Creating an Online News Blog

In 2012, I started an online news blog for an organization facing a common problem – how to reliably communicate with their members in the Internet age. After a year or two of experimentation, the blog was reaching the members consistently, and it is still running today. Many of the lessons I learned may be applicable to others wanting to start a blog for their organization, so here they are.

  1. Both push and pull matter. In other words, use a webpage that automatically posts to social media and can be subscribed to via email. Give people as many ways to be in touch with you as possible. We have followers via WordPress, email, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. At the five year point (when I stepped down from running it) our views per month ranged from 3,000 to 5,000, but would spike sometimes to over 30,000. Those extra views were not only content driven, but also driven by social media shares that were easy for people to do.
  2. Relentlessly do outreach initially. We pushed out our articles through every avenue available including one-on-one contact and social media posts on personal accounts for the first year. Do not trust posts on an organization’s social media or emails sent by commercial services to be seen. Social media algorithms and email filters will get in the way.
  3. Community and people make the best content. People feel connected to organizations when they view them as a community, not just as a hobby or a cause. The articles that received the most views had emotional content, especially one in which we celebrated or grieved.
  4. Politics are good if handled carefully. Inter-organization politics involving conflict or rule change were also popular. They’re important issues to address. However, have an editor with experience dealing with controversy take a pass over the posts, even if the writer is a person of note. A good editing job can turn a situation from explosive to understandable.
  5. Photographs are good but… There is a belief that you should have a graphic or photo with every article. It’s a sound belief, but you can spend a lot of time looking for the perfect clip art or a photo that isn’t awful. Don’t let it slow you down. Have a default option that you can always use.
  6. Many people think they aren’t important enough to be seen. The truly interesting people frequently think nothing they’re doing is newsworthy. Watch out for them. They usually make better reading than people interested in promoting themselves.
  7. You need more staff than you think. In reality, I had enough staff because I doubled what I thought I would need from the beginning and we added more later. However, I already knew that consistently getting quality content out of an organization is work. Unless you have a professional in charge who isn’t already overloaded, you’re going to need multiple bodies to produce content, post content, and create new ideas.
  8. A schedule helps. Having some regularly scheduled content – whether on a monthly or weekly basis – provides you with a structure that can be augmented by additional articles.
  9. Plan on people missing deadlines. No matter how easy you make it for people to submit content, they will miss the deadlines. Count on it.
  10. Don’t try to be the fastest. If you are the news blog of an organization, chances are you will never be as fast at publishing content as anyone with a smartphone. In 2012, we were the fastest at posting news, but that isn’t possible anymore. Our purpose is to provide news that everyone can access, is accurate, and provides a complete story. Being clear on how your blog supports your organization and staying true to that purpose is the best way to keep your focus in the constantly changing options of the Internet.

Where Do You Send That Email?

An email exchange can be hard to navigate from behind a keyboard. Let’s visualize it a different way. You are on one side of a bar door. You’re about to open that door and look for a conversation. Even if you haven’t done this in real life, you’ve seen it happen in a movie. Imagine opening that door and walking inside.

There’s a whole lot of email addresses sitting on those stools and a bartender behind the taps. Where are you going to sit? Ignore your social anxiety – these are emails and not really people. Figure out what you want from this conversation. Why are you here?

Do you want someone to listen? Are you hoping for sympathy, an argument, or help fixing a problem? Do you want a meaningful relationship or a flirtation? If you aren’t clear on what you want, then how are you going to pick the right bar stool or the right email address?

What if you want to complain about something. Where do you write? Most organizations have a number of email addresses that you can use. Where do you send that email?

  • Writing to a general email address is like trying to talk to the bartender on a busy Saturday night. Expect a nod and your drink, in other words a form email response. That’s all there’s time for him to do. Maybe if you just want to have your voice counted that is enough.
  • Suppose you want to create change? Then you are looking for a meaningful relationship. How do you do that? Write emails to specific people. Ask questions. Listen as well as talk. Don’t yell. Maybe those people won’t have time to write to you, but maybe they will.
  • If what you want is to vent and get sympathy, then let’s face the hard facts. If you yell, you may not get the response you want no matter what email address you use. If you yelled at a person sitting on a bar stool, would you expect them to continue to listen and answer you reasonably? No.

So ask these questions before you hit send on that email. Why am I sending this email? What do I hope to achieve? Picking the right bar stool and opening line won’t guarantee the answer you want, but it will increase your odds.

A Flowchart for Messages to Volunteers

How you communicate with volunteers of a nonprofit is as important as the actual information you convey. Here is why. Nonprofits need four basic resources to survive: money, infrastructure, people, and goodwill. If you upset volunteers, then you lose goodwill. If you lose goodwill, then you may lose people, money and even infrastructure. Words matter, especially if something has gone wrong.

The above flow chart will help you write a message to volunteers, including options of how to address a crisis. It doesn’t give you specific words, but it will remind you of the niceties of how to construct a message.  It is also available as a pdf here.

Talking to Supporters – Look Like You Care

SmileLast week I watched a meet-and-greet between the board of a non-profit and their members. The board isn’t popular, so maybe that’s why they looked tense and wary during the Q&A. It’s hard to appear receptive and inviting when you feel on the defensive. If so, they could have faked it better if they’d followed some basic rules of meeting with volunteers, members or donors.

  1. Smile when you call on people. Preferably a smile that you would give to a friend walking into your house, not the kind the crocodile gave to Captain Hook. Make them feel that their comments and they themselves are welcome.
  2. Don’t just answer a person’s question and then move on. Ask for clarification or more details so the person believes that you value their opinion or validate their concerns. You want them to know that you heard their specific concerns and aren’t just parroting a stock answer.
  3. After you answer their question, check that your answer adequately addressed their concerns.
  4. If someone offers help, express your appreciation and sound like you will genuinely consider the offer – whether or not you will. Take their information and make sure someone follows up, even if it’s just to say no thanks.

If you’re in a position of authority, you need to worry about more than getting your facts right.  You need to care about how you deliver them. Good will is one of a non-profit’s greatest resources. Being right doesn’t matter if you’ve ticked off your constituency or made them distrustful. Every face-to-face encounter is a chance to convey that the people running a non-profit are receptive, responsive and responsible.  Whether or not you feel that way, it’s your job to look like you care.