Fireside Chat: How Social Media Deepens Relationships With Your Constituents

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Some of the best conversations are inspired by sitting around the fire and thinking of possibilities and visions – large and small.

Guest expert Stefanie Cruz, from DigiGeeks Collective and Build Consulting’s Kyle Haines had an informal discussion on how nonprofits can pivot from using social media simply for marketing and communications to something much more integrated into the relationships organizations value most.

Stef is the founder of DigiGeeks Collective, a community of communication and digital strategists who collaborate on compelling projects with social cause organizations and movements. In addition to being a co-founder of Build, Kyle also serves as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the Lymphoma Research Foundation where social media is playing an increasing role in delivering high-quality patient and professional content.

Our Fireside Chats are designed for audiences with varied experiences with technology. In this Fireside Chat learn more about how social media deepens relationships with an expert and innovator in communications and outreach.


How Social Media Deepens Relationships

Stef Cruz is a strategic communications professional with over 15 years’ experience mobilizing millions of individuals to action across national social movements including the Women’s March, Families Belong Together and the March for Our Lives.

She was one of the first digital strategist on Capitol Hill as the Director of Digital Media for Congressman Sander Levin and the Ways and Means Committee. Worked in partnership with the Democratic task force to support and encourage Members of Congress and Committees to embrace digital and social media tools to share legislative updates and create online communities.

Most recently, Stef served as the Vice President of Marketing and Digital at America’s Promise Alliance.


Kyle Haines co-founded Build Consulting in 2015, after working in and with nonprofit organizations to improve their development operations and technology for over 20 years. Kyle’s consulting work at Build touches all nonprofit operational areas—but has a strong focus on using technology to enhance constituent experiences, which leads to improved fundraising and greater mission impact.

Kyle has served as interim CIO for several organizations, where he enjoys tackling deep-seated challenges. Internally, Kyle leads our efforts to create and maintain a strong corporate culture in which staff can grow and flourish.

Kyle Haines’ entire career has been working with nonprofits, and that gives him a unique perspective on what it takes for an organization, at the deepest cultural levels, to have long and fruitful relationships with both donors and program beneficiaries.


Kyle Haines:  Welcome everybody, I’m so excited to have my guest today, Stefanie Cruz. She is the founder and CEO of the DigiGeeks Collective. I have known Steph for many years. I always find my conversations with her incredibly interesting. They often take turns that are unexpected and I think that you’re going to learn a lot from her today about her experience, her perspective and the things that your organization can do to change how you approach social media. 

I’m a founding partner at Build. And these chats are just an opportunity for me to have conversations with leaders like Stef who can use technology, and have used technology as strategic levers for change. 

This is not unknown to anyone, but social media has become a powerful tool where we can broadcast messages, we can organize around key ideas and mobilize people around a common cause. But a lot of nonprofits are also using social media to directly engage with constituents from social media listening to monitoring and evaluation. Tools like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have evolved from being used simply to do promotion to being used in much more personalized one to one interactions.

Social media has obviously been in the news quite a bit recently. And the conversations about social media have been justifiably not always positive. But today, I’m hoping we can shine a light on some of the ways social media has been used as a positive lever for change. 

My guest today, Stef, is the founder and CEO of DigiGeeks Collective. I’m going to ask Steph to share more about her experience in a bit because I think her story, in addition to her professional background, is incredibly interesting. 

The DigiGeeks Collective works on digital and social strategies and I love this part: they talk about the mobilization of social movements. I’ve worked with a bunch of folks that are part of the DigiGeeks Collective and they are an amazingly talented group of individuals. 

Steph, thank you so much for being my guest today and I appreciate you making time to chat.

Stefanie Cruz:  Thank you, Kyle. I’m super excited to be here. And looking forward to our conversation.

Kyle:  Excellent. So we’ve known each other for a long time, I think for five years.

Stefanie Cruz:  Yeah, five years.

Kyle:  If it’s okay with you, I’d like to ask a little bit about your journey before starting DigiGeeks Collective. I know you grew up in New York City and your journey took you out west to Malibu and then all the way back east to DC. Hopefully, you can tell your version of that story and give a little bit more context behind it and how you came to be in DC and the journey that took you there.

Stefanie Cruz:  Yeah, absolutely. I will just say that I’m playing with the sun. So I may have to shift my computer a few times as the sun is setting where I am. 

I grew up in New York City, Upper West Side, really humble beginnings. My mom had me at 18. She was a single mom. And I grew up really with this idea that education was what was going to make a difference in my life and help me change the quality of my life. So I went through school, kind of didn’t have a choice. Going to college, going to move forward and make a difference. I applied to 10 colleges. I got into nine. University of Miami, I still hold a grudge for putting me on a waitlist. 

I got accepted to Pepperdine University, which is a very different environment than growing up in New York City. Kyle knows this; I was told that, as a young woman who came from poverty, a woman of color, that Pepperdine, which has a very affluent population, I wouldn’t belong there. I wouldn’t fit in. So my hardheadedness said, “Okay, I’m going to go there.”

So I went to Pepperdine University. It’s a very conservative school and not necessarily aligned with my political leanings, but I’ve made the best friends of my life there. I was able to have conversations with people who thought completely differently than the way that I had grown up. 

And we wrestled and we talked through really difficult times. That was really pivotal to my education. Through one of my professors there I became interested in political science – really understanding sociology and juvenile delinquency and really understanding my life experience but within the larger context of policy and what was happening in the world. 

And so that brought me out to DC, where I worked for Congressman Rangel from New York, who was my member of Congress. I still wanted to be very connected to the community that I came from, so I also ran a nonprofit for girls and young women of color in digital media. I split my time on Capitol Hill and also ran this nonprofit. That turned into working on Capitol Hill for seven years. I ended up working for Congressman Sandy Levin of Michigan, who is someone that I really respect and admire. And I became his digital director way back in 2006. That’s a little bit of the beginnings of my career in life.

Kyle:  Yeah, I really appreciate hearing that story again and I’m reminded — I had forgotten about all the elements of that. And just as a personal note, my wife had sort of a similar experience growing up. Her mom had her when she was 19, was a single mom and went to college while she had her. And I just think it’s an incredible story.

Stefanie Cruz:  Yeah, lived experience. There was a day at one of my juvenile delinquency classes where they showed a video of a girl. She was about eight or nine years old, living in a homeless shelter in New York. And they were kind of showing her lived experience and everything; she was facing it. And then at the end of the class, the professor and the students were like, the little girl says, “I want to go to college,” or something like that. And everyone in the class was saying, “Oh, that’s really nice. We know that’s not really going to happen.” I was able to stand and say, “I’m a statistic, I fall into all the statistics that we fall into in this class.” 

You and I worked at America’s Promise, there’s about 10 risk factors that determine whether or not a young person is going to go to high school, graduate from high school, go to college. I fall into probably 90% of those risk factors and here I am, talking to you and the CEO of my own company. So, really pushing against some of these stereotypes. Kyle, I’ve loved the time that I’ve worked with you and I think you’ve really helped me to affirm and see the value that I bring to the work that I do. So again, excited for our conversation.

Kyle:  I am too. And I love it, it’s so great. Just a little bit more about your story, and then we’ll go into some of the other questions. When you reminded me that the reason you went to Pepperdine was because people would tell you, you wouldn’t succeed and you were like, “Well, then I’m definitely going.” That is the Steph Cruz I know. 

I’m curious about your time on the Hill. You were, I’m guessing, doing digital strategy. I have never worked on the Hill, but it had to be very new. I’m wondering what that looked like and how that impacted engaging with Congressman Levin’s constituents, all of those things.

Stefanie Cruz:  It was a really interesting time. It was 2006, so it was before Obama got elected. Everyone sort of understood that digital and social actually played a role in politics and in reaching people. I remember going to a fundraising event. 

I hate fundraising events, but I went, and one of the people there asked, “Oh, what do you do?” Because in DC, that’s what people ask you. You’re not a human. And I said, “I’m an Online Communications Coordinator,” because at that point we were making up titles, right? This whole thing was super new. And he said, “Oh, so you play on YouTube all day?” And I said, “No, I am helping a member of Congress who works in DC connect to his constituents in Michigan. I’m helping to create a bridge so that people understand and have transparency around what’s happening in DC and the decisions that are being made that affect them.”

It was very new. I was part of a committee that worked with Nancy Pelosi’s office to help members of Congress understand why they needed a digital presence, why they should set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account. So, I was really a part of that inaugural class. Now I totally regret it. I think all political officials should get off of social media. And I’m really concerned about the way that we just went through four years of a tweet blowing up your day. And so I have really thought about, and continue to think about, the role that digital and social play and how members of Congress and elected officials really engage with their constituents.

Social Media for The Women’s March, 2016

Kyle:  The other thing that I was hoping you could talk about is the Women’s March on Washington in 2016 and your involvement in the social and digital strategy for that. And I think, on the homepage of the DigiGeeks Collective, there’s a picture from that time, is that right?

Stefanie Cruz:  Yes, yes, there is.

Kyle: I’m hoping you can paint a picture of what that was like. You told me, around the time you were in it, it seemed like it was very high energy, fast paced, collaborative. I’m just curious if you’d be willing to talk a little bit about what that experience was like and how you mobilized around that singular event?

Stefanie Cruz:  Yeah. If you let me share my screen, I can show the picture.Okay. So this is This is the collective of this amazing group of individuals that I work with. And this picture is actually from March For Our Lives, because I also helped with the digital and social for March For Our Lives in addition to the Women’s March. This shows you this amazing group of individuals that came together to really mobilize digital and social for this event. 

I can share a little bit about my story with the Women’s March. It was really an interesting experience. The Women’s March came to DC, that was sort of the main March and then there were 800 marches around the country and the world. About three days before the March, Wednesday at about 11:00 p.m., I got an email from someone that I knew, that I worked with. He asked me if I wanted to be a part of history and literally, the subject was: “Do you want to be a part of history?” and there was nothing in the email. 

And I was like, sure, I don’t even know what that means. Then I got a call from four of the organizers of the Women’s March. They told me they needed someone to run digital and social. They were particularly concerned about security and the live feed being attacked and being brought down. So they really needed someone to focus on that.

I said, “Well, there’s a lot of really talented people who do social and digital in DC. You should probably call them.” And they said, “We just spoke to someone.” The woman they spoke to was named Mary and apparently, she yelled at them because they didn’t have this together. 

Three days before the March and Mary was yelling about all the things they needed. Having worked on Capitol Hill, having grown up the way that I did, chaos is like whatever, right? 

We’re going to organize it, we’re going to make a way, we’re going to make it through. And I told them, we’ll figure it out together. And so I agreed to help oversee digital and social. I came the next day on Thursday. I called in sick to work. Kyle, I think you know that. 

I didn’t tell anyone and I went to the hub where the organizers of the March were meeting, which was the Watergate Hotel. It was the basement of the Watergate. It was a fascinating experience to watch 50, 60 people who decided a month ago that they were going to do this march. Now there’s a million people coming to DC.

And during that time, I spent all of Thursday, half a day, just listening, getting a sense of what was moving. What were the moving parts of the march? Who was marching? Who was speaking? What were security concerns? There were a lot of concerns around who’s going to be on the ground. 

We didn’t know if someone was going to show up with a bomb; it was high intensity. It was a very politically charged time, so there was a lot of fear. I spent that day listening and I built out a digital communications plan. While the team was really concerned about the live feed, I was really concerned about the people that were coming to this march. You had people, women especially, coming from all over the country on planes. I remember Southwest planes, I think they turned the lights pink. I remember that, I thought that was awesome. 

You had women that were really upset that Hillary Clinton wasn’t speaking at the March, but they were coming anyway. And you had Black and African American women especially, and brown women who didn’t feel like they were being reflected in the March. No one really knew all the details because it all came together really quickly. 

My thing was, how do we make sure that everyone feels valued and appreciated? How can we use digital and social to make sure everyone who comes to this event feels connected? That was my number one goal. 

We had tons of people calling that wanted to volunteer, which was actually really hard, right? How do you organize volunteers? I found one volunteer who was a Facebook employee. She told me she could get 10 of her colleagues at her apartment who could all help with social, so I put them in charge of listening for people who were coming to the March. They were on social, watching the hashtag, and thanking people for being there and answering their questions, which to me was number one priority.

Focus on Listening

My next priority was how to capture moments for this March and make sure that people can see them and engage them online. I created a team of six people, all women, mostly women of color and we focused on listening. We were listening for any security concerns, any. There were many lost children who got disconnected from their parents, so we listened for that. 

I think my favorite story, I don’t know that I’ve told you Kyle, is that a woman went into labor at the Native American museum and the crowds were so big that the ambulance couldn’t reach her. This is the power of social media, right? The American Indian Museum, DM goes through Twitter, and says, we have a pregnant woman trying to get out. I was able to call command who was able to open the way, so this ambulance could reach her. I was told when we were preparing, “You’re not going to be able to watch DMs and you’re not going to be able to listen on the hashtag, because there’s going to be so much noise.” But if we had chosen not to listen, we would have missed some really important moments where we could be helpful.

So my priorities again were people feeling seen, connected and appreciated and really listening for any of those potential security concerns. 

We had the New York Times DM us. Social actually became really critical to keeping a line of communication with the people who were there, and the people that were at home who couldn’t be there. Don’t get me excited about talking about that. And it was in three days, right? It created a plan, executed a plan, creative team. It was pretty crazy.

Kyle:  I think the interesting thing about the story is that you started with listening and carried listening all the way through. You started with, “I’m just going to listen to the beginning to gain information.” Then you carried listening all the way through to the experience of the people participating. 

I can’t help but think that the things you were talking about have applicability to a lot of the folks listening today even if they’re not dealing with a singular event or a moment in time, or a crisis, or an emergency. So many of the things you talked about are the foundation of a good social strategy. Does that sound right?

Stefanie Cruz:  Yeah, I completely agree. And I think it’s a place that a lot of people skip. A lot of people focus on what information do I have to push up? 

So even this team is pushing out their live stream, right? That’s the number one thing, but if we don’t understand who our audience is, if we don’t understand what they’re looking for and how to best engage with them, it’s falling on deaf ears. 

You can put out all the information you want, but does it meet your audience where they are? For me, how people feel is really important. Do they feel hurt? Do they feel valued? 

Personally, I think airlines do a really good job of this. I think you and I have talked about this before.

Even my local DMV is doing this now. You can tweet you’re upset, right? Like I missed my flight, my flight was late, or I’m trying to get an appointment at the DMV, I can’t get through, and there are literally people on the other end who were listening to your concern and responding in real time. And they have a really sophisticated backend where they’re tracking who you are and what you’ve complained about, and how they can rectify the situation. But at the center of that is that they’re listening. And so, for me, listening is really powerful and central to social and digital strategy.

Kyle:  You would know the stats, but I just think about the power of listening with people who don’t typically have access to have their voice shared. You’re in direct service, that accessibility to these platforms and tweeting and things like that. It’s not universally accessible to all communities, but it’s much more accessible than people feeling like they can pick up a phone and advocate for themselves.


Stefanie Cruz:  Yeah, you also made me think about digital, the role that websites can play. I think this was something when I was working for the Congressman, that was really important to me. 

When I was redoing their website, I went to Michigan and I met with the people who did direct service with constituents and I listened. I said, “What are the things people call about the most? What are some of the biggest concerns? What are some of those top questions?” 

My thinking was, on hearing the answers, how can people service themselves? How can we put that information on our website in a way that if I’m coming to the website at 2:00 a.m., and I have a problem with my social security, I don’t have to wait till the next day to get a call? I can initiate support in that moment. 

Part of understanding how to address those issues was listening to the staff and listening to what were the concerns that people were asking. So again, listen and I think you can really narrow in on how to best meet the needs of people who might not have access. Not everyone’s on Twitter, not everyone’s on Facebook, so I think the multi-platform approach is also really important.

Kyle:  And I think about those things informing. Not just a digital strategy, but what are the questions people are asking? Are we creating the resources that people need? 

Like, we need a PDF that explains a PDF, not the greatest example. But we need the content to support these types of questions, or we need the staffing to answer these questions. Using that example, I’d imagine you see repeat questions about social security during certain times of the month. And so it can inform all kinds of things if you’re doing a good job of listening.

Stefanie Cruz:  Yeah, it was funny because one of the vendors on the Hill stole my model.  I redid the section of the website for constituent service and they copied it and then sold it to other members of Congress, but they didn’t change the content, so it said “Contact your office in Michigan.”

But it was really interesting to see that this model that I had created based on listening was something that was being replicated by other offices which was amazing. The biggest sign of flattery is being able to have people utilize the tools that you’ve created. So I love that.

What Led to DigiGeeks?

Kyle:  Yeah. Tell me about what led you. You said this earlier, you and I worked together at America’s Promise Alliance. From there, you always asked me questions about what it was like to be a consultant and how dreamy it was. I tried to disavow that it was dreamy, and that it was just this easy, easy life, but you didn’t listen and you started your own company and became a consultant. 

I’m curious what led you to do that? And tell me more about some of the people at DigiGeeks Collective. Everyone you’ve ever introduced me to, even people that are not part of the DigiGeeks Collective, you seem to attract people who are passionate, thoughtful, super smart. Tell me about DigiGeeks Collective.

Stefanie Cruz:  Yeah, I think at the point that I started DigiGeeks, I was the vice president of marketing and digital at America’s Promise. I had done that for four years, focused on children and youth which is really my passion area. I loved the work that I did. 

I got to a point that I was thinking about, how do I bring these strategies and these ideas, and these experiences that I’ve had, how do I bring them to more organizations? How do I engage with more projects? 

The whole time that I worked on the Women’s March and the March For Our Lives, I worked on the Families Belong Together immigration movement. I had a job, right? I had a full time job, but these projects were lighting something up in me; I light up when I talk about them. 

And so it was a question for me. How do I create a world in which I can align the things that I’m passionate about, the causes that I’m passionate about, and the work and the experience that I have?

After four years, I made that transition to leave America’s Promise and start consulting on my own. Actually, before I started the DigiGeeks Collective, it was really interesting. I also needed a break. I used to work 60 to 70 hours a week, which Kyle knows. I think my last week at America’s Promise, I literally worked 100 hours. I don’t know how that’s physically possible, but I did. 

I think that’s also something people don’t talk about, how much time and effort goes into this work. People think you just post on social media, or like that guy told me in 2006, to play on YouTube. No, it’s strategy. It’s reaching people where they are really engaging and creating content and making sure that it’s being pushed out. 

So I took a break, I took a step back. I engaged with one or two clients and actually took two months off, which is not something you can really do when you have a full time job. But as a consultant, I made that choice and made the choice to also create my schedule how I wanted it to be.

And then after about a year of doing that, I started to pilot a model where I helped to bring together multiple consultants, depending on the needs of the client. I transitioned to consulting and then I had a client who needed someone to run day to day social media. And they also needed engagement with partners and mobilizing partners to share content and create a movement around a particular cause. 

And so I started to pilot this idea. A lot of agencies say, “Yeah, I can do it,” anything you ask them, they’re like, “Yeah, video? Sure, social media? Sure, ads? Yeah, I can do that.” 

But in reality, they don’t have all of the expertise in all of those areas. It’s not possible. I can tell you, I’m a digital strategist, but I don’t know how to do everything. So instead, I was piloting this model, where I actually pulled experts together. 

So, if a client tells me they will need to do ads and day to day social, I pull people who are specialists and experts in those areas and we form a team for that particular project. I ended up piloting this with about three to four clients in the fourth quarter of 2020. And it worked really well, it was fun and clients seem to be pleased.

So, in March of this past year, I officially launched DigiGeeks with 11 other colleagues who are also either consultants or work full time and do consulting work in digital and social, and actually traditional comms as well. And this is what we do. Some people call us like The Avengers. We form teams based on what the client needs. 

For some of my clients, there’s five of us. On some clients, there’s two of us. I’m not on every client, because I don’t always have the expertise that the client is looking for, but what it allows us to do is align our values, our interests, the needs of the client and to be really honest about what we can bring. We form these amazing teams and it’s been insanely gratifying, I love it. I love the people I work with, I love the clients I work with. It gives me a significant amount of flexibility, which I really enjoy.

And you played a pivotal role in showing me that consulting was a thing. And not just consulting, but creating a safe space for consultants to work together. It’s a lonely space, sometimes when you’re doing consulting alone, on your own and freelancing. I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done. We’ve been working together for about seven months now and we love the clients that we work with and it’s really exciting.

Kyle:  Wow! It’s so fun to listen to you talk about this, because it’s really an articulation of things that you’ve been talking about for years. And I’m so impressed that you pulled all this together, because I know that it takes a lot of work. And I hope you’re not working 100 hour a week?

Stefanie Cruz:  I’m not. I was in Puerto Rico this weekend. Sometimes I do, it depends on the needs of the client. But when I was working internally, it was every week. It was my day to day. Now I can kind of flex and lean in when I need to and I can take a step back when I need to as well, which is really important for people who work in communications and digital and social because social doesn’t stop. I’ve worked in political comms. If something happens online and you miss it, and you don’t respond in real time, you’re in trouble, right? 

If you post something and then people respond in a really negative way and you miss it, you are in trouble. So there’s a sense of responsibility and 24/7 approach to this work that’s really unhealthy. So I think really being able to create some of those boundaries and some structure around what’s realistic and what’s healthy for yourself and for the organization is really important, too.

Kyle:  It’s interesting you say that because oftentimes, when I encounter organizations in their marketing communications function, it seems as though not all of them do a good job of understanding that they’re not a late breaking news organization. 

People aren’t truly looking for them to be responding to every single thing in the moment. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respond, but it doesn’t have to be in the moment. But if the belief is it needs to be in the moment, it creates that dynamic you’re talking about. Rather than, “Hey, this event does directly impact our constituents or directly impact our mission. We can take two or three days to think about what our response is going to be. People aren’t looking to us to lead their response on this by and large.”

Stefanie Cruz:  I know, everything is on fire all the time. All the time.

Engaging with Clients

Kyle:  When you told the story earlier about the client, where they asked you to come in and run day to day digital? I would imagine that’s often where people start. How did you create space? Or how did you build awareness with them that you can do that, but ultimately, where you need to go is to a place of listening and that has to be informed by conversations, and that’s going to be an evolution? 

Without talking about the specifics of that client, can you talk a little bit about how you get people to think about that, that we can keep the trains running, but we may be running the wrong trains at the wrong schedule?

Stefanie Cruz:  Yeah, I think that’s a fascinating question, because the entry point that I get with a lot of clients is because people know me for digital and social, “My social media is not right, I’m not getting the growth that I want. I’m not getting the engagement.” And then that’s the entry point to a conversation as you described. 

One of the initial things I always do is a discovery conversation to really understand: 

  • What are the goals of your organization? 
  • What are the strategies that you’re engaging from a larger communications level? 
  • And then, social as a tactic, how is it supporting those goals? 


I often find there’s no articulated strategy at the top, or there are not very clear goals and strategies from a communications perspective, there’s not clarity around who the audience is. And so it sort of scaffolds.

To me, the social engagement is actually here, right? But there’s all this work that needs to happen before so that it makes sense, as you were describing. 

Through a natural progression of conversation, we actually realize that we have a significant amount of work to do at the top. Once we answer some of those critical conversations that align with the goals of the organization: what they’re trying to do; how social and digital support those goals and will advance them; then we can get to a content calendar and really think about what that content schedule is and how we listen and engage with the people that are engaging with our organization. 

Very often, that is the progression of the work that I do. While we come in at a day to day engagement, we tend to very quickly go and shift to a strategic conversation, which I think is really important to have clear before you’re thinking about your day to day execution.

The Role of Data

Kyle:  When you engage in those conversations, what role does data play in that conversation? Is it something that comes after those conversations? Does it inform those conversations? I assume you have access to a lot of data about what people are talking about and what the relevancy of certain phrases are, those sorts of things. So I’m curious, when do you bring data into the conversation?

Stefanie Cruz:  Yeah, it’s really interesting, and actually a huge concern of mine, how much the nonprofit sector doesn’t make data driven decisions when it comes to social and digital. 

What I often find is that no one’s actually tracking data and analytics. One of the things we initially have to do is create a baseline and really understand. You often have a CEO or leader that’s like, “We’re not getting engagement.” 

Well, what does engagement mean? What are those numbers? What are those metrics that we are measuring ourselves up against? Because our goal is not necessarily to measure up against this other organization that has a million people who are their members. Our goal is to understand where we are and our baseline, and then based on that baseline, create some goals. So it’s a huge concern and pet peeve for me, how much folks are not following the data.

I work with this amazing data analytics firm whom I love, and one of the things that they do, they do amazing listening. They do audience analysis, really helping you to understand who your audience is, what they’re talking about and how you can be strategic about engaging them. Another thing they do that a number of companies do is tracking hashtags. So not only am I tracking my own Twitter account and how many people are engaging with my account.

I’ve launched a conversation. Let’s say our conversation is Build Consulting and it’s hashtag build consulting and we’re talking about the importance of strategy when we’re thinking about technology. But who’s talking about that? How often are people talking about that? You know, what other things are they talking about while they’re also talking about hashtag build consulting? That is not a metric or content that people really follow. And companies like Zoomph and others help you to create systems to listen for those conversations.

For example, for the March For Our Lives, I was able to set up this listening, and if you don’t do it before, you can’t retroactively get the data. You have to set it up before you launch a conversation. I think when we were at America’s Promise, we had #GradNation. By the end of the year, we saw that 49,000 people had to use that hashtag, because we were tracking the data. And we were able to see who those people were. Where did they live? What generation did they belong to? What other things were they interested in? What kind of professions were they in? And that really helps you to understand what type of content to serve them. This is part of the listening, but it’s listening from a data perspective as well. But there are tools that need to be purchased and put in place in order to do this effectively.

Really looking at your own platforms and what those metrics are, so that you can create baselines for yourself and measure yourself. Not, I have 53,000 followers and AARP has a million, that doesn’t matter to me. 

What matters to me is:

  • Who are those 53,000? 
  • What are they interested in? 
  • What is the growth that’s realistic for your organization? 
  • And what are you willing to do to invest to grow that audience and really bring value to that audience? 

I’m super passionate about data driven decisions and very concerned about the lack of use of data in digital and social in the nonprofit sector. If you could tell from my voice, I’m really concerned.

Kyle:  Yeah. Where I go is the applicability of that data. And I talked about this earlier, if it was a strategy to engage rural communities, understanding to what extent are people in rural communities engaging with your organization, that can be a metric. While it has a benefit to tracking digital and social engagement, it also is a barometer or thermometer. How much do people in these communities that we want to serve, how much are they actively engaging with us?

Stefanie Cruz:  And what are they talking about? What do they care about? What are the demographics? Are they two-parent homes? What do they earn? What’s most important to them? And which platforms are they on? Fifty-three thousand people on Facebook and 53,000 on Twitter doesn’t mean the same because the audiences are different and the people who are engaging might be different. And maybe you have 20,000 people on TikTok. That is a completely different audience, right. So I completely and totally agree with you.

Kyle:  Yeah. Yeah. This is why I like these conversations, because you agree with everything that I say. I don’t bring people to the fireside chat who’re going to disagree with me, so.

Stefanie Cruz:  Okay, well, then I’m about to disagree. Give me another question. I’m going to make sure I disagree.

Investing in Social

Kyle:  Well, it’s a question, as I’ve been listening to you and thinking about the clients that I’ve worked with, I have this hypothesis that smaller organizations in some ways tend to do social better, even if they have the same skill sets, because the smaller organizations are more invested and closer to that listening than larger organizations who may move into more of a promotional mindset. Do you think that’s a fair stereotype? Or is this an opportunity for you to disagree with me?

Stefanie Cruz:  It’s perfect, perfect opportunity for me to disagree with you. Thank you for opening the window.

Kyle:  You’re welcome.

Stefanie Cruz:  Thank you. I actually think smaller organizations tend to be fairly poorly resourced from a staffing perspective. So you tend to have one person who’s running comms and that person who’s running comms is responsible for traditional press outreach, website, social media, graphics, video. 

And it’s kind of set up to a point where people don’t have the time to listen. They don’t have the time to be strategic because they’re being reactive. They’re also responsible for a very unrealistic number of things.  

There’s writing, there’s content, there’s press outreach, there’s how the press engages with social now, right? There’s listening, there’s multimedia, video and graphics. Those are different people. Those are different skill sets.

And so, if you have one person doing all of those things, their ability to really strategically… and then email, we didn’t even talk about email marketing, …to be strategic, to be thoughtful, to really advance your strategic goals, it’s almost impossible, right? 

There’s some unicorns that can do it, but it’s really unfair. This is why we work 60, 70 hours. When I worked at America’s Promise, I had one FTE (full-time equivalent). I had one person, Sarah Boysen, who is someone I adore and love and think she’s an amazing digital strategist. But it was unrealistic for us to tackle all of those different pieces by ourselves.

Over time, we were able to bring in a digital specialist. We were able to bring in someone focused on design and video and worked with my colleagues who did traditional media and writing and blogs. And I think in the nonprofit sector, in a smaller organization, there’s a lack of appreciation and understanding of what all these pieces are and the fact that you actually need to resource them well, to be strategic and thoughtful. 

So I actually really worry about smaller organizations. I also advise a lot of founders of small initiatives and social justice movements. A lot of times they have volunteers that are doing this work. They’re doing it themselves, right from their phones. And they’re insanely successful, they can set things up. But it’s not meeting the bigger goals. It’s not advancing. It’s not setting them up for long term success. And so it feels like it’s kind of scattershot. It’s not their fault, because they don’t understand or they don’t know or appreciate what a really successful team is. 

I worked at AARP with one of our DigiGeeks, a social media trainer. And one of the things that was super successful about their social strategies, they had a team of 10 people. So they were thinking about voice and audience and content that was aligned with what the members of AARP were looking for. 

I think that resourcing is actually an advantage. Or, look at the airline industry, their resources, what does Wendy’s social media team look like? Wendy’s kicks butt on social. How many staffers do they have as part of that team? There’s not an intern on the other end or volunteer, right? Really, there’s not, right? There’s not one person who’s doing all of these different pieces. And I think this is really a thing where we don’t resource this area well, and I actually worry a lot about smaller organizations.

Kyle:  I told you, I’d give you something to disagree with me about.

Stefanie Cruz:  I love it. Thank you.

Kyle:  I think hearing all that, that makes a ton of sense. And I think that both of our firms, and this isn’t a plug for both of our firms. That’s why people bring us in, because you can’t bring in a single person who does all of those things. 

You’re talking about smaller organizations. And I think I’ve shared this story with you. I was at a Salesforce conference, maybe five years ago. I don’t remember the higher education institution, but they were incredibly well resourced especially around the time that new students were being admitted. And they were listening to parents saying, “Oh, my gosh, my daughter’s heading off to Pepperdine. I don’t know what it’s going to be like not having her around.” And they were responding to parents. They saw parents as part of their constituency in terms of listening to those folks. But they probably had four or five people doing that, to your point.

Stefanie Cruz:  Yep.

Kyle:  So the solution for all small nonprofits is to hire four or five people.

Stefanie Cruz:  I think they could do two to three. 

I think you need a senior director, someone who is a strategist, someone who has a seat at the table with the CEO, or seniors or senior executives in the organization. It’s someone who can be watching things and making decisions at a high level. 

You can get away with splitting someone who’s running social content, who’s writing, who’s thinking about content strategy. 

And then someone who’s doing digital media. Posts that have video and graphics and photos, they perform better than just text. These things are time consuming.

Bringing in Outside Partners

I think to your point, in terms of our agencies and not wanting to plug, but we are often seen as the bench, right? We’re who you call to add surge capacity to your organization. So maybe you have two comms people or one comms person, but you have a huge event coming up, or you have a campaign that you’re launching. 

Part of what we do is an assessment: “Okay, you’re missing a person who can do x, y and z. Let me source those folks that are consultants, that are DigiGeeks partners, and bring them into this fold. 

I think what I really enjoy, that I didn’t mention about the DigiGeeks, is that we don’t do long term contracts. Most of our contracts are three to six months. The idea is that we are really coming in to provide the surge capacity to build your capacity also.

So if your comms person needs training around social media, and needs training around writing or any of those things, we want to help set you up so that you can continue this work without us. We’re not trying to set you up so that you are reliant on us. And we’re always the bench that you call. 

We advise around staffing. What is that staffing model, in some places, you can get away with three people. In some places, you really need 10 people and very rarely are people willing to admit that they need that much help. 

Advocating for increasing resources in this space is not easy. But a lot of times, when we’ve hired five consultants and you see the difference in the output of having experts in each of these areas and supporting your staff, we do find that we can help shift and mold how organizations think about staffing. We’ve had that experience.

What You Can Do Now

Kyle:  So for our listeners today, if they were listening to this and their thought is, next fiscal year, I need to increase my headcount, I hear what Steph is saying. What are the things that they can do between now and the time they can increase headcount? What can they do to evolve or move away from just being promotional? What are the things that you would say that somebody can do as a small step?

Stefanie Cruz:  I think one thing is that data. 

  • Pull the data that you can. Let’s say you can’t buy one of the fancy tools. Facebook provides data, Twitter provides data, Google analytics on your website; pull that information. Get a better understanding of who you’re already, who’s in your audience and who you are talking to. 

Then, based on that information, based on what your goals are, for the year, for the next six months, what you’re trying to accomplish, 

  • try to match up who you’re talking to and what your goals are. 
  • And then, listen. 

Go on Twitter, what are they talking about? What’s important to them? What are the pieces of content that you have posted on Facebook that really get people engaged, where you get more people posting and commenting? Listen, and engage.

I would say data, listening, and then think about a strategy. Take a day, take half a day to bring your team together, executive team, everyone together, everyone plays a role in social and digital. Everyone sources content. 

Come together and decide: 

  • What are our goals? 
  • What are we trying to accomplish? 
  • What’s most important based on what we’ve learned from listening and data? 

Then create a social media plan and a content calendar. 

But I think these are steps that are missed, that I know most folks don’t take and I think they’re crucial to really building true and quality engagement online.

Kyle:  It’s interesting. Maybe there’s another point for you to disagree with.

Oftentimes, my work brings me to looking at technology like constituent relationship management or digital marketing platforms. Invariably, what gets exposed and as we begin to think about what that might look like, is that a lot of organizations don’t know who their audiences are. If it’s eight executives, I would get eight different answers about who those audiences are. 

Are you nodding, because you’re getting ready to disagree with me or nodding because you think that’s right?

Stefanie Cruz:  I think that’s right. And that’s why the data is so important, because you can go to X Executive, this is part of managing up, too: “I know that you think that our audience are males between 45 and 50. But actually, the data show us that they’re 75% women, and they’re between the ages of 25 and 35.” And you can’t argue with the data, right? 

And so yes, I completely agree. And I think from previous experience with organizations that I’ve worked with and clients, it’s so powerful when you have the data and people listen. I think you can really help shift strategy and really get organizational buy-in on strategic goals and approaches to work when you have clear data on your audience. 

So I completely agree with you. See, I didn’t disagree, Kyle.

Kyle:  Yeah. And that seems like a perfect place to end today’s fireside chat on a high note. I really, really appreciate you making time. I feel like I could have gone for another hour, but I want to be respectful of your time. 

If folks want to find you between the hours of 9:00 and 4:00, Monday through Friday, what’s a good way to get in touch with you?

Stefanie Cruz:  10:00 to 6:00, actually.

Kyle:  That’s right. I forgot, you were never in the office before 10. And you were one of the last people to leave. I forgot. 10:00 to 6:00, okay.

Stefanie Cruz: Definitely don’t take calls and meetings before 10. This is one of the joys of creating my own schedule. 

I’m on Twitter @stefaniecruz. I’m also on LinkedIn [and Stef Cruz Strategies.] And my email address is stefanie at digigeeks dot com and I can be reached any one of those ways. And I’m always, always happy to have a strategic conversation around the needs of an organization that’s not about sales or trying to secure clients. But I really think it’s important to match the skills of either a consultant or an organization or agency with the needs of the client. And I’m always happy to advise on this for anyone. So I’m open for conversation and calls or anything like that.

Kyle:  Yeah, I remember. You and I talked about this. 

There’s three things that people should look for in a professional services firm:

  • Can you solve my problem? 
  • Have you seen something like this before? 
  • And am I going to enjoy working with you? 

And how important that last thing is for you both ways. And how important is that conversation? Are we going to enjoy working together and so I can see how that conversation is incredibly important to you.

Stefanie Cruz:  Yeah, and joy is at the center of DigiGeeks’ work. It’s one of our values. If we’re not enjoying our work, we don’t want to do it. And so that is definitely super important. 

Thank you, Kyle.

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