The Missed Beat in Social Media

Photo by Flickr user Franco Bouly.
It’s tough to engage now in a serious conversation about successfully running a nonprofit without social media playing a central role in the discussion, but at some point it will be so deeply embedded in our thinking and workflows that we won’t be talking about it as a distinct subject anymore. But even the best of the folks figuring out to effectively use social media strategies in building great nonprofits and advancing mission-based work mostly seem to miss a critical beat, and the worrisome part of that for me is the risk that this missed beat stays missing even as social media thinking becomes more deeply embedded in our work.

The most simplistic conversations start with an exhortation: if you aren’t doing social media you have to start right away! The sophisticated conversations at least start a few steps back, pointing out the importance of setting clear goals, being strategic in which social media tools you use and how you use them, and having a strong evaluation tool so you can figure out how well it’s working and make adjustments along the way.

Even those discussions, however, often miss what an even more critical step, namely having a clear understanding of the point of using the social media in the first place (an issue that Jon Stahl, Gideon Rosenblatt, and my BrightPlus3 colleague Ted Fickes bantered about in the comments section of a recent blog post: “The Engagement Pyramid’s Missing Step“). ‘Engagement’ doesn’t mean much unless it’s tied to both a clear goal and a clear understanding of what’s required to accomplish that goal.

It sounds so obvious, but most nonprofit discussions of social media strategy and technique seem to hint at this obliquely (at best) or overlook it altogether.

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).

Connections that Bind

We hear a lot these days about increasing numbers of followers, building email lists, interacting more with users and retweets. We measure click-thrus and response rates, pageviews and bounces, and may use PostRank or Google Alerts to monitor conversations about us and our issues.

What does all this tell us about how well our organizations are or aren’t using social media, communications and membership programs in general? It can inform our efforts, certainly, but if it contributes to solid analysis is debatable. It is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and want to explore in coming posts.

A common thread in all these metrics is that they indicate a relationship between an individual and organization.

But to what extent do these relationships matter? That seems the question. What are we as individuals able and willing to do for the organization and (it must be asked) what is the organization doing for the individual?

I really like Gideon Rosenblatt’s talk a couple months back about “powerful connections” between organizations and people. Gideon asks the question: Is it possible to have a soulful relationship with an organization? He goes on to tell the story of his long-term relationship with both Groundwire and Social Venture Partners and how he worked to connect people in the organizations. His position in and among these organizations is unique, of course, but throughout he seemed driven by idea that it was people and their relationships with the organization that mattered. The program and policy minutiae would work themselves out if the passion and personal connections were in place.

Can everyone on an email list or Facebook fan page have a “soulful” connection with your organization? I hardly think so. But proactively striving to create opportunities and openings for deeper connections seems like it could only pay off in the long run.