A Case Study: What We Learned From the #WhyIVolunteer Photo Contest

#WhyIVolunteer Photo ContestAs a general rule, photos are far more effective tools than words for communicating your organization’s story. But after this summer’s #WhyIVolunteer Photo Contest, we’ve started thinking: why not have both?

For VolunteerMatch, the #WhyIVolunteer Photo Contest was the first social media campaign of its kind that we’ve attempted. In an initiative to generate personal stories from actual VolunteerMatch users, we asked the volunteers in our online communities to submit a photo of their service in action and one sentence explaining why they volunteer.

As entries rolled in to our Facebook and Pinterest accounts, others could vote on their favorite. The submission with the highest number of combined Likes and Repins would get the winning volunteer and their nonprofit featured in our September spotlights on the VolunteerMatch homepage.

Dr. John Ness and Love Without Boundaries
” Working 12-14 hours a day on ‘vacation’ to repair the broken smiles of orphaned infants so that they can have a new chance to be joined with a forever family…is the most profoundly humbling experience I have known.” ~ Dr. John Ness

The response was overwhelming.

During the month-long contest, we received over double our target number of submissions. Every day, we were blown away by these volunteers’ inspiring images and messages. And from a communications perspective, the contest was an unexpected boon. Not only did it provide us with dozens of visual testimonials to the importance of volunteering, the campaign also allowed us to regularly engage with our online communities.

As we discovered this summer, a contest like this is a great way to tell your story, interact with your audience and acquire visual evidence of your impact that can be used long-term. Here’s what we learned:

Lay out your goals in advance.

With the #WhyIVolunteer Photo Contest, VolunteerMatch primarily aimed to grow our online networks, specifically our newly-launched Pinterest, and collect great photos that could be used in later social media, blog posts, newsletters and other initiatives. These goals informed all our decisions when designing the campaign, and helped us to more precisely target members of the VolunteerMatch community.

Remember: social media can be great, but a campaign with no real direction can feel flimsy and inauthentic. If you outline your goals before launching a social media contest, it will not only be a more precise and dynamic initiative, but it will also be easier to run.

Define your audience.

Jen Kiblinger volunteers with puppies.
“#WhyIVolunteer – The chance to help dogs and the people whose lives they change…that and the endless supply of puppy kisses!” ~ Jen Kiblinger

VolunteerMatch engages with three main communities: volunteers, nonprofits and corporations. The #WhyIVolunteer Photo Contest targeted two of these.

By providing incentives for both nonprofits and volunteers, the campaign encouraged organizations to engage their volunteers and asked individuals to promote their preferred organization.

We knew that volunteers love talking about nonprofits they’re passionate about, and that every individual likes recognition for his or her contribution. The contest’s design spoke to these impulses. When designing your social media campaign, consider who it is you’d like to engage — and what that community really wants.

Make it easy to participate.

We’ve all been there. Something on the Internet excites you — a contest, an event, a “free” iPod giveaway — and you click, only to realize that getting involved is far more work than the payoff is worth. When asking individuals to submit to your contest, make it as little work as possible. The response will be much more enthusiastic.

This also goes for publicizing the campaign. When VolunteerMatch asked its member nonprofits to participate, we provided ready-to-use language for organizations to post to their Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other online media. Eliminate an extra step and your community is much more likely to join the fun.

Be prepared for roadblocks.

About a week into the #WhyIVolunteer Photo Contest, I came to the unfortunate revelation that our #WhyIVolunteer tag on Pinterest was not trackable. That meant that no matter how many photos were uploaded to our Pinterest album with that tag, a search for “#WhyIVolunteer” yielded zero results. There was no way of knowing if others had been posting their submissions to Pinterest.

Katelin Dutton and BeadsforLife
“This is a photo of Milly Nakayi and her pea selling business. (Milly in center) I loved interning for BeadforLife, because I helped to empower women by telling their success stories.” ~ Katelin Dutton

As a major goal of the campaign was to expand our Pinterest network, this news was disappointing. But from there on out, we stopped emphasizing Pinterest as a way to enter the contest. Instead, it served more as a platform for voting on submissions and showcasing the contest.

During any online campaign, there are bound to be one or two issues. To avoid these, make sure all your technologies and social media are functioning as you expect them to, and don’t be afraid of obstacles. Tweaking the contest halfway through can be tough, but it’s crucial that you’re ready to do so.

Know how to wrap it up.

Within a week of the contest’s end, we had announced the winners, written up the spotlights and asked other entrants to sign photo release forms. That way, participants were still interested and engaged as we concluded the campaign. Key to wrapping up the contest was having photo release forms ready to go, so that willing participants could allow VolunteerMatch the right to use their submission in future communications initiatives.

Before you launch your campaign, think about how to end it and what you’ll need to efficiently get the best results possible. Whether that’s a simple announcement or an awards ceremony, planning in advance will ensure that the contest concludes as smoothly as possible.

A new social media initiative can ignite new interest in your organization and remind engaged community members why they love what you do. For VolunteerMatch, a Facebook- and Pinterest-based photo contest targeting nonprofits and individual volunteers was an ideal setup. So, what kind of campaign suits your organization best?

Check out the submissions to our #WhyIVolunteer Photo Contest here. The winner, Dr. John Ness, and the nonprofit where he volunteers, Love Without Boundaries, are featured in our volunteer and nonprofit spotlights this month.

Big thank you to all the participants of the #WhyIVolunteer Photo Contest, all the organizations doing such amazing work, and all the volunteers who give their time, expertise and passion to make it happen!