How to Build Strong Social Media Communities During Difficult Times

By Carlos Gil • February 16, 2021

We’re almost a quarter of the way through 2021, and we’re still living and working within the public health guidelines of the pandemic. Mask wearing, frequent hand washing, physical distancing, small (or no) gatherings are becoming a way of life.

Another guideline is to exercise plenty of empathy for others. Your association’s membership marketing efforts have likely taken on a more empathetic tone, but have you extended that tone to your social media? If not, Carlos Gil, founder of Gil Media Company, advises resetting your social media attitude to one of inclusivity and grace.

Before the pandemic, no one enjoyed brands hard selling them on social media, and that still holds true. People go to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn to connect with friends, family and colleagues, not to hear from brands. But your organization can still earn a regular spot on their news feeds by becoming a resource that members want to learn from, be inspired by, or be entertained by when needed.

The key ingredient to becoming a top resource is trust. And the way your association earns others’ trust is by showing plenty of empathy through your social media content.

The New Normal of Association Marketing

Your association needs to show empathy in social media marketing because the pandemic has many people on edge. If life were normal, people would be traveling for business and leisure. They would be gathering to celebrate holidays, birthdays and weddings. There is still some of this celebratory activity going on, but people want to feel safe doing so. What can your association do and say to reassure members that participating in your programming won’t get them sick?

Because of reductions in normal life activities, money is tight for many. Your association is a business and can still ask for compensation for resources and services. But you’ll need to find a way to make transactions less about the hard cost and more about the meaning behind the transaction. Does a membership cost one low annual fee, or does that one fee open doors to a more enriching career? When marketing your professional symposium, is the focus on the admission price or a full day of engaging workshops with actionable takeaways? Engage more, sell less.

Additionally, consumers are online more than before the pandemic. Social media has become a proxy for in-person gatherings. Because it has become one of the main places people go for entertainment, inspiration, connections and education, your association should meet members there. This could mean increasing your post frequency or launching more comprehensive social media-based campaigns. It definitely means responding to every direct message (DM), acknowledging all comments, and ensuring your followers know your staff is present and listening.


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What does empathy look like in action?

Empathetic marketing goes beyond kind words. Here are some ideas to organically weave more empathy into your social media marketing.

Host demos or events that help members carry on

In the early stages of the pandemic, hotels and restaurants went out of their way to help customers re-create experiences at home. McDonald’s taught people how to make Egg McMuffins at home. Hair stylists taught clients and social media followers how to maintain hair at home. What could your association post or broadcast via social media that would help members feel like they’re still getting a normal experience?

Offer benefits you’ve never considered before

Many associations removed fees from educational content to help members and professionals continue their professional education even if they’d lost their job or couldn’t attend a class in person. ASAE, for example, made their 2020 virtual conference free for all members.

Create moments, not marketing

Famous “challenges” such as the Ice Bucket Challenge are sometimes marketing campaigns with specific fundraising goals. Sometimes they’re just for fun, such as the Shiggy Challenge, but they still make participants feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. If your content is educating, inspiring, or entertaining, it’s worth posting.

Community, not content, is king

Posting content for the sake of posting, without people engaging with it, is talking to yourself. You should aim to host a conversation between your association and your community. Spend more time having conversations than posting content. Find what kind of content works for you by examining your Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn feed. See what people are responding to most. Go back to older comments and check in with those people. Ask them how they’re doing. Ask how your association can help them. Be there for your community!

Do the “things” everyday users do

Engage in conversation that’s unrelated to your brand yet relevant to your audience. Netflix does a great job adding snark and personality to their brand by sparking conversations among their followers that aren’t necessarily related to movies or TV shows. More recently, the “Kitten Zoom” incident has given everyone a laugh while inspiring a check-in on their individual video conference practices – because that kind of innocent mishap could happen to anyone. Putting your own spin on current events like this can maintain your relevance if things are slow at your association. Look to your favorite brands and ask yourself, What drives you to follow them? Do they entertain? Inspire? Educate? How could your association emulate their posts while staying on brand?

Tap into Zoom culture

Social media can be noisy. To stand out, and cultivate a more 3-D, warm persona, consider hosting a weekly video conference chat. Most marketing professionals are on video platforms on a regular basis, so they’re used to the mechanics of it. Make their video meeting schedule more interesting by sponsoring a weekly Facebook or Instagram live with an industry influencer or celebrity. That influencer could be your CEO, a well-known name within your industry, or simply someone with a knack for connecting with people. A variation of this tactic is to invite super members or subgroups of members – such as young professionals or C-Suite members – to a dedicated Slack channel or online community board for guided discussion. The goal is to make logging on to social media for professional reasons more fun.

Leverage your staff and members to encourage more empathy

Which brings us to the next important step in empathetic social media marketing. Your staff and members are your association’s greatest assets. If you’re struggling with outreach on social media, consider tapping your more connected, social media-savvy employees and members to advocate for your association online. They know and like your brand. Encourage these storytellers to talk your association up within their social media circles. Develop an advocacy strategy by organizational team or member category. Every organizational or member vertical has its own purpose and strategy. Highly engaged members can help recruit new members. Existing volunteers can get others excited about volunteering as well. What other association subcultures could you target for social media-based advocacy?

Find a vendor that enables your storytellers to share content you upload to a common hub. Train your storytellers to talk in your brand’s voice. Give them guidelines for what’s okay to say and what is too much. Provide them with plenty of info to share about your association, such as photos from events as well as more mundane (but still important) details such as dates and times of meetings. Tap into user-generated content, too. It is often a badge of honor, and a show of appreciation, for a brand to repost its fans’ graphics, videos and other digital creations. Then share your social media metrics with them to let them see their impact on your association’s reach. Keep them excited about the difference they’re making for your association.

Social Media Shortcuts to Avoid

Keep in mind that in this new normal, fans can make or break your marketing. And some fans will try to troll your association online just to see what happens. Be careful if you’re automating responses. This is not a time to rely wholly on automation or cut corners. Pull your audience in with dedicated resources and custom, human-powered responses. Reply to all mentions in an appropriate way. Make the time for one-on-one dialogues in direct messages and on your feeds. Engaging non-brand mentions. Know who your top fans are and thank them. (It’s always a good idea to thank people, often!)

Building a strong social media community centered around your association takes effort and a lot of empathy. With a plan and the tactics mentioned above, your association can strengthen membership bonds and increase the perceived value of membership through social media.


About The Author

Carlos Gil is the founder of Gil Media Company, a first generation Latino marketing executive and award-winning Snapchat storyteller with over a decade of experience leading social media strategy for global brands including LinkedIn and BMC Software. Carlos’ work has been featured by CNNMoney, Harvard Business Review, Inc. Magazine, Mashable, and Social Media Examiner in addition to dozens of trade publications.