unintended consequences – the good kind

Nonprofits all around us are making decisions RIGHT NOW about how to engage in social networks, and many of us in the field have to fight a desperate feeling of running hard just to keep up – the overwhelming conviction that everybody else is winning friends, donors, hearts and minds through the savvy use of social networking sites, and that we are MISSING OUT.

This impels us to hurry into building a profile on FaceBook or MySpace or whatever other site presents itself to us, and then we either hover anxiously around the computer with bated breath, wondering when the scores of users will find us and friend us (anyone who has compulsively checked their blog stats will know how this feels) OR ignore it for a couple of months, check back, find no activity (or only spammy activity – hi Tom from MySpace!), and shrug in disgust and say it was all a bad idea anyway.

It is not, necessarily, a bad idea anyway.  What is certainly a bad idea is rushing into things without a plan. 

What are you trying to accomplish?  How will you define success?  How will you measure success?  How will you justify your investment of time and resources to your governing board, your executive director, your co-workers?

A couple of weeks ago, I created and posted two logic models to help people– myself included — think through two basic decisions:

  1. Should my organization use a Social Networking Site?
  2. Should my organization use a custom or an existing Social Networking Site?

I posted them on Beth Kanter’s wiki for social media metrics and several people chimed in to flesh out and improve the documents.  If you are wrestling with these issues, I highly recommend taking a gander — not just at the logic models, but at Beth’s whole wiki.  It’s a great compendium on how to measure and plan your social media strategy.

I am fascinated by the issues that have come up over the past few months while I’ve been exploring this subject.  Done right, the creation of a social media strategy is a hugely valuable exercise that makes you think very critically about things like:

  • Who is our natural constituency?
  • Of that consistuency, who are we effectively reaching WITHOUT social networks?
  • Why?
  • Of that consistuency, who are we NOT reaching without social networks?
  • Why?
  • Is this group(s) currently using existing social networks?
  • Are they likely to within 1 to 3 years?
  • Who might lie just outside of what we think of as our “natural constituency” that might be reached on social networking sites?

I’m particularly interested in this last one, lately.  I have found that social networking sites are endless sources of surprise and counter-intuitive revelation. 

I believe that nonprofits should plan their engagement in social networks, certainly, based on what they already know.

But I also believe that nonprofits should allow themselves to be surprised – wrong, even – about who might be interested in them, their work, and their mission. 

That sometimes, the law of unintended consequences brings us GOOD things. 

Sometimes it seems like my personal involvement in social networks does nothing but bring me beautiful little surprises: new friends, new ideas, new opportunities… 

Of course, there was that beautiful little surprise when I got my first post-twitter cell phone bill — and realized I had forgotten to up my SMS allowance in time…

But I digress.

As the wikipedia entry for unintended consequences says, when it’s good, it’s serendipity.  When it’s bad, it’s just perverse.

And speaking of serendipity, I noticed Jeremiah’s post last week about his upcoming webinar titled Your Social Networking Strategy: Join or Build?  and rather than spend too much time thinking about how he has clearly been reading my mail and rooting through my dustbin, I decided I would throw caution to the winds and enroll.

Here are some of the burning thoughts that I will be bringing with me to the webinar:

  • How can nonprofits use existing social networks to reach new markets?
  • How can membership organizations translate “friends” into “members?”
  • How can membership organizations reach their current members on MyFace?
  • How can a “built” social network (white label, self-hosted) avoid becoming yet another silo?  How can it be built mindfully, leaving the door open for integration with existing or new social networks?

Not that I expect Jeremiah to answer all those questions.  Just: that’s where my head is right now.

Of course, the webinar isn’t until December 17.  But by then we’ll probably have this all sorted out.  Right?


4 responses to “unintended consequences – the good kind

  1. Great questions. I’ll be demonstrating a few things in the webinar.

    1) How to understand your current community and how the use technology determines your first decsion point.

    Followed by

    2) Comparing this to your objectives

    By tying those two together, you’ll have a great way of understanding which path to take –sometimes it’s both.

    I researched over 12 companies, and will probably double it by the end my research is over. (Plus I deployed a community at Hitachi, and have my own web strategy community currently)

  2. Beth:

    Great post! Particularly the questions about audience.

    The other question to perhaps ask is – given the time commitment to build a community online – is that best investment of the time for your organization? Sort of check-in in about how socnets relates to your overall strategic goals.

  3. PS just finishing up a workshop with a simulation exercise that hopefully spark small group discussion about these issues.

  4. Pingback: Nonprofits and social media, do they mix? « Mar’s PR

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