At charity: water we have an advertising and marketing budget of $0, and it’s been that way for the last nine years. Digital tools and social media have given us the ability to grow something that was once just an idea into something that’s raised more than $170 million from 750,000 supporters. Building a digital community isn’t easy, but if you’re intentional about how you cultivate and grow that community, what you get from it will not only be valuable, it will sometimes leave you speechless.

If you’re dabbling in the digital space, consider yourself a pioneer. There’s no one person or company that has cracked the code to the digital world. There’s no universal formula for success. But I do believe that not using digital is a sure way to fail.

I’ve spent the last three and half years at charity: water helping grow our organization online. There’s still plenty I don’t know, but here are five things I’ve learned about how to build an engaged and powerful digital community.

1. STOP the Noise

If you don’t have anything to say…don’t say anything.

It’s a respect thing. Everyone is strapped for time, whether your consumer is a c-suite executive, high school student or small business owner. Don’t send an email just because you feel like your haven’t sent one in a long time.

Treat every piece of content (every tweet, every Instagram post, every email) like it will be the only piece of content your audience will engage with all year. If you get one opportunity to wow them, make sure it’s this time.

Our lives and social properties are filled with noise. Some is necessary, but most is not. Our Facebook feeds are flooded with suggested posts, advertisements, and the latest pop culture chronicles. Don’t let your content be just another thing everyone chooses to ignore. Your content should inspire, educate, and intrigue. It should elicit emotion; if it doesn’t, don’t post it. Don’t just work to get new followers, but also to keep your subscribers and followers. Remember that they chose you! People have lots of digital choices to make—they can follow you, they can subscribe (and in our case they can start a fundraising campaign)—make your content meaningful and valuable to your constituents, every time.

2.  I don’t lie on a first date and neither should you

I’m sure some people do, but you shouldn’t. Today it pays to be authentic, be transparent, and have integrity. When honesty is part of your brand’s DNA, people will not only follow you, they’ll feel loyal to you. Content shared online can feel very transactional. Take a step back and humanize the digital space whenever and wherever you can. Digital media gives us the opportunity to share wins, but also talk about the tough stuff. Be real. There’s no hiding who you are these days. Don’t waste time trying to “BS” your brand. If you’re not passionate and proud of who you really are as an organization, then why should others be?

3.  The jocks, the nerds, and the artists

Segment your audience. Assume that all your supporters are amazing, but don’t assume that the same people follow you everywhere. Chances are there’s some overlap between your email list and your Twitter following, but probably much less than you realize. Don’t post the same content across all your channels without thinking about who will see it and what their experience will be. The demographics and psychographics on Instagram are quite different than all the daily active users on Snapchat, and the stories you tell on each medium should reflect that. Think about who you’re talking to and how you’re telling the story based on the medium.

How many times have you heard, “Content is king”? Well, I can promise you that there’s a lot of content out there, but your content will only rule when the right stuff reaches the right people at the right time.

4. Plausible deniability is a thing

If you’re raising money online and you think you’re going to do it through social media, think carefully. While the digital space is incredible because it lets people choose to consume your content, the downside is that it’s much easier for people to deny consuming the content—the sense of accountability gets lost.

I tell this to people who start campaigns all the time; If you take the link to your campaign and put it on Facebook or Twitter, you actually have no idea who really saw the post, unless they engaged with it in someway (i.e., liking, favoriting, sharing, commenting). Maybe they saw it and ignored it, maybe they didn’t see it at all.

In other words, don’t rely entirely on social. It is a great tool, but it’s not your only one. For example, I find that email is often underrated. Emails are a consistent, measurable way to inspire action. Like social, email shouldn’t be your whole strategy, but it certainly isn’t dead yet.

5. #winning

When members of your audience make your brand a part of their identity in the social space, you’re doing something right.

When someone gives your brand, company or product real estate on their online profile, they’ve taken being a “brand ambassador” to the next level. It means not only do they believe in what you stand for, they want others to know they believe in you. My favorite moments are when I see a Twitter bio that includes “supporter of @charitywater,” or when someone lists volunteering for charity: water in their LinkedIn profile.

Think about it: if you have to tell people who you are in a 140 characters, how many things will you list? There’s not room for much. Also, never forget about user-generated content. These days, your supporters have the power to create all kinds of content about you and for you. They have it right at their fingertips. It’s never been easier.

There’s no one person or company that has cracked the code to the digital world. There’s no universal formula for success. But I do believe that not using digital is a sure way to fail.

At charity: water we often say, “The craziest thing you can do is nothing,” and every day, we see people do incredible things to raise money for clean water. They walk across America, jump out of airplanes, and give up wedding gifts. And they’re documenting all of it. They’re writing about it, filming it, tweeting about it. This is the content that inspires the masses. It’s real. It’s powerful. With it, you can build and grow a movement in the most organic sense.

Don’t take your true fans for granted.

My advice for anyone working to build a brand in the digital space can be summed up in two words: be genuine. It’s easy for the human element to get lost between screens. The digital world also opens up new doors for humans to connect across great distances. Don’t think of your social platform as a stage, but more like a party. It isn’t about broadcasting to an audience; it’s about building connections.

Always remember that your users are not just statistics, they’re people—people with feelings, opinions, stories, and decisions to make. And if you can make your brand or product connect on a human level, success won’t be far behind.

Kaitlyn Jankowski

About the Author

Kaitlyn Jankowski

As the Supporter Experience Manager at charity: water, Kaitlyn Jankowski is responsible for helping supporters run successful fundraising campaigns online. She also leads the organization’s strategies for scaling personalization in a digital space. Her strategic approach focuses on campaign success and year-over-year growth. She has worked with some campaigns that have raised a quarter of a million dollars, and has helped some repeat campaigns grow 100% year-over-year.