Dare to be weakWhen it comes to engagement, social media is the art of the possible

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Running from social networks

I can't believe it!! Your organization isn't on Twitter? You don't have a Facebook page with discussion groups and a wall? You're not on MySpace, Bebo and FriendFeed?! OMFG, that's so weak! What are you thinking?!

Well, maybe you're thinking, "We don't have a large organization, and we have very few resources." Maybe you're thinking, "Some platforms make it easier to manage conversations than others." And maybe you're thinking, "I'm going to put our limited resources and finite attention where they'll do the most good."

You know what? Good for you.

I had a conversation with a friend a few days ago. He works with a public-facing organization that gets plenty of attention, both favourable and overtly hostile - and there are a lot of demands on the time of their tiny staff complement. They want to be sure they can respond to the inquiries they receive. And because they operate in an adversarial arena, their organization has to be constantly on the lookout for inappropriate content that their opponents and media critics would pounce on.

My friend wanted to know why he shouldn't dial back his organization's Facebook presence. It was all his team could do to check their page's last 20 posts for comments; keeping tabs on the hundreds that had preceded it was out of the question. And Facebook does nothing to help: no RSS feeds or notification stream for new comments, no back-end tools for monitoring engagement.

It's a dilemma facing a lot of organizations - government, for-profit and non-profit alike. Participation and conversation are the lifeblood of the social web, but they come at a real cost in terms of time and, often, money. And when a service like Facebook has deficiencies that amplify those costs many times over... well, then comes the time to make some hard choices.

If this sounds familiar, you're probably hearing constantly from people a lot like me who are gobsmacked that you aren't throwing your organization into the latest, coolest online spaces. But while the digerati might roll their eyes, they aren't the ones who have to live with the consequences of your decisions. And one-liners cribbed from The Cluetrain Manifesto aren't much help when you're dealing with a media feeding frenzy or an alienated supporter. ("I'm sorry we missed your anguished comment asking for 'a response, any response,' but what you have to understand is markets are conversations.")

So when you're thinking about where to direct your social media efforts, how do you handle the tension between limited resources and limitless demand for conversation?

Understand the space and what you're trying to accomplish there. I'm convinced the number one reason for organizations that fail in a new space is a lack of clear intention: they didn't know why they had to be on Twitter; they were just told they did. Understanding what you want to achieve - even if it's just to experiment and learn more about the platform and what you can do there - doesn't just help you shape your initiative at the outset; it's the only way of gauging whether you're succeeding.

Inventory the strengths and weaknesses of the platforms you're considering. Get a clear idea of the limits of the social network or web application you're looking at - both from a user's perspective and an administrator's, and looking at both the technology and the community. (For example, you may find that Digg has features you love, but a toxic commenting culture.)

Hang out. Nothing gives you an intuitive appreciation for a new space, online or offline, quite like spending time there. Play anthropologist and observe the rituals, the unspoken rules and the way people participate.

Understand the table stakes. What's the minimum level of engagement required to have a credible presence on that platform? If you aren't able to deliver that over the long haul, you probably want to call things off now until that changes. That said, you can always...

Constrain your presence. Your first foray onto a new social network doesn't have to be your organization's definitive, all-encompassing presence there. Instead, consider creating an outpost with a focused, limited purpose: for example, around a particular event or campaign. If that purpose has a built-in expiry date (say, when an event ends), so much the better; it gives you a graceful exit should you decide this isn't the platform for you. (An added advantage: focus often means a more compelling reason for users to participate.)

Identify the best bang for your buck (or your hour). Get to know the platform well enough to know where you get the highest-value engagement. Is it through comments on your own posts? Intervening in discussion boards on someone else's page? What kind of content attracts the best participation from your community?

Assess your needs realistically. Recognize that reaching out to people and responding to queries takes time. Make sure you have the resources to cover your engagement plans... or scale those plans down accordingly.

Get creative about staffing. You may not have enough time to monitor everything happening on a particular platform... but maybe your supporters can help you out. Consider asking them to help you identify comments that need replies, contributions that deserve to be recognized, offensive content, and content elsewhere on the network you should know about. Be upfront about what you're asking for and why - you don't want to look like you're trying to astroturf - and you may be able to magnify your impact online.

Start small and build out. One thing Facebook gets right is letting you switch engagement features on or off. You can launch a Page with only the Wall enabled, and begin calibrating your ambitions according to the level of conversation that emerges. Then, as time goes on, you can start switching more features on. (Or not.)

Manage expectations. Be upfront with your visitors about your intentions and goals, how you'd like them to participate, and what they can (and can't) expect from you. You might be surprised how willing most people will be to operate within those constraints... and how tolerant they'll be when you have to deal with people who aren't.

Assess how it's working for you. Look at the benefits and costs of your presence. Are you and your audience getting real value from your conversations? Are you freeing up resources you might have had to spend elsewhere (for instance, in customer support)?

Not the place for you? Plant a flag, move on... and monitor. It may well be that you decide right out of the gate that - hot new thing or not - a particular platform isn't a fit for you. Or maybe you've given it a shot, and the value just isn't there. Now may be the time to scale your presence there back to a bare maintenance level.

Wind down most of the conversational features of your profile (don't just shut them off without explanation; if there's been any kind of discussion there, the participants won't be happy) by explaining what you're doing and why. Include your contact information and links to platforms where you're focussing your community efforts. And then continue to provide the baseline level of attention you identified before you launched as the platform's engagement table stakes.

A minimum presence does three things: it ensures your organization's identity isn't being claimed by someone else on that platform; it provides a rallying point for your supporters on that platform to connect with you; and when the need or opportunity for more in-depth engagement arises, you have a great starting point.

Yes, there are people who will still call your presence weak. Let 'em. It's a lot better to keep a modest promise of engagement than to break an ambitious one. The lessons you learn from engaging in a small way will lay the foundation for larger-scale efforts in the future.

And nothing can shut a critic up quite like success.


Ruth Seeley says

June 23, 2009 - 4:41pm

There's also, "I'm having a lot of conversations with my markets. Pity I'm not making money while doing so."

This is a really wonderful, balanced, compelling written post by someone who 'gets' communications as opposed to someone who's a social media evangelist (for the sake of being a social media evangelist). Very nice; thanks for writing it.


Cheeying says

June 24, 2009 - 8:19pm

Thanks for the great article, Rob. Now I guess I don't have to buy you coffee! Just kidding; looking forward to it!

Maddie Grant says

June 25, 2009 - 8:20am

Fantastic post.  An organization or company can't be everywhere at once with equal commitment, which is why the listening/monitoring part is so crucially important for figuring out where you SHOULD be as opposed to where you could be.

Anonymous says

June 29, 2009 - 10:53am

Thanks for a refreshingly nuanced and sane take on this. I am rather tired of the uncritical evangelism of people who don't bother to assess the strategic value of different kinds of social media engagement for different kinds of NGOs...and assume that money and staff grow on trees. Social media experiementation for NGOs needs to involve creativity and risk-taking, but is also requires some critical thinking.

Rob Cottingham says

June 29, 2009 - 12:05pm

I appreciate everyone's take on this. I'm glad it resonated - organizations on fixed budgets need to use their resources as strategically as possible, and that means applying some clear-eyed intention and integrity, even (or especially) when the newest, hottest tools are under consideration.

Deirdre Reid says

July 6, 2009 - 10:48am

This is great advice, particularly for associations where limited staff resources are all too common. This post provides a useful strategy that can be considered instead of rulling out engagement altogether.

Anonymous says

August 28, 2009 - 5:55am

I stopped reading after OMG (especially because of the F in it).  Poor taste.

Rob Cottingham says

August 28, 2009 - 12:12pm

Thanks for the feedback. (For what it's worth, it's much milder than the SMJWTFITCSDWQHHRAFG in the original draft.)

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