Social media for development: making the most of Facebook

This article was originally featured in The Guardian.  Read Original

This case study has been cited in the recently published textbook, Online around the World: A Geographic Encyclopedia of the Internet, Social Media, and Mobile (El Salvador, p. 79-81)

It was also included as a required reading for a three-day, one-credit course, titled “Media and Global Affairs,” MGA 60705, offered by the Keough School of Global Affairs in collaboration with the College of Engineering and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at The University of Notre Dame.

The techniques used in commercial social media campaigns don’t always translate to the field of international development. Global development is a niche sector, so its communicators don’t need tens of thousands of followers to be successful. Even for commercial outfits, a followership of 30,000 is not in itself an indication that the campaign is being effective: what if only 15% of those followers are from the target audience? When I plan social media for project communications, I categorise our target audience into the following groups: donors, partners, recipients, colleagues, competitors, media and interested parties (general public). Refining your target audience in this way means you probably won’t have thousands of followers.

Take two projects that my organisation, RTI, has been involved with in El Salvador. One is the Improving Access to Employment Programme, implemented by Carana Corporation, and the other is the USAid Municipal Competitiveness Project. The two projects have different missions, but they both used Facebook to engage their audience.

In early 2012, the Improving Access to Employment Programme wanted to engage with young Salvadorans seeking employment. Project staff found that traditional media was not reaching their target audience, so they turned to El Salvador’s most popular social media platform: Facebook. In El Salvador, Facebook is the dominant social media platform especially among people under the age of 26.

They launched their own page, invested $300 a month in Facebook ads and published content including job vacancies, employer highlights, and programme-sponsored training courses. In less than two years the project’s fan base grew from 800 fans to more than 65,000. Of its 65,000 Facebook fans, 90% were in the 18-34 targeted age range of the project. Companies began asking if they could post their vacancies on the page. By the time the project ended, 40 private companies were sharing an average of 15 job offers every week.

In contrast, the Municipal Competitiveness Project’s Facebook page has just 500 fans, but it is equally successful.

The project is a joint effort between Salvadoran municipalities and the private sector, to foster economic development and growth in El Salvador. It aims to improve the country’s business climate while promoting private investment.

The project created its Facebook page in April 2013 with the goal of engaging and informing USAid El Salvador, the project’s participating municipalities and key stakeholders, like local partner Voces Vitales, about the project’s successes, as well as promoting upcoming events.

Initially, in an attempt to increase Facebook “likes”, the project cast a wide net, but they found that to be ineffective. Under this initial strategy, metrics tool Facebook Insights showed that their typical Facebook fan was female between 18-24 years old and living in San Salvador – much younger than the project’s targeted audience and from only one municipality. Although the project was able to reach its audience through traditional media, it wanted to connect with municipalities’ Facebook fan pages to increase engagement in project activities and raise awareness.

As part of its improved strategy, the project mentioned and tagged municipalities and their respective mayors in its Facebook status updates. So, the mentioned municipalities used their Facebook pages to repost the project’s events, and the USAid mission in El Salvador also reposted the project’s highlights which helped attract a more focused fan base. The strategy shifted the project’s Facebook audience demographic from young women living in San Salvador to an older audience of 25-44 year-old men and women living in various Salvadoran cities. Reaching the target audience resulted in an increase in fan engagement in the posts, and as tagged municipalities reposted the project’s Facebook content, the project also experienced a steady increase in followers.

To date, its most effective Facebook post was an advertisement announcing a local workshop for women entrepreneurs in partnership with Voces Vitales. That one Facebook post received 313 clicks, was shared 18 times and had a reach of more than 2,800 people. The project also followed up the announcements by posting pictures of the two successfully attended workshops. With a connected targeted audience in place, the project used social media to show how it was promoting economic development, and the funders did not have to wait for an official success story or a report to begin seeing results.

Thanks to their social media efforts, both projects have seen tangible offline results. Both were strategic in gathering a follower base that fit their target audience and aligned with each project’s mission. The success of their social media campaigns was not about the number of followers they garnered, but rather how effective their campaigns were at engaging their targeted audience. Creating a social media marketing strategy is not about numbers per se, nor is it about completely replacing traditional media. It’s about connecting with your targeted audience.