When push comes to shove, there are really only two different social networking strategies for nonprofits: Reaching out and rounding up. You are reaching out when you extend your organization into existing networks, building your brand off-site and tapping into the existing user base of The Usual Suspects(1). Rounding up, as you’ve no doubt already guessed, consists of creating social networking activity on your own site, on your own white-labeled (or private-labeled, same thing) social network.
This doesn’t mean you need to have the depth of Facebook’s functionality – a member directory and profile pages may be enough – but it does mean that you are providing the means for your online community to get in touch with each other.
Though not mutually exclusive, these strategies are distinct, not just technically, but in meaningful and real ways. These are not two ways to skin the same cat. In this post we’ll look at some of the differences, and evaluate when each strategy is appropriate.
But before we get to that, you need to have some goals. Why are you even interested in social networking? To raise money? Recruit volunteers? Long-term brand building? I’m assuming that you’ve thought through this part. If not, stop reading. Go home, do some yoga, sip some tea, go for a run, and take a bath, all at the same time. Once you’ve determined your goals, come on back. This post isn’t about “why”, we’re here to talk about “how”.
The default strategy, and the first one you should consider, is reaching out. Let’s face it, that’s where the users are. The Usual Suspects have already done the hard work of acquiring users and creating the technology. If you want to make a hamburger, you go to the grocery store, you don’t start raising cows. Reaching out is easier and cheaper than rounding up. So start here.
Reaching out can be incredibly effective at building your brand and exposing your organization to fresh faces. Long-term, you can build and cultivate these relationships and turn casual Facebook Fans into donors or volunteers. One good idea, contest, or video can expose to you to literally millions of new people, as they share your content amongst themselves.
So when is rounding up appropriate? We here at Blackbaud have seen three big reasons.
The first is if your online community members might not want to share sensitive opinions publicly, if affiliation with your organization may be controversial, or if they will be sharing very personal information. We see this primarily with political, religious, and healthcare organizations. Here are some examples:
- Someone holding a minority political view may not want her opinions becoming a topic of conversation among her Facebook friends.
- A member of a church wouldn’t mind becoming a Twitter follower, but may not want to make his search for a 3-month-long mission known to his employer.
- Members of a support group for a medical issue wouldn’t want their conditions shared with the public.
The next reason applies primarily to professional social networking and comes up when your alumni base (whether that is literal alumni, in the case of a school, or just people who have strong ties with your organization) may not want to be contacted by just anyone. I’m happy to speak about Blackbaud to anyone from my alma mater who may be interested, but I’m not going to solicit professional inquiries from my Facebook profile because I don’t have professional ties with many of my friends on that network. Of course this problem can be solved with privacy settings, but that puts an unnecessary burden on your community members.
Third, if the purpose of your social networking strategy is to coordinate group activities, or connect people in the real world in service of your mission, then rounding up on a private network might be a smart choice. Imagine trying to organize a group of volunteers on Facebook. You start searching for people to invite and…hey! It’s my college roommate’s birthday! And look at the pictures from my coworker’s vacation! There’s an awful lot of noise that come with the Usual Suspects to make them effective organizational tools.
Neither of these strategies will get off the ground without some creative thinking and consistent attention. So whichever strategy you ultimately choose, just remember that when it comes to engaging your constituents online, there’s no substitute for hard work and ingenuity. See you out there!
(1) In the context of posts regarding social networking, the current crop of large, influential social networks will hereafter be referred to as “The Usual Suspects”. This does two things: 1. Saves me from having to type “Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc” every time I need to reference popular social networks and 2. Eliminates any dated references to once-mighty networks, should anyone in the future read this article and LinkedIn has gone the way of MySpace, or something.
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