On Message: Creating community with intention

Photo by: Brodie Vissers / CC BY

As a communications professional, there is a good chance that you are part of an online community — in my case, Devex and several more. Fostering community with your audience has become integral to the communications work of NGOs, foundations, and donor agencies as the engagement standards shift from passive actions by the masses to active and organic interaction by real people you can name and place. Engagement is no longer just a matter of getting views or driving traffic — it’s about translating that into action.

Yet creating a sense of community with your audience — through your blog, newsletters, or niche online hubs — is easier said than done. How do you foster real dialogue, not one-way communication; build actual loyalty, not just capture email addresses and mobile phone numbers; and inspire individuals to see themselves as true ambassadors for causes they care about?

On Message: Promoting progress in the social media era

This is the era of Twitter and Facebook, of following and followers. But for development communicators to reach an audience and make a real impact in the world, they need to lead. Devex launches a new blog on development communications to equip them with the tools and resources to do just that.

Development communicators I speak with are eager to build intentional community with their audiences and create genuine spaces that inspire action. To dig deeper into how we can actually do that, I recently sat down with development communicators from Malala Fund and Oceana — both nonprofits with engaged and unique online audiences — to find out how to foster community that is as inspired as it is impactful.

Here’s what I learned.

Start with the right team

For Taylor Royle, chief communications and creative officer at Malala Fund, catering to a core audience of girls and women ranging from 12-24 years old meant being intentional about the team the fund hired to craft its messaging. The all-women communications team is comprised of young professionals with diverse experiences and backgrounds. As decision-makers clued into their audience, they are able to spend less time “translating” and more time tapping directly into the community. “If there are people you want to reach, you should hire people who know something about them. You might get lucky sometimes [with your messaging], but you won’t do it credibly and consistently,” said Royle.

Royle emphasizes that development organizations and nonprofits also need to talk more about diversity — in every sense of the word — on global communications teams. If your communications team doesn’t include people who share experiences with the people you want to reach, you will risk alienating the individuals who live, work or speak the language of those communities. “We need to talk about it in terms of results because it’s measurable,” said Royle. She explains that when Malala Fund set a goal to increase its presence in key impact countries, it started with hiring a young woman from Nepal who had experience in India — one of the countries where the most girls are out of school — and throughout Southeast Asia, an important region for the fund. Since hiring her, site traffic and online engagement which used to come predominantly from the United States has now expanded to include Pakistan, Brazil, Mexico, and Bangladesh.

Alex Gray, director of digital engagement at Oceana, the world’s largest ocean conservation organization, agrees that having young people on communications teams can positively impact them. Hiring young people, for example, can help organizations rethink biases about what a typical donor or activist might look like. “Our digital team had to fight our own biases of who we thought was an Oceana supporter,” said Gray. Challenging these type of biases can open the door to discovering and gaining new supporters in places you wouldn’t typically think to tap for advocacy initiatives, or with your content.

Go deep on audience knowledge

With inclusive and diverse teams in place, organizations can then pivot to better understanding and managing their online communities. At Oceana, the organization is working to capture enough data to understand the “full picture” of the individuals engaging with them at every level. They want to use the data audiences share — everything from communication preferences to social profiles — to understand how individuals engage with them in a deep and actionable way.

Data collection, for example, can help in monitoring how often an individual visiting Oceana will take action but won’t donate, and enable them to segment pushes to give individuals the right opportunities. “Understanding our audience in a sophisticated way allows us to continue to give them opportunities to do the things they want to do,” said Gray.

Signals from your community’s engagement can also help guide organizations to learn more about where to spend more time. If you know how and where your audience is consuming your content, or learn to identify when they start to shift how they are using existing tools, you can adapt your strategies and diversify where your efforts are being spent. If you’re a major organization like Oceana, this may mean creating niche communities within your larger audience pool to segment interests. Or it could mean creating offline opportunities for super activists to engage in high-value ways.

Growth for Malala Fund has meant evolving from content curators who sourced stories about girls and young women from around the web to creating original content and creating space for them to tell their own stories: “There are millions of Malala’s out there. We want to share their stories,” said Hannah Orenstein, digital manager at Malala Fund.

Last year, on her last day of high school, Malala Yousafzai finally joined Twitter. Her inaugural tweet was a call to action for new and existing fans to join her in the fight for girls’ education. Through her handle, she is able to connect with her followers in a personal and distinct way that wasn’t being cultivated with the organizational @MalalaFund Twitter account. Since her first tweet, she’s racked up over 1.23 million followers. Her tweets, which she posts herself, are illustrative of both her life as a 20-year-old woman and a global champion for education who has the ear of heads of state, policymakers, and leaders around the world. In her #AskMalala Twitter chats, she answers questions ranging from what show she’s currently binge-watching — “The Big Bang Theory,” if you’re curious! — to what Malala Fund project she’s most excited about.

Looking to the future

As the digital space increases, communications teams don’t always get the added benefit of increasing in size to keep up. Building diverse teams, refining strategies, and evolving in real time will be the trademarks of sustaining communities in a changing digital space. “If we’re investing time and money, we want to properly plan, test, and optimize to make sure it’s worth the time and investments of our supporters,” said Gray.

At Devex, we’ve also taken the cue from our audience on how to create spaces for genuine dialogue and interaction. For us, it has taken the shape of a closed microcommunity for women working in development  in the wake of #AidToo. As women wrote in to share their stories with us, we wanted to go beyond publishing their stories. We realized that many women have experiences they might never publish, or want to share publicly, and we had a unique opportunity to create a space for them. This took the form of a private Facebook group which women working in development could join and use to share their experiences, ask questions, and foster community. The group, which has more than 400 members, is growing daily and is a reminder of the power of creating community with intention.

About the author

  • Carine Umuhumuza

    Carine Umuhumuza is a former associate director of communications at Devex, where she wrote about the latest trends, tips, and insights on media and communications for the global development community. Previously, Carine led digital initiatives at Devex for development agencies, major corporations, NGOs, and social enterprises.