Nicole Harrison is the founder of SocialNicole, a Minneapolis agency that provides online and social media communications services for businesses and nonprofits. She is also the host of a weekly Twitter chat about nonprofits, . The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of and a frequent contributor to the .
MKC: Does your agency provide only online services?
NICOLE: Actually, no. What you see on our website is pretty much geared towards online, but we’re actually doing some strategic on-the-ground fundraising help for small nonprofits, such as sponsorships and building their base. A lot of clients come for social media but they need all these other pieces as well. We try to offer solutions and help them see how these different pieces tie together.
MKC: What’s your background and how did it lead you to your current business?
NICOLE: Even as a young child, I always wanted to help people, and I started thinking I would be a child advocate lawyer. Then in my late 20s I decided to be a teacher. I was idealistic and was going to change the world. I taught for six years with at-risk kids in an alternative, inner-city school in north Minneapolis. It was amazing, but I got burned out, and I left wondering, ‘Now what am I going to do?’ I did a lot of searching and I realized that in many ways I had been doing components of marketing, sometimes as a volunteer and sometimes for pay. After an eight-month search, I landed a job with Mark Dayton, who was one of his funders. This was before he was officially running for governor, but he offered me a position in his campaign. At that time I was really getting into digital communications, so when I joined Mark’s team I helped revamp their website and I helped them set up all their digital assets. I worked full time on the campaign [which was successful] and then went into a consulting role. People from nonprofits and for-profits were asking me if I’d work for them, so it just made sense for me to go out on my own., a Minnesota legend, who started a huge nonprofit and founded another one, , in retirement. He took me under his wing and basically taught me Fundraising 101. That was an amazing experience. Working with Joe, who’s connected to every single person in this community, I had the opportunity to meet
MKC: How did your Twitter chat, NPTalk, come about?
NICOLE: Nonprofit Talk had started right before I went on my own. I was online one day and just frustrated by some personal fundraising I was seeing on Twitter that I thought was really heavy-handed, so I started a conversation about it and got 30 people talking. I attached the hashtag nptalk just randomly, and a participant said in a private DM [direct message], do you want to start a chat? I said, I don’t know, what do I have to do? He sent me a few more DMs and told me what to do. This is all happening while I’m having this fundraising conversation, so I asked the crowd, ‘Should we make this a weekly chat?’ and they said yes. That was the beginning. Now it’s evolved quite a bit.
MKC: Are you still hosting it once a week?
NICOLE: Yes. We’ve moved it onto its own website,. The decision to move it to its own website was really hard, because obviously it was drawing traffic. But it was a strategic decision to make my SocialNicole blog more business-oriented and use Nonprofit Talk to speak only to the nonprofit audience.
MKC: Did you start the Social Nicole blog when you started your own company?
NICOLE: The blog started about six months ahead of the company. SocialNicole was my Twitter name long before it became my company name. When I started the company I consulted with some brand experts and they said SocialNicole was already a brand and to use that.
MKC: Has what you’re trying to do with your blog changed?
NICOLE: The interesting thing about blogging is that it takes a while to get your voice, and it takes a while to figure out what you want to focus on and what you want to do with it. Earlier on, it was about relationships. No matter what you’re doing in all these spaces, it’s all about building relationships. I’ve definitely gone more into strategy and using online marketing. But I still find that my posts tie back to my tagline: “Connect. Engage. Grow.” It all comes back to that.
Topics come from a few different areas. One is when my clients ask me a question, and we realize that’s a question other people might have. So it’s become more client-driven in that way. Also, instead of writing whatever I want to talk about, I look on Twitter and Google search terms to see if it is really something people want to learn about.
MKC: Are your nonprofit clients embracing social media?
NICOLE: Yes, but if you’re investing in these resources or coming to the table saying, ‘We need to revamp our image,’ usually you’re opening a much bigger can of worms. Using social media to raise awareness and ultimately raise more donations drives people back to your website. But if your website is not that great, we’re looking at a lot more work, and it can be overwhelming. One way to react is to put your head in the sand and act like it’s just not a big deal.
MKC: That’s a very popular solution.
NICOLE: Yes. Especially in the nonprofit world, it’s always been okay if you’re website isn’t great, you’re a nonprofit and you’re investing resources not in your website but in the people you serve, right? Or, we’re a good cause, so it’s okay if we do social media this way, we can just talk on Twitter all day about why we’re so great and why you should give money to us because we’re curing cancer. But the fact of the matter is, yes, you can do that, but no one’s going to listen to you. This digital world we’re entering is raising the bar for everyone, but for nonprofits especially. You need a well-thought-out branded presence. You need to have a strategy of how you’re using social and email and all these things to reach people. Some nonprofits that don’t figure these things out won’t make it long term.
MKC: Are any of your nonprofit clients successfully integrating social media into fundraising and marketing?
NICOLE: Yes. They tend to be smaller and the challenge they have is how to integrate well and make it affordable. Right now my clients are in the process of planning new websites, because they know that’s something they need to do. Meanwhile they’re in the process of building their online presence. Our approach is that while we’re working on these other pieces, start building a community. We help them understand that for 9 to 12 months, they’re just connecting with people and finding where their community is, so they can call on that community to help them when they have a campaign.
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.