Using Social Media to Promote Nonprofit Events

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"Ribbons" - Cheerful-Givers / Flickr

You’re an adventurous nonprofit. You love being creative and telling a great story. You’ve had a social media presence for a while, but now you want to take things to the next level.

Your team wants to use social media to get out the word about this year’s annual charity benefit, fundraiser, auction, party, marathon, concert, art show, and/or luau. But where do you start?

Let’s walk through three steps that will make your next event super successful with the help of social media. It’s as easy as planning ahead, creating content, and sharing content.

1. Make An Editorial Calendar

Planning ahead is important. Your messaging needs to be consistent and delivered at key times so that it’s memorable and actionable. It’s hard to make it to an event when you find out about it too late. How far in advance should you begin planning? It depends. If you’re planning a large event for several hundred people, the rule of thumb is often four to six months out. Wild Apricot has a nice general checklist of how you might get started.

However, you don’t need to inundate people with social posts and blogs at the beginning. You can start with less frequency and ramp up your efforts closer to your date. That might look something like this outline:

4–6 Months Ahead:
  • Initial Planning
3–4 Months Ahead:
  • Set Up Event-Related Social Media Banners and Imagery (More on that in a sec)
  • Share Save-The-Date Type Announcements
2–3 Months Ahead:
  • Publicize Interesting Details Once Confirmed (Guest Speakers, Venues, Activities, etc.)
  • Begin Creating Your Event-Related Content (More on that in a sec)
  • Share Your Email List Sign-Up So Your Audience Can Stay Informed (You can target them with A/B messaging depending on whether they’ve RSVP’d yet)
  • Share Direct Links to Your RSVP Form or Ticket Purchase Page
3–6 Weeks Ahead:
  • Begin Sharing the Event-Related Content You’ve Created
  • Use Your Newsletter Email List and RSVP Email List Along With Facebook Custom Audiences to Target Them With Specialized Messaging (Either to sign-up because they haven’t already or to learn more about their upcoming event)
  • Share Event Prep News on Your Facebook Event Page
1–2 Weeks Ahead:
  • Keep Sharing That Event-Related Content You’ve Created and Up the Sharing Frequency
  • Consider Encouraging Your Audience to Post About or During the Event
  • Unveil an Event Hashtag—If You’re Going to Use One
1–3 Days Ahead:
  • Hashtags: Use ‘Em If You Got ‘Em
  • Continue Your Promotion Efforts With Daily Updates at a Minimum
  • Decide Who Will Take Photos or Video or Post Live Updates on Event Day
Event Day:
  • At the Very Least Take Photos or Video
  • Consider Live-Tweeting or Posting Live Updates on Facebook, Instagram, etc.
  • All Hashtags, All the Time
1–3 Days Afterward:
  • Thank People for Attending
  • If You Held the Event to Raise Money, Etc., Share Those Results
  • Package and Share Any Photos or Video You Took at the Event
  • Curate and Share Content Created by the Audience at the Event

If you have a smaller event, or something more impromptu, the above won’t be applicable. You may end up cutting this down considerably. And if you have someone in charge that doesn’t quite know what they’re doing, you might even be asked to plan a major event in less than a month! (I’m sure that’s never happened to any of you, though.)

Either way, your outline is only the start of your detailed editorial calendar. Now, you fill in details. Who researches info or content and when, who writes it, who proofs it, when and where it gets published, etc. Lastly, consider the timing of your other non-social media messaging during your calendar planning. If you send a monthly email update on the 15th, move event announcements a few days away or incorporate them into the existing newsletter.

Finally, how do you organize all this info? There are plenty of options: Microsoft Outlook calendars, Excel spreadsheets, editorial calendar software, and web-based applications. The web design agency Digital Telepathy makes a free Google Drive Spreadsheet template that is quite versatile. It’s available in this entertaining blog post about the wonders of spreadsheets.

2a. Create Digital Imagery

Once you have your editorial strategy in place, you need eye-catching imagery to advertise your event. If you decide to make it yourself: Adobe Illustrator is your friend.

The first thing you should make are coordinated banner images for Facebook and Twitter as well as profile images and post image templates for all the social networks you’ll be sharing on. Unfortunately, every social network has different image size requirements. Refer to this great SproutSocial chart for sizing your imagery.

The great thing about banner imagery is that beyond just designing coordinating pictures, you can place the event name, location, and date and time right on the images. These become your save-the-date cards that your social visitors will see every time they visit your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube, and Tumblr pages.

What should your imagery look like? That’s up to you! But I say: be bold. Make visuals pop. There are plenty of boring, conservative graphics for banks, law firms, and funeral homes. We established earlier that YOU are an adventurous nonprofit. So have fun. Look to other graphics for inspiration: art events, music festivals, businesses, other cool nonprofits, etc. Then get creative.

Or, hire a designer if you don’t want to do it yourself. However, if you do hire a designer, I encourage you to pay them ethically. If you find someone on Fiverr willing to make you a template poster for $5, you can pay $5 (although Fiverr people also accept tips for doing good work). But if you find a face-to-face designer through Craigslist or a friend-of-a-friend, you should be happy to pay the market rate for their work. Afterall, how much time did you just save?

2b. Create Supporting Content

Now that you have an assortment of banners and posters, you’re ready to go right?

Not so fast, mister.

In social media sharing, there’s something termed the 4-1-1 Rule. The basic tenet here is that you will loose your audience’s attention and actually harm your social media marketing efforts with too much shameless self-promotion. Under the rule, you’re allowed to promote your event one time for every four posts of new engaging content you publish plus one share or retweet of content of interest to your audience.

That’s not to say this isn’t the only way to do it. You’ll come across other sharing strategies if you do a little digging—some people recommend a 5–3–1 Rule or a 5–5–5 Rule. Whichever you go with, know that you need an equal or larger ratio of cool interesting content to shameless self-promotion.

What should this content be? You want cool and you want interesting.

You could tell the story of this event, or involve the audience. Think multiple media: snappy letter from the CEO (in conversational language), existing videos of the upcoming guest speakers, bios of guest presenters, photos of your preparations, countdown posts, games, contests, raffles, project updates. You can blog about your success or even how you overcame stumbling blocks along the way. Nothing will humanize and endear your brand to your audience like authenticity and humility.

Important: note that all this planning, background gathering, and idea sketching should take place predominantly in your early planning stages. You will have an infinitely harder time trying to divide your energy between coming up with ideas and packaging and distributing those ideas at the same time.

Now that you’ve got creative imagery and engaging content, you need to display and share it widely and consistently across your multiple social channels.

3. Sharing Your Content

This step should be considerably more straightforward, assuming you’ve built an editorial calendar and created content. Apply your content to your calendar and stick with it.

Things to keep in mind…

If you haven’t already considered time of day of the publication of your content, now’s the time to do that. You don’t have to be consistent here. In fact, if you don’t know your audience really well, it’s much better to vary when you post.

Facebook Insights will show you some data about when your Facebook fans are typically online, but for other channels, it’s usually a guess, observe, and adjust process.

The only way to really do this wrong is to post everything for the day or week all at once. Spread that stuff out.

Use a social media scheduling tool to make the best use of your time. There are many tools to choose from, but most any scheduling tool will work. You can input all your posts for the week on Monday morning and then only worry about spur of the moment posts or talking with your audience.

Speaking of conversations, if your audience asks questions or makes comments on your posts through social media, respond accordingly. Getting people to talk to you is a hard feat to pull off at first, so if you’ve got people’s interest, work hard to keep them engaged.

Lastly, keep track of what’s working and what’s not. You may be able to tweak your approach during your promotional campaign for improved results. Or, you may be able to ditch upcoming tasks that so far have been underperforming. Finally, when your event is over, you want to be able to look at what worked and what didn’t, so that you can work smarter on future campaigns.


You’ll notice that we could make it all the way through this process without spending a dime on social media promotion. (Though you’ll have spend hundreds of hours doing the work.) That’s one of the most amazing things about social media. But if you do happen to have a budget, there are further ways to maximize your efforts.

You could buy paid promotion on Facebook by “boosting” specific posts or buying ad placements for your visual content. These options can let you reach significantly larger and more targeted audiences. Twitter and Tumblr also offer relevant paid promotional options.

Closing Thoughts

Wherever your nonprofit adventure leads you with event planning, social media can help. With nearly no upfront costs, you could reach thousands of people, tell an amazing story about your program, and shape the very future of your organization. With a little planning and some creativity, you can make something amazing come to life.

The hardest part is just getting started.

Image Credit: Cheerful Givers / Flickr Creative Commons

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