The growing buzz around social media is making jumping on the social bandwagon “de rigueur” for more and more nonprofit organizations. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most are embracing social media without really understanding how it works, how it can help them meet their goals, and more often than not, without a real plan.
Nonprofits that turn to social media to keep up with the Joneses but without a clear sense of direction or purpose, will likely fail.
Social media engagement is not like a switch that can be turned on and off at will. Online relations need to be developed and nurtured over time and organizations that want to take advantage of these powerful new tools must be prepared to invest in listening, participation and genuine conversation. A good place for them to start is by distinguishing between their tactical and strategic objectives and opportunities.
At a tactical level, social media platforms and social media engagement can be particularly helpful in facilitating consistent and targeted contact and engagement with an organization’s key audiences.
Twitter for example, can be used to start conversations and carve out relations with influential reporters or politicians.
In addition to using Twitter to engage with important external audiences (mainstream media, political influencers, potential third-party supporters), organizations can use social media to connect and engage their membership, the sector they represent and the general population.
One low-cost way to do this is to create a Facebook Page around an issue of concern to the sector the organization represents and around which an online community of interest already exists. An example of this is the Facebook page created by InterChange Public Affairs to support FCM’s campaign to increase the number of women in municipal government.
This tactic can be used to support efforts to mobilize an organization’s members, its sector and public opinion in the run-up to a key legislative vote, policy announcement, election or simply to raise awareness around a particular cause.
It is important however that organizations not fall into the social media “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” trap. A platform does not a social media campaign make.
Scoping out whether a community of interest around an issue or issues exists, its scope, level of engagement and top influencers are all critical first steps before undertaking any kind of social media campaign. This is particularly true if the campaign is designed for short term tactical impact.
Absent an existing and broad-based conversation around an issue it can be very difficult to mobilize sufficient numbers to create political room for an issue. In fact, a social media campaign that sputters can have the opposite effect and serve only to demonstrate the absence of interest and support for an issue.
In the absence of a well-established online community or ongoing online conversations around an issue, a social media platform like Facebook can still be used to initiate engagement, amplify messaging and build a network, but its use should not be positioned or branded as a social media campaign.
Listening should be step one for any organization contemplating social media engagement.
Unlike full blown social media engagement where an organization openly and transparently shares information, responds to comments and queries, and actually becomes part of a community, listening is the first—but essential–step in successful social media engagement.
As a general principle of social engagement, listening uncovers the nature of the conversations within a particular community. Just as you would not arrive at a cocktail party unannounced and attempt to monopolize the conversation, listening within a social media network allows you to determine your comfort zone and ease into conversations.
Whether it’s from a business perspective, a public institution, or that of a nonprofit advocacy association, listening allows organizations to determine who the thought leaders are in a given community and what it is that makes them most relevant. Listening allows organizations to determine what content is most relevant and why. And most important, listening allows them to hear what people are saying about them, their brand or their issues.
Listening is easy and there are a number of tools available, from simple online search tools to advanced brand and reputation management platforms.
More strategically, social media can be used to expand and diversify an organization’s communication reach. In the short run, it can be used to grow its network by identifying like-minded influencers and encouraging conversations. In addition to expanding an organization’s network, this will amplify its message by promoting the sharing of content on multiple platforms.
In the longer term, social media has the potential to fundamentally transform how organizations view and conduct advocacy, engage their members and staff, raise funds and develop policies.
While tactical social media engagement is largely transactional and focused on achieving short term objectives, strategic engagement is based on a vision of emerging technologies as enabling transformative change.
From an organizational perspective, strategic social media engagement needs to rest on four things: a corporate vision of technology that embraces and facilitates change, the resources to implement it, a sound understanding of the dynamics of social media engagement and a well-established social network.