The best social media includes offline experiences

After a four year study into social media use and nonprofits one concept in particular has remained prominent: propinquity.

Apart from being an interesting word, it also has a meaning beneficial to public relations professionals from the nonprofit sector in terms of social media practice. Propinquity comes from Kent and Taylor’s (2002) dialogic theory and in this context, relates to the elasticity of a relationship as it moves between on and offline spaces.

In short, my research has suggested that relationships with donors, volunteers and supporters of nonprofits are strongest when organisational interactions using social media also include some form of offline component.

The majority of stakeholders in my study, that followed nonprofits via social media, also had some offline affiliation with the organisation. Many used social media as a way to keep informed and to feel a sense of belonging to (in this case) a like-minded charitable community until their next offline interaction with the organisation. Offline interactions included volunteering or attending a nonprofit event. Social media acted as a bridge with which the stakeholder and nonprofit relationship could easily move between on and offline environments.

This suggests three opportunities for public relations professionals in the nonprofit sector.

 Leveraging existing relationships

Leveraging existing stakeholder relationships to include social media engagement in this way may assist in strengthening current connections. Encouraging stakeholders that already interact offline to follow and engage in an online social media community may be a beneficial way to foster a sense of belonging to a nonprofit organisation. Considering existing stakeholders’ perspectives is paramount when developing social media content to ensure that it informs and strengthens their decision to continue their support.

Adding an Offline Component to Social Media Content

My research (stakeholder interviews and survey responses) also suggested that advertising offline events via social media can be an effective way of generating attendance. The majority of my stakeholder sample had attended a nonprofit event after finding out about it via social media. Some learned about the event because they already followed a particular charity, but others were informed by one of their friends when they shared the details on their newsfeed, and in some cases, directly invited them along. This highlights the power of the networking aspect of social media. As seen with sites like Trip Advisor, peer review and endorsement can be much more influential than encouragement coming directly from an organisation (particularly if the cause or organisation is unfamiliar). My research also showed that stakeholders are more likely to share quality content from a charity to show their support than to post a comment and ‘join the conversation’. Public relations professionals have the potential of increasing event attendance through propinquity by creating interesting and share-worthy promotional social media content and asking followers to pass it throughout their own networks. It seems that stakeholders are keen to move their connection with nonprofits offline and take their friends with them if they deem the event worthwhile.

The power of a propinquital loop

Natalie Ciccocioppo’s PRIA blog post provided a fantastic example of a successful propinquital loop: the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. More than $100 million was raised via social media and while there were a number of elements that combined to support its success, a propinqutial loop may have also played a part. Participants in the challenge were encouraged to move activity between on and offline spaces. They were nominated online, took the challenge offline while being videoed, and shared the footage online while nominating someone else, which then took the challenge offline and on it went. This activity could be described as a propinquital loop. While it may not have helped to develop strong stakeholder relationships in the long-term, it certainly worked for the duration of the campaign. To create a propinquital loop to foster long-term relationships, public relations professionals could use tactics such as advertising an offline event via social media, (with permission) taking photos of people at that event, uploading them to social media and encouraging attendees to tag themselves in the photos. Another way could be directly inviting some of your organisation’s strongest social media supporters to an offline event. Not only will this be a huge deal for them, there is a strong likelihood that they will share their experience via social media, thus creating a loop between online and offline interactions with the organisation.

Propinquity encourages public relations professionals to approach social media, not as a stand-alone communication channel, but as a tool to encourage face-to-face stakeholder interaction with organisations. The overall aim of using social media as a bridge to offline interaction is to strengthen relationships, a sense of belonging and ultimately ongoing stakeholder support.

How often do you use social media as a bridge to face-to-face interactions with your donors, volunteers and supporters?

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