4 Lessons on Digital Strategy I Learned From Street Outreach

National Runaway Safeline

A Life or Death Phone Call

I remember “Jack,” a 16 year-old hustled halfway across country by a magazine sales crew, calling from a payphone at an all-night convenience store. He was soaked head-to-toe after walking rain slickened streets in Seattle for hours. When “Jack” failed to meet his sales quota, the crew boss, tweaked on meth, pulled a knife. “Jack” wandered the alien city; scared, hungry, alone, broke. His palm bleeding from defense wounds.

There are a half dozen calls in the hundreds I took as a call center supervisor for the National Runaway Safeline (NRS) that are as vivid today as they were a decade ago. These are the calls that I can honestly say meant the difference between life and death for someone on the other end.

Arranging “Jack” with a ticket home saved his life.

An Opportunity to Take a Lifesaving Program Online

Nearly half of my professional career has been focused on runaway and homeless youth (RHY). If you include the couch reserved throughout my early twenties for hard luck friends who’d otherwise be sleeping on the streets, that career timeline grows into a personal calling.

A couple years ago, when NRS, the communication hub for RHY programs nationwide, offered me an opportunity to come back and adapt services to a digital medium, I jumped at the chance. While the agency had four decades of being a lifeline to youth like “Jack,” it had virtually no digital footprint.

In my time working with NRS, I created a digital strategy that not only met development and communication aims, but also helped advance programmatic goals–goals like helping the “Jack’s” of the world find us.

What surprised me the most was that many of the lessons I needed to create this digital strategy, came not from my experience running communications for nonprofits, but in my first job in the field as a street outreach worker.

Here are the top four.

Four Lessons Learned About Reaching Target Audiences Online

#1: Meet target audiences where they’re at

The outreach adage–meet people where they are at— is tattooed on my brain.

Just like Taoist wisdom, good poetry, or clever bumper stickers, it can be read in multiple ways. Meeting youth where they are at physically; meeting them where they are mentally and emotionally.

With today’s youth, it means staying connected to them by providing services they can access using their mobile devices.

A University of Southern California study, which surveyed around 200 homeless youth ages 18-24, found that 62% had cell phones. Eric Rice, lead author on the study, contends that the number is probably far greater today than when the data was first collected in 2009. Keeping in touch by cell is often a higher priority than food.

Further, the study found, staying connected to social media via cell phone, may help homeless youth  avoid depression, drug use and HIV. The longer a youth is on the street, the greater their risk of drug use, unsafe sex or mental health problems.

When we first undertook an overhaul of the NRS website, a project in collaboration with Vermilion Design + Interactive, these ideas were part of our thinking. Our website not only needed to serve basic, programmatic communication needs, but also acted as virtual triage center for callers in crisis. We used analytics to anticipate the most urgent needs a youth visiting the site might experience. Then, we provided the most direct route to access the information needed. Our site had to take youth’s realities into consideration. It had to meet visitors where they were at.

#2: Build relationships

We’ve all had that “friend” who only comes around when they need a favor. Or, worse yet, they call only when they need money–they don’t bother to engage you or build a relationship with you in between.

Don’t be that “friend.”

Just like friendship, outreach and social media require a good listener that is reliable and engaged. I recommend that only 10% of online communication be about your organization. The remaining 90% should be about the issues, whatever is important to the community.

If you are only stopping by to ask for money, don’t be surprised to see your donations (or engagement rates) dwindle.

This lesson was best illustrated this past November during National Runaway Prevention Month (NRPM). In 2014, NRPM connected with a staggering 1.88 million people making it the most successful campaign in more than a decade of promotion. We more than tripled our connections in that one year by starting to cultivate relationships 11 months earlier using online tools among others. We identified multiple awareness events each month that impacted the same population we served–human trafficking, child abuse, youth violence, among others–which we helped promote on our channels. These online efforts were coupled with some physical world networking by Samantha Owens, NRS community engagement specialist, who followed up with phone calls to make those relationships more substantial.

#3: Consistency is key

In a word, the key to outreach… consistency.

Show up. Be there.

If you operate a drop-in center, the doors open when the flyer says so, every single time. A health outreach bus arrives on location, as advertised, every single time. And, if you are making the rounds on foot to places runaways hang, you stick to an itinerary, every single time.

The lives of runaway youth are often in constant tumult. If you can provide some stability, just by showing up, you have already given a homeless youth something they don’t otherwise have.

Social media is the same way. Create a schedule, stick to it.

I created a 12-month content calendar at the beginning of the year that committed how many Facebook, Twitter, and e-newsletter articles needed to be done every day for the week. It cost me a couple weeks of intense effort to identify the themes, which I organized around awareness months (see lesson #2) providing some consistent social media fodder day-to-day, but that investment saved immeasurable time, energy, and effort for the rest of the year.* My frequency could increase if there was a lot to share on a given topic, but giving myself a formula to follow meant that I never missed a day.

*Shameless plug alert: if your position doesn’t allow for you to invest a couple weeks on the front end to save a year’s worth of time, energy, effort and, of course, money, consider hiring a communication consultant to help with the planning. The ROI is astronomical, especially when you factor in the hidden savings of preventing you from slipping down dead end rabbit holes in search of worthwhile content.

#4: Quality over Quantity

Not everything you share on social media has to be poetry. It doesn’t even have to be bumper sticker worthy, but it does need to be on message. Every Facebook post, Instagram pic, Tweet, Tumblr, blog, vlog or Vine needs to be part of a communication strategy.

If you can’t be good consistently, meaning you just don’t have the time or resources, then just be consistently good.

Post at a frequency that can be maintained and stay on message.

This lesson was learned the hard way. There is often a sense of urgency to justify the investment in social media–a more is better kind of response–which sets a tone to produce a lot of content, rather than think of the broader conversation. In April, it became pretty clear that we didn’t have a cohesive communication plan. Our dev-comm department had to take a dramatic step back–that’s why they call it a retreat, right?–to invest in a daylong planning session.

We had to build a communication plan from the inside-out, but the difference was dramatic. We’d never have reached the 1.88 million mark without a bigger plan to guide us.

Conclusion: A Safeline, Online

It surprised me that many of the lessons that I needed to create this digital strategy, came from my time as a street outreach worker… but maybe it shouldn’t have.

After all, in the end, in this context, the goal was the same. That is, to help runaway and homeless youth get safe, off-the-streets, and out of harm’s way. This spring, the new NRS website is scheduled to go live moving the Safeline into a new era in serving youth in crisis, bringing together programmatic and communication needs. This is a fusion that I hope will usher in the next phase of service provision.

Josh Gryniewicz

Josh Gryniewicz is the communication director for the Institute for Juvenile Research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has a decade of external relations experience with nonprofits. As the “communications guy” for Cure Violence, he helped the organization earn a place on Klout’s list of “The Most Influential NGOs” in 2013, which is as much a credit to Prichard Communications as his own digi-acumen. He also enjoys making up words and phrases, like “digi-acumen,” which he can be found doing at his bimonthly column Simulacra Beat published on PopMatters.
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