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Audience Engagement And How To Deal With Long-Distance Relationships

This nonprofit founder learned the key to engaging her remote millennium audience was right in front of her.

With 180 chapters across 10 countries, She’s The First is a study in long-distance relationships.

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The six-year-old nonprofit provides scholarships to girls in low-income countries and supports first-generation graduates. Part of its mission is to make its students “global citizens” through regular community discussions on global issues.

The nonprofit reports that it has 529 scholars currently in the program. But the network of supporters who raise money for its scholars exists in the form of ancillary chapters on high school and college campuses that have combined total student bodies of nearly 1.5 million students. That means founder and CEO Tammy Tibbetts has spent the duration of the company’s life trying to identify tools and platforms to engage its users in meaningful conversations.

Tammy TibbettsPhoto: Celine Grouard for Fast Company

After bouncing from one chat interface to another for She’s The First’s community discussions, Tibbetts and her cofounder Christen Brandt finally realized the answer was right in front of them.

Meet Your Users Where They Are

In She’s The First’s nascency, Tibbetts says her tiny team reached its community exclusively through updates and comments on its Facebook page.

But gradually, Facebook changed its algorithms, and the saliency of the nonprofit’s messaging deflated, unless it shelled out for promoted pages. So Tibbetts’s team changed up its approach. Looking for a deeper way to connect with girls in far-flung areas like Tanzania and Ethiopia outside of “likes” and comments, She’s The First moved to a live chat format.

She’s The First CEO Tammy Tibbetts, second from left, mingles with students during the She’s The First Summit this summer.

In the first year of its digital revamp, the She’s The First staff would arrange to be available via Google Hangouts at predetermined times on four or five days of a given week every month. As part of its Global Awareness Program, Tibbetts’s team would discuss global issues like health, politics, or education with an online audience of She’s The First chapters.

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But Tibbetts said this didn’t work because some students were stuck in class during the chats and would be left only with a transcript of the live conversation later. Time zone differences and issues surrounding a linear chat with 100 or more participants further hindered the process. She’s The First simply couldn’t maximize its impact with a live chat.

“The participants who could make that time slot really enjoyed it. But we got a lot of feedback from those who couldn’t that it was disappointing to miss out on it. We felt that if we really wanted to engage more people, we were going to have to make this more flexible,” she told Fast Company.

So last year, She’s The First switched over to Eliademy.com, a free educational tool that provided an asynchronous platform for She’s The First’s digital meet-ups so students could join in to discussions anytime. But that came with its own problems. The interface required high-speed Internet, and many international students in the network couldn’t load the platform. That’s not to mention the fact that the interface itself looked and felt like a school assignment, further discouraging extracurricular participation from the She’s The First community.

“They wanted this to be something that would really fit into their lives in an engaging way and didn’t feel like an extra homework assignment,” Tibbetts says.

Then she realized something. Nearly all of She’s The First scholars were already using Facebook on their own, even those who lived in remote areas. And earlier this summer, Facebook launched the Android app Facebook Lite, which allows users to connect to the social network without using much data and in low-bandwidth areas.

Tibbetts and Brandt, decided it was time to return to Facebook.

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Give Millennials What They Want

Now, She’s The First interacts with its remote chapters via a private Facebook group. As members of the group, they are pinged each time a new post is available, and users can participate in discussions using a post’s comments. Members are encouraged to share learnings from the global awareness discussions on Twitter, and since not every scholar will tune in each time, She’s The First distributes discussion guides that an appointed person takes to offline chapter meetings.

The move was born out of a simple lesson in engagement.

“Take a step back and see how can you be a part of your audience’s daily life without them having to take an extra step. Having our conversations happen within Facebook, it’s a separate place from the noise of your regular newsfeed, but you’re on Facebook every day anyway,” she says. “We believe that it’s going to become so much more integrated into their routines.”

She’s The First will still host a live Google Hangout each quarter, sometimes bringing in special guests.

A digital billboard for the She’s The First Summit over Times Square earlier this summer.Photo: Kate Lord

The extracurricular discussions also give its millennial members an added benefit–students who clock in with certain levels of engagement receive an extra badge for their LinkedIn profiles and résumés.

But participating serves a loftier goal for its millennial users, too: living as global citizens. Conversations between U.S.-based young women and their foreign counterparts provide She’s The First students with firsthand knowledge of what its like to live amidst various global issues, better equipping them to go to work trying to solve them in their blossoming careers. And as we pointed out earlier this summer, millennials crave an element of social good in their work.

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“It’s a safe space where they can find their voice as advocates,” Tibbetts says. “They can speak a little more loosely in this group, knowing it’s an educational environment and they’re surrounded by people who care just as much as they do. That enables them to refine their voice. So when they’re publishing an op-ed in the school paper, or something on Medium, or their own blog, they learn how to think through different opposing arguments, and they can feel more confident about putting their voices out on the main stage because they’ve been able to practice.”