There is a new voice being heard on nonprofit Web sites. It’s the voice of Web site visitors stepping up, speaking out and taking part in their own online community spaces — blogs, discussion groups and more — and it’s changing the way nonprofits think about their Web sites, and about their strategic approaches to reach out and engage their constituents and supporters.
Many nonprofits have “brochure” Web sites with pages that present read-only information about an organization’s goals, activities and accomplishments. These sites may be attractive and informative, but they don’t actively engage the Web site audience. Because of this, they are giving way to more interactive sites that offer pages and spaces where Web site visitors can join in and add their own voices, comments, questions and advice.
Online “discussion” pages generally fall within two categories — blogs and discussion groups (also known as bulletin boards and forums).
Blog it out
Blogs have become familiar features of the online landscape in just a few short years. Many Web sites have added blogs, including numerous nonprofits and, most notably during the recent election, many political parties and candidates.
Structurally, blogs are organized like diaries, with individual entries written by the same author or group of authors. The most recent entries (posts) are displayed at the top and older posts are pushed down into archives, meaning that blogs are time based and especially well suited for presenting current information about a campaign, event or organization. A blog’s author (or authors) ensures that the posts are kept on-topic, and fit into the overall theme, issue or campaign. Some blogs allow visitors to post comments on individual articles. These comments appear below each article, and may form a mini-dialogue between readers and the author about that individual post, but the overall authorship and leading voice of the blog remains in the hands of the author(s).
Blogs have become important tools for online marketing and promotion campaigns. Popular search engines like Google and Yahoo! now include blog posts in search results, meaning that blogs are good tools for getting up-to-date information out onto the Web. There also are popular search engines like Technorati that focus primarily on blogs and blog posts. If your organization is not publishing releases and updates in a blog-friendly format, you might be missing an important opportunity.
There are thousands of personal blogs on the Internet, set up by individuals to express their own views, ideas, projects and activities. Many bloggers write about their volunteer activities and the causes they support as donors and as activists in their communities. Nonprofits increasingly should be aware of what is being said about them in the “blogosphere.” By contacting and building relationships with bloggers who are supportive, nonprofits can stay tuned in and can begin to use this new medium to spread their message and reach new audiences. Many bloggers will respond positively to being contacted and engaged in a discussion about the topics that are important to them.
Setting up a blog is quick and easy — there are numerous free online blog-hosting services, such a WordPress.com, and many Web site hosting companies now offer blogs as part of their standard suite of services. Creating a steady and reasonably frequent supply of information/updates/news/releases/etc., is the most challenging demand to prevent a blog from becoming stale.
Join the discussion
Discussion groups have been around on the Internet since the early days and take a variety of forms, though they share some features in common. One of the most commonly seen formats for discussion groups in the charitable sector is support forums hosted by health charities as a service to people who are coping with a disease, loss or other difficulty in their lives.
Compared to blogs, discussion groups are more egalitarian in structure, and do not have the strong central voice and linear narrative structure that characterizes a blog. Discussion forums usually are organized into broad categories and subject areas that contain a collection of specific topics and discussion threads.
Web site visitors play a more central role in discussion boards than in blogs. Typically most or all of the content (posts) originate with the visitors, who ask questions, raise issues and start discussion. The discussion board may have an active moderator who reviews messages before they are posted and approves/rejects members, but only rarely does the moderator also function as the “discussion host” and take an active lead in creating specific topics of discussion.
This stronger focus on user-generated content makes discussion groups a more active tool for building active participatory online communities than blogs, which are more focused on building readership. However, discussion groups require a far greater investment of resources, time and energy to create and to maintain; otherwise they quickly can become empty.
For fundraisers, both of these online “community spaces” can play an important role in helping to develop an online audience that is more involved, more sympathetic and more likely to respond to fundraising appeals. Giving your constituents a place where they can express their support, ask questions and offer their views on the issues that are important to them will draw them closer to your organization and give you a valuable asset to help you work toward your mission and mandate.
George Irish runs The Nonprofit Matrix, a Web services directory, and authors the online campaigning blog Shake the Pillars (www.shakethepillars.com). He also is campaigns director at HJC New Media, a Toronto-based nonprofit Internet and technology consultancy. He can be reached via www.nonprofitmatrix.com