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Determining Your Social Network Needs

By Beth Kanter

Strategic issues for organisations considering social networking tools.

More and more people are making decisions and getting information from conversations taking place on social networking sites, online tools that help people connect with others who share similar interests, or with those who are interested in exploring new interests and activities.

Social networking sites promise to offer an array of benefits to nonprofits as well, from allowing them to keep abreast of trends and generate awareness to helping them raise money and connect with new supporters. As these tools continue to grow in popularity and expand beyond their traditional under-20 demographic, your nonprofit may be tempted to create a presence on one or more of the ever-growing roster of social networking sites.

Yet when it comes to social networking, is more always better? As Should Your Organization Use Social Networking Sites? points out, these tools aren't for every organization. Yet if you've determined that your nonprofit would benefit from having a presence on one social networking site, would you find even more success on two or more sites? If so, how should you go about choosing these sites?

Below, we'll discuss what it means to maintain a presence on one or more online social networks, and help you evaluate what sort of presence makes sense for your organization. We'll also show you a few tips for selecting the tools that can give you the most return on your investment and ensure a successful online presence for years to co

Potential Benefits

Social networking sites can help your organization increase awareness about an issue, find signatures for a petition, and encourage supporters to take action. Moreover, by building up a network of contacts on a social networking site, nonprofits can leverage the tools' viral abilities to quickly spread messages and alerts to a wide audience beyond their immediate community of supporters.

This can be especially valuable in times of crisis. A college student backpacking in Southeast Asia started a Facebook group called Support the Monks' Protest in Burma to draw attention to the pro-democracy protests led by the country's revered Buddhist monks. The group found more than 400,000 supporters from around the world and helped attract attention to the monks' cause.

Not only can social networking sites help your nonprofit widen its general support base, they may help you find and connect with people who can promote your organization's work or even fundraise on your behalf. If you put time into them, social networking sites give you an opportunity to communicate directly and more meaningfully with constituents or potential constituents in a way that is nearly impossible using other mediums such as direct mail, email, or Web sites.

Many nonprofits are drawn to social networking sites with the hope that they will help them raise money. While it is true that fundraising on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace shows promise, this is still in the early stages and for the most part, the payoffs are minimal, barring a few notable exceptions. On the upside, fundraising efforts in these spaces may be considered a strategy for cultivating future potential donors for your organization.

What Maintaining a Presence Entails

Maintaining your social networking profile is like maintaining a mini Web site. Like a Web site, you need to keep your content fresh, while taking on the additional task of cultivating your contact lists.

One way to keep your community strong is by keeping in frequent contact with your friend network, either profile-to-profile, via private messaging, or in groups. Remember, people join social networking sites to ; they want to interact with an actual person from your organization — not form letters. It is this personal, one-on-one communication that can make or break an organization's success on a social network — and also what can make maintaining a presence on one so time-consuming.

Successful social networking requires that you not only maintain existing relationships, but also seek out new contacts. You will need to budget time to scour the social networking site and your friends' friends' contact lists for new potential supporters, a task that requires consistent effort.

How much time are you looking at, then? While some administrative tasks can be delegated to an appropriate volunteer or intern, you should plan to invest about an hour a day per social networking site, especially in the early stages. If you can't invest this time or your time is better spent elsewhere, you may want to hold off on social networking for now.

Options for Nonprofits

While social networking sites have the potential to be a powerful tool in a nonprofit's communications arsenal, they may not be appropriate for every organization. To reap the benefits, your organization should create a strategy for how you will proceed and how you will measure your efforts over time (Number of contacts gained? Signatures on a petition? Funds raised?). You may want to begin with small, careful forays into social networking as an individual user before investing in the medium as an organization. Below, we'll take a look at some types of participation you may wish to consider.

1. No presence.

It can be difficult to benefit from the networking aspects of a social networking site unless you have a presence on it. Yet if you determine that social networking sites are not for you and that your time would be better spent in other areas, this does not mean that you are shut out of social networking sites entirely. While some sites, such as Facebook, deny you to access to their content without a membership, others, such as YouTube and Flickr, are open for anyone to peruse, meaning while non-members can't take advantage of the networking features outlined above, these sites can still be a source of information, content, or even inspiration should you later decide to create a presence on one.

2. Maintain an individual presence.

If you are interested in testing the social networking waters, but aren't ready to commit to full-blown organizational participation, you may wish to set up an account and profile on a social networking site. (You may have no choice but to do this: on Facebook, for example, only individuals using their real names can set up accounts, meaning you technically cannot set up a profile for, say, Save the Giraffes). The initial setup process, in most cases, won't require anything more technical than filing a Web-based form but for some sites, like MySpace for example, more customized profiles may require CSS expertise.

Once you set up your profile, many sites will ask for permission to scan your email address book. If this search finds people in your address book who are already on the networking site, it automatically adds them to your contacts list or sends out a friend request. This can save you a lot of time searching for colleagues.

Fill out your profile as completely as possible, within your comfort level (most sites ask you to provide your first and last name, organizational affiliation, gender, birthday, hometown, and interests, while some ask more personal questions, such as sexual orientation), including links to your Web site and a photo. Because you are setting up an individual account to represent your organization, keep your profile as professional as possible (meaning no swimsuit shots or other overly personal information.) Treat your social networking profile like a public Web site — or it may come back to haunt you.

Be sure, too, to review the site's privacy policy. You will be sharing personal data, so make sure you understand the platform's policies when it comes to privacy and data ownership. Some sites reserve the right to share your data with other users, advertisers, or even the government, and to re-use or even modify it as they wish. Facebook, for example, can track and share your activities, giving others access to information including groups you've joined or the comments you've left on other profiles — a potential source of embarrassment if you're not careful.

Keep in mind that even individual profiles require a significant amount of time to maintain. Once your profile is up, plan on spending 30 to 60 minutes a day to explore the site, check out groups, find friends, and learn how its features work. Katya Andresen's Five-Minute Guide to Social Networking can help you get started. Read your social networking site's and other blogs to stay up-to-date on new features and policy changes. Mashable is a good source for learning about a variety of different social networking sites; check out my Social Networking Resources for additional social-networking-focused blogs.

3. Maintain an organizational presence on one site.

After you have become comfortable with your individual profile, you may decide you wish to set up an organizational presence. Bear in mind that this will add to your workflow, as in addition to this new presence, you may need to continue to cultivate and maintain your individual profile as well. On Facebook, for example, you must have an individual profile before you can set up a group or a "fan page" to represent a fictional character, an organization, or a campaign.

Keep in mind, too, that an organizational presence can demand far more time and resources than an individual profile. Think of your organizational presence as an online community. As with a community, you'll need to get know the people who join and participate, keep discussions going, and nurture and support your profile. (See Change.org's Best Practices for a more detailed description of what this might entail.)

4. Maintain an organizational presence on two or more sites.

Having so much fun on one social networking site that you're tempted to join another? Your decision to set up profiles on more than one social networking site will depend on your available resources. To be effective, you'll need to invest time in exploring the site and maintaining your presence on it. Take the time to analyze the demographic data of the social networking sites and determine which site is the best match for your organization. James O'Malley of the Frogloops Blog suggests taking a close look at user overlap before deciding whether or not it makes sense to maintain multiple presences. After all, if a third of the people on your current social networking site are also on a site you're considering joining, it may not be worthwhile to invest in a second presence, especially if you've been diligent in finding good contacts on your current site.

Selecting the Right Tool

The first generation of social networks, many of which are still alive and kicking, were about putting your email contact list online and connecting to the contacts of your contacts. LinkedIn and Friendster are examples of this kind of "friend of a friend" network. The generation that followed these were designed around the idea of sharing — people connect to one other through a shared interests in video (YouTube), or photos (Flickr), or other content (Del.icio.us, StumbledUpon, Digg, Twitter).

Recently, a new generation of social networking sites has emerged that combines the friend-of-a-friend networking with social sharing, along with mini-applications created by outside developers that extend the functionality of these sites. These include Facebook and Google's Open Social, which will allow you to access applications and friend lists across existing social networks such as MySpace, Ning, LinkedIn, and others. In the long term, this will make maintaining a presence on more than one social networking site more efficient for users, and give your organization access to a combined list of friends.

So, where to start? How to choose? Where can you get information to compare the demographics and size for different social networking sites? Wikipedia's list of social networking Web sites is an excellent free resource, providing up-to-date data on over 100 services that anyone can join.

In general, however, you are most likely to join one of three broad categories of networking sites:

  1. : These larger social networking sites — which include Facebook, Myspace — attract a wide, more general audience. Each of these communities targets a slightly different demographic, but also includes many sub-groups where people can network around particular interests. Facebook and MySpace are currently the two most active social networking sites on the Web and are where many nonprofits are setting up profiles, launching causes, or networking. Given their popularity, fast growth, and current size, many of your existing or potential supporters may already be actively using these services, making them a good place to start.
  2. Sobercircle (for people recovering from addictions) to MyArtInfo (a social network for artists). Niche networks for social activists include services like Care2 and Gather, among others. Niche targeting equals more accuracy in your marketing efforts and possibly a better return on investment. Keep in mind, however, that there are some downsides to pursuing this niche audience. There are many social networking platforms out there right now, and not all will remain viable over the long term. Also, with fewer people in general on these more focused networks, you may not be casting as wide of a net as you would on other sites.
  3. White-label social networking applications allow you to build your own social networking site with your organization's branding. One popular example of such an application is Ning; for others, see this list of white-label tools compiled by Web strategist Jeremiah Owyang. Change.org, a social network for nonprofits and causes, also recently announced its version of a white-label network on its site, which, for a monthly hosting fee, offers nonprofits the ability to brand their own social network, integrate it with their Web site and capture data about users. While a white-label system offers more control, it requires you to invest significant time in creating and building an online community.

The bottom line? Choose wisely. If you don't have the time to invest in a social network, move on. Do you homework. Study and compare your target audience to the target audience of the social networking site you are considering, do some initial exploratory research as an individual user, and then decide whether to invest in an organizational presence from there. Start slow, keeping in mind that it's better to have a deep presence on a single social networking site than to spread your organization too thin across many.


About the author

Beth Kanter
Beth Kanter is a trainer, blogger, and consultant who writes about social-media tools in the nonprofit sector. She additionally develops curricula, researches, and evaluates technology for nonprofits. You can learn more about her at bethkanter.org.

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Published: 5th February 2008

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