Trends every nonprofit communicator should know

As priorities shift, two studies find communicators in the sector are banking heavily on websites and email campaigns, and Instragram is making headway among social media platforms.

Two new nonprofit communications reports shed a light on how nonprofit organizations are strategizing, executing and approaching digital and traditional communications.

The 2015 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report (#NPcomm2015), published by Kivi Leroux Miller and Nonprofit Marketing Guide, is a comprehensive look at trends in nonprofit communications, including staffing, marketing goals, communication priorities and time investment, calls to action and direct mail activities. This is the fifth publication year, with 1,525 participating nonprofits.

The first 2015 Digital Outlook Report (#NPOutlook15), published by NTEN in collaboration with Care2 and HJC, focuses exclusively on the state of digital strategy within nonprofit organizations, with 473 nonprofit professionals responding. This report looks at dedicated digital strategy staffing, digital marketing techniques, communication channel plans, donor acquisition techniques and challenges to planning digital strategy.

Together, these reports offer a comprehensive overview of nonprofit communication practices, priorities and trends in 2015. Here are the highlights:

Digital marketers will focus on using visual media more in 2015.

More than 60 percent of the Digital Outlook Report respondents plan to use more visual media in 2015, particularly video, images and infographics.

The takeaway ? This is consistent with sector-wide digital communications prioritization on visual media. Social media platforms are optimizing their own algorithms to encourage more visual content.

Email marketing, traditional social media and the website will dominate 2015.

The NPcomm2015 report asked respondents to rank 13 communications channels from most important to least important. Website, email marketing and traditional communications channels came out on top, with the website as the top channel.

Just 13 percent cited visual social media and video as very important, with 37 percent ranking it as somewhat important in the NPcomm2015 report. This contrasts with the NPOutlook15 respondents, who are focusing more efforts on visual media in 2015.

This divergence may reflect different job priorities within marketing communications: The NPOutlook15 focuses exclusively on digital practices and trends, whereas the NPcomm2015 report considers the entire sphere of nonprofit communications. It may also reflect a pivot point: Are digital marketers ahead of the curve?

Which social media channels are most important?

The NPcomm2015 report confirmed that “the big four” social media platforms-Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn-will continue to be important to communication plans. Of note: Instagram and Pinterest swapped places in the rankings, with the former jumping to fifth place this year, and Pinterest falling to seventh.

The Digital Outlook Report asked respondents to identify which channels will have a focused plan, or be integrated into a broader digital strategy in 2015: Almost all (94 percent) responded that they will have an email strategy, as well as either a plan or integrated plan for Facebook (88 percent), Twitter (79 percent), Instagram (30 percent) and Pinterest (15 percent).

The takeaway? Nonprofit marketers are relying on and creating digital communication plans for “the big four,” along with a growing interest in the strategic use of Instagram and Pinterest.

Prioritizing engagement as a goal

The NPcomm2015 survey asked respondents to rank their most important communications goals. Note the shuffling of priorities. In order of rank, they are:

  • Engaging Our Community (57 percent): In 2014, this was in second place.
  • Retaining Current Donors (53 percent): In 2014, this was in fourth place.
  • General Brand Awareness (51 percent): This retains its 2014 ranking.
  • Acquiring New Donors (50 percent): In 2014, this was in first place.
  • Thought Leadership (33 percent)

The takeaway? If you successfully engage the community, leads and new donors will follow. As a whole, nonprofit communicators are recognizing the importance of community engagement as a primary objective, even more important than acquiring new donors.

Challenges to success

Both reports highlight challenges that nonprofit marketers face. The NPOutlook15 survey asked respondents to note their biggest challenge planning new and concentrated digital strategy. Across organizations of all sizes, staff shortages and budget restraints were the greatest challenges. Proper planning can overcome other challenges, such as: lack of training on new digital strategies and tactics, coming up with new engaging content and proving ROI internally.

The NPcomm2015 asked nonprofit communicators: “What are your biggest challenges?” The answers were remarkably similar to those reported in NPOutlook15 and ranked in this order from most to least important:

  • Lack of time to produce high-quality content (38 percent)
  • Lack of budget for direct expenses (38 percent)
  • Inability to measure effectiveness (28 percent)
  • Lack of a clear strategy (25 percent)
  • Producing engaging content (22 percent)
  • Producing enough content (20 percent)
  • Difficulty integrating communications channels (19 percent)

The takeaway? Many nonprofit communications challenges can be easily overcome: lack of a clear strategy, content production (engaging content relies on a clear strategy), channel integration, proving ROI, getting skills training. This is the great news with regard to challenges. Budget and staffing constraints are always issues in the nonprofit sector, but an appropriate communication strategy should allow for these constraints and maximize effectiveness and efficiencies with existing resources.

What will nonprofit communicators do in 2015?

We’ve moved beyond “How do we do this thing?” and on to “How do we use this to do more?” These two reports confirm that staffers are prioritizing community engagement and donor retention (another form of engagement), creating and integrating digital strategies for social media, bringing new social media channels into their strategies, and thinking about how to integrate visual media to accomplish their goals.

Both reports are worth reading fully, as they cover much more than is summarized here, including: email marketing trends, lead generation strategies, newsletters, nonprofit staffing, time spent on social media communication production and more.

Debra Askanase is a member of the NTEN Research Committee, which works with NTEN staff in an advisory capacity to develop its reports, including the 2015 Digital Outlook Report. A version of this article originally appeared on Community Organizer 2.0.

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