Eight Secrets of Effective Online Networking
Is your organization considering setting up a profile on a social-networking site? Are you wondering what tasks are involved, how much time it will take, and how you might streamline your efforts? Maybe your organization has established a presence on MySpace and is now contemplating adding one to Facebook. Perhaps you’re wondering how you can juggle multiple profiles and still have time left to do other work.
As more and more organizations jump on the social-networking bandwagon, people are seeking ways to make the time spent on these tools as efficient and fruitful as possible. I recently surveyed several nonprofit professionals and social-networking mavens about their social-networking habits. The tips below, taken from their responses, offer suggestions for effectively managing your profiles and contacts on social-networking sites, finding people with relevant interests to your nonprofit or professional goals, working between multiple sites, and getting the most out of social-networking tools even if you’re not a Web designer or techie.
1. Invest time in your network.
While most online social networks cost nothing for your organization to join, keep in mind that creating a strong online presence on one can require an investment of up to two hours a day, especially in the beginning when you are learning how to use the site, setting up your profile and making friends. If you’re unprepared to make this commitment, you might want to reconsider using these tools at your organization.
If you don’t have someone on staff who can help manage your social networks, you might want to seek outside help. Heather Mansfield, online community manager at Change.org, suggests finding a social-networking intern or an assistant who can spend a minimum of 10 hours per week managing your site or sites, noting that many organizations are seeking full-time staffers to do the job.
“I am starting to see larger nonprofits creating full-time social-networking positions for 40 hours a week,” she says.
Keep in mind that there is a fair amount of trial and error with using social-networking sites, and your organization might not see results right away.
“There is a learning curve; don’t expect immediate results for at least three months — whatever your objectives may be,” advises Alex de Carvalho, director of community and marketing for multimedia social-networking site Scrapblog. “Take the time to build your profile correctly and learn the ropes of what works and what doesn’t.”
Nick Noakes, a director at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, stresses the value of this “no-guilt” exploration time: “It has brought me knowledge and contacts more than a lot of planned things I do,” he says.
Some nonprofit professionals, like Beth Dunn, director of communications for the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod, use their after-work hours and their individual (rather than organizational) profiles as a low-risk way to try out new tools.
“Keep following what others are doing, and test,” social-media expert Chris Brogan says. “If you want, use a ‘dummy’ user account to make sure your experimenting doesn’t leave breadcrumbs that go nowhere for folks who legitimately want to engage with your organization.”
He also suggests keeping track of your progress.
“Don’t do random trial and error, [which] isn’t as effective as creating learning experiments that give you some information about how to improve your strategy.”
2. Test the waters with an individual profile.
If finding someone to be a dedicated or part-time social networker for your organization is unrealistic, you might want to consider testing the waters with an individual, rather than an organizational, profile. Whereas creating an organizational presence — such as a group, cause or fan page — requires a bit more time and planning, setting up an individual profile is fairly simple.
Think of your social-networking profile as an online version of the professional networking you might do offline, like attending a conference or a reception. You can connect with peers or potential business contacts, while having the advantage of being able to see their connections — which are not always visible in, say, real life or through exchanging business cards.
An individual profile also can be easier to unplug if early exploration proves unfruitful. You can always delete or make your personal account inactive, whereas it can sometimes be harder to delete a failed group.
3. Establish a routine.
If you don’t organize your time well, establish a disciplined work routine or have some specific goals in mind when you visit a social-networking site (and particularly if you are managing more than one), you’ll waste time moving from one site to another. Sus Nyrop, an e-learning consultant based in Denmark, recommends knowing when to log out of the site, and keeping your recreational “pokes” (instant messages to friends) to a minimum.
Also, work on your own time. “Don’t feel like you need to keep your profile updated every minute or have to add people to your list of friends the moment they ask,” says Chris Heuer, a social-media consultant and president and co-founder of the Social Media Club, an online community dedicated to exploring and establishing best practices in the social-media arena. “Unless your job responsibility is online community manager, you don’t need to spend your entire work day on MySpace.”
Most nonprofit online networkers agree on setting a regular schedule for updating content, ‘friending’ people or finding new contacts with similar interests. Those who work on multiple networking sites should plan a maintenance schedule.
“One good practice is to set aside a regular housekeeping date to clear out clutter from your profile,” says Nick Booth, a consultant and podcaster based in the United Kingdom, adding that, for him, “Wednesday is MySpace day.”
“I use my Outlook calendar to map out the week’s posts on my social-networking blogs,” says Carie Lewis, Internet marketing manager for The Humane Society of the United States. “That has me helped tremendously, not only with time management but in looking at the bigger picture. It also helps me integrate my activities with everything else my department does (e-mail, Web site and print) that is so important.”
However, don’t adhere to a schedule so religiously that you don’t leave room for some flexibility. Says Lewis: “When something big hits, I’ll go immediately to MySpace and blog about it, because that’s where our biggest network is. Next, I’ll tweak the content for Facebook and post there. Then I’ll go to Care2 and on to Gather.”
4. Don’t spread yourself too thin.
There is considerable crossover among social-network users, so it might not be necessary to maintain a profile or support a group on every single one.
“Choose where you really want to develop your community and where you really want to interact with the people who matter the most to you and your organization,” Heuer says. “Spreading attention and energy across all the sites is nearly impossible for one person, and you will end up with a diluted presence on each of them rather than a strong presence on one.”
Bill Snyder, a nonprofit marketing consultant, advises, “Focus. It’s better to do one site well then to do many sites poorly.”
Sebastian Chan, manager of Web services for the Powerhouse Museum in Australia, agrees. “I know there is a real attraction to having presences in multiple networks, but I’ve found little real benefit in doing so unless there are significant real-world synergies.”
Chan points to the example of Museum of Contemporary Art - Los Angeles, which worked with a live music event where the bands had a large MySpace fan base.
When determining an online presence, don’t just choose the most popular sites, or the site that you think matches your demographic; take some time to find the people you’re trying to reach and the convesrsations you’re trying to join. “Go where your network is, and focus on those few places,” says Doug Haslam, a social media consultant for Woburn, Mass.-based PR firm Topaz Partners.
5. Share the workload.
Of course, there might be times when it does make sense to have a presence on several sites. Once Google’s OpenSocial API is implemented, this will become easier because you will be able to access your contacts across networks or via a single hub. In the meantime, you can hire a full-time or part-time staffer to manage your social networks, or parcel out the work among your teammates.
One advocate of this strategy is Chan, who advises identifying “persona managers” to manage each network. The advantage of choosing this route is that each persona retains a level of authenticity, individuality and relevance that is hard to achieve if one person spreads herself across multiple networking sites.
Chan notes that having someone who understands the features and interface of each social-networking site, the culture of the community and the appropriate style for communication can make your efforts a lot more effective. The persona managers might operate as a team to share knowledge about each initiative and evaluate each other’s progress using metrics. Each member would manage one network presence, but the group would meet regularly to check in and evaluate progress.
Another way to share the workload while encouraging group participation is to focus efforts on a single network but divide up the administrative work of supporting various groups, causes or fan pages. This way, one person is not responsible for managing every aspect of a single network.
When recruiting participants, social media consultant Ian Wilker suggests seeking out the same qualities you would look for in a face-to-face networker.
“Find the people … who are incredibly effective at advancing your mission through real-world relationships with others,” he says. “Encourage them to bring online the same values and passion they exhibit in real life.”
You also can involve more teammates by inviting staff members to use their personal profiles to represent the organization. Danielle Brigida, associate operations coordinator of the National Wildlife Federation, says, “I like to look at social networking as an ecosystem: When you have a number of people picking up different niches, the system is stronger and healthier. Most of the time, you are your best advocate. The more people involved from your organization, the greater the impact, and without a personal touch these social networks become bland very quickly.”
Sharing the workload has other advantages as well. Says Arts Foundation of Cape Cod’s Dunn, “Keeping the organization’s social-network project tightly compartmentalized within just one person’s domain personalizes it too much — if it succeeds, you’re all geniuses; but if it fails, then it was just ‘Your Bad Idea.’ If the board gives your organization the green light, the whole organization needs to get on board with it too.”
6. Keep it personal.
“People love having an actual person to connect to from an organization, and two-way communication is what makes social networks so successful,” HSUS’ Lewis says.
Each organization has its own approach to adding to its list of contacts, or “friending,” on social networks. Well-known blogger and social-media guru Robert Scoble accepts all friend requests, for example, while social-media expert and author Shel Israel prefers to establish a connection first by sending potential contacts a private message. Other organizations approve friends based on their personal, professional or organizational goals.
Yet keep in mind that the goal is not necessarily to amass a large number of friends, but to build meaningful relationships. Approving people as friends shouldn’t be viewed as a mechanical task of simply clicking a button to add them to your list. It’s important to get to know the people in your community. What are their interests? Why did they befriend you or join your organization’s group? How can you engage them in a conversation about your organization?
One way you can address this is by assigning the task of befriending others to one person at your organization.
“We have a staff person who is spending a portion of his time managing our MySpace page — identifying, reviewing and accepting friends seems to take a good chunk of time,” says Eve Smith, assistant director of interactive marketing at Easter Seals. “You can’t really streamline that work and be an effective relationship builder.”
Micah Sifry, executive editor of Personal Democracy Forum, an online “hub for the conversation already underway between political practitioners and technologists,” observes of the über-successful political blog Daily Kos, “[It] started as one person’s blog, and that person, Markos Moulitsas, spent untold hours building his community. He once told me that in the early days, when he had maybe several hundred regular readers, he knew the names of every single one and would notice when someone hadn’t been on the site for a while, and when they returned, he’d greet them personally. It takes that level of leadership engagement to build a successful [social network] around activism.”
7. Befriend people strategically.
Sometimes, friends come to you; but other times, you’ll have to do your own outreach to add new friends to your contact list. This is a critical part of the workflow; to reap the benefits of using social-networking tools, you need to build your network.
That said, you want to avoid random or open-ended outreach, which can distract you and waste time. A strategic way to build your network is to use a friend-of-a-friend approach.
“Build a small base from a network of supporters from people you know — maybe that’s staff, board members, past supporters — and ask them to invite people they think should be involved,” marketing consultant Snyder says. “In a sense, it’s getting supporters to do the legwork and be active supporters. It’s also the very definition of ‘social networking.’ This may happen, to some extent, on its own, but it will happen a lot faster if you contact your network and ask them to do this.”
Also, take some time to explore different groups on the network site; search by keywords, and explore your friends’ friend lists. You might be surprised to find several existing groups interested in your cause or organization.
“I look for groups that may already be set up by users interested in our mission. It saves me time,” says Darren Mullenix, director of operations - donor ministries for Samaritan’s Purse.
Technology can also help in this arena. Use the Who Is This Person? Firefox add-on to search for people you find online on other social networks, sites and search engines.
Finally, be sure to give your current supporters opportunities to join your network by letting them know about your organization’s presence. Post a social-networking badge on your Web site or prominently display your profile URL in your e-mail newsletters.
8. Use a few good time savers.
A variety of tools and tricks can help you streamline your social-networking projects and manage your content. Among them:
RSS and mobile features: Using an RSS reader to read content can be a real time saver over logging on to an individual site, particularly if you’re maintaining a presence on multiple networks. Some even allow you to do this on the go.
“The sites that have mobile clients or mobile-optimized Web sites make it possible so I can scan updates and post while commuting,” says Eugene Chan, IT director for the Community Technology Foundation of California. “Facebook is especially good in this regard.”
RSS also can be used to bring feeds from around the Web to your profile page.
“The crucial thing is that the social-networking profile must be good, up to date and interesting,” says Simon Berry, executive director for British nonprofit ruralnetuk. “However, its maintenance has to fit in with everything else we do and mustn’t be a separate process stuck on the side. The ability to ‘pull in’ content from elsewhere using RSS is really important.”
Cut down or manage your bacn: Bacn — e-mail alerts from social-networking sites — is a new form of spam. One way to manage this potential nuisance is to set your preferences to block them entirely, or to switch off e-mail alerts when someone friends you or posts to your profile. Besides, if you visit your profile daily, you might not need to receive the e-mail alerts. If you prefer to manage your profile from your inbox, use a filter or rule to direct them into a folder so you can deal with bacn in batches. If you do want to receive alerts, but not by e-mail, some sites offer the option to receive them as text messages. The point is, have a system.
“When I first started, every time a friend request or message notification arrived in my e-mail box, I’d check it right away,” HSUS’ Lewis says. “It became unmanageable. Now, I set a specific time every day to approve friend requests and comments, and message back those that write us. By having a set time every day, I don’t allow it to consume my time and I get a lot more done.”
Automate profile content from blogs, Web sites and other sources: Not all of the content that appears on your social-networking site needs to be created there; as mentioned before, many sites offer tools to allow you to pull in content from your Web site or blog, or from others around the Web.
“Facebook allows you to pull in all your RSS feeds from other services,” social-media consultant David Brazeal says. “When you update your blog or your podcast or your Twitter, it’s published to your Facebook profile, too.”
Many nonprofits are taking advantage of RSS and blog-publishing applications, bookmarklets (tools on your browser that let you easily share links to your social-networking profile), and open APIs that allow you to easily republish content from social-bookmarking sites, blogs, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and even Web sites. Be careful: Discovering what technologies work well together still involves a bit of trial and error.
When pulling in content from other sites, be mindful that sites have different cultures and respond to communication styles differently. Lewis, who works on multiple sites, says, “At first, it was a trial and error for all of these networks. I posted the same thing on every one of the networks. I monitored what kind of responses I got, as well as the tone of communication. Then I modified my messaging based on the responses I received. This is how I became familiar with the different crowds and learned how to speak to them more effectively.”
Kristin Taylor, social media strategist for PBS Interactive, says, “Every social network is different, and every user is different — there are levels of privacy, rules of friending and a certain expectation of transparency. Respect that and you’ll be fine.”
Keep up with policies and new developments: NWF’s Brigida advises nonprofit staffers who work on social-networking sites to keep an eye on changes in features or policies that speak to their specific needs.
“Read the key blogs that track the social-networking site you’re on, as well as the official company blog,” she says. “In addition, monitor peer listservs, like [the Nonprofit Technology Network] lists.”
Beth Kanter is a consultant specializing in the effective use of technology for nonprofit organizations. She also is the keeper of Beth’s Blog.
Copyright © 2008 CompuMentor. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.