It’s already been two years since I wrote here about the Web 2.0 or social networking phenomenon and argued that powerful social web tools like blogs, wikis and podcasts and platforms like YouTube and Facebook can help third sector organisations operate more efficiently, generate more funding, and affect more lives.
In the intervening time, of course, we have seen an absolute explosion in this trend, helped in no small part by the way in which the judicious use of these kinds of tools helped to get an American president elected, and now it seems everyone is rushing to jump on the bandwagon for fear that they be left out of the opportunities that the new social media can offer.
As with any investment in information technology, though, it’s important to have a considered business strategy and clear objectives before you launch into using social media. So before you sign up for your Twitter account and set about inviting friends to your Facebook site, here are some key things to think about as you build a social networking strategy for your organisation.
Opting Out May No Longer Be An Option
The first point in any social networking strategy may be to realise that you haven’t actually got a choice. The culture change is real and it has transformed for ever the way that people relate to organisations, whether that be the musicians they listen to, the companies they shop from, or indeed the charitable or voluntary organisations they support.
I regularly meet both organisations and individuals who believe that they can live without the online engagement of social networking. But opting out of the social web is a bit like trying to opt out of the global economy: you may think you are not involved, but you are going to be heavily affected every step of the way regardless.
The point is, there is already likely a social networking conversation taking place about your organisation and its work. The question is whether or not you are going to engage with the people talking about you and help shape that conversation.
Rethink Your Overall Strategy of Engagement
Before you can evaluate the best social media channels to use, you need to think hard about who your main stakeholders are and how best to relate with them.
Traditional channels of communication were all about top-down delivery of messages; the social web by contrast is about conversation. It’s about engaging, inspiring and intriguing your audience, and ensuring that you empower your members, clients and other key stakeholders interact with you regularly and enthusiastically.
Social networking shouldn’t just be an ‘add on’, then, to the public relations and communication activities you have been carrying out in the same fashion for years; it should be a fundamental part of a rethink of the way your community engagement work is done and should involve every part of your organisation.
Choose Your Tools Carefully
Getting involved in social networking doesn’t necessarily mean using all available social media outlets at once. It’s important to consider and choose the best ones to meet your aims, whether that be networking platforms like Facebook or Ning, multimedia sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr, or individual social media tools like blog sites.
These days the buzz is all about Twitter, a free micro-blogging service that allows you to send short messages called ‘tweets’ to those who are following your updates. Sometimes called the ‘SMS of the internet’, Twitter is great for sending frequent but very short project updates or other brief news items to your followers. But while using Twitter is certainly a very trendy thing to do, it’s not meant to carry substantive messages, and it can fail spectacularly if your activities don’t generate enough of a buzz to have people clamouring for numerous updates throughout the day. Depending on your needs, therefore, you may want to look instead at getting your message out through other channels like blogs or news feeds, and reserving Twitter for specific activities with a higher level of engagement, such as the build-up to and aftermath of a significant event you are hosting.
Integrate Your Own Website with Social Media
There are two mistakes that organisations frequently make with their own websites vis-à-vis the new social web. The first is to assume that by building social networking features into their own website, they can cover all the bases of social networking: this is the Field of Dreams ‘build it and they will come’ approach, a strategy by which many a discussion forum or chat room has withered for lack of interest. The opposite mistake is to rely only on work in an online social space and neglect your own website, an approach which can generate a lot of interest without providing people with a clear destination for information about your organisation or a means of channeling their support for your work.
A balanced strategy involves carefully selected outreach through social media channels linked in with a fresh, easy-to-use and frequently updated website. The links can involve such things as blogs and news items being crossposted to other sites through newsfeeds, tweets and Facebook updates, or photo galleries and videos can be hosted on your own branded channels on Flickr and YouTube, so that people coming across your content can be drawn back to your own site.
Critics will of course argue that a large proportion of the messages carried online are pointless babble, and they’re absolutely right. That just means, however, there’s a huge opportunity for individuals and organisations with a worthwhile message and cause to get online and use these inexpensive yet powerful tools to foster relationships and build supportive communities, so that they can then get on with their real work of making people’s lives better.