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.

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 Changing Face of News Media: Implications for Nonprofits

Photo by flickr user laffy4k.
The BuzzBin posted a great summary of a new Pew Research Center study on the rapidly changing face of news media and media relations. For nonprofits concerned about how their work is covered by the news media, the implications are important:

1) Traditional news releases and media relations still has value but it is diminishing quickly.

2) Mobile is big and growing bigger. At a minimum, nonprofits have to make sure their web sites work at least decently on mobile devices, and increasingly nonprofits would probably do well to actually optimize their sites for mobile.

3) Figuring out how to successfully feed stories into the new aggregators may matter more for getting traction than individual journalist relationships or any of the effective old media strategies. And those relationships will be tougher and tougher to maintain given the huge staffing cuts and staffing turmoil in the journalism industry (which nonprofits have been experiencing firsthand for a long time, as media lists grow stale more and more quickly).

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).

Bridging Cultures Within Nonprofit Organizations

Bridge over Tagus river, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by flickr user F H Mira.
I’m a fan of Ethan Zuckerman’s research on bridging across cultures and the ways in which our communication and networking systems can either encourage interactions across cultural divides or impede them. But what happens when the cultural bridging that needs to happen is within a single organization?

Here’s a scenario:

A nonprofit has a team of folks who focus on technology, the web, social media, and perhaps even a mobile strategy. Those folks are smart, committed, and capable, and they come up with great ideas for deploying the tools and technologies, but the organizational decision-makers nix the ideas one after another. The easy explanation is that the folks in positions of authority are too old school, or too conventional, or too set in their 20th century ways. Communication channels that we don’t control! Letting other people talk about us – say whatever they want! – on our own website? Giving up control over the message?

No doubt this sort of risk intolerance, command and control mentality, and generational divide are all part of the problem sometimes. But I wonder if sometimes that’s just too convenient of an answer. After all, if that’s the explanation, then there isn’t much you can do about it. But I wonder if, at least sometimes, the answer has as much to do with the political savvy of the techies and with the depth of the cultural divide that separates them from others in their organizations. Even with good, dedicated activists on both sides of that conversation, if the techies don’t understand the politics of direction-shifting within their organization, or if they aren’t able to effectively explain their vision and its value even when they do understand the politics, they are going to get stuck – great ideas and no ability to implement. And that sounds very much like the sort of bridging problem that Ethan describes.

If this diagnosis is right at least some of the time, the remedy may look a lot like the sort of remedy that Ethan describes: people who bridge those two cultures (i.e., people who get both the techie world and the world of internal nonprofit politics), and communication and social structures that foster unexpectedly delightful interactions between folks on both sides of that divide. I don’t much care for the thought of adding more layers, especially within the larger nonprofits that often seem overly layered already, but if improving internal organizational dynamics and the willingness of those organizations to evolve and experiment is tied to people who can help bridge intra-organizational cultural differences, it might well be worthwhile.

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.

Can Social Networks Create Social Capital?

In September, 2008, Green for All, 1Sky and the We Campaign organized a national day of action — Green Jobs Now — to demand progress on green jobs and a green economy. Tens of thousands of people participated in over 670 events in 40 states. Staff led on-the-ground efforts in just a handful of key cities, while the majority of actions were organized online and offline by activists and other citizens -– volunteers, by and large.

The green jobs day of action was large, strong, and helped set the tone nationally on a key topic in an upcoming election. Discussions about green jobs and green economy policies occurred from local to national levels. Many engaged in those events have continued to be involved in the issue, if not the organization, and some have taken up leadership roles locally or even nationally. Green for All developed a long-term program of on the ground activities to continue engaging participants — and attract new ones.

Online networks were used to help organize the national day of action but the action was not about “likes” or fans or messages. While the online networks may have taken off in terms of size and activity, is that where the power of this day of action was rooted? Or was power based in the individual relationships offline and online, many of which continued to grow and strengthen after this day?

A challenge of our time seems to be building networks of quantity while creating/generating quality from the networks. Planning, reporting, and strategic systems put a priority on numbers instead of narrative. We have two year (or shorter) program cycles that reward immediate, impersonal action instead of relationships.

Online networks have transferred the tools of organizing and programmatic leadership from organizations and placed them into the hands of the citizen/member. Meanwhile, organizations typically approach social networks as a staff-driven, top-down push towards higher numbers of fans, friends, and followers.

Contacts, Connections and Social Capital

Social networks and email lists are built with contacts: email addresses and spur of the moment expressions of interest. Connections are longer-term relationships built on commonalities of interest, geography, conversation and exploration of ideas, place, and trust. The difference between contacts and connections is a central theme in Robert Putnam’s look at social disconnect and the breakdown of American civil society, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 2000.

Putnam describes social connections as fabric that, when woven, creates social capital in organizations and societies. Social capital is tangible and malleable. It can be organized and brought to bear upon a situation. One’s amount of social capital can be measured and, when spent, its value can be assessed.

Social contacts are more ethereal, less tangible — almost hypothetical. These are people who have met but do not necessarily know one another. Many are connected only randomly. They may be able to broadcast the events of their day to one another but not ask a personal favor or base a decision on the advice of one another.

Build Social Capital

Many organizations approach social media as a numbers game. Larger numbers of friends/fans/followers indicate strength. Unfortunately, this overlooks the value of real social capital: without organizing and relationship building, social networks are not powerful.

One thing often forgotten when organizations build social networks and make plans to “use” these networks (be it for advocacy, for fundraising, or just to drive traffic to their website — maybe the most common if least helpful use of the network) is the first word: Social

Think about your own, personal, use of Facebook and Twitter. It’s not about the “network”. It is probably not, even for those of us immersed in these issues, about the cause or the politics, either. It is about the social, the personal interaction, the catching up with and hearing from friends.

Alissa Hauser and Marianne Manilov talk about how small, core networks spring up around social needs, not politics or cause. Groups with political and social change goals are stronger and more viable over time when there are opportunities of personal interaction, relationship and trust-building, and sharing stories. Bari Samad, Internet Director at Green for All, characterized it well in a recent conversation. “We have a predisposition to assume that people always want to be activists, and bypass the critical steps of engaging them in conversations and meeting them where they already are,” he said when talking about how many organizations view existing or potential new constituents.

In fact, the bar for activism is higher. Activism: the word itself denotes action. Action takes time. Action that is unplanned or lacking goals and practice often produces unexpected and disappointing results. Time and resources are needed to create more valuable actions — and more productive activists.

Organization are leaving value on the table by not building relationships and opportunities for real, personal, engagement between people and organizations around issues of common concern.

Green for All and others in the Green Jobs Now campaign are, like many organizations (but still too few), providing examples of ways to view online networks as a tool for creating and strengthening long-term power-development in social change campaigns and movements. The networks connect people — allow for interaction — and serve as a jumping off point for building strong relationships.

We hope to explore these jumping off points and look at how to create programs that draw real strength from communities and networks in a session at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in March.

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.