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Is Your Organization Ready for On-line Social Networking?

Now that user-generated content—blogs, video, discussion groups, chats, and so forth—is the norm and users expect their Web experience to provide interactivity in addition to information, many nonprofits are faced with deciding when and how to use on-line social networking as part of their Web presence.

The simple brochureware site (one that just contains information about the organization) and direct donation site of the past are no longer enough. Fortunately, it is not necessary to build your own on-line social networking site. But you do need to know how to become part of an existing community, and tie it to your existing Web presence, to use social networking effectively.

The great promise of on-line social networking is in being able to have a two-way dialogue with an engaged population in a way that is not possible using only traditional media outlets. As every nonprofit knows, it is hard to get press in traditional outlets—a great deal of time and money is spent in an often fruitless attempt to get coverage.

The greater burden, however, is trying to be heard in a cluttered and chaotic Web. Although the ease of access to social networking tools does a great job of leveling the playing field, it makes that field very cluttered.

As a result, before you decide to enter the world of social networking, it is essential to have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, how to find the audience you are trying to reach, and then to invest the time and money necessary to do so effectively.

The First Step Is to Decide What You Want to Accomplish

For most nonprofits, this task will fall into a few broad categories:

  • Reach a broader audience with messaging about your cause and your organization. You may already have a great corps of committed volunteers and donors, but you want to reach people who are not currently engaged with you.

  • Engage your constituents—existing and new—in dialogue with each other so that they can keep your messaging alive, even without you in the "room."

  • Increase constituent donations of time and money. When supporters are reminded of you on a regular basis, rather than through sporadic contact when you need something from them, they are easier to engage. It is like the difference between asking a friend for a favor and asking a remote acquaintance—it is always easier to ask a friend—and much more likely to succeed.

Now You Have to Figure Out How to Reach Your Audience

Where do they spend time on-line? There are a plethora of on-line community sites out there, ranging from the huge and established Facebooks of the Web to the smaller and newer sites such as Zaadz.com and JustCauseIt.com—and many others. They are all potential places to find constituents, and each has it strengths and weaknesses. The trick is in knowing how to use them.

  • Large sites such as FaceBook and MySpace have millions of users each and can be a great way to broadcast your message. They can also be a great way not to be heard. Although there is no harm in being there, it is probably not the best way to connect with people who care deeply about your cause. Think of these sites as places to put a billboard, not places to form meaningful relationships that lead to action.

  • Smaller sites that are dedicated to social change offer a greater chance of finding people who care about your cause, who will be attracted to quality content, and who have a desire to take action. These sites have fewer users but a higher percentage of the right ones.

So, Once You Have Figured Out What You Want to Accomplish, How Do You Get Started?

  • Set a budget. Once your expectations are defined, it can be helpful to look at those expectations as a job description for your Web site. As such, you need to dedicate time to social networking. Budget time to feed your on-line community, and it will reward you. Even if you are not building your own site, you need to devote time to the care and feeding of your on-line communities.

  • Become a member of other social networking sites. Once you have figured out where your users are, join their groups. Look at such sites as Blogger.com, Blogher.com, Zaadz.com, Huffpo.com, and JustCauseIt.com, and start commenting on blogs that are popular. By being seen and heard in the existing community, it will be easier for you to build community around your own cause and eventually your own blog and site.
Once you get a feel for how on-line communities work, you will be ready to build your own group within that community. Find a site that has the kind of members you are looking for, the kinds of tools you need (event planning, group creation, blogs, comments, sharing etc.) ...

  • Once you have decided where to put your blog and keep your cause group, use the tools provided to you. Cross-post to Digg, FaceBook, NewsVine, and other social bookmarking sites. Every blogging site has these tools, and they are easy to add to your own site.

  • Your blogs can and should live on your own "main" site as well as on the on-line community sites you join. You can use RSS feeds to keep both sites current automatically. (If you are a member of Plaxo and LinkedIn, for instance, you can set up a feed reader to update your blog automatically, which means your entire professional network gets invited to read your new entries.)

  • Once you create your blog, be sure to mention it when you comment on the blogs that you read on other sites. Stay engaged with other dialogues, but also mention your own writing. It is as simple as "That's an interesting point; I just wrote something very similar on my blog." Include a link.

  • Build your own constituency. Once you have set up your own on-line cause community, you will need to invite people in. It's like a housewarming party: you have set up house in a new on-line community; now you need to tell everyone where to find you and invite them to come be part of it. Most sites will have an "invite friends" function—use it. You can use your existing e-mail lists and paste them in the "send to a friend" field on any blog site. When you do, many people will join you and then be notified as you post blogs and events. They will be able to post blogs of their own and, slowly, the organic viral growth will happen.
If all of this sounds overwhelming, it needn't be. The beauty of on-line social networking is that it is very natural and can be delegated to several people once you establish your goals. Your on-line presence should be as diverse as your "real world" office, so use that diversity in your favor and delegate the work. Just be sure to build the necessary time into your work schedule. For example, in your on-line cause you might have:

  • The executive director blogs once a week with a "view from the top."
  • The volunteer coordinator blogs once a week about past experiences and upcoming opportunities.
  • The development director writes about what the donations are doing and what they can do.
  • A board member blogs once a week about the more personal, "touchy feely" stories of why he or she is committed to your organization.
  • The communications director responds to daily news stories from around the world that are related to your mission.
By breaking up the responsibility, you create a robust on-line community presence while distributing the labor. All of this content can live on your site as well as on the community sites of your choice, it can go in e-mail newsletters, and it will keep you "present" in the community. It is a robust and powerful communications tool.

Last, You Need to Gauge What Is Working—and What Is Not

Regardless of where you build your on-line community, you should be providing links back to your main Web site and be able to track where traffic, donations, e-mails, and calls are coming from. Most Web site hosting companies can provide you with metrics tracking systems that enable you to see where traffic is coming from. Google Analytics offers a powerful set of free tools for this. Do a few tests, and see how it all works.

You need to be patient. If you build it, they won't just come. You need to invite people in and give them a reason to stay—that means interesting content that is updated frequently and contains an invitation to do something, such as volunteer, donate, or even just comment—whether it's on your own site or in an on-line community.

Effective use of on-line social networking makes it possible for donors, board members, volunteers, staff, and outside members of the larger community to interact with your organization and each other in a way that promotes your organization and the larger cause that you support.

Alyssa Royse, JustCauseIt.com
© 2008, JustCauseIt.com

Alyssa Royse is president and editor-in-chief of Just Cause, an organization dedicated to shining a bright light on individuals, corporations, and the change agents who are working for the greater good. Just Cause’s newly launched Web site, JustCauseIt.com, is a social networking site connecting people to causes to create change. Just Cause is launching a national magazine in early 2008 to cover the issues and people that are changing our world.
Topics: Communications