A “Brand” New Approach: Digitizing and Diversifying Friends

By Michael D’Agostino
October 2016 - Friends Forward

Friends of Alaska traveled to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo: Lione Clare Photography

Since its inception in 2005, the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges has retained large aspirations as the organization representing all 16 refuges in the state. But in recent years, the group, which had grown to almost 300 members, began facing a common challenge: How to sustain membership, reach new audiences, and cultivate the next generation of board leaders?

Alaska’s vast landscapes are a haven for bears, moose, salmon, and tens of millions of migratory birds. Yet travel, organizational coordination, and communication are expensive, time-intensive, and logistically complex.

The Friends recently tackled this quandary, in part, through a comprehensive rebranding and digital expansion strategy.

Using funds from a $15,000 Wilburforce Foundation capacity-building grant, the Friends managed a logo contest on 99designs. Within a month, the Friends adopted an updated, yet timeless look, after reviewing and refining over 100 design concepts from four artists. A prize of $299 was awarded to the winner; the Friends obtained full copyright privileges for the new logo.

The animals and landscapes depicted — a puffin, mountains, caribou, marine islands, and evergreens — succinctly depict what make Alaska’s refuges special and what distinguishes the Friends from dozens of other Alaska-based environmental groups.

But brand is more than a logo. It is a user experience, the feeling that one has when interacting with or thinking about an organization.

As part of the Friends’ ongoing strategic planning—which began in summer 2015 and continued this August with a two-day workshop including all board representatives, several Friends members, and key U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff—a “brand persona” exercise enabled individuals to characterize the organization as if it were a person. The activity led to developing a more personal, authentic tone for audience engagement and online communications. Common values, for instance, included adventure, openness, action, learning, and cooperation.

Ultimately, these outcomes helped create a consistent “voice” conveying the organization’s ideals to guide the Friends in writing and designing a new website. Slated to launch by the end of 2016, the website is being designed by a tech-savvy board member using WordPress—a free website and blog platform—and is part of a three-tiered digital media strategy that also includes targeted social media outreach and a monthly email newsletter.

A new part-time employee centrally manages and updates the Friends’ Facebook page three to five times per week using the organization’s persona to guide content curation. The posts are planned and vetted—with volunteer contributions—at least one week in advance to coincide with local and national conservation events and initiatives.

A LinkedIn account was also created to enable volunteers and board members to proudly include the Friends logo on their profiles. The account may also be used to announce future board vacancies as the organization finalizes additional chairperson descriptions to foster expertise and diversify geographic representation throughout Alaska.

Lastly, while the Friends had intermittently published newsletters, the endeavor became too time-consuming. The organization’s new email newsletter will instead highlight frequent blog posts on the Friends website written by volunteers and refuge staff.

You can find additional tools on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Social Media Hub, which lists best practices that the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges have mirrored for consistency and clarity, and Millennial Impact reports that identify trends among young donors and volunteers. For example, websites should be mobile-friendly, and young people like to know precisely how their contributions influence big-picture outcomes. Young donors tend to be “impulsive” givers, so making the donation process easy is key.

Nearly 70 percent of Alaskans live in and around Anchorage and Fairbanks. Connecting these urban audiences—as well as distant visitors—with the wild landscapes that define this mammoth state is vital. Underscoring inclusiveness and distinctive cultural ties with nature will ultimately make the Friends stronger.  

Along with using the Little Green Light membership database, adopted in spring 2016, and training board members to use Google Drive for document sharing, collaboration, and archiving, the organization is poised to measure and evaluate its online presence.

For example, Facebook Insights allows the Friends to obtain detailed information about their followers, such as age, location, and time of day that individuals engage with the Friends online by liking, sharing, or replying. The Friends will also track newsletter subscribers in Little Green Light to manage potential donors and future members. Lastly, Friends organizations are eligible to apply for Google for Nonprofits, which provides free benefits, including up to $10,000 in monthly Google Ad Grants to increase web traffic.

Digital communication cannot replace face-to-face interactions. But it can supplement and expand rapport with constituents near and far. Careful planning and thoughtful conversation have positioned the Friends to optimize engagement and leverage low-cost technology, building a purposeful online presence that will benefit constituents and Alaska refuges for years to come.

Michael D’Agostino was a 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Directorate Fellow at the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. He is currently an Excelsior Service Fellow at the New York State Department of Health.