4 Step by Step Engagement Strategies for Nonprofit Websites

July 5, 2017 Ben Wong

I have a confession to make. When it comes to nonprofit marketing, I cringe every time I hear the words “engage”, “engaging” or “engagement.” Organizations are always looking to attract more people to their cause and want their website and social media presence to support that goal. They seek advice from experts who tell them that they need to “engage” more, or have more “engaging” content, or build more “engagement” strategies. These terms have been so overused that they’ve lost their meaning, and I’ve found that many organizations still struggle to elevate their nonprofit websites to be more than just online brochures.

So, here I am contributing my own thoughts into the blogosphere on how to “build more engagement” on your nonprofit website. I know I’m in danger of committing the crime that makes me cringe, but my goal for this blog post is for you to take away some actionable tips to start implementing in your web and content strategy.

Since I said that these words have lost their meaning, let’s begin with some definitions. Merriam Webster gives us 19 definitions for the word “engage.” I’ve identified 4 definitions as being the most useful in the online marketing context:

  • To hold the attention of
  • To bind someone to do something
  • To attract and hold by influence or power
  • To offer something as backing to a cause or aim

Each of these definitions can be interpreted as a different level of engagement. I’ve put them in order from 1 to 4 to represent the progression your typical audience will experience as they go from low to high levels of engagement.

The concept of increasing levels of engagement is not new. It has been described as the ladder of engagement, and has been used to famous effect by the Obama campaign in 2012. The idea is to get people to take simple actions that will hopefully lead them to bigger, more impactful actions. However, most organizations make the mistake of focusing their resources on the top of ladder, when the hard work and investment is needed at the bottom.

I’ve labeled each of these 4 levels of engagement to make it more fun to explain, and easier to understand:

  • Consumption
  • Armchair Engagement
  • Social Engagement
  • Slam Dunk Engagement

1. Consumption

To reach a level of engagement where somebody is willing to hand over their hard-earned cash, you have to start by building a solid foundation. Your first goal should be to hold the attention of the user by attracting them with high-quality content and stories bring value to your audience. I call this level of engagement Consumption, because this level is all about serving your audience with awesome content to consume.

How do you create high-quality content worth consuming?

This is probably the most difficult level of engagement to accomplish, and most organizations fail because they don’t have the resources or plan for creating great content. To make things worse, in today’s oversaturated digital marketing world, attention spans are shorter and there is a lot more competition.

Here are 6 tips to help you create content that stands out from the noise:

  • Make somebody accountable for creating great content. Good content doesn’t happen without intent. Find somebody in your organization who you can make responsible for capturing all the great things you are doing.
  • Turn every event into a content opportunity. If it’s not on the Internet, it didn’t happen! Make sure you have someone armed with a camera to capture photos and videos of every event to show people what you’re all about.
  • Define a purpose for your content.Every piece of content must have a purpose for your audience so they have a reason to spend their time consuming it. For example, it could be a source of entertainment by making them laugh; or a source of education by being informative or useful.
  • Publish and republish content in multiple formats and channels.Your audience will want to consume content in different ways, so make sure you use the different tools at your disposal to tell your stories. Consider starting with your long-form blog post on your website, then slice it up into shorter forms on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you invest in creating a 3 to 5-minute video on YouTube, you can also republish short clips on different platforms.
  • Listen for hot topics or questions. Keep up with trending topics and conversations that happen in other communities. Facebook groups and websites such as Quora, Buzzsumo and Reddit can provide some good content ideas around any topic. If your content can address some of the common questions being asked, then it will be a useful resource for your audience.
  • Create a content calendar. Consistency is the key to building a relationship with your audience. Create a content calendar that you can commit to; don’t set a frequency that will be too difficult to maintain. Give yourself enough time to achieve a consistent level of quality

Once you have a body of high quality content, you’ll want to know if it’s grabbing the attention of your audience. You will need website analytics set up to find out if the level of engagement on your website has increased. Consumption will be invisible if not tracked, so you’ll want to use your analytics software, such as Google Analytics, to measure the following:

  • The amount of time spent on the site and the page
  • The number of pages per visit
  • How far people are scrolling on the page
  • Where people are clicking on the page

When the data starts flowing and moving in the right direction, you can give yourself a pat on the back. The most difficult step is complete! By holding people’s attention, you now have a foundation to build upon.

2. Armchair Engagement

The goal of the next level of engagement uses the definition: to bind someone to do something. Hold your horses, we’re not ready to ask for money just yet! At this level, you’ll want to see if you can get your audience to take simple actions from the comfort of their armchair. The “armchair activist” or “slacktivist” is perfectly depicted in the SNL skit “Thank you, Scott” featuring Louis C.K. Some will question the impact of this type of engagement to your mission, and rightly so. They won’t be changing the world, but it’s a step up the ladder.

Here are 5 tips to encourage Armchair Engagement:

  • Always define the next action. No page should be a dead end for your audience. At the end of your content, give some suggestions for their next action e.g. contact us for more information.
  • Present further engagement opportunities. Use social widgets to allow easy interactions such as like, share, comment, etc. Even something as trivial as a likecan act as a bind between your audience and your organization. By liking or sharing your content, they are giving their endorsement, which can help promote your brand.
  • Use polls to ask a question. Polls are a win-win concept. They require only seconds to complete, and the participant gets immediate gratification from seeing the results. It’s a good way to find out the subjects that your community cares about.
  • Present a case for subscribers. Promote your newsletter by explaining the benefits next to a simple sign up form. Set some expectations for what content will be shared and how often with some visual examples.
  • Offer rewards for reaching milestones. I’ll admit, this one is shameless, but can be effective if done in a tastefully e.g. entering a drawing for free tickets for the first 100 likes on a post.

Armchair Engagement will provide you with vanity-metrics that may not have much impact on your business goals, but I believe it’s good measure of basic engagement that doesn’t require much of your audience, and lets you know if your content is resonating.

3. Social Engagement

The next level of engagement requires your audience to engage with the definition: to attract or hold by influence or power. I call this Social Engagement because the goal is to have supporters use their influence on social networks to promote your brand. This can be as simple as engaging in a discussion by replying or commenting. If you have a highly engaged audience, they may contribute their own content, by posting their own articles or sharing photos e.g. unselfie. When Social Engagement is powered by an effective campaign, the results can be incredible. Read how International Justice Mission used social media to create a digital advocacy movement.

Here are 5 tips to promote social engagement:

  • Ask for story submissions. Encourage your audience to contribute to your content by asking them to share their stories or photos to the website. Ask people to share their experiences, opinions, reviews, suggestions etc.
  • Find your influencers. You’ll want to know which of your Armchair Activists are social influencers. Use tools to find the people with large social media followings and high Klout scores. You can start engaging them by thanking them for their shares and likes, then follow up with an ask.
  • Participate in current discussions. Being part of a community discussion is important to build respect and credibility. Search for relevant and trending hashtags to jump into a discussion.
  • Reference people in your content. Give a shout out to people who helped or attended an event. Throw a link to their social media profile or website.
  • Start a social media campaign. Create a concept to encourage users to share content as part of a campaign. It doesn’t have to be a fundraising campaign, think of Movember, which asks its audience to share photos of their best moustache in November to raise awareness for men’s health issues.

4. Slam Dunk Engagement

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the final definition of engagement: to offer something as backing to a cause or aim. Your audience has been warmed up, and it’s time to perform the Slam Dunk Engagement. This is the level of engagement that you would have hoped for from day one; and it’s likely to represent the main goals of your nonprofit website. You want your audience to make donations, buy tickets to an event, register for programs, or sign up for volunteer opportunities.

Here are 6 tips to move audiences to action on your nonprofit website:

  • Just ask. My dad always told me, “don’t ask, don’t get.” Make sure the ask is clear and direct. Use all communication channels at your disposal to make this ask.
  • Show the need and impact. The audience needs to see what change they can make if they click that button. Let them be the hero of their own story.
  • Make it easy. Don’t make people fill out long forms, or make too many decisions to complete the process. Ask for the essentials and nothing more.
  • Optimize for mobile devices. Gone are the days where we can predict how, when or where people are using various devices. Make sure your users can complete their transactions on any device. You can optimize for devices with screen sizes we haven’t seen yet with a responsive design.
  • Create some urgency. There is a reason that giving and engagement increases on coordinated giving days. The sense of urgency caused by limited-time offers encourages action to happen faster. For example, “Last chance to buy tickets” or “Only 1 day left to reach our goal”.
  • Give thanks. For those who have already given you a slam dunk, make sure you show the appropriate level of gratitude. Showing some stewardship will help retain your existing donors and build lasting relationships.

If you follow all these tips, you should have a good strategy for “building engagement” on your nonprofit website. My take on the ladder of engagement is a basic interpretation. You can go beyond the basics by extending the ladder to define what engagement looks like after the Slam Dunk. Think about what more you can ask of your existing donor base—would they like to become a monthly donor or an advocate for your cause? You can also create custom engagement levels for your major donors to build a strategy for getting the most out of your biggest fans.

I hope these tips help you think about “engagement” in a more tangible, less cringe-worthy way. Feel free to connect with me if you’d like to discuss any of these ideas.

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Want more tips for building a successful online strategy? Check out 6 More Tips to Ignite Your Online Strategy >

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