The State of Social Media and Social Media Marketing


Earlier in the month, Esteban Contreras published a terrific “State of Social Media” report with a particular focus on social media advertising (h/t to SocialFish).

Facebook remains the big giant with 900 million monthly active users. YouTube is in the same class with 800 million, but these two dwarf everyone else (Zynga, which itself has 40% more users than its next closest competitor, only has 232 million MAUs). Facebook, in other words, “has established itself as THE social platform,” and – unexceptional earnings reports notwithstanding – it is likely to hold that turf for some time to come as it improves and expands functionality like scheduling, post-level metrics, mobile-only ads, and the like.

Spending on social network advertising is growing fast (projected at 43% growth in 2012), and even though the rate of growth is expected to decline (dropping to 18% in 2014), that still amounts to massive increases, hitting $5.5 billion in 2014. One implication for nonprofits and everyone else: it’s increasingly difficult to get noticed, especially on Facebook. Spending on local social ads, as a component of overall social ad spending, is also growing quickly. But despite the spending trends, it’s still unclear how effective social network ads are. LinkedIn is a notable exception.

More than half of adult cell phone owners go online using their phones: “Mobile is becoming the first screen.” This is a HUGE ongoing shift that nonprofits ignore at their peril.

Google+ is still pretty far back in the pack in terms of users (only 150 million MAUs), but it hit those numbers in just one year of operation, and it enjoys really high engagement levels: “I still think Google+ is the dark horse here …” This robust engagement includes 50% of Google users signing in at least once a day and spending an average of 60 minutes a day on Google.

Some other noteworthy trends:

  • YouTube is seeing a drop in users but claims it’s making up for it with increasing engagement.
  • YouTube is investing $100 million on its own premium channels.
  • Daily Twitter use continues to grow, especially among 18-24 year olds.
  • Use of location-based services on smartphones continues to grow quickly as well, up 55% from just a year ago. One in five use “geosocial” apps.
  • With Klout at the front of the parade, we’re now seeing a bundle of startups rushing to measure influence among social network users.
  • Trending tactics in social media marketing include: social curation, frictionless sharing, visual experimentation, storytelling, fan-centric content.
  • “Good experiences are key to earned social media advocacy.”

Want to Fundraise Like Charity:Water? Develop Engaged Advocates, not Donors

I’ve always been struck by the different ways old and new organizations approach online communications, fundraising and organizing. The two groups could learn a lot by studying each other.

Charity:Water poster - 4,5000 children will die today from water-related diseases

Charity:Water poster with a focused and powerful idea.

Newer groups aren’t beholden to a certain way of doing things, entrenched hierarchies and well-established silos. They’re likely led and staffed by bootstrapping generalists that are truly passionate about an idea or mission and not much deterred by failures. Their enthusiasm rubs off on those around them and can stir up a hornet’s nest of much-needed action.

Organizations that have been around a while (and let’s say 15-20 years or more) have staying power. They have figured out how to get things done and sustain the business of running an organization. Relationship-building takes time and they have stuck to it – likely carving out strong relationships with the powerful in communities and government.

Most that work in and around nonprofit organizations these days would probably say that adapting to digital networks and online fundraising has been a challenge for older groups. A well-established way of doing things is challenged by the speed and apparent loss of control over message and action wrought by online networks.

Learning from Younger Groups

There is room in the nonprofit tent for both old and new organizations. But technical change is happening fast and the fabric of communities, environment, institutions is fraying before our eyes. Groups need to be at the top of their game. [Read more...]

Book Review: Lindy Dreyer & Maddie Grant’s Open Community

Lindy Dreyer and Maddie Grant have have a cool little book out called Open Community that’s worth picking up if you haven’t yet. They published it late last year and it’s very useful and super relevant, and definitely worth a read if you are interested in using online tools for community-building. “Open community,” to Dreyer and Grant, is a community with some sort of shared interests that engage with each other online. It tracks closely to the “networked nonprofit” idea that Beth Kanter and Allison Fine describe in their book of that name, and it actually complements the Kanter and Fine book nicely.

Where Kanter and Fine aim to map out a bigger picture story about what it means to be a “networked nonprofit,” Dreyer and Grant focus on a narrower question: how to use online social media tools to support your community-building efforts. They don’t dive into the use of specific tools, but that’s sensible since anything they might have written about the specifics of using Facebook, for instance, would likely become outdated quickly. Instead, it’s filled with practical advice about how to approach the use of those tools. Getting to know your members, understanding the relationship between your homebase and your outposts, and between your formal and informal outposts, removing the hurdles that keep your community from engaging online, and the critical importance of listening and soliciting feedback from your community are examples of the ground they cover.

It’s very pragmatic, readable, and to the point, and while it’s ostensibly focused on professional associations it is clearly applicable to any nonprofit or interest-based organization, as well. As a bonus, their cartoons are terrific (including, for instance, “Hey, remind me – what’s the keyboard shortcut for creating a vibrant, productive online community?”).

Reading it reminded me of an interview I did with Bonnie Shaw of BYO Consulting a couple of months ago about her work on the relationship between on- and offline communities. A conversation involving all of these folks could be a lot of fun: Beth and Allison on their transformative model for social sector organizations, Lindy and Maddie on the specifics of building online community, and Bonnie illuminating how both can help strengthen communities in their on- and offline manifestations.

By the way, you can keep up with Dreyer and Grant on their SocialFish blog, which is worth adding to your RSS feed.

The Web 2.0 Pivot

Indian Gulch Fire (City of Golden photo).

During the Indian Gulch Fire near my community of Golden, Colorado several weeks ago (where I serve as the mayor), one of my City Council colleagues and I found ourselves focused primarily on gathering information about what was happening, sharing the information in a bunch of different ways (including Facebook and Twitter), and listening closely out on the ground and via social media to what our community members were asking and what they were concerned about (so that we could respond to all of that). (I posted more about the specifics of the lessons learned during the Indian Gulch fire on my mayor’s blog.

We weren’t officially representing the city while we were doing this, but by virtue of our roles in the community we had credibility and a lot of folks relied partly on our communication to stay on top of the fire and the evacuation situation. We were both (naturally) very plugged in to what was happening, and we used discretion when we weren’t certain of the facts or where sensitive information was in play, but it was entirely outside the formal command structure and communications system, and it created some consternation within that system that the mayor and a city councilor were engaged in so much independent communication.

This probably sounds like a familiar story. In fact, any organization that is struggling with the pivot to a Web 2.0 world will find itself grappling with these very same types of challenges: how do you maintain the accuracy of information when the flow is dispersed, how do you control the message when everyone has the means to alter it or even challenge it, how do you deploy your communication resources when the information flow far exceeds any capacity you will ever have to manage it, and how do you manage independent communication by people who are part of your own team?

In the case of an emergency response system, unlike most nonprofit environments, there is still a need for an unchallenged command-and-control decision process. Incident commanders need to make big picture decisions that they know will be implemented down through the vertical hierarchy, just as folks down that command chain have to know that their decisions will be implemented as well.

But the part of all this that involves communication and information flow lives outside of this command-and-control chain regardless of how hard the incident commanders work to contain it, and that’s why this is such a familiar-sounding story. (The Emergency Management blog has an interesting post about these challenges from the perspective of the emergency responders.)

The answer doesn’t reduce to adding your social networks to your press release distribution list (although that may be better than nothing). As Beth Kanter and Allison Fine argue in The Networked Nonprofit, you can’t simply layer a social media strategy on top of an organization whose modus operandi is largely defined by deep organizational hierarchies and one-way communication between the organization and its members. Your organization needs to be willing to adopt a “social culture” emphasizing two way communication and conversation with people inside and outside the organization, an openness to trying and learning from new approaches, and staff autonomy and agility.

In fact, some of the most important lessons we drew from our experience during the fire in Golden are the same sorts of lessons that nonprofit folks are drawing all the time now as they grapple with social networking:

  • Our social networking communication efforts didn’t replace face-to-face communication but supplemented and amplified it. In fact, our effective use of social networking depended on a lot of face time.
  • Our social networking efforts took a lot of time and effort. There are certainly ways to streamline, but there’s no getting around the fact that doing it well requires a real investment.
  • Most people seemed very plugged in to only one or two communication channels, which meant that using a wide range of channels was pretty important. For some, the traditional media channels were the most important, while for others it was Facebook or Twitter. Know your audience, and recognize that they may be diverse in which information channels they rely on.
  • The listening was as important as pushing information out. By listening carefully to the conversations on social networks and elsewhere on the web, we were able to identify questions and concerns and respond to them quickly. Similarly, we were able to catch inaccurate information and to notice what rumors were starting to gather steam so we could address them directly.
  • The social networking conversations were amplified considerably by the network participants themselves. Tweets were retreated, blog post links were shared, email newsletters were forwarded, and so on. Our communication efforts really did end up being a shared, community undertaking.
  • There is no longer any simple way to control the accuracy of the information (or to control the information at all). For nonprofits accustomed to ensuring that information out there in the world about their organizations is accurate and flattering, this is a tough transition but it’s happening whether they resist or embrace. Consumers, donors, and clients now control information flow and organizational reputations in new and potent ways.
  • Finally, people want to feel like they are in the loop. This desire is dramatically heightened during a crisis, but that instinct is there all of the time. This is part of why the organizations that use social networking tools effectively use them, in part, to pull back the curtain and give their supporters a more transparent, behind-the-scenes understanding of the work they do. People – be they constituents, consumers, donors, or clients – are more likely to be constructively engaged if you help empower them with accurate information in authentic and candid ways. The tools themselves aren’t really the point.

For the most nimble and cutting-edge social sector organizations, this is easy. In fact, they are already fully inhabiting a Web 2.0 world, using social networking tools to engage, empower, and collaborate with their supporters. For everyone else, change is hard (as Dan Health likes to say).

What Gladwell Got Right

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest critique of social networking sparked an energetic response in the social networking-o-sphere, just as his October article did. And his critics are largely right.

Yup, he is missing the point that weak tie relationships can become strong tie relationships.

Yes, he is confusing the question of ‘why people protest’ with the question of ‘how.’

Indeed, he seems to misunderstand the relevance of decentralized control over the production of media and the distribution of information.

Yes, he continues to attack the least interesting and straw man-est argument that social networking caused the Egyptian revolution. Of course it didn’t. “Social media aren’t causing revolutions,” as blogger Allison Fine puts it, “they are aiding them.”

And, as Ethan Zuckerman suggests, Gladwell missed the most important question altogether: “I think the interesting story to watch will be whether social media can help Egypt in the transition to democracy.”

But I think his ongoing critique of social networking does (obliquely) illuminate the biggest weakness in the social-media-for-advocacy universe: the lack of clarity about the mechanisms of change underlying the use of social networking tools.

Most of the writing (including Beth Kanter’s and Allison Fine’s terrific book, “The Networked Nonprofit”) seems rooted in the presumption that engagement through social networking tools is a good thing and will enable or enhance whatever social change goals are in your queue. The mechanism, such as it is, usually reduces to:

more weak tie engagement using social networking tools => more strong tie engagement using social networking tools => more ability to do whatever it is you do

This might be true in the most general of ways, but it’s not very useful for crafting an effective outcome-oriented strategy, especially if you are working with limited resources (i.e., nearly always). It may be that the most effective strategy really does amount to igniting high-volume protests. Kanter’s impressive effort to pressure Apple into making nonprofit donation tools available on the iPhone might fit into this model. Get enough people talking enough about it and you might be able to leverage some high-profile media coverage. And you might then be able to leverage the coverage into effective market pressure.

But if I’m trying to persuade my City Council to adopt historic neighborhood protections, thousands of Facebook messages from people who don’t live in my town probably isn’t going to be very effective (in fact, they might even have the opposite effect, since what elected representative wants to look like they are responding to pressure from outside their community?). The most effective voices may be the residents and property owners in those specific neighborhoods, so the winning strategy may really be about persuading a very small number of people to get involved in very direct ways. If you want to persuade the Member of Congress from western Colorado (whomever it might be at the time) to support a wilderness bill, direct expressions of support from a small number of Colorado opinion leaders among ranching and farming constituencies are likely to be much more effective than a large number of comments from across Colorado and the country.

The savvier social networking evangelists in the nonprofit world do a good job of highlighting the importance of having clear goals before launching a social networking strategy. Clarity about whether you are more focused on reach or on high levels of engagement, for instance, will have a significant impact on what you do. The next step, though, is to extend that sort of thinking a few steps further back: exactly what social change or community value outcomes are you aiming for, what exactly needs to happen to accomplish those goals, and then how exactly can a social networking strategy help you get there.

There’s no one right way to do this. A campaign-focused organizing strategy that identifies the individual decision-makers of consequence can work well, just as the more abstract “theory of change” or “logic model” approach that some funders emphasize. But absent some clear understanding of what must happen, exactly, to produce the targeted outcomes, then social networking may or may not have any meaningful impact. And I think it’s safe to say that it won’t have as much impact as it could.

The main value of Gladwell’s continued critique (which has, ironically, been propelled far more widely because of social media than it would have been otherwise) has been to catalyze a reinvigorated discussion about the value of social networking in social movements. Perhaps it will also help drive a touch more rigor in our thinking about how to use these tools most effectively.