Thoughts on Social Networking | npENGAGE

Thoughts on Social Networking

By on Apr 30, 2009


Nonprofit association NTEN, consultants Common Knowledge and social networking software providers ThePort conducted a joint study of nonprofit organization and their use of and attitudes towards social networking tools. You can, of course, read through the report yourself by visiting, and I won’t repeat every statistic here. Instead, I’d like to spend a little time thinking about the questions that were raised for me (and maybe you).

The survey asked about two types of social networking presences a nonprofit organization could have.  The first type is “commercial” which the survey has defined as external to your organization, like Facebook or Twitter. The second type is “house” which the survey has defined as a social network which is part of the organizations website, typically provided by a private or white label vendor like ThePort or Small World Labs or Ning.

Presence on Commercial Social Networks

According to the survey, 86% of organizations have a presence on a commercial social network (74% of organizations have a presence on Facebook and 43% are on Twitter).  

My question: what are the other 14% doing? There are over 200 million people to be reached within these communities and their is no cover charge to get through the door. Granted, to have a meaningful presence on social networks, you have to put in a little work, because the relationships you create on Facebook and Twitter are like the relationships you make in real life, where the value you receive is directly related to the value you provide (this especially applies to long lasting relationships). Think about what you want to achieve, plan it out a little and get in there and do the things you can in Facebook and in Twitter. If you are worried about lack of knowledge or money, then go to the local college or university and create an unpaid internship. College kids know this stuff better than all of us, and they will work for free.  

Existence of a House Social Network

Roughly 31% of organizations have their own social network. The survey says that most organizations who did not have a house social network said the lack of money and expertise were the reasons.  

My question: Who are these organizations and what is it about them that makes them need to have their own community? Over 75% of them said their community was valuable. Why? The reasons cited by the orgs who do not have their own community make sense to me because buying, building and nurturing your own community is hard work, and if you are going to commit to it by paying real dollars, you want more than the part time college kid running that show. However, I will say that there is more than enough educating going on, covering the best practices on commercial and house community management. The reality is that no one is really an expert at this stuff anyway because it is too new. Do your homework by reading blogs, because that is where the best information is today. Start with Beth Kanter and Jeremiah Owyang, and work your way out from there. I’ll let you in on a secret, though. Every town has their expert. Go find that person and get to know them. 

Size of Community

According to the survey, the average community size on a commercial social network is just over 5000 people and double that for a house social network, and the fundraising is much better through house social networks, in that 30% raised more that $10,000.  

My question: Why aren’t more organizations staring up their own social network if they can have double the people engaged and have a much better chance of raising more money? One factor, for sure, is that there is a cost to house social networks. In fact, nearly half of those organizations with a house social network had a budget of about $10,000 per year. But still, the results seem to be there, and there are 300 examples to follow (if everyone answered their survey questions truthfully). 

Promotion of Community

Email and web content were the clear winners in terms of promotion tactics used for both commercial and house social networks, and typically only 40% used social media tools to promote their social network presences. 

My question: why is this? Is it that the organizations are trying to create social network users out of constituents who typically are not? Or is it that those are just the easiest tools? I can certainly see the use of email and web content at the beginning of your social network presence, and I can see it when you have a house social network, but when you are trying to get fans to your Facebook Page, you need to work the channels within the social media world, because the people likely to want to become a fan of you are there, and more importantly, the people who will become fans in a meaningful way (i.e. they will actually interact with your page past the initial sign-up) are there. Ultimately, you don’t just want a high fan count, you want a high engagement level. So please, use all of the channels to the utmost. 

Financial Commitment to Social Networking

Of those surveyed, 85% said they had $10K or less in budget for social networking presence. In my experience, this is typically because most organizations don’t yet know what the return on investment is for their social networking work. If they have done any research, they’ll have found that most people don’t know what the real, right metric is yet. The consensus seems to be centering around engagement factors, rather than financial factors. This means the volume and speed of conversation and learning.  

My question: why is high engagement not good enough? After all, we all say we want that. Does that mean that in most people’s minds engagement = donation? I doubt that. I think there is a new paradigm that all of us need to get our heads around. The old paradigm is built on the notion that most people don’t have the time, energy or inclination to solve the world’s ills, so they lent their most fluid resource, money, to the few people who said, “I’ll be the one to do the work, then.” The new paradigm, however, hinges on the fact that most young people today are used to having everything their way (they personalize nearly every aspect of their existence), and to the world’s benefit, these “spoiled” people are extending that existence to their grown up world and saying, “I’m not just going to hand this money over to you. I want to spend it myself, in a way that I want to use it to help you.” The new paradigm is about letting people take action themselves. Now, this does not always mesh well with existing operations, because to act accordingly, sometimes you have to know what you are doing (side note, if you ever see me at a conference and want to hear a story about this point in particular, ask me about the saw horse). These bratty people who want to help on their terms don’t always know what to do. So, as nonprofits, you have a choice: convince them to let you do the work with their money or teach them what they need to know to do the work right. 

I see the latter choice as the right one. Not only are you giving the constituent what it is that they want, you are also making your job easier to do. However, you have to now measure your progress differently. The question is not how much money did I raise but how many people did I empower. And the next question is, how much would I have gotten done if I had the money, and is it more or less than what was accomplished by those empowered people. 

I’ll wrap it up by saying that social networking tools, and social media tools in general, are the perfect tools for empowering people because they make it easy top disperse information broadly and quickly, and in context. The use of these tools is beneficial to your mission, especially if you measure your progress in people instead of money. There is a place for commercial and house social networks in empowering people. I have a preferred model, which I talked about here. Whatever your needs, I’d wager that you can use these tools to your advantage, so fight for the budget to do them well, but use them even if you don’t have the budget, or the expertise.   

If you’d like to talk more one on one, find me on Twitter at @iberyoung.


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