A Playbook for Virtual Branding

Audio Description

The pandemic is prompting many mission-driven organizations to step up their online game. Most already have a web site. But far fewer have fundamentally changed the way they operate and build their brand in this increasingly online world. That must change. Nonprofits offer a vital pathway to action for those who feel compelled to respond to today’s unfolding crises. But what’s the best way to get your message out? How can you attract more followers and convert clicks into volunteers and donations? Bernstein’s own in-house marketing experts offer detailed, prescriptive advice for ramping up your social media presence and amplifying your mission online. 


00:00 - 00:34

Hi, I'm Clare Golla, Head of Endowment and Foundation Advisory Services at Bernstein. Welcome to Inspired Investing, where we inform and educate organizations and individuals who strive to invest purposefully with and for a mission. The pandemic is prompting many mission driven organizations to step up their online game, so most already have a website, but far fewer have fundamentally changed the way that they actually operate and build their brand in this increasingly online world.

00:35 - 01:04

Today, we're sharing excerpts from a virtual branding event we recently hosted for nonprofits and foundations across the country. Our panelists included three of our in-house experts, marketing specialist Alyssa McKee and Niki Polansky, help our own Bernstein financial advisors strengthen their online brands. And Margaret Borrasso works on the front lines of our Endowment and Foundations team. So Margaret kicked us off. She's been spending a lot of time recently with boards of directors in particular discussing outreach.

01:05 - 01:40

We've gotten flooded with questions about the fact that in-person meetings and events have been canceled this spring and summer. But on the other hand, there's this stigma against spamming or flooding people with too much direct mail. And on top of that, there's, of course, this increasing desire to understand how to appropriately connect regarding the unfolding racial justice movement. So suffice to say, there's an incredible amount going on and a lot of us really aren't sure where to begin. Here's Margaret on how she's advising organizations these days in terms of messaging. A lot of the questions that I've been getting from clients are, do we reach out?

01:40 - 01:50

Isn't it better to take a step back like we recognize we aren't the most important or only thing going on in the world right now? How could we make an ask or connect with people right now?

01:50 - 02:16

And my advice is, that's the worst thing you could be doing, is staying silent right now. Don't be silent because stewardship and retention are the most important things you could be doing now more than ever. Staying in touch with your donors, cementing these really major relationships and close friendships is key.  Reaching out, checking in on them, thanking them, and listening to them, but also informing and arming them with information of what you've got going on right now.

02:17 - 02:51

How are you adapting and how are you kind of becoming even more relevant in this point in time. And how will you be relevant on the other side of this. I was talking to someone from the Lilly School, a professor there this week, and she cited some research they had done, that in downturns or times like this, organizations who keep in contact and stay engaged with their donors have a much easier time coming out the other side, but recovering post a downturn if you weren't staying engaged with your donors, they've realized, you know, donors move on and re-prioritize on the other side.

02:51 - 03:17

So if you're silent, that's not great. And people are listening right now, is the other thing. Nonprofits, foundations, organizations, like everyone on this call, people are listening. You guys are on the forefront of every crisis in every situation right now. Real-time studies are showing that nonprofit emails are getting opened at rates far outpacing any other industry right now. And why are they listening?

03:17 - 03:44

Your organizations give people a pathway to action. People right now are at home isolated, seeing all these different crises going on and want to do something, want to have an impact. Your organizations are an avenue to do that, have some sense of control and ownership, and be a part of something bigger. And it's not just nonprofits, but foundations, too, who can be engaging with folks around their grantees and the work that their grantees are doing.

03:44 - 04:08

So investing in Virtual, like you said, Clare, is huge new technology, but remembering to be authentic and showing that empathy, ROI, all these things. Which is why I'm so glad, Niki and Alyssa are here, to talk about not only medium, but also message, because those two things right now are so important. OK, so we've got it, we know we should be connecting with donors, but what's next?

04:08 - 04:42

Do we go to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram? What do we do? I turn to our in-house branding expert, Alyssa, to walk through the most common platforms and the audiences for each. And we asked her which messaging works best on each of those platforms. You know, it can be very daunting just given the number of platforms that are out there and the new ones that continue to pop up like the most recent TikTok. But before we even get into the platform, the first step really is defining your audience. Think about the current people who care about your organization and your mission already. Right.

04:42 - 04:57

So think of your donors, your volunteers and your staff, because they're likely to have a lot in common with potential future donors and supporters. What is it that they care about? What are their values? What are their interests?

04:57 - 05:30

Where are they going to consume information? Which platforms are they most active on? Many of you probably have personal social media accounts. You can do this by connecting with your staff and your supporters via social media directly and taking a look at what they're engaging with and what are they commenting on and what type of posts are they posting. So definitely important to start with the audience here, because, I'll go through it in just a second, but every platform has a slightly different audience in terms of demographic and also a slightly different purpose.

05:30 - 05:46

I'm going to start with the most popular one, which is Facebook. Facebook is used to connect with family, friends. It's a great place for storytelling through photos and images, videos, and it's a great place to build community.

05:47 - 06:09

What's also important to note is that Facebook has actually become a great fundraising tool for nonprofits. Not only do they offer that donate button now on the fundraiser, on the nonprofits page on Facebook, but individuals like you and me, we can start our own donation campaign around our birthday and raise money for a nonprofit or a cause that we're passionate about.

06:10 - 06:36

But it does tend to lean slightly older. My husband's great grandmother is on Facebook. And then in terms of Instagram, which is a great way to tell your brand story and storytelling through high quality videos, high quality images, and it creates that personal connection with your followers. In terms of demographics for Instagram, it is a great place to reach millennials and Gen Xers.

06:36 - 07:10

So typically most users are under the age of 40 on Instagram, but there is a wide range. So as Alyssa suggested, both Instagram and Facebook are great for community building. Each attracts a very wide age range, although Instagram tends to skew a little younger, while Facebook skews a little bit older. They're both really good for storytelling and what we call image-first platforms. Apart from that, Alyssa also noted that with Instagram, besides images and videos, definitely use hashtags. It's very important.

07:11 - 07:41

Hashtags are key words that are important to you, that resonate and are relevant with your cause, your mission, your organization, things that you actually believe in and your interests, if you tag and add those hashtags to your posts, that broadens your reach, because if individual users are going and searching for keywords, your post is going to pop up because it had that hashtag there. Alyssa then moved on to two other platforms, LinkedIn and Twitter. As we all know, I think, LinkedIn

07:41 - 08:12

was a tool that was designed for professionals and it is a great networking tool. So most LinkedIn users are college graduates under the age of 65. LinkedIn is a great tool because of the thought leadership and networking, nonprofits can network with potential donors, with partners, supporters. It's also a great tool to recruit staff, volunteers, board members because it is highly used as a recruiting tool.

08:12 - 08:26

The last here is Twitter, and Twitter is best used to start conversations. And so it's conversations and dialogue around timely trending topics, real-time updates.

08:26 - 08:48

Users tend to predominantly be male and under the age of 40, which was actually a little surprising to me when I was researching some of the data a while back. But the other important data point that I wanted to highlight that I was surprised by, too, was that most users on Twitter only spend three minutes a day on the Twitter app.

08:48 - 09:06

So when you go on Twitter, you'll see that most of the posts are very brief, they're concise, short, short context, and maybe a video or an image. So Alyssa wrapped it up by noting that LinkedIn and Twitter are better platforms for thought, leadership, and starting conversations.

09:06 - 09:10

So that's why they're really considered a quote unquote content- first platform.

09:11 - 09:42

But having different platforms does not mean that you have to recreate the wheel. So you can focus on a single message, but then just frame it for different audiences based on what's going to be most compelling for those different audiences. I think that's one of the things that feels so daunting for so many organizations, is they think that they have to create this completely different message and content for all of these different audiences. But really, it's just a different version or lens of the very same message. Now, the big question became, how do you make that message as effective as it can be? What makes your story compelling?

09:43 - 10:08

So our brand experts spend months on this when they're working with our financial advisors. Niki was able to distill it down to just a few best practices. What I'd like to start with is a little bit ago I read a Huffington Post article and it talked about three types of information that can be shared. And so the first was facts. The second was opinions, and the third was stories. And it talked about how stories are really unique.

10:08 - 10:41

They're engaging and they actually allow for us to relate to situations a little bit better. So some examples of ways that you can set the stage or you can share how your nonprofit foundation or organization came to be. What's your why, who's involved? Why did they choose to get involved, whether they be volunteers or board members? You can share stories of beneficiaries as well. You can also set the stage around conflict. How did you encounter it? How did you overcome it? So all of those are really great examples of things that you can share.

10:41 - 11:00

And then I think something else that's important to bring to light, as Margaret had mentioned earlier, just around current events and not staying silent, is also setting the stage with what's going on with current events. So thinking about how does that impact your mission, maybe you can share what your stance is or what you're doing to be a part of the solution.

11:00 - 11:31

The last thing that I would want to share around social media is that it's called social media for a reason. So you need to be social in order for it to be successful. So it's not just about putting content out there, but it's also about engaging with your audience. So should somebody want to leave an expression like a like on one of your posts or even a comment, it's so important that you engage them back, write them, write responses, share insights. All of those things will lead to success when it comes to getting your social media strategy together.

11:32 - 11:55

So whether you're an executive or you're a board member of a nonprofit, I think that being vulnerable and telling your true story and really showing that humanity rather than just a professional headshot or something like that really goes a long way. I always think about the ending of the story being open ended, like you can be a part of it or be a part of the potential solution as you as a member really support that organization.

11:55 - 12:19

I love that idea. So a part of that ending should probably also be some sort of punch line, demonstrating outcomes, demonstrating some sort of statistics, showing some of the great work that an organization has done and coupling it with real stories or examples that can engage the audience, so I don't know about you and I feel like I could really think through and do this once, but that once is not really a program.

12:20 - 12:48

So that's why Alyssa rejoined Niki to help get our arms around what an actual social media strategy might look like, complete with preplanned scheduling. In order for this really to all work and to actually be worth our time, because it does take time and effort, is to have a social media strategy upfront and also a content calendar. We've already covered two critical components to a social media strategy, the first one being defined in your audience, and then the second one being choosing the right platform.

12:49 - 13:21

And one thing that I do want to stress around choosing the right platform is that it's OK to start small. If you don't, if you realize that based on your target audience, that Facebook and Instagram and LinkedIn, all three would be relevant and would be great platforms to post on, you don't have to start with all three. Let's just say it's Facebook as an example. Post content, give it a few months and then take a look back and look at your content and the engagement. What got the most interaction?

13:21 - 13:50

Did you get emails from some of those posts? What was that conversion rate from someone just following and liking your posts to actually giving you an email or reaching out and saying, I want to volunteer or I want to donate. And so I think it's just critical, especially in the environment today, to make note of that, though, that comes, that is aligned with not only the platforms that you choose, the number of platforms that you're on, but also the number of times you're posting. You don't have to post every day.

13:51 - 14:16

So those are the first two. Setting goals, setting social media goals would be the third in terms of our strategy. Goals are aligned with your organization's objectives. So what are your organization's objectives and how do your social vehicles align with that is another key component to that. The other one would be also creating that content calendar.

14:16 - 14:43

So planning ahead one to two months in advance, taking a look at what's going on. Do you have any virtual events coming up? Do you have virtual volunteer opportunities? Are there people in your community, donors, supporters, advocates that are doing things out in the community to help fulfill your mission, being able to know what's coming up one to two months in advance, and then dropping that into the calendar and saying, OK, this week I'm going to post this.

14:43 - 14:57

The following week I'm going to post an article that I know is relevant to, maybe it's legislative change that's relevant to your organization. Time is a very valuable resource. And so you don't want to post content just to post content.

14:57 - 15:24

And I think that if you set some key performance indicators and you measure your progress against those, and that'll just, that will give you the insights to know what's working and what's not and how you need to pivot moving forward. When you think of an actual strategy for content and how to schedule it out, I like to apply the 70-10, 70-20-10 rule, which we're not as prescriptive with in terms of our advisors.

15:24 - 15:45

But I think the overall thing here really is majority of your content should add value to your community. So when you think of value content, a couple of examples of those would be educational or informative posts, behind the scenes, or sharing other people's stories within your organization.

15:45 - 16:19

As Niki mentioned earlier, this could be an interview, this could be a short video, and then 20 percent would be highlighting others. That could be highlighting partners, and partnerships that you have within your community. It could be highlighting other nonprofits that are working towards a common cause and mission. It could also be highlighting an article that is, whether it's CNN or a nonprofit place that you go for information.

16:19 - 16:23

Right. You can post those articles if they're relevant to your purpose.

16:24 - 16:57

And then 10 percent, we say, is promotional content. So 10 percent is what you would think of as making that direct ask. And I say direct because there are ways to make indirect asks whistle on social media and with posts, it can seem like a lot to take on. But there are definitely some creative, fun ways that you can do this. And there's also a lot of free apps out there that you can take advantage of, like scheduling apps like Hootsuite, Planoly, a few others. I like to think of content really in three buckets.

16:58 - 17:23

The first is having evergreen content that you can build a backup of as well. So that way you have in case you're in a pinch or you don't have something relevant to share, you can pull from your library of evergreen content. The second one is current and timely to you and your organization's needs. And then the third bucket of content would be current and timely to current issues that are taking place out in society.

17:23 - 17:49

So, for example, right now, the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. So our discussion wrapped up with this all important question of how to amplify our social media presence overall. The trick is really to get this out there, the message out there beyond ourselves. Right. So how can you tag others, ensure that they're spreading the content through their networks, really getting it out there beyond, you know, your great content that you have, but you don't have enough people to see it yourself.

17:49 - 18:05

So is there a benefit of putting some sort of budget behind boosting each post? Niki added her two cents here. So what I know about boosters is there's two ways you can go about it. The first way is you can do paid advertising and that'll get your messaging out.

18:05 - 18:32

The other way is you can pay a booster to increase your following base based on keywords. So, for example, if I really liked tennis, I could pay someone who would then go through Instagram and find accounts that like tennis-related things and then follow them and engage with them in hopes that they would then want to follow me back and engage with me. So those are two different types of ways you can boost.

18:32 - 18:59

I don't necessarily know if there is value in jumping to that right away. I think that there are other tools that you can use that would benefit you in advance to then see if it's worth your budget to then put money into marketing in that way. One of the best ways is to, as you do events, you engage with people or you highlight various initiatives @-tagging people.

18:59 - 19:04

So when you @-tag someone, it also shows up on their profile and therefore at their feed.

19:04 - 19:32

And anybody who follows them will also see what you have there. Also, if you partner with any organizations as well for things, also @-tag them, this is also another great opportunity for you to engage your volunteers and then also any board members that you have or anybody who's been a beneficiary of any of your work, asking all of them to participate in elevating your social branding is a great, easy tool. It's very organic and authentic.

19:33 - 20:05

And I feel like that does a lot more for you and your mission than maybe paying for a paid advertisement or for boosting your followers. Margaret works with a lot of boards of directors and ambassadors to organizations, so she weighed in here as well. Yeah, first off, I totally agree it's not the first thing to jump to having worked with and at nonprofits myself, and being very budget conscious, it does cost money. So it's definitely something to explore before paying for it and figuring out if it's even worth paying for.

20:06 - 20:39

As for board members and people who are advocates, I always tell people to activate their advocates and right now is a really easy time to do so. If you're evangelizing to your top donors and your top board members and everyone who is already a really close friend of the organization, tell them your story first, or if you're a board member on this call, ask to be trained in how to tell the organization's story. So many organizations ask their board members to go be advocates and that's the conversation. Go be an advocate. There's no follow-up with,

20:39 - 21:02

here's how you be an advocate and here's what we want you to say, and here's what our story is. So now is a great time, we're being kind of pushed in this new environment to take a step back, back to basics, and inform and educate these groups of people, train them in how to tell your story, host virtual discussions on what your story is, what are the messages, and how can those messages create deeper relationships.

21:03 - 21:37

Don't assume your board members know what the organization's story is or what they should be saying, and give them practice opportunities or as a board member, ask for practice opportunities. As a former staff member, I would have been so happy if a board member came to me and asked for an opportunity to tell the story. Granted, definitely give them comfortable ones to start; thanking people is a great way to get board members comfortable in that storytelling space and slowly stewarding them along to be cultivators and fundraisers themselves. So there you have it.

21:38 - 22:07

Thanks to all our guests for sharing best practices for virtual branding and thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe to Inspired Investing on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you'd like to learn more about Bernstein's Endowment and Foundation Advisory services, explore the link in this episode's description. Bernstein: Making Money Meaningful for individuals, families, and foundations for over 50 years. Visit us at Bernstein.com.

Clare Golla
National Managing Director—Philanthropic Services

The information presented and opinions expressed are solely the views of the podcast host commentator and their guest speaker(s). AllianceBernstein L.P. or its affiliates makes no representations or warranties concerning the accuracy of any data. There is no guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion in this material will be realized. Past performance does not guarantee future results. The views expressed here may change at any time after the date of this podcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. AllianceBernstein L.P. does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. It does not take an investor’s personal investment objectives or financial situation into account; investors should discuss their individual circumstances with appropriate professionals before making any decisions. This information should not be construed as sales or marketing material or an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any financial instrument, product or service sponsored by AllianceBernstein or its affiliates.

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