An Evolving Approach to Social Media: Building an Online Community

By Special Contributor posted 07-18-2017 14:20

by Tim Mikulski

Over the coming months, posts in this series about social media in preservation will dig deeper into community management, storytelling, advocacy, and more. Have questions? Reach out on Forum Connect! Also, keep an eye out for our sessions at PastForward 2017!

Your organization has established itself in the world of social media with accounts on multiple platforms. You are gaining followers and have come up with a plan to share out content on a regular basis. But now what? 


Key to a successful social media presence is creating a community. Although this is not always easy, by building up an audience that craves more information, you also create a network of ambassadors who can help develop your brand and broaden your base of support for historic preservation. 

Many nonprofit organizations have limited resources to spend on social media efforts. Once you choose the best outlets for your organization—take time and experiment to get the right mix—you can evaluate which ones seem like the best candidates for building an online community. 

Initially, the National Trust explored many channels. But over the past several years, as the social media landscape has evolved and the National Trust has made a larger investment in our social efforts, two channels have emerged as our strongest communities—Facebook and Instagram

While the Trust does also have many followers on Twitter and other channels, Facebook and Instagram are where our community has grown and interacted the most. Plenty of our stories and Forum Blog posts are retweeted, but only a few questions and conversations per day happen on Twitter. In contrast, nearly every Facebook post the Trust publishes receives comments, questions, and shares. Facebook posts often spark conversations in which both followers and the Trust can participate.

Community Management

I spent nearly three years as either as a full- or part-time community manager at the National Trust. I was often the first person that responded to a question or comment coming through social media. I tapped my own knowledge base, did some research, or called on colleagues to help find answers to the pressing questions of our members, fans, and followers.

Simply by taking the time to respond to comments or questions, you are building a community—being responsive and engaging in conversations is key. Have you ever tweeted at an airline or commented on a restaurant’s Facebook page asking a question or raising a concern, but not heard back? How did that make you feel about that brand? 

We seek to build community by making sure our responses to messages are timely. 

Conversely, if you asked a question regarding saving a place in your community and received a response in a timely manner, how would you feel about that organization? By creating that touch point with your audience, you are not only growing your Facebook fan base but also hopefully taking the first step toward making them enthusiastic supporters of your organization. In time they may become brand ambassadors who regularly share your posts and participate in conversations or even advocates, event attendees, or donors/members. 

I consider the role of a community manager—whether it’s a formal title or just one aspect of a communications professional’s job—equivalent to that of a cashier or salesperson at a store. The skills I had learned while working the front counter at CVS or selling jeans at Old Navy have often served me well—half of my job as a community manager was customer service with a smile. 

Of course, community management does come with its own set of challenges. Being well prepared with official, public community rules and expectations for your social media outlets makes it that much easier to respond to a challenging comment or rude remark. And if you are ever asked to explain why you are deleting or hiding a comment—or, worse yet, banning an account—you can simply reference your written policy. Taking the time to prepare for the worst will save you from a lot of heartburn in the moment. At the National Trust, the same terms of use that govern contributions to the website also apply to our social media posts. 

It’s worth noting that, fortunately, circumstances like that are rare in the preservation community. At the Trust, we’ve long marveled at how uniformly agreeable and helpful the people participating on our social channels are.

While questions and conversations can be managed within what we often refer to as “native” sites or apps—, the Instagram app, etc.—I would recommend trying any number of free or paid community management tools. These tools can collect all of your social comments in one place, which makes it easier to respond. They also allow you to add keywords and hashtags so you can “listen” to conversations of interest to your organization that you might otherwise miss out on. The standard version of Hootsuite is free, and you can also explore paid products like Sprout Social and AgoraPulse, both of which the Trust currently uses.


As a social media manager, the words you least want to hear from a board member or higher-level staff are, “Make this go viral.” That’s an impossible challenge because the nature of viral posts is unpredictable—you never know what might catch on and become the next big thing. It happens organically. Moreover, it will only happen if your focus is on high-quality content, not virality.

Another request that is difficult to manage: “Can’t we just tweet at Celebrity X, so they share it to their audience?” While that can work, it requires cultivating relationships with celebrities for whom your organization’s message is “on brand.” The Trust has had success engaging with celebs like “American Picker” Mike Wolfe, author Jamie Ford, and Academy Award–winning actor Lupita Nyong'o, but it’s often more effective to build your own set of brand influencers who already care about historic preservation. In many places, a tweet from a local news anchor or city councilmember will have more impact than a tweet from Oprah. But developing these relationships definitely takes work.


It all starts with those daily community management interactions. The more responsive you are to questions and comments—and the faster you’re able to respond—the more your fans and followers see that you care about them. That can lead not only directly to those fans becoming members and donors but also to them sharing and liking more of your posts. Soon, you’ll recognize a number of accounts that like and share most or all of your content. The next step is to dig in a little deeper with each person. You will want to explore how many followers they have, who they follow, and what else they send messages about. You’ll soon start to see patterns and be able to identify individuals who can help spread the word about your work even further.

You can also ask people you identify as influencers on Twitter to join you for a Twitter chat or invite an active Instagram user to take over your organization's account for a day. (Be sure to provide them with guidance and guidelines in advance.)

All of this will go a long way to building your brand’s social media presence, which is the first step in bringing social fans into your world of members or donors. It can all start with simply answering a question or thanking someone for a like or tweet. You just never know.

Want more? Read our 8 tips for Social Media Community Management on

Tim Mikulski is a senior communications manager with government contracting firm DIGITALSPEC, LLC. From 2014 to 2017, Tim worked on the National Trust’s social media accounts, first as a public affairs manager and later social media community manager.

#Technology #SocialMedia

Get Connected

Discuss this blog post and more on Forum’s new online community. Sign up now.