lining up to read posts and tweets from your nonprofit, but they may never have the chance to see most of them. Unless your nonprofit is willing to put some bucks on the table.   

There was a time when social media was almost completely free. Many nonprofits scrambled to try out Facebook, Twitter, and others to reach their fans and gain new supporters.

That is no longer true. Still, despite organic reach plummeting and attention spans shrinking, nonprofits have largely resisted, much less embraced, paid advertising on social media.

Even so, digital advertising, including social media and mobile ads, increased 28% in 2014 over 2013.  “Native Ads” – advertisements that match the tone, content and look of the site where they live – are exploding in popularity. The best ones are often indistinguishable from other content on the site – think about the look of Sponsored Posts in the Facebook News Feed or Promoted Tweets in your Twitter stream. Those ads are winning more eyeballs every day.

If this trend continues, nonprofits who do not budget some money for paid social advertising will get left in the News Feed dust.  

However, just because social media has become “pay-to-play” does not mean that small nonprofits have to quit social entirely. Success on social media never came cheap in the first place – it requires a constant investment of time, resources, and professional development.

So how can cash-strapped nonprofits use paid social advertising effectively? Here are nine things your nonprofits needs to do to run a social advertising campaign that ends up paying for itself.

1) Set a goal.

Often I hear about nonprofits just clicking on the “Boost Post” button, or creating a generic Facebook Ad, with no plan or end goal in mind.

That's like flushing money down the toilet. Before you create a social media advertising campaign, think about what you hope to accomplish.

Do you want to increase donations? Blog readership? Event attendance? Email sign ups?

Social ads need a crystal clear Call-to-Action to be successful. Always be thinking about how you will measure the results of your paid advertisement – not in “goodwill” or “awareness raised” but in cold, hard numbers.

2) Set a budget.

You can achieve great results with a modest budget for social ads. Try $50 to start. All the platforms that offer advertising allow you to set a daily budget, a total amount, and the dates for the campaign.

Think of creating this advertisement just as you would develop a specific marketing or fundraising campaign, with a start, middle and an end. The budget should reflect how many days you want to run the campaign, how many people you wish to see the ad and what the results are worth to you.

If you spend $50 on an ad and get 34 new email newsletter sign ups, what is that worth? It’s time to get data-driven in your marketing decisions, and paid social is a great way to start.

3) Target. Please, please target.

It will do you no good if you want to reach Millennials, but you do not target your ad to reach them.

If you are having an event in Boston, but you target the event invitation to everyone in the nation, this is not an efficient use of funds.  

Targeting your social ad is the most important part of the process. Think about who you want to reach. Without strategic audience targeting, your ad will fall flat and fail. However, the best part of social advertising is the ability to pinpoint the groups and the people you want to reach!

On Twitter, you can target by keyword or key phrase. You can also target an ad to another account’s followers. If you are a national women’s charity, you can create an ad that will show up to the Twitter followers of charities with similar missions.

What a brilliant strategy – much more cost-effective and ethical than the old-school method of buying mailing lists!   For details on setting up a targeted Twitter ad, visit their business blog.

Facebook ad targeting can and should be hyper-specific. Dave Kerpen, CEO of Likeable Local, said, “"You know what's cooler than reaching a billion people on Facebook? Reaching the right 1,000 people for your business, or the right 100, or the right 10 or the right one."

To test out Facebook targeting methods, Kerpen famously took out an ad specifically targeting married, female, 34-year-old employees of Likable Media. The ad said, "I love you, Carrie." And only his wife, of the billion people on Facebook, saw it! That’s the extreme of targeted!

Your nonprofit may want to target more than just one person (but that would be a neat way to thank a major donor or event sponsor). Use the available tools to identify your key audience through location, demographics, interests, online behaviors and even other advanced targeting methods.

For more specifics on Facebook ad targeting, read How to target Facebook Ads on their blog.

4) Use eye-catching visuals.

In the world of social media, nonprofits are always competing for the attention of users in the Facebook News Feed, Twitter stream, Instagram feed, and the like. Getting seen is a relentless battle that pits nonprofits not only against other nonprofits. We also compete with businesses, interest groups, ads, politicians, news, and, of course, the user’s own family and friends.

When starting a social advertising campaign, it is vital to have the right visuals. What constitutes the “right” visual? One that resonates with your target audience and compels them to complete the desired action. 

Does this seem like a tall order? Maybe. However, it is a well-established fact that visuals drive engagement across all social platforms. All nonprofits, regardless of size or budget, need to join the visual marketing party.

5) Only promote the best stuff.

I follow the mantra coined by John Haydon – Only promote awesome. Do not push a post that was ignored by your fans on Facebook – they ignored it for a reason! Choose ones that caused a stir, created a discussion or received a few shares. Boosting its reach with advertising will only help it go even further and touch more and more people.

Do not pay to put a half-baked, poorly-worded ad with a pixilated image out into the social universe! Choose your wording and your images very carefully. Use graphics and other language that has worked in the past to engage your supporters and elicit a response. Check over email blasts, tweets, pins, photos and videos for the absolute best content to promote. 

6) Make it ridiculously easy.

Where I see many nonprofits failing on social media and in paid social is the number of obstacles they put in the way of getting the desired action. If you are running a particular campaign to register more people for an event, do not send people to your main website homepage where they have to spend a few seconds searching for the Register button!

And no, I do not care that the button is right there, on the home page, in bright red 100-point font. If you are asking a user to click on a link in an ad, and you are paying for that click, you need to be sending them directly to the place they want to go!

Here’s where landing pages come in handy. Landing pages are specific mini-websites or pages located on your website that detail exactly what you want a person to do after they have clicked on a link. They are built to serve a particular objective – getting a donation, for example. For nine tips on using landing pages with your paid social campaign, read this post by HootSuite.

7) Speak the language of each site.

What will work well on Twitter may not work well on Pinterest. Each social media platform has its distinct strengths and weaknesses. Also, your target audience may look very different across each social channel.

Take some time to explore what kinds of posts, tweets and pins get the most traction and engagement with your fans and followers. Make sure to follow the Terms of Service of each site or your advertisement could get removed.

8) Test. And test again.

Social advertising is not a “once-and-done” kind of thing. If the ad isn’t working or getting you the results that you expected, re-evaluate.

Change the image. Wordsmith the language. Sometimes the smallest tweak can make a huge difference in your results.

Some organizations run two or even three ads at the same time and eliminate the ones that are not performing over a short period.

9) Optimize for mobile.

With the majority of social media usage taking place on mobile devices (via the Facebook, Twitter apps), your nonprofit needs to ensure that you optimize your online content for mobile viewing.

To find out if your website content is mobile-ready, read my article What the New Change to Google Search Means for Your Nonprofit Website and check out Google’s free Mobile-Friendly Test.

Whether you are a small organization or a large one, your target audience the entire world or one small town, paid social advertising is a fairly low-cost and easy way to accomplish your marketing goals.

It’s time to stop complaining about the decrease in reach on social media and direct that energy to some paid social advertising. Even a small budget, if targeted well, could create a huge payoff.

Julia Campbell is a social media whirlwind and frequent contributor to this site. We love her expertise and real concern about helping nonprofits succeed with social marketing. Check out her complete bio for info about her blog, webinars, and more.