Should Southern Tier Nonprofits Use Snapchat?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Author: Brandon Saylor - Director, Communications & Member Services at IHS 

Snapchat, the video sharing app popular with youth has been a confusing marketing opportunity for many nonprofits. Trying to reach clients and possible donors through social media is already a time-consuming effort. Add in the uncertainty and somewhat confusing platform of Snapchat, and many nonprofit marketers have found themselves at a loss.

The Institute for Human Services, Inc. (IHS), as part of a larger nonprofit social media study, has explored Snapchat in a variety of different ways to understand the viability and possible uses of the platform for nonprofits of all sizes in the Southern Tier. **SPOILER ALERT** we are not that excited about it.

First, let’s better understand how individuals are currently using Snapchat. If you know this story already, go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. Users have the option to either take a still image or video that can then be sent directly to a friend or shared as part of their “story”. Stories are visible to all users that follow the individual. Snapchat also has a section of the app for national “streams”, or collections of videos, pictures, and “news” from major outlets such as Buzzfeed, ESPN, and _____ (insert teen entertainment outlet we don’t understand either). Many app users try to get what is called a Snap Streak. This is when two users send each other direct messages (either a video or picture message) in succession within 24 hours. In our focus group, there were teens who said one of their top goals of the day was to continue their Snap Streak. They would, at times, “send pictures of nothing just to keep it going.” With filters and augmented reality features, Snapchat has become popular for personal conversations between friends. The platform allows users to share funny pictures and videos that they otherwise would not share on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Welcome back Snapchat pros. I’m sorry if you are lost everyone else! The key takeaway is that many individuals use Snapchat to communicate with friends and close personal connections. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, or Linkedin content on Snapchat focuses almost specifically on the personal interaction of two individuals. The private aspect of the application gives many users the comfort to say and do things they may not want public. As a 29-year-old who uses Facebook quite often, I was a little hurt when the high school-aged focus group said, “Facebook is for old people.”

IHS conducted a set of large focus groups and small group interviews with teens from the BOCES New Visions program. These teens are juniors and seniors in high school and tend to be at the top of their classes academically. The focus groups looked at the teens’ overall social media use. These results will be combined in a later report with a nonprofit organizational study conducted by IHS in the beginning of 2017.

The study points to the conclusion that teens are not using Snapchat to follow organizational accounts. Many that we spoke with stated they rarely follow organizational accounts and do not consistently watch the national streams. Nonprofits who do not have a dedicated individual focused on social media will be hard press to find success on Snapchat. However, hope is not lost!

Our research found that teen’s high level of personal interaction created a unique opportunity for those working with teen leaders and/or volunteers. Instead of using an organizational account to try and connect with teens, work with the teen leaders your program already interacts with. This can accomplish two things. First, through peer networks, teen leaders will be able to grow support and recognition for programs and events. Second, teens will have the ability to take on leadership roles within the organization and learn valuable skills.

So-called product placement (or program placement) through Snapchat does not have to be a big production. Many times, the subtle intersection of program goals into the everyday life of teens can make a large difference. For example, Reality Check recently made a trip to Richmond, VA with a group of young advocates to demonstrate against the Altria Group. These students were given an amazing opportunity to participate in community activism towards a great cause, building a #TobaccoFreeGeneration. Each of the participating students has peer networks on Snapchat and other social media platforms that can be utilized for promotion of their cause. Encouraging these students to inform and educate their networks is a powerful tool in the fight to end smoking.  

Things to consider

Taking part in this type of activity should not be a rash decision. Make sure to sit down with HR and organizational leadership to discuss the goals of the interaction and any possible consequences. Does the initiative play into the overall goals of the program, and ultimately the mission and vision of the organization? Do you have consent from the participants and their parents? Are there certain things that you do not want your new “marketing department” to do or say? Take the time beforehand to work through these questions. Remember, you can always reach out the IHS with any questions you may have!

In its current form, Snapchat does not provide a way to measure reach or engagement. You will want to consider this when assessing how to measure success. Try to think outside the box. You could have your volunteers send their peers to your website and look for increases in traffic around this time. Remember that Snaps last for no more than 24 hours. Most of the time, users will see the post within a few minutes to a few hours. Try to have the volunteer give an actionable step for the viewer to take, hopefully, one that you can measure in some way.


Snapchat is one of the fastest growing social media platforms, especially for younger users. Facebook, by way of Instagram and the Facebook app, has impacted this growth with recent changes to their platform. However, Snapchat is not going away anytime soon. Nonprofit marketers, if they have the time and organizational support, can use the app to reach out to youth; however, consider the risks that are associated with this decision.

It is our recommendation that most nonprofits hold off on Snapchat for the foreseeable future (which, in tech terms, could be about 6 months). Try to focus in on already established platforms with greater potential reach such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and your website. Still not sure what you should do? Contact Brandon Saylor, Director of Communications & Member Services at IHS with any questions you may have by emailing hermes birkin


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