Pot of gold

Last year, a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research (“US Charities’ Adoption of Social Media Study,” August 2010) reported that the largest nonprofits are outpacing for-profit companies and academia when it comes to social media use. Among its findings (based on the 200 largest U.S. charities) were that 97% of the charities are using some form of social media and more specifically, 93% have a Facebook profile, 87% have a Twitter presence, and 65% have a blog. While the nonprofit sector becomes increasingly present on social media applications each year, it still remains a challenge for many nonprofits to do so successfully. Although we cannot address all of the challenges to becoming a successful social media story, here, we debunk five social media myths for nonprofit organizations.
1. If you know social media, you can do our social media.

New users to social media may often seek the help of others who have a greater degree of expertise with these software applications. Generally not all social media experts are alike. An individual’s expertise on social media may be on very specific aspects such as programming, marketing, or social media law. An expert in one respect may not be the appropriate expert in all respects. For example, an expert in branding may not be the best person to task with developing the technical aspects of a website that promote the brand (e.g., widgets, feeds, linking multiple social media accounts); similarly, a technician who could accomplish those tasks may not be at all familiar with the organization’s mission or image and how to best communicate with its constituents. Organizations should reflect on the strengths of the social media experts they hire or task with managing the organization’s social media efforts and evaluate whether other skill sets are necessary. Some organizations may be fortunate enough to find a “Jack of all trades” but in many situations it may be necessary to have multiple people behind the social media curtain with discrete tasks that collectively create a powerful online social media presence for the organization.

Additionally, an individual’s ability to use social media personally does not necessarily equate to an ability to harness the power of social media for an organization. In other words, an individual who is successful in building his or her personal online reputation and network may not necessarily be the best ambassador to communicate with the public and manage communications on behalf of the organization. Individuals vary in the way they use social media – some are constantly locked into the Internet, posting every hour, while others may limit their posts to one per day; some attract new followers with strong personalities while others present a much more distant persona. An organization should discuss the mission, image, and online objective of the organization with those who are communicating on behalf of it – such as the tone of the messages, the level of humor and personality to be used, appropriate and inappropriate subject matter, the frequency of messages, and the organization’s intended audience.

2. Social media is as simple as it looks.

Looks can be deceiving. The user-friendly interface of many social media applications often does not reflect the complexity of social media such as various levels of privacy settings available, the capacity of its reach, or the implications of posting content. Implementation of social media simply should not occur without an appropriate level of social media education.

Additionally, while it may be easy to create an account and start posting, tweeting, blogging, and the like, the real leverage of various social media will likely not be realized without some strategy or sense of direction. As Beth Kanter explains in her article, “9 Ways Nonprofits Can Excel Using Social Media,” audiences expect a conversation with organizations through social media, not just messaging. Furthermore, as Victor d’Allant noted at the Haas School of Business Social Media for Good event earlier this year, “It’s not about the tools; it’s about the story you want to tell.” Failing to cultivate relationships through (avoidable) missteps such as inconsistent messaging, inefficient communications, and a lack of targeted audience can significantly detract from the many benefits that social media offers. Thus, organizations should not rush to have an online presence simply because it can be done without first thinking about the objectives and goals of the organization in using social media and which medium or combination of media will help it to achieve the best value and impact. The online presence of an organization should simply be an extension of its offline existence and both should be managed so as to help the other in accomplishing the mission of the organization. An organization’s thoughtful plan should be the driving force, not the excitement or ease by which an organization can suddenly appear online.

Furthermore, it is important to note that social media education is an ongoing process. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Tumblr are constantly being updated to provide new features and new ways of connecting and sharing. Accordingly, organizations must not only make efforts to stay updated on changes but also periodically re-evaluate whether they are using the best platform for their message.

3. We can’t measure ROI for social media.

While measuring the return on investments (ROI) for social media efforts is often a new and challenging task for many organizations, organizations should still take steps towards gauging ROI to ensure efficient and proper use of their budgets and staff and volunteer time.

The simple fact is social media is an investment whether in terms of time, energy, money, or otherwise. For example, a 2010 survey conducted by the Nonprofit Technology Network, Common Knowledge, and the Port, “Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report” reported that 84.9% of surveyed nonprofits committed at least 1/4 of a full-time staff member’s time to maintaining their commercial social network. Additionally, a 2010 Ventureneer survey, “Nonprofits and Social Media: It Ain’t Optional” reported that nonprofits highly successful at social media allocate at least 25 hours of staff time per week to social media (including the time for researching and writing in providing content for tweet, blogs, and Facebook). If such time is used efficiently and purposefully, it may be time well spent. If not, this can be a serious loss of resources to an organization.

Social media measurement will not be a one size fits all. As Ventureneer notes, it is important to remember expectations and measurements change with time, “your first forays into social media will not yield great results.… [Y]ou must prepare the field before you harvest.” Additionally, other circumstances such as budget and staff skill may also influence what analytical and measurement tools are available to the organization. Ventureneer provides three helpful, general tips for measuring social media:

(1) Focus on measuring what matters at this moment. Do you want to generate awareness, build community, drive traffic to your website, advocate about an issue, raise money or integrate social media into a cause marketing campaign with a partner organization? Measure only what you need to know to evaluate this effort.

(2) Focus on what can be counted in a practical and affordable manner.

(3) If you need help, get it. Metrics matter. Take a class, a webinar or hire a consultant to explain the details until you can do it yourself. Don’t guess. Don’t miss this opportunity to broaden your funding base, find out what appeals to your supporters, and expand your reach.

For more information on social media measurement, please view Beth Kanter’s articles, “The Real Housewives of Social Media: Measurement Tips” and “Spreadsheet Aerobics: Actionable Measurement for Social Media.”

4.    It won’t happen to us.

With the popularity of social media also came the fear about the ease and risk of regulatory violations with social media. For example, a 2010 Proofpoint, Inc. study, “Outbound Email Security and Data Loss Prevention in Today’s Enterprise,” surveyed 261 large U.S. companies during June and July of 2010. Among other findings, the study noted the survey group of these large U.S. companies reported that:

  • 20% have investigated a leak of information to a social network site in the past year;
  • 25% investigated a leak of confidential or private information to a blog or message board;
  • 17% investigated exposure of confidential, sensitive, or private info by a SMS or Twitter in the past year; and
  • More than half are highly concerned about information leakage by social media sites.

Nonprofits are not immune to similar social media problems and the vast majority will have few resources to handle such concerns. Furthermore, there is often a lack of guidance from regulatory bodies regarding the use of social media by nonprofits. For example, the IRS rarely addresses the Internet, let alone social media, in any formal guidance on how online communications will be viewed by the IRS with respect to its regulations (e.g., the implications of “Likes” on Facebook and re-tweets on Twitter of political candidates with respect to the IRS electioneering rules). Thus organizations should take care to put policies in place and have appropriate systems for monitoring what is being disseminated on behalf of, or related to, the organization, even if they don’t think any of the social media nightmares seen in the media will happen to them.

For more information on intellectual property risks with social media, please view our previous post, “Top Ten Legal Risks for Nonprofits.”

5.    The “delete” function actually deletes.

Although “deleting” a post may remove it from your screen, the “delete” button never truly deletes the information. Not only is the information stored on servers, there is also a good chance someone out there has seen the posted information no matter how quick one attempts to undo it. Even if nothing bad happens legally speaking, nonprofits cannot forget that the public eye is generally always watching and consequences can occur on a variety of levels such as reputation, inconsistent mission messaging, and time and costs incurred down the line to fix a neglected and seemingly minor error.

While there is some truth to the notion that social media is a trial-and-error experience, it is not mutually exclusive to the idea of taking appropriate recovery steps after-the-fact. Organizations should think at least generally about a recovery plan if an error occurs, especially one that is to the detriment of the organization. In fact, some organizations have been applauded for their excellent recovery efforts from such errors. A recent example is the American Red Cross “#gettingslizzerd” tweet in which an American Red Cross employee accidentally posted a tweet on the American Red Cross Twitter account that was intended for her personal account. The errant tweet stated: “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer… when we drink we do it right #gettingslizzerd.” The American Red Cross was commended by the public for acknowledging a “Twitter faux pas” had occurred and timely responding with a witty tweet on behalf of the organization: “We’ve deleted the rouge tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”  Thus, mistakes or social media “faux pas” are not an automatic death sentence for an organization’s social media efforts and may actually present an opportunity for recognition when handled well.

(More coverage on the American Red Cross “#gettingslizzerd” story, please read the Tactical Philanthropy article, “The Story Behind Red Cross’s Twitter Faux Pas” and the Nonprofit Quarterly article, “Tweet Freely: Your Social Media Policy and You”).