2 Ways to Build a Nonprofit Audience

Lou
Kotsinis

As an immigrant to this country, my father learned through trial and error how to build a business, and a life. To this day, he shares his wisdom through aphorisms: the early bird gets the worm; politics make strange bedfellows; hope for the best, expect the worst, and so on. When it came to business, one of his favorites was:

You can have the best product in the world, but if nobody knows about it, you’re not going to get very far.

This same advice applies to the nonprofit world. The larger your reach, the more opportunity you’ll have to achieve your organization’s goals. So today, I’m going to outline 2 ways to build a nonprofit audience. Although not an exhaustive list, the tactics here have the greatest impact on building a base of followers, supporters, and potential donors.

The Ante for Audience-Building

Before setting out to grow your audience, you’ll need to have the right foundations in place.

First, and most importantly, you’ll need to be certain that your mission is clear and focused on a specific and needed cause. If your core positioning isn’t solid, you’ll never have the fertile ground in which to grow your audience.

Secondly, you’ll need to have an understanding of who your audience is–or the type of audience that you’re hoping to build. I plan to write about this in a future blog; for now, you can get some tips on audience research from our post on The 5 Focus Areas for Nonprofit Marketing Success in 2021.

Building Fast, Building Slow

Assuming your positioning is in place and you know the type of audience you’re looking to build, you can begin your outreach. Audience-building is a multi-pronged process and no single set of tactics is appropriate for all organizations. You’ll have to experiment with results to arrive at a formula that works. But in short, there are two ways to go about building your audience: fast and slow.

  1. Priming the Pump: Tactics to start or build an audience quickly

Who wouldn’t want to build their audience quickly? The more followers and supporters you can amass in a short time, the faster your message will spread, and the quicker you’ll grow, right? Yes and no.

Yes, you’ll gain followers quickly, but no, they won’t be as engaged as you’d like them to be. That’s because the techniques you’ll be using to get those quick followers tend to sacrifice quality relationships for quantity. You’ll be gaining Facebook fans and website visitors, but they’ll be less likely to donate or share your content than those who are fully committed to your cause*.

Still, it’s good to have some quick-hit tactics in your audience development mix: first, these efforts can “prime the pump” in getting audience development efforts started. In addition, some of these folks can be cultivated into deeper relationships over time.

Ask

Call this the Friends and Family approach. Everyone on your team, within your organization, and on your board should be actively–but reasonably–asking those around them to follow the organization: to join on social media, sign-up for e-newsletters, and in general promote your cause anyway they can.

In addition to this personal outreach, you and your team should also use your social channels’ audience-building functions to further extend the reach of your ask.

And as noted above, be reasonable. Over-asking will turn followers away; instead, try reaching out every couple of months or so.

Advertise

Assuming that yours is a mission that’s both specific and necessary, paid social media ads are the single quickest way to develop a sizable online following. And, the more you spend, the greater the number of potential audience members you’ll reach.

Choose the platform(s) where you feel you have the greatest potential to build your audience, and then create ads that speak to your mission, with the express purpose of getting new audience members to follow your pages.

Growth Hack

I stole this term from Ryan Holiday, whose book Growth Hacker Marketing talks about using non-traditional marketing to scale up a user base, often at low cost. Here are some examples that I’ve adapted to the nonprofit world:

  • Host an exclusive online event (or series of events) catered to a specific segment of your audience. For example, a conservation group might have their executive director hold a half-hour Q&A with questions submitted by audience members in advance. An arts charity can hold a special evening event with a musical partner or a free half-hour “creative session” with a painter or artist.
  • Collaborate with an influencer who has a large social media following who supports your cause and cross-promote one another’s efforts.
  • (Post-COVID) Partner with local, high-traffic brick-and-mortar businesses to convert off-line customers into online audience members. For example, a nonprofit that provides job training and career services might partner with a local apparel shop to offer customers access to exclusive sales if they follow them on social media; a coffee shop or restaurant can offer a buy-one-get-one-free coffee deal on Fridays if participants sign-up for the local mental health organization’s mailing list, and so forth.

In short, use your own unique value and offerings to grow your audience quickly through atypical ways.

2. Slow and Steady: Tactics to grow your audience over time

Building an audience quickly is exciting, but as noted above, this needs to be balanced with a longer-term approach that emphasizes attracting individuals that are more likely to engage and support your cause.

Build Community

The days of rapidly building a significant social media following through simply posting good daily content are over. But by continuing to post content that’s relevant to your existing audience–that truly gives them a reason to follow your page–you’ll slowly build a strong community of followers who are genuinely interested in hearing from, and engaging with your organization.

Produce Content That Speaks Directly to Your Audience

How many email newsletters do you receive? Now, how many of those do you actually open and read? Personally, I only engage with those emails that offer valuable, relevant insights into topics I’m interested in. For example, I love hiking and the outdoors, so when the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation sends her blog post, I typically open and read it. It helps that her writing is superb and that she’s provided something thoughtful, applicable and valuable.

Use this content production formula to attract quality audience members. Whether it’s a monthly video highlighting initiatives that are important to target audience members, a series of infographics discussing the impact of your mission, or a blog that you’re amplifying via social media, create content that satisfies specific interests, and that is so well produced that your intended audience can’t not take part in it.

Build an Opt-In Email List

The great content you’re developing will draw the right audience members organically, but you can build on that approach by enticing individuals to sign-up for your email lists. Use your social channels, website and virtual or in-person events to promote the benefits of signing-up, whether that’s access to exclusive content, or to stay in communication with a cause they believe in. In this way, the user will be “opting-in”–i.e., joining of their own volition. Don’t purchase lists; spamming the in-boxes of potential audience members won’t result in meaningful engagement.

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At the end of the day, the best way to build an audience is to run a great organization that successfully meets the needs of a worthy cause. This will get you the widest-reaching, most engaged following possible. As you’re pursuing that path, use the methods described above to build your audience in parallel.

Invest in these tactics for one year, and then come back and let me know where you stand. I guarantee you, you’ll have an audience. And once you get started, it will only grow from there.

*An exception is if your organization serves a mission that’s squarely in the public interest at the time. For example, if you’re The National Institute of Infectious Diseases or a pro-democracy group, right now people are actively seeking you out.

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