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Lizz Callahan @LizzCallahan

17 Sep

Nonprofits All Atwitter: The Many Uses of the Twitter-verse in Nonprofit Communication


Social media can help nonprofits launch a brand and start a movement or build on an already monumental reputation, but the moves that make social media work for you take a few minutes of thinking rhetorically. This guide explains the basics of Twitter (not how to tweet but how to make it count when you do.) Who is listening? A Twitter feed can reach your members (and potential members) through a variety of routes, but the most common audiences for your tweets are going to fall into three categories: (1) interested people, likely members of your organization, who follow you on Twitter because they care about what your organization is doing; (2) the press, if youre lucky enough o r interesting enough or big enough to warrant it; and (3) people who stumble onto your Twitter through websites, re-tweets, or serendipitous acts of internet browsing. Obviously, the first and second audiences are much more likely to see a variety of your tweets over time, while the third audience may only see a re-tweet from another Twitter account or might stumble on your page and read an entire months worth of tweets in a single sitting. It is this first and second audience that is most important to engage, as they will be the rhetorical focal point of your tweets. What do you want from your readers and how can you get it? Lloyd Bitzer said that a rhetorical audience consists only of those persons who are capable of being influenced by discourse and of being mediators of change.1 As a nonprofit your goal is not simply to exist in the world, but to take steps towards its improvement, and a part of that goal is engaging people in your particular mission. Twitter can help you achieve this goal within the constraints of its particular genre. You have 140 characters, and potentially a link, to get across an entire message. The format is fairly one-dimensional, in that any video, photograph, or extra information requires the reader to be engaged enough to click through. Your tweets also need to be stand-alone, as they will often be buried in a variety of tweets from other groups and individuals in any particular feed and so cant reference the tweets that came before or after them without losing content.

Bitzer, Lloyd. The Rhetorical Situation. Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader. Guilford Press: 1999, 217225

If then, you are going to engage your mediators of change, you need to develop a rhetorical strategy that fits your particular audience, your immediate situation, and the genre limitations of the Twitter-verse. We know our three audiences, but our types of tweets can also fall into about five categories: (1) the emergency the earthquake has happened, the bill has passed/failed, the moment of truth is here; (2) the event people are gathered and things are happening fundraisers, service events, festivals; (3) FYI facts, figures, re-tweets; (4) gratitude and recruitment thank you and please, join us; and last but not least (5) engagement solicitations for questions, comments, and suggestions. The Emergency

Emergency tweets are often about services that can be immediately offered, how to find those services, and calls for financial help in distributing those services. Nonprofits like the Red Cross and other emergency response nonprofits often need to get vital information to a variety of people quickly. They may be reaching some individuals through personal feeds, but most information is probably being sought out through internet searches or disseminated through the media. Twitter offers an easy-to-find forum for these situations.

The emergency tweet, however, isnt relegated to natural disasters. Particularly vital bills or court proceedings can bring emergency rhetoric to a wide variety of nonprofits. These tweets call for immediate action or funds and are often tied to specific times, events, or places. The tweets often rely on emotionally charged language, unlike the pragmatic language above. In the case of an emergency tweet that addresses an emergency either ignored or dismissed by the larger population, these tweets not only serve as pleas to your regular members, but might also bring re-tweets from partner organizations or individuals who care about your issue, potentially drawing in new interested parties. As an occasional rhetorical strategy, these tweets might be helpful for immediate needs, but an overabundance of them could come off as disingenuous and fear-mongering, so the strategy should be used sparingly.

The Event

The event tweet gives specific details on an upcoming event or a currently happening event, letting members know the date of an event, as well as the title, time, or purpose of the event. Sometimes it isnt possible to get all that information into the 140 characters, but a link to further information can give some flexibility in content. The two most important items to include are the date and the purpose (or title if it is self-explanatory). This will allow the readers to decide if they need further information based on their own availability and interest. This kind of tweet should involve some sort of invitation, preferably with an active component, whether it is register here or mark your calendars.

FYI (For Your Information)

FYI posts almost always have a link with a news article or blog post on a relevant issue supporting the organizations purpose. The tweet itself serves less as an actual information tool and more as a hook to draw the readers to click through to the relevant article or pos t. These posts can be anywhere from horrific to hilarious, but they share a few common features. The posts hold back some piece of relevant information or some detail, often close to the end, to invite the click-through. They also often have a fairly verb or gerund heavy description of the contents of the linked piece, which helps to animate the ideas. The content of the link serves as either a reason for their existence or a reason to remain on readers Twitter feeds. Not every FYI link is going to convince users to join and support your organization, but these can be used as tools to inform your members of interesting facts and remind them of why they originally sought out your organization. This is also a part of that link-happy journey of the internet phenomenon, which if it helps your cause, might bring in new members.

Gratitude and Recruitment

Because one of your main audiences on Twitter is going to be your members, it is a great place to send out thanks and calls for volunteers. Earlier, I mentioned the importance of a call to action with events, but nonprofits also often need more general volunteer support. Those calls to action can also be sent through Twitter. By juxtaposing these calls with earnest gratitude to former volunteers, you both promote repeat volunteering by making volunteers feel appreciated and can invite your future volunteers to see themselves as a part of an established community that cares about its members.


Last but not least are posts inviting engagement (or responding to it). Twitter can offer a great platform for communicating in both directions. The engagement post can be a post that asks a question or invites suggestions, asking members to join the conversation, or it can be a response to tweets directed at your organization through Twitter. This kind of engagement can build community and excitement about becoming involved by members and potential members.

A Few Final Words on Twitter and Your Nonprofit Communication The five types of tweets cover most, but not all, of the kinds of tweets that nonprofit organizations send, but most nonprofits have a combination of the five above with an outlier tweet here or there. Variations on these themes over time will prevent redundancy and the fatigue of frequent Twitter checkers. Also, the main Twitter page of your organization can offer a brief description of the mission and can feature a section of photos and videos of the organization, which can serve as one more platform to visually engage your members.