When I talk to non-profit organisations about the digital channels they’re using, Facebook is always mentioned. There seems to be a perception that organic Facebook is a given: every charity has to do it. What this leads to, in many cases, is organisations maintaining a Facebook presence and posting organic content a few times a week, with no real purpose to it beyond ‘being on Facebook’.
When Facebook Ads come up in discussions, many people in non-profits reply that Facebook Ads are not possible for them. Their perceptions about the Facebook Ad platform is that it’s too complicated, or that their organisation can’t afford to run ad campaigns.
Let’s take a closer look at both of those assumptions.
The problems with organic Facebook
Organic reach keeps declining (Facebook acknowledge this), and it’s really, really difficult to get decent reach without paying for it.
Organic Facebook used to play an important role at the top of the ‘marketing funnel’, helping to spread a message and getting people interested. It’s now much more difficult to use organic Facebook for ‘awareness’, i.e. reaching a new audience and bringing new people into the fold.
Facebook made some major changes from late 2017, due to the intense criticism they received for their role in various political campaigns that gifted us such wonderful experiences as Brexit, the Trump presidency, etc.
They introduced the fundraising tools, stopped favouring news articles and started favouring more community-based forms of interaction like groups. All of this massively changed the way organic posts perform.
Despite low organic reach being a very well-documented reality, I still constantly come across non-profits using a Facebook strategy that’s many years out of date:
- posting every single day
- using Facebook like a kind of bulletin board to share everything that’s going on in their organisation
- sharing constant links to news media sites
As you know, the Facebook algorithm is unforgiving. If you post content that gets poor engagement, your next post will perform badly too. Keeping this up will result in extremely low reach on your page’s posts: a trap that I see many non-profits fall into.
There are organisations that are making organic Facebook work, but it takes a lot of time. They’re doing things like finding trending content that is relevant to their cause, on Facebook or other platforms, and sharing that as organic Facebook posts on their page.
This can get engagement, but the time it takes to find and curate this content is considerable. In many cases this time would be better spent on developing ad campaigns, where the results are more measurable and consistent.
The problems with Facebook Ads
Facebook Ads are extremely powerful and sophisticated, but it can’t be denied that the Ad interface is complex. There’s definitely a learning curve when it comes to using Facebook Ads. It’s all too easy to get it wrong and get disappointing results.
There can also be a challenge in some organisations to get colleagues to stop thinking of Facebook as free media, and to get the budgets to run decent ad campaigns.
Importantly, there are serious ethical considerations too when it comes to spending money on Facebook Ads. Given Facebook’s business practices, many organisations are uncomfortable with the idea of paying them for ads; there was a campaign to boycott of the ad platform in July 2020 and many non-profits signed up.
However, organisations that are boycotting ads but doing organic Facebook posts should do a proper cost-benefit analysis on the latter activity.
If you have a social media officer being paid £26k per annum, and they are spending one day per week managing the Facebook page (this is on the lower end of the time many non-profits devote to organic Facebook), then the cost to your organisation is approximately £5k per year. Staff time has value, and this activity is not free.
Plus, when your organisation posts organic content on Facebook, that content will be monetised by Facebook; and when people interact it with, that data is captured and sold to other advertisers.
The only way to credibly say that you are not contributing to Facebook’s income is to stay off Facebook completely.
Choose ads over organic
My recommendation is to either use Facebook properly by using its Ads platform to build real support for your organisation, or don’t use it at all.
The Facebook Ads platform is incredibly powerful. Switching your Facebook efforts to Ads over organic is the more strategic choice, and will make your activity 100% measurable.
While the Facebook Ads interface is complex, there are a lot of learning resources available. Take it seriously, block off time for training, and you’ll get a good grasp of the platform. It should be a priority for non-profits to build their in-house skills in Facebook Ads: it greatly reduces the cost of each campaign if you can run it yourself rather than going to an agency.
The perception that huge budgets are required for ads isn’t true; even two campaigns per year with a budget of £500 each can bring in a significant return for your organisation.
What works for Facebook Ads
Strategy & objectives
Facebook’s Ad Manager lets you set different objectives for campaigns, and this feature is more powerful than many people realise. Use highly measurable objectives, such as conversions and leads; avoid objectives like clicks and brand awareness.
Facebook has over 10 years of data now on user behaviour, and it knows the people who will actually give money or sign up for an event. When you tell Facebook to get clicks, it will find a lot of people who will click on any old link they see. If you tell it to get conversions, it will find the people who will actually convert.
Aim to develop at least two strategic ad campaigns per year, that will drive measurable support for your organisation. And try to develop campaigns that can be run for months on end, as that will help you get the best value for your budget.
Some examples of strategic, measurable campaigns are:
- A lead campaign to build your list – petitions, surveys, free downloads
- A campaign promoting donations on your website
- A campaign promoting signups on your website to a fundraising event
It’s really important to use Facebook’s Ad Manager instead of the ‘boost post’ function, as Ad Manager gives you much more control in setting objectives.
Start preparing your colleagues for a new approach to Facebook Ads:
- no more short term campaigns
- no more boosting random posts
- no more tiny budgets of £50 here or £75 there
Why? Because you will get the best cost per result if you give Facebook plenty of time to learn, and you need a decent budget to give it scope to find the people who will convert. Setting up a Facebook Ad campaign with a budget of only £50 is like hiring a face to face fundraiser but only allowing them to approach people for half an hour.
Targeting & budgets
Broad targeting works best now; it means that Facebook has the scope to run tests and find the early converters. It then uses those early converters to build a statistical model to find the rest. Setting an audience of e.g. 1 million does not mean that Facebook will show your ads to 1 million people: it means that it has the capacity to find the right 50,000 within that group.
Low budgets don’t give Facebook enough opportunity to test ads and find the right people. Set a minimum of £500 for each campaign. If your organisation is in the habit of running lots of £50 boosted posts, switch to running a small number of campaigns with £500 budgets instead. Even if you’re with a small charity, you should be able to get this budget for one campaign each year.
One of the most important factors in Facebook Ad success is split testing lots of creative. Don’t spend ages crafting the ‘perfect’ ad: you are not your audience, and people who are very close to a cause are frequently not good judges of what will appeal to others.
Instead, find 10 significantly different images, and write five different versions of your ad text. Then set up 50 ads that combine all the variations (10 images x 5 ad texts), and let them all run for 1-2 weeks. Facebook will figure out which combination works best.
Then you can take the best performing ads, duplicate them into a new Ad Set, and further split test them with different headlines.
10 different images that were tested for a peace charity; the two marked with hearts out-performed the others by a wide margin.
What works for organic
There are still some areas where organic Facebook can perform for non-profits.
Facebook favours Groups in the feed now, and the engagement within Groups is much better on average than with Pages. Explore how Groups might work for your organisation, whether it’s tapping into existing Groups, or setting up one of your own.
Do take care with creating new Groups: they need a good reason to exist, and should be meeting a genuine need and connection among your supporters. “Get together and talk about how much you like X charity” is not a genuine need; “build a community of activists who get together to clean beaches every weekend” is an approach that is more likely to work.
Remember that Groups will require champions to keep them active and need ongoing moderation. They also present a communications and brand risk, in that people can say inflammatory or libellous things in Groups. Sometimes they will choose to do this at 2am on a weekend! It’s best to only have a small number of official Groups so that this risk can be mitigated.
Facebook’s Fundraising Pages have been genuinely transformative; they have raised over $2 billion since the feature was introduced. Some activities to ensure you’re making the most of this feature:
- Promote your birthday fundraisers: through Facebook Ads if you have the budget, or through emails to your mailing list.
- Develop a donor care plan to thank fundraisers. Digital Charity Lab has an article on how Facebook donor care was done effectively at one Irish charity, and the software service GivePanel will help you manage these fundraisers and convert them to ongoing support.
- Investigate virtual fundraising campaigns that use Fundraising Pages. Nick Burne and Adrian O’Flynn have a fantastic free ebook that explains how this works.
Certain types of content
There are pages getting good engagement and results with very specific types of content.
Information sharing: standalone posts with graphics that contain useful information, with all the crucial information available without a click. The organisation Which? use this approach to great effect.
Impact stories: post once a week, sharing a case study focused on an individual, and thank your followers for their support. This approach helps to build an engaged audience.
If you decide to adopt these content approaches, keep the following in mind:
- You should test a new approach for approx 2-3 months, and compare the reach and engagement to the previous period. Be strict during that time and stick to one content type only: if you mix the new content with unengaging bulletin board style updates, it won’t work.
- Have some clear goals in mind. What are you going to do with the audience once it’s built? Potential goals can include: targeting them with ads with donation asks, or trying to move them onto your email list.
- If your Facebook Page has had poor reach and engagement for a long time, you will probably need to spend some budget on turning posts like the above into ads, so that they start reaching a decent audience.
You may have noticed that effective organic approaches sometimes still require Ads!
In reality, Facebook is an advertising channel, and achieving a real return on your time generally requires spending at least some money on their ads.
Facebook resources from Digital Charity Lab
Digital Charity Lab has some learning resources to help charities of all sizes master Facebook Ads.
- Listen to our free podcast with Facebook Ads expert Adrian O’Flynn.
- Download the Facebook Ad Strategy for Charities & Nonprofits: A 22-page guide that educates on what strategies work for Facebook Ads and why and includes a template for a campaign.
Readers of Fundraising Space can get a €5 discount on this resource by using the code fundraisingspace at checkout.