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Food Bank exploring new ways to stay in touch with supporters

The Food Bank of Western New York took its first steps into the world of social media by quietly signing up for a Facebook account about a year ago.

Early on, the agency made occasional posts alerting its few "fans" about events and projects.

But a few months ago, the Food Bank decided to get serious about social networking. It linked up with Goodwill Industries of Western New York, which also sought a greater presence in social media, and the two organizations agreed to split the cost of hiring a new staffer.

"We felt it was important to bring someone in who could take this on as a specialty and manage it well for our organization," said Michael J. Billoni, the food bank's marketing and public relations director. "We had a page there (on Facebook) but we weren't real active with it."

That's changed dramatically in just a few months.

The number of fans who follow the food bank on Facebook has grown from about 250 in summer 2010 to about 1,200 in January.

Jeremy Juhasz, social media and web site coordinator, makes regular posts to both Facebook and Twitter, highlighting events, programs, donations and other information that might be important to supporters of Goodwill and the Food Bank.

"It's another communication tool that we're working closely with to get our message out to friends and donors," said Billoni. "Social media is here to stay and you have to play in the arena."

Other area nonprofit organizations have jumped onboard, too, saying social media provides a cheap and easy way to stay in touch with donors and potential givers.

The United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, the Greater Buffalo Chapter of the American Red Cross and the Buffalo Zoo are among the nonprofit groups that regularly communicate through Facebook and Twitter.

The Buffalo City Mission works with a local firm, Noobis Inc., to get a steady stream of updates out to more than 1,000 Facebook followers.

"It's just another vehicle in which we can reach a larger audience, and also a younger audience," said Aubrey Calhoun, spokeswoman for the mission, which provides temporary shelter and other services for area homeless men and women.

In 2009, Noobis helped the mission put together on online initiative known as "Hunger Hunt," which involved a scavenger hunt and awarded various prizes for people who registered and participated in an interactive exploration of the problems of hunger and homelessness.

The initiative was repeated in 2010, resulting in the recruitment of 11 new volunteers who hadn't been involved with the mission before, said Calhoun.

It also generated plenty of opportunity for the agency to raise awareness of homelessness. Visitors to the mission's Facebook site often spent more than 10 minutes there, far more than the average of 2 to 3 minutes spent at websites, Calhoun said.

The mission combined the online initiative with other marketing and advertising to raise $164,000 over three months to pay for meals at the men's shelter.

"Yes, it does work," said Calhoun.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media need regular attention if organizations want to maintain a connection with followers.

"If you don't stay in contact with (followers) on a weekly basis, they kind of get bored with you," said Calhoun.

Organizations sometimes struggle over what to post, and whether it's too much or too little.

"That's the constant debate among my peers. How often should I post? What should I post about?" said Juhasz. "From a nonprofit standpoint, it's all about promoting our mission."

Juhasz, who studied communications at Alfred University, said he hopes to "start a conversation" with his posts and tries to maintain a journalistic posture by providing the who, what, where and when in posts.

The Theater of Youth now posts multiple times a day but "we try not to bog people down," said Eva Edukonis, marketing manager for the small theater company.

During the run up to the holidays, for example, the theater company sent messages reminding followers that it offers gift certificates and flex passes for sale. And it was one of many groups that passed along a message about a fundraiser to benefit cultural groups that were cut from the Erie County budget.

The fundraiser, promoted primarily through Facebook and Twitter, drew a big crowd.

Social media have become essential for groups with small budgets, said Edukonis.

"Economics just force it," she said. "They're free, and they take very little time."

But traditional forms of marketing and communication remain in effect, as well.

The City Mission, for example, maintains a mailing list of 20,000 residences in Western New York.

"I don't think direct mail, hard copy will be fully obsolete," said Calhoun. "You still have that older generation that doesn't utilize computers or even mobile phones."