Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wrong question

A very good friend and colleague who runs a nonprofit advocacy group sent me an email with the subject line, "New technologies/Social networking" and asked the following:

I wanted to ask for some advice. We are looking at new ways to reach members and potential members. We are considering everything from blogs to Facebook to YouTube. I was warned that blogs can be very time-consuming, and judging by the quality of your blog, I assume it is. Can you give me a sense of how much time you spend on your blog?

My response:

Wrong question. That's like asking how much time you spend talking with people. We should talk.

Here's a more complete answer. As head of an advocacy group, I would be looking to build strong, engaged constituencies to support our goals. In the days before social media, I would have used a variety of tools to do that -- radio, television, print media of various types, community meetings, legislative meetings, and so on. You should view social media tools in the same way. They are likely to reach slightly different segments of the community but are no less important -- and perhaps more so -- than the traditional media. Indeed, there are certain groups of people, especially idealistic younger folks likely to take on a cause, who get much of their information from social media. Look at what Obama has done with these media in his campaign.

Writing a blog does not take much time. After all, how long does it take to write 400 words? But, to achieve effective outreach with a blog, you need to invest the time in creating links with others and reading their posts and commenting on them. Your goal --- does this sound familiar? -- is to create a sense of community with potential constituents who happen to like this medium.

Ditto for Facebook. The time you spend on Facebook is infinitely expandable, as you invite friends, create groups, create causes, and the like. But here, too, your goal is to create a sense of community with potential constituents who like and use that medium.

The big advantage of social media over traditional media is that the interactions can be asynchronous. You don't have to make an appointment, the way you do with a legislator. You do not have to respond in the moment, like when a reporter on deadline calls and needs a comment. You participate when you want to, and you can do so as a "fill-in", between your other tasks. In that sense, these are actually more time-efficient media than the traditional ones.

Another advantage is that you totally control how much time, overall, you want to spend in the media worlds. Except -- and this is important -- you need to spend enough time and be sufficiently attentive that you stay engaged with your constituents and have fresh messages from time to time. How much time is that? Well, it depends on the news cycle of your own organization. If you are facing public policy crisis every day and trying to organize people to engage on short-lived issues, you need to be online almost constantly. But for most advocacy issues, you can probably write a blog post two or three times per week. But, set up the blog to notify you by email when comments are submitted, and respond as quickly as possible to each comment. And use Statcounter, Technorati, and/or another counting programs to see where hits are coming from and what other blogs are referring to yours. Then, read what they are saying and submit comments on those blogs, and, if appropriate link them to yours and let the authors know you have done so.

On Facebook, I would check your page once a day for messages and the like. If requests and other items have piled up, then increase the frequency to twice a day.

Oh, and did I mention that this is all free? Other than a bit of your time, the cost of these social media to your organization is absolutely zero.

So, what does this sound like? Maybe an hour a day, interspersed with your other activities? Does that sound like too much? I think if you compare its efficacy against your traditional activities, you will find that you make more contact with interested audiences in that hour than you do with any other activity in which you are engaged. This may cause you to reevaluate the relative time you spend with other media, but is good to do that from time to time anyway.


Anonymous said...

There is a very interesting interview on blogtalkradio of Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of SUN Microsystems about trnsparency and the SUN blog.

BTW, in the interview I learned that John Haven's co-author of a forthcoming book on corporate transparency interviewed Paul Levy, probably about THIS blog!

Anonymous said...

It's not that it's the "wrong question" because it's a valid one. It's that the premise of the question is wrong. The premise is that "newfangled media" is an adjunct to "legitimate" outreach, not part of it. A distraction or diversion, not part of the overall task.

He has to decide which of the many methods might be more cost effective w/r/t time and expense, so the question is correct in that sense. That is, assuming zero-sum resources, do I get more payback from a blog, YouTube, Facebook, or whatever, and take the top two.

But if he's coming from the position that writing a blog will keep me away from doing what I'm supposed to be doing, then it's doomed to fail.

Anonymous said...

An asynchronous wave to my friend at BIDMC... social media is great, and essential for non-profits!

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul

Just a note to say that this blog is very powerful - I am checking in from the UK - after a short spell of leave - the comments over the past week re: SPIRIT, mystery shoppers, home working etc really keep me going - as medical consultant trying to head up service improvement in my organization - your 6 year journey at BIDMC provides a really useful roadmap for me and constant source of inspiration and real life experience

Tapping into this media - has made one blogger very happy!


Anonymous said...

Many thanks, Steve.