How To Build Community Using Social Media

Julia Campbell
Julia Campbell

Social media remains a powerful force for nonprofits to communicate with their stakeholders and supporters. According to the Global NGO Technology Report, 94% of NGOs worldwide agree that social media is effective for creating online brand awareness. Not only that, 36% of social media users say that they have used social media sites like Facebook and Twitter in the past month to show support for a cause

Too often, nonprofit social media campaigns are still focused on the numbers game – collecting the most Likes on Facebook and Instagram, counting Twitter followers, obsessing over views on YouTube. 

But It’s not the size of your audience that matters – it’s how engaged they are. Are you truly building an online community, or just looking at these numbers as an ego boost? 

Success in our crowded online landscape means having the confidence that you could approach your community with an ask, and they would respond. They would provide feedback. They would open their wallets. They would share your request widely with their networks.

The only true currency on social media is trust and attention, and the only way to get it is through valuable communication that is craved – that people would miss if it went away.

Instead of focusing on growing your social media numbers, how about focusing on building community – retaining engaging the fans/followers that you do have?

Here are three ways to build an online community of supporters for your nonprofit: 

1. Grab Attention

In the digital age, algorithms rule. Search engine algorithms comb the billions of pages of information on the web and decide in milliseconds which websites rank on the first page of Google. On social media, algorithms dictate which posts show up on a user’s feed in which order, and which videos to play, based on viewing history and likelihood to watch the next video, and so on. 

Nonprofit marketers need to understand some basic concepts about how algorithms work and why social media posts and tweets are no longer chronological (and haven’t been for a long time).

As a general rule, social media algorithms prioritize posts and tweets that receive a lot of discussion, engagement, and attention. Controversial and provocative topics, large international events, and clickbait news headlines always float to the top due to the amount of engagement they receive (positive and negative). The struggle for nonprofits in this environment is to stand out by creating and sharing content that is timely, relevant, and worthy of discussion so that it reaches more of the intended audience.  

Visuals are imperative on social media channels. They are more important than text in most cases. Digital marketing success requires grit, authenticity, and the willingness to take risks. There is a science to it, but a lot of it is experimentation, humor, and “edu-tainment” (education/entertainment). Grabbing attention means being provocative, interesting, and relevant. It means getting out of your comfort zone and trying new things, like Facebook Live or Instagram Stories. 

Grabbing attention and “stopping the scroll” requires persistence and constantly looking out for surprising information, compelling stories, and eye-catching visuals. 


2. Pique Curiosity

Anyone who is trying to communicate should think like a journalist. In journalism, it’s not enough to just grab attention (with a great headline or eye-catching photo), it’s about finding the hook that will make people curious – curious enough to read more, to click, to watch. 

To help educate the public on issues of unfairness in the U.S. worker’s compensation system, ProPublica and NPR published an in-depth article, featuring stories of two men living in different states and both suffering devastating workplace injuries. The article which was provocatively titled, “How Much Is Your Arm Worth?” employed powerful visuals to grab your attention and storytelling designed to keep you reading. 

Anti-sex-trafficking organization Amirah Inc. leverages catchy blog headlines and compelling opening paragraphs to hook readers in and get them to read on. One of their most popular blog posts is entitled “That time I almost died in Honduras” and the opening line is “We have to go. Now.” 


In today’s hyper-connected, always-on digital age, nonprofit marketers need to think of themselves as journalists and documentarians. We all need to be looking for the interesting angle and the emotional hook that will captivate our audience and get them wanting to learn more. 

3. Stay Relevant

Social media is a value exchange, pure and simple. Your audience gives you their time and attention and you have to give them something of value in return. You can’t force people to join your movement – you can only entice their curiosity and then invite them in on their terms

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Amirah drives engagement with their Facebook post, inviting followers to leave a welcome note to their newest safehouse resident.

This means looking at your back-end analytics for trends and insight into what resonates with your audience. To determine what to measure, we need a combination of “vanity metrics” and goal-specific metrics. As Beth Kanter wrote on her blog, nonprofits need to use the “Say So What To Your Data Three Times” principle.  

When you see a spike in website traffic or Facebook engagement, ask So what? Where did the traffic originate from? What are the possible reasons for an increase in engagement? 

Find out where the website traffic or increased engagement originated. It may have come as a result of your nonprofit being mentioned in the news, or being retweeted by an influencer, or through sharing a perspective on a trending news story. Ask again So what? 

Did it result in more email sign-ups? Petition signatures? Membership inquiries? Online donations? Did it help you achieve your desired strategies and move you towards your stated goal? 

Remember that “raised awareness” in your online community does not automatically translate into action. Facebook Likes are nice, but engaging people and getting them to take your desired action is nicer! Keep your eye on the big picture and always dig deeper into your metrics – that will help you find focus on those days when it seems you are spinning your wheels. 

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United Way of Massachusetts Bay ignites action with their blog post, shared on Facebook.
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Greater Boston Food Bank drives gifts through their Facebook post.
Macmillan Support Center drives engagement by asking their community to share pictures with their father’s who fought cancer.

Cut Through The Clutter To Build A Community On Social Media

Social media marketing that works is not about interrupting people with irrelevant content or clickbait headlines. It’s consciously creating something that your online community desires, in return for something you want – their attention, their trust, and eventually, you can convert them into taking an action.

DoSomething drives engagement on Instagram by showcasing a member who made 200 cards for elders in her community.

If you are simply using social media channels to push out promotional messages and advertisements, your supporters will never feel proud to be a part of your work.  

The digital revolution is here, and it’s not going away. The only way to “cut through the clutter” in the digital age is to make yourself indispensable and valuable to a smaller, more targeted group of people. The kind of people that would miss you if you went away. 

Guest post by Julia Campbell, nonprofit social media expert. Recently named one of the 25 most influential nonprofit thought leaders and one of the seven nonprofit thought leaders to follow on Twitter during the coronavirus crisis, Julia Campbell is on a mission to make the digital world a better place. 

She is the author of two books, a mom of two kids, and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Her passion is to get organizations and change makers to stop spinning their wheels and start getting real results using digital tools. You can check out her thoughts and ideas at

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