Social Media: A Method to the Madness

If you are a manager in the cultural or natural history sector, you’ve probably got staff madly working on social media. Maybe you’re a social media person yourself. And if you are, you know it’s busy and challenging work. As a visitor experience advisor, I’m often asked to help put social media in the greater context of what the entire organization is trying to accomplish. Why are we doing all that social media, anyway? It takes time, and it saps our creativity. Sometimes it leads us into unpleasant encounters with unpleasant people. (Thanks, Elon!) Is it worth it?

And that’s a huge question. “Is it worth it?” What does “worth it” mean? Recently a colleague asked if there’s some kind of dollar value that we can attach to all that social media engagement. Is there some kind of formula where we can say, “Hey! We’ve got 14000 likes this month. Can I tell my manager what that translates to in dollars?”

No. No, there isn’t, sadly. It doesn’t work that way.

Let’s break it down.

Broadly, we do social media in the natural/cultural history sector for a few reasons. We do it so our communities will:

  1. Know us and like us
  2. Understand and feel affinity with our mission
  3. Think of us often
  4. Be there to support us when we need them.

It’s that last one that that really matters.

A social media relationship is a two-way street. It’s based on a kind of compact that says, Hey community member. If you follow us, we are going to brighten your day. We are going to entertain you, educate you, and move you with our stories and images, and it’s not going to cost you anything but a few seconds of your time. But in return, when we need you, we’re hoping you’re going to be there for us. Because what we need from you is:

  1. Advocacy and action toward our mission
  2. Purchases of the things we sell, including tickets to our events and front gate
  3. Donations
  4. Volunteer work
  5. Amplification of our messages
  6. And so on.

So in judging the effectiveness of our social media work, we can’t get trapped into the kind of thinking that your social media metrics are the end goal. It’s not about the likes and shares. I mean, we can think of our social media metrics as indicators on the way to success, for sure. But they are a means, not an end (unless your actual mission is digital outreach communication, in which case you’re golden with just these results.) So yes, we rejoice when we have 3000 follows, we get 1500 likes, we get 2000 shares. Those are all indicators that our communities know us, like us, think of us often. But we can’t take any of those things to the bank; for those of use whose missions require us to make a measurable difference in the non-digital world, these social media measures are never the end goal.

Ultimately, the end goal is advancing our mission. And many of us, along the way, also have to make some money, recruit volunteers, foster real-world advocacy, solicit donations, and more.

Wrapping your head around the idea of conversions

The success of any social media or email effort can be measured in what the marketing world calls conversions. Conversion is a really broad term in marketing; it just means that moment when you present our audience with a concrete call to action (buy a ticket, email your representative, click on a link, sign up for more info, sign up to volunteer) and they actually do the thing. Conversion rate is the percent of the people who saw that call to action and actually did the thing.

Sometimes people ask me what a good conversion rate is, and the answer (as usual) is, it depends. It depends on how compelling the call to action is, and how complex, expensive, or cumbersome the actual action is to perform. The only really generalization I can give you is that conversion rates are generally heartbreakingly small. For many digital campaigns, a conversion rate of 4% is a big success. That’s why we need to build our communities into the thousands; that’s how many it takes to move the needle on the actual measures that matter to our mission or our financial bottom line.

When good people do bad social media

So if we think of a social media strategy as being a way to get those desired outcomes (know us and like us; understand and support us; think of us often; and be there when we need something from them), it really only works if we spend the lion’s share of our time on the first three. (That’s why social media is so expensive, in terms of time and creative energy. PRO TIP: direct email is cheaper. Cheaper cheaper cheaper.)

The vast majority of our social media activity will be building affinity, brightening their day, offering moments that touch and inspire them, making them laugh when appropriate, and sharing the exciting things we’re doing in our mission. We do that as well as we can, as creatively as we can, and as often as we can, so that those followers will actually respond to a call to action when we need them.

Nags and more nags

But that’s not what most of our social media feeds look like, is it? Most of us are putting out nothing but calls to action, all day long, and wondering why people aren’t responding the way we’d like. So thinking of the compact I described above, you’re trying to make a dysfunctional relationship work—one in which you’re effectively saying, “Hey followers. We add almost nothing to your day. We can’t really be bothered to come up with moving, magical, whimsical, inspiring posts so we’re just going to nag you over and over again to sign up for a program you don’t really know much about, offered by an organization that you don’t really know very well nor feel much inspiration to support.”

Is this you? Because you can fix that.

If you have a dysfunctional social media relationship with your community, it’s time to look at a strategy in which you’re spending most of your time building affinity, building a base of support, creating a critical mass of people who know you, like you, understand what you do, and want to support you.

You want to be that moment in their day that they’re actually looking forward to. You want your social media to be a little window into your world: a peek into your beautiful park; your moving history; your inspiring biologists or interpreters or rescue workers.

Spend 80-90 percent of your time making magic.

Follow up with a call to action that is feasible and appropriate for the audience.

Measure your results—all of them: likes, shares, and conversions—and take note of which approaches work and which fall flat. Test different styles of posts. Test the different channels (Facebook, Insta, TikTok, whatever) and see where you get results. Digital media is wonderful in how easy it is to get metrics. So use them.

Tweak as you go. Refine your approach as you learn. Track your conversions.

And then, document your results and present them to your leadership.

Show them the power of a strong and functional social media relationship with your community.

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One Comment

  1. Bill Reynolds

    You captured the essence in this statement: “The vast majority of our social media activity will be building affinity, brightening their day, offering moments that touch and inspire them, making them laugh when appropriate, and sharing the exciting things we’re doing in our mission.” This IS the alternative to the nag, nag, nag syndrome. This is what will lead to conversion and support, one hopes.
    At that is what we strive for in our mostly monthly blogpost.

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