Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0
We’ve reached a point where consistent digital playbooks of the last decade are broken. Across the board, I see people grappling with significant pieces of digital programs. Email deliverability and engagement are down for many orgs. Social media feels more unwieldy than ever. Which platform now? What happened to Facebook and Twitter? Digital ads got more complex and more expensive to target overnight about 18 months ago. Influencers and creators are mainstream. Google Analytics is a primarily new platform. AI is going to change workflows for many people rapidly.
Sure, you could call it 3.0 or number it anything you want. I want to avoid getting into Web3 territory. But yes, you should be accepting cryptocurrency.
For 10 – 15 years, we were on a steady evolution of new media -> digital strategy. Sure, some new platforms and tools came out of the blue. But most things felt like an iteration of what came before. Somewhere in 2020-2021, it all unraveled. It wasn’t one thing exactly, but a series of platform changes, user expectation and behavior changes, and fundamental cultural shifts in what was happening online fueled by a global pandemic. Shifts, ripples, chaos, and here we are.
Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0
Digital Strategy for Social Impact is the combined fields of people working on behalf of social change and engagement via digital strategy. I use digital strategy for social impact as the line between the world of nonprofits, political campaigns, charities, labor, governments, and international organizations and the world of for-profit entities. Sure, many digital engagement best practices can transcend one world. Much can be learned from the massive corporate digital marketing budgets. I once thought they weren’t that different. But one is designed to be more extractive, and the other is intended to be expansive. On the one hand, how do we extract value from consumers, and hopefully, on the other, how do we expand engagement around a cause or expand access to services? I’ll refer to the world of nonprofits, political campaigns, charities, labor, governments, and international organizations and the world of for-profit entities as organizations throughout.
Today, as organizations are at the beginning of EOY End of Year fundraising, I have no blueprint to offer you. Anyone who says there is an exact blueprint for digital from here forward is not the strategist you want. Here is what has been working for the last few months or what we can try now. At this moment, it is even more rapidly changing than the digital strategy before. Right now, The digital strategy at the beginning of Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0 is to adapt and test.
Unfortunately, this problem is compounded or even given an exponential scale because of where Digital Strategy for Social Impact was when this paradigm shift began. The vast majority of organizational leaders didn’t have a solid grasp of the fundamentals of digital strategy.
How long would it be OK for a leader in an organization to not understand organizational fundraising, organizational infrastructure, operations, or communications? Digital is all of those things and more.
Digital was a critical part of organizational work a decade ago. There can be no more excuses for anyone in a leadership role not to understand the fundamentals of digital strategy because many of the fundamentals hold. Some even more so today than ever. The fundamentals will carry strategic organizations through to a new mode of growth.
The reality that most organizations held a true organizational vision of digital strategy impaired so many things and made the next steps harder. Consistently, I see organizations that could have invested more in digital strategy or trusted people with reasonable strategies to lead. So, they didn’t build teams with the capacity to observe this shifting landscape while they navigated it. Instead, most digital teams or people working in digital are so under-resourced they are so heads down in trying to survive that they can neither implement the blueprints of 2020 nor adjust to the underway shifts.
Email is a mess. And email is king.
Or, queen, if you prefer, email is still the most dominant communication channel for organizational engagement. I was a social media person, bullish on social media, and I still love it. But email always delivers results to organizations.
Apple iOS 15 created massive waves in email and digital ad tracking. For email, it meant it was harder to track email opens, a core benchmark for email programs. Some just said this stat no longer matters, which I need clarification on. It is weighted differently.
But even before that, email providers like GMAIL, MSN, Yahoo, and AOL (yeah, you got mail is still a thing) gave outlines for what impacts deliverability. If your organization uses email, you should give a damn about deliverability. Deliverability, in simplest terms, is that your organization can deliver emails into people’s inboxes and not the spam folder. However, the social impact world kept touting and sharing benchmarks below deliverability standards. You know what that meant? It meant all the organizations who thought, oh, we are doing OK, were instead sending signals to GMAIL, MSN, Yahoo, and AOL that they would keep emailing people who didn’t want their emails.
Enter 2023; inflation and economic worries impact email fundraising hard. So, let’s send more emails! More purely transactional emails with less meaning and connection. Deliverability and fundraising spiral ensues.
Let’s blame Apple; let’s blame anything but running poorly segmented email campaigns for years.
There is a path out of this. It’s hard. It takes investing in an email deliverability strategy and a deeper engagement strategy. Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0 is about deepening engagement in meaningful ways. It takes consistency and patience. Too many rode the it is working well enough wave until it wasn’t.
My biggest tips for getting started in the email realm of Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0:
- Get serious about deliverability.
- Take a step back and create a supporter-centric content plan.
- Invest in developing segments and automation that support engagement and testing. A/B Testing, as in ALWAYS be testing. These aren’t new, but it’s time to quadruple down like that donation match and get serious.
Social Media is not at all what it was three years ago
Social media from early until the end of the last decade had some consistent playbooks. You could count on certain levels of engagement from Facebook and Twitter. You could make tweaks even as they changed their platforms and the tools morphed. They made sense for organizations to invest capacity in. You could drive meaningful engagement.
2023: Facebook pages that so many organizations invest a lot of time and resources into have mostly tanked. Twitter (that’s all I’m calling it) is a shell of what it was. Before this tanking, though, I thought of most organizations as Zeitghosts. Zeitghosts are entities that should be part of the pop culture or mainstream conversations but are missing. Massive conversations about social change were happening all over social media, and organizations were missing or broadcasting into the void instead of, you know, getting social and engaging.
Too many organizations look like they have taken their digital strategy from the late 90s / early 2000s corporate PowerPoint and tried to apply it to social media of the early 2010s. Still. Still. Yes, there are outliers. If you are reading this and think we are still thriving, then it means you engaged your audiences instead of merely counting on algorithms to treat you well. Most organizations’ graphic design game was stilted and had the look mentioned above. So few had a design strategy or process to create designs that meet modern tastes.
Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter prioritized images in the early 2010s because images drove engagement. Engagement drove time on platforms. Time on the platform drove their ad sales. It pivoted to video and then live video. Vine was an early TikTok. People wonder why it didn’t work. Well, most people were using slow data plans, the phone cameras weren’t great, and many people’s phones still had clickable buttons. TikTok hit when a global audience had smartphones with decent or wifi-level data. It aligned with a moment when many youth had their own smartphones. Through the end of the last decade, only some organizations have invested in video storytelling or any video strategy. But most platforms had already pivoted to video engagement.
Creators and influencers have a serious influence on their audiences. Sure, you can try to waive them off like they don’t matter, like it is vapid. I was slow to see some of it. But you don’t have a serious digital campaign strategy in 2023/24 without a creator and influencer strategy.
Facebook right now is all about groups and digital ads for engagement. Twitter, talk to your strategist if you should be there. YouTube, yeah, it has enormous social communities driving real engagement. Instagram, fewer link clicks, more conversation. TikTok, the youth’s search engine. Snapchat has as many or more real users as Twitter. WhatsApp is a technically decentralized social that drives real engagement. LinkedIn, why aren’t organizations using this more? LinkedIn has become a hangout for professional millennials nostalgic for the Facebook of their youth.
But it’s a video. It is a video created in authentic and engaging styles. Not the crappy bland 90s update from the Executive Director or the stale TV-style commercial from political campaigns. It is a style that matches your audience, the platform, and your goals, not what your staff likes.
My biggest tips for adapting social media to Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0:
- Invest in video capacity.
- Get serious about storytelling.
- Have a strategy that understands audience personas, advertising, creators, influencers, and community.
Website, yes, that thing that is sometimes updated and used for press releases.
Websites matter more than ever. There was a point in the 2010s when many organizations deprioritized their websites. People would say things like we are investing in social; that is where our engagement comes from. It made sense for many organizations. As late as 2020, I saw small orgs and political campaigns mostly running off their Facebook pages.
In 2015, even I said: “I’m not that worried about our homepage. Most of our traffic comes from blogs and actions shared on social, email, and ads.” I also said most organizational blogs are awful… they still are. Most organizations need a coherent content strategy for their website.
Facebook and Twitter centralized so much online traffic for almost a decade. That shattered into hundreds of decentralized platforms, new platforms, Slack spaces, discords, and many other places where people gather. Articles and good content are still shared, not just the clickbait and quick actions of the 2010s.
Site speed matters so much. More than 50% of your site traffic for most organizations will come from mobile devices. Slow sites are painful on mobile. SEO, search engine optimization, where you show up when someone searches in Google, etc, heavily weighs site speed. Because site speed heavily determines user experience on the Internet, which is increasingly mobile.
Invest in proper servers and update your site to something modern. Over the last ten years, I’ve watched WordPress, the backbone of many websites, evolve significantly. A real digital strategy would be thinking about how we modernize and plan for a world where we should make significant updates every three years. Your website is a vital part of your organizational infrastructure in the 2020s. Actual web hosting costs money and speeds up your site, improving user experience and SEO. Which enhances engagement, and engagement is how we meet our real-world goals.
But also, none of that will matter if your content is written like academic journal entries or bad “What I Did Last Summer” essays. Content needs to be written for a targeted audience and be engaging and accessible. Content should tell a compelling story. Because for whatever change you are working for, someone has told a countervailing story that became the dominant culture. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have to advocate for whatever it is, from people needing necessities like food to reversing global devastation from climate change.
Here are a few tips for returning to website strategy and content in Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0:
- Invest in modernizing your website.
- Invest in site speed.
- Understand SEO and how it helps you reach more people.
- Create fundamental strategies for website content from homepages to articles, landing pages, and everywhere people engage.
Digital Ads: yes, you need them .
Digital advertising got more expensive due to iOS 15 changes to the Internet. For organizations already doing email list growth or messaging, it got more costly across core platforms like Facebook and Google Ads. It became harder to target people, which means more people seeing your ads who didn’t want them.
As mentioned above, reaching people has gotten more complicated because the rules have changed on how social media platforms work. So, ads have become more critical than ever. The world of digital ads is so deep and rich. It involves everything online, from TV and radio to websites, apps on your phone, livestreams, and everything in between. A good digital strategy for an organization should include a serious digital advertising strategy.
The days of unpaid reach across social media platforms are more challenging than ever. We already talked about email issues. Also, inboxes see more emails every day than ever before. On average, people get several hundred emails a day. You must have strategic goals, understand user and audience personas, and know how to run good ad campaigns. And, of course, have an excellent website to land them back at…
Digital advertising in Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0:
- You need a realistic budget.
- Invest in organizational understanding.
- Outside advertising firms cost money, but you can come out ahead with campaigns that reach more people with a more significant impact.
Text messaging, uh, hello
Text messaging has crazy open and engagement rates. Yes, I’ve gotten very few good organizational text messages. And in the US, we’ve all been rained on by unsolicited crappy political messages at election times. The potential upside for a good text messaging program is enormous!
The text messaging high water mark is still the “It’s me, Jess” from the Hillary Clinton campaign almost a decade ago. People barely remember all the other messages they got from that campaign. That part of the program was only a segment of the content. But it was personal and authentic. It used the medium the way real people use text messages.
Some tips on Text messaging in the Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0 world.
- Create a real strategy.
- Yes, it costs money, but some organizations see the investment beat out an email in the dollar-for-dollar engagement and fundraising.
- The possibilities of cool and engaging things you can do with text is an entirely different platform and medium than email or social.
AI, yes, it’s real .
Right now, organizations are using AI ethically and strategically to increase the quality and output of their content. I’m already using it to help me get started with rough drafts of copy. To feed in data and have it tell me interesting things.
Will there be downsides to it? Yes, of course. Will it change how we do work? It already did. Google search and the Facebook algorithm were versions of AI with large datasets creating predictive information it thought you wanted. This new version allows more people to interact and leverage algorithms and big datasets to do interesting.
Quick thoughts on AI in Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0 world.
- AI will be a significant part of Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0
- Organizations and movements will need codes of conduct for how they use AI.
- You can leverage it today, and it does take some onboarding, but look for practical ways people use it.
Yes, I’m frustrated about the underinvestment in the critical part of the infrastructure that digital is by most organizations. And I’m excited about the coming Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0 world. We have the potential to reinvision what supporter engagement looks like. It is a resetting moment for organizations to develop a real strategy that advances their work. This article is not the blueprint or The Digital Plan. This is the opening of thinking about Digital Strategy for Social Impact 2.0.
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