Social Web 101 for Nonprofits
Or, How the “Live” Read/Write Web Can Help Your Organization Achieve Amazing Things.
I wrote the below as basic background information for a private wiki for a client. The whole ball of wax that is the read/write “live” web is new for this wiki’s users, and I thought it’d make a good primer here.
What’s the Social Web?
The “social web” is a new breed of highly interactive, participatory, conversational websites that has arrived over the last few years. These include:
- social networking sites
- community-edited news sites
- services that allow sharing of bookmarks/favorites (“social bookmarking”)
- content-sharing sites
- discussion forums
- public email listserves
The social web is about:
expressing identity. The social web allows individuals to share aspects of their lives with friends, family, or anyone at all, via easy-to-use online tools. It allows people, whatever their motives — and the motives of a MySpacer, a business blogger, a “wikipedian” and so forth are surely very different — to reveal a tangible sense of who they are and what they’re interested in.
relationships and trust. The social web makes it easy to find and start talking with others who share your interests, whose ideas you like, who make pictures, videos, writings that you find appealing. Enjoy a few positive interactions with this sympatico person you’ve found, and trust will begin to ensue. People develop authentic bonds with others through the social web.
user-driven websites. The social web makes the little guy important — anyone can post videos to YouTube, engage in back-and-forth with the authors of widely read blogs, or help write and monitor wikipedia. It also makes the online behavior of the little guy important — each click matters, when giving the thumbs-up to an article on Digg, watching YouTube videos, or even using Google, and figures into these sites’ ranking of content. The social web allows users to be active, empowered participants in the production and distribution of media, the word-of-mouth reputation of a business, the grassroots support for a political candidate, and other tides that course through our culture.
What’s In It for Nonprofits?
The social web holds great promise for nonprofits, and many are already making the potential a reality. Nonprofit staffers can use the tools of the social web to talk — in a personal, authentic way — with people about their work. Get it right, and you can expect to:
Push a much richer, more human, more authentic picture of your organization out into the world. The social web gives you a chance to put your org forward as a community of singular human beings who are doing important work and are directly engaging with the public about that work, and even inviting participation in it.
Speed up response time. As more of your staff come online and begin to blog and use other social-web tools, you should be able to communicate — albeit informally — more rapidly and consistently across whatever issues your org is engaged with. There are many kinds of communication that don’t need to go through an understaffed, overworked communications department — your policy staff and other arms can handle certain communications roles themselves, with minimal supervision.
Become more vigorously involved in the nation’s online conversation about your issue(s). This conversation is no doubt already in full swing, and happening nearly in real-time, on a widening network of sites around the web. (Do some searches for your issue (or granular aspects of that issue) on blog-search sites like technorati or wikio — a lot going on, right? Is your org mentioned much? How bout other orgs working in the same field? You’ll likely find that those orgs that are blogging, using Flickr and YouTube [or blip.tv, which I far prefer to YouTube], and so on are much more prevalent in such searches.) Many orgs are very effective at getting coverage in the mainstream media, but lag in the blogosphere — for example, as of early 2007 Greenpeace had more than twenty times the blog hits on Technorati than most other large environmental orgs, because they were already incorporating serious social-web efforts into all their campaigns.
Engage new constituencies. As a community of individuals, there is more diversity at your organization — in age, background, credentials, outlook, interests, and race, for starters — than your natural constituents might expect. (Example: Not all “environmentalists” are affluent white people from the more cosmopolitan areas of the country — which is what most Americans would think to find at an environmental organization.) As this diversity becomes apparent online, each of your staffers that are using the social web to further their work are likely to find (eventually) his/her own “niche audience” — many of these niches may be small in number, but taken together they should increase your org’s ability to form, nurture, and maintain relationships with a broader, more diverse pool of potential constituents and allies.
Cultivate a new generation of passionately engaged activists. When we put ourselves out there – on blogs, in YouTube videos, on external social-networking sites — as individuals who are passionate about solving a problem, advancing positive social change and so forth, and who are willing to engage on our particular interests, we increase our chances of gaining trust and good word-of-mouth among online audiences. Young people may be more likely to bond with an organization that presents itself as an association of really interesting, inspirational individuals that share a common goal, rather than as a monolithic institution — a “logo.”
The social web also provides tremendous opportunity for constituents to participate in the mission, to feel an integral, important part of advancing the goals of your organization. In this emerging context, online activism can become much more than sending an email to Congress or making a donation. For an org’s constituents, it can mean uploading pictures and text that tell a story about why they value a threatened wild area. It can mean uploading videos where they demonstrate how easy it is to do an environmental tip they’ve learned from the organization. And it can mean evangelizing for the organization and its mission in their own circles — passing along emails, texting or instant-messaging their “buddy list” about an urgent action alert, blogging about what they’re doing to forward the work, placing a badge, video, fundraising widget, or other mark of affiliation on their blogs, social-network profiles, signatures in forum posts, even email signatures.
Time Magazine’s 12.13.06 cover story, Time’s Person of the Year: You, is some sort of landmark in the ascension of the social web. The concept alone captures the spirit of the social web. And in this landscape, your staff, their families, your organization’s friends, all your traditional and new constituencies — become increasingly important to driving forward the institution’s mission.