WATERVILLE — When it comes to driving charitable donations, one key to success has been online marketing through social media websites such as Facebook.

It’s particularly important for Christmas toy campaigns, where the level of greatest need is likely to change daily, even hourly, according to Whitney Moreau, an account executive with the Augusta-based marketing firm Nancy Marshall Communications, which was hired to promote Waterville’s Maine Children’s Home for Little Wanderers.

The children’s home is a good example of an organization that has shifting needs, Moreau said. Volunteers want to put the same types of items in 1,600 boxes. Each child who qualifies receives a large toy, a small toy, a coloring book, a reading book, crayons or markers, Thinsulate gloves, mittens, a hat and a warm outfit. Each family also gets a board game.

Inevitably, some categories start to fill up, while other items seem as though they will never materialize.

Cristen Sawyer, the director of the Christmas Program, said people tend to buy more toys than gloves, because toys are more fun to shop for and people like to imagine the joy of the child opening that gift.

And without an effective social media campaign, it was difficult to let people know what was most needed at any given moment.

Moreau said the firm worked with the children’s home last year to develop a strategy to communicate its current needs quickly.

“We posted a picture on Facebook of an empty bin and included a graphic that said, ‘Donate now,'” Moreau said.

It was simple, but the combination of the visual and the words helped to spur donations, she said.

Now Sawyer routinely posts pictures that communicate the need for a particular category.

“Cristen has done a really good job,” Moreau said. “Some of the sizes are worse to get than other. Right now, it looks like boys clothing has really taken a hit. So Cristen took pictures of empty bins and said, ‘We’re in an urgent need for these sizes of clothing.'”

Moreau’s firm tracks the numbers that document the power of a Facebook post asking for help.

As an example of that power, she pointed to a post Sawyer made on Nov. 7, listing current needs for the children’s home. The posting received 180 likes, comments, and shares, and 203 people clicked on the post to view the expanded list of items needed. Every time a person interacted with the post, it was viewed by their Facebook friends. And because Facebook users have an average of 150 friends, that means nearly 7,000 people were exposed to Sawyer’s pleas for help.

And every time there is a significant change in the type of items needed, Sawyer can spend just a few minutes creating another post, reaching those thousands of supporters with the refined message.

In this way, the goodwill of donors can be directed to the areas that will do the most good, Moreau said.

Moreau said other charities would do well to follow the example of the children’s home.

“Sometimes, it might be difficult to get started on social media,” she said, “but it’s really important to get that information out. It’s a good way to grow your community, grow your following, and reach people you may not reach otherwise.”

Sawyer credits the marketing firm’s efforts, on Facebook and through other means of generating media interest, with dramatically expanding the level of awareness of her group since the firm was hired a few years ago.

“We’ve had more media in the last three years than we’ve had in the first 111 years of our existence,” she said. “We’re on the social media bandwagon.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287 [email protected] Twitter: @hh_matt

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