Social media: A tool for branding, legitimacy in railway preservation

Posted by Chase Gunnoe
on Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Nickel Plate Road 765 near Atkinson, Ill., eastbound on the Iowa Interstate's First Subdivision during Train Festival 2011. Chase Gunnoe.

Crowd funding platforms and social media make it easy to solicit donations, but railway preservation groups say it’s all about building brand legitimacy and engaging new audiences that adds value to nonprofit preservation initiatives. I recently reached out to some of the more socially active railway preservation groups to understand how social media plays a role in their business models as organizations of all sectors turn to social media for financial support.

“We use social media to keep people informed, first of all, and show results and progress and then ask for support,” says Kelly Lynch, vice president of the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society in Indiana. “In earning grants and major donations from sponsors, you’re able to demonstrate legitimacy and momentum and draw people in from there.”

“Social media is a great way to start a conversation - and as we’ve seen - galvanize people quickly – but for people who are donating their hard earned cash, you have to be sure to maintain that relationship,” he says.

“People want to value their donations and the best way to curate that support is to make people feel valuable.”

That’s why relationship building and old-fashioned thank you letters won’t be going out of style anytime soon, according to Lynch. 

“You need to have a plan beyond getting their dollar. I want to create a family of supporters and investors and demonstrate results, not just ask people to open their wallets.” 

The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society uses a mix of traditional and contemporary mechanisms to grow existing relationships and foster new ones. The group has a following of more than 30,400 people on Facebook and Lynch jokingly admits that Nickel Plate Road No. 765 was on a Twitter before Union Pacific steam.

Going forward, Lynch says email lists, social media, and video will play a role in illustrating all of Fort Wayne’s activities.

In rural Appalachia, a much younger organization has entered the railway preservation scene in the past two years with a strong social media presence. 

Chris Campbell, president of the Kentucky Steam Heritage Corp., says digital and social media branding has been one of the group’s number one priorities.  

“We have had a very definite goal of having a recognizable corporate identity, and the past year has been an excellent litmus test to see how our plan has progressed.”

Campbell says 90 percent of the organization’s promotions have been online and through social media channels. The effort has allowed the group’s Facebook page to accumulate more than 13,170 followers in the past year.

“The idea all along was not to create a ‘flash in the pan’ type of hype, but a long, slow and evolving groundswell of activities and interest through our online media channels,” Campbell says.

Various projects have boosted the organization’s exposure. The group is currently developing its 45-acre Kentucky Rail Heritage Center near the site of CSX Transportation’s former Louisville & Nashville Ravenna Yard in eastern Kentucky. The organization closed on the property transaction in October 2018 after initially sharing the news with social media in partnership with CSX in May of last year.

The proposed center is a natural destination for the organization’s key preservation project – the restoration of Chesapeake & Ohio 2-8-4 No. 2716 located in New Haven, Ky. Regular work sessions are recorded and later uploaded to social media to keep followers in tune with the group’s latest development.

And rescuing Nickel Plate Road 2-8-2 No. 587 from Noblesville, Ind., was another significant milestone in not only growing the organization’s brand, but using social channels to raise money in a short period of time.

“Honestly, the most successful campaign we have run was when we were tasked with moving Nickel Plate 587 in a week. The immediacy of the call to action was very much a motivating factor for donors who were faced with achieving a task in an unconventional time frame.”

Campbell says it was the first cohesive campaign for the organization. In less than a week, the organization was able to raise $8,000.00 to offset moving expenses for relocating the equipment to eastern Kentucky. 

Kentucky Steam Heritage Corp. uses Facebook to inform its audience of new developments taking place at Ravenna, Ky.

Campbell says the organization hasn’t experienced an event demanding the same urgency as No. 587, however, individual contributions and several birthday fundraisers are adding up. In fact, Campbell’s birthday fundraiser launched on Feb. 27 had a modest goal of $250.00, but by Wednesday night, the fundraiser had received nearly $800.00 in Facebook donations.

But even though the organization continues to raise money through these social campaigns, Campbell says the group is aiming for more traditional organization-initiated fundraisers.

For the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad in Cumberland, Md., social media has played an integral part in raising money for Chesapeake & Ohio 2-6-6-2 No. 1309 according to railroad executive director John Garner.

“Truth be told – all of our donations, at least 99 percent have come through the social media,” Garner says.

Frequent video blocks and Facebook updates keep followers informed of the locomotive’s progress and Garner asks for donors to put ‘WM1309’ on the memo line when writing a check or money order. By doing so, donations received are set-aside in a dedicated account to benefit No. 1309.

The railroad also uses the fundraising platform FlipCause. The website charges a fee based on the amount donated unless the donor is willing to pay the fees. Garner says the results have been decent.

According to FlipCause, it has served more than 2,000 clients and raised over $150 million dollars since launched five years ago.

In August 2018, Facebook announced it had raised $300 million through its birthday fundraisers feature alone – benefiting more than 750,000 nonprofits.  According to the social media giant, the company waives all fees so that 100 percent of all donations made to nonprofits go directly to the organizations. 

“Like it or not, social media is here to stay and is proving to be an excellent venue to reach unique audiences quickly,” Campbell noted.

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