NGOs and Social Media

This article first appeared in the Technology Sunday supplement of the Times of Malta.

Social networks are as old as human society.  Families, schools, clubs and groups of friends all contribute to our social capital.  What’s changed in recent years is a wave of two-way technologies known as web 2.0 or social media.  From videos, blogs and wikis to podcasts, tweets and social networking sites, social media enables people to easily communicate with and act on existing personal and professional networks, and forge strong connections with new ones.  An internet connection provides a potential link with any number of people online, irrespective of geographic distance, and access a greater diversity of perspectives. The read-write web where everyone can potentially publish what they want to a global audience has also triggered deep social changes and a fundamental shift in the way that people think, form groups, and work.

NGOs were quick to recognise the new media’s potential for their business models.  In 2009, a US study by Dartmouth showed that the Forbes Top 200 non-profits were adopting social media faster than Fortune 500 companies.  This is not entirely surprising:   NGOs typically have to work with limited resources, so technologies that accelerate the sharing of information and drastically reduce the costs of participation and coordination were inevitably going to be of interest.  But NGOs also increasingly have to operate as ‘social businesses’.    They recognise the opportunity to market products, raise money and frame or re-frame awareness on a raft of issues.  Organisations who previously had to rely on intermediaries for media exposure, found a new direct, democratic channel for engagement with target audiences, with the same opportunity as mainstream journalists to talk about the issues that mattered to them most.  There also have fewer vested interests in the mainstream PR and marketing models adopted by the business world, less resistance to embracing a two-way channel with target communities.   By engaging in a more informal, personal manner, social media-savvy NGOs are able to identify and connect with online opinion-makers, raise awareness of their operations and enhance their brands in the process.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are now been embedded in the work of many NGOs.  Fundraising events like Twestival are on the rise.  Facebook’s Causes Birthday application encourages an individual who is a member of a cause to use their birthday as an excuse to raise money for a non-profit organization.  Social apps with a conscience, such as SocialAction.com, offer even more creative ways for supporters to self-organize and take action around causes.  Non-profits such as Oxfam and Amnesty International offer opportunities and resources for high school and college aged students to become informed on issues pertaining to poverty and human rights, take action for a cause and fundraise on behalf of the NGO.

Social media also facilitates collaboration across institutional boundaries quickly and inexpensively. NGOs collaborate with supporters by crowdsourcing ideas, feedback, and content for programs.  The Lights, Camera, Help Film Festival makes extensive use of the social web to promote films-for-a-cause.  We Are Media is a wiki project where over 100 non-profit technology professionals have pooled knowledge resources and developed training materials to help non-profits learn how to use social media effectively.

In Malta, NGOs are primarily embracing social media by setting up a presence on Facebook:  there are now over 167,000 Maltese users of the social networking site.  Nathan Farrugia, CEO at Inspire, puts it succinctly:  “We represent people who are undervalued in society.  Any opportunity we identify for self-advocacy, for people to gain a voice will be explored.  We believe social media offers us several opportunities to engage with our online communities, and we intend to put the new technologies to good use.”  Andy Towler, webmaster and committee member of the LifeCycle Challenge, has developed a sustainable strategy around a social website built on the open source WordPress platform.  “We wanted to raise awareness and encourage donations and support from as many people as possible.  We use a mix of regular articles and targeted information on the site and manage this in conjunction with our Facebook page, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr accounts to reach the largest possible audience and encourage viral distribution of information.  On our Facebook page, participants tag photos and share links and updates to all their contacts, giving LifeCycle a much bigger reach than would otherwise be possible if we used traditional media”.

There are many challenges for NGOs to address to maximise their operations on social media.   Many users confuse social media with a ‘free’, quick route to operating and funding success, and set up a presence on social networking sites without either a strategy or a trained team in place to develop content and manage interaction with third parties.  The social web is littered with inactive pages, blogs and YouTube channels.   Some simple rules apply for NGOs to maximise their participation in the social web:

As social networks are built on trust, they will succeed only if they allow time for individuals to build authentic working relationships.  NGOs cannot operate as faceless organisations.  In the same way that every donor and volunteer has to be engaged, people are more ‘invested’ in the lives of the real people that they follow on Twitter than an actual brand, even if it belongs to a respected NGO.  Many NGOs encourage their employees to use their personal social media accounts to cross-promote social campaigns online and become online ambassadors.

Engagement means encouraging the online community to become the NGO’s multiplier. Social media always works better if others shout about an NGO and its cause, of their own free will.  Smart NGOs encourage link-building via bloggers, video artists and people running Facebook pages. People who are part of an event often want to promote their participation, encourage the public to purchase tickets and share their status as being part of the select few.

Social media has to be used to make it easy for people to donate. Information on the NGO’s social media touch points therefore need to be simple, clear and user-friendly:   the less information to be supplied by a potential donor, the better.  This runs counter to the traditional view that as much contact information on donors has to be procured as possible.

Creative, original, content is vital. The ‘noise level’ on Facebook and Twitter is high, making it difficult to get an NGO and its campaigns noticed.  A keyword optimised blog on WordPress will generate traffic immediately.  It is not an accident that some of the most original viral campaigns on YouTube have been developed by NGOs.  With transparency becoming the norm for social businesses, NGOs are also obliged to use blogs and video to demonstrate how they deliver a return on the donor’s investment.  Having a website is no longer enough, as the NGO needs to be engaging wherever its target online users happen to be – be the blogs, Twitter or YouTube.

It doesn’t hurt to listen. NGOs can learn quickly by using tools such as Twitter and RSS feeds to observe how competitors and potential partners are operating online.  The Case Foundation, for example, has its Make It Your Own Awards site to offer people an opportunity to submit ideas for improving their communities, serve as reviewers, and then vote on the best ideas for the foundation to fund.

Social media is not a silo, and can be implemented in parallel with more traditional marketing and PR channels. A monthly online newsletter can still be effective, if it contains compelling content. Local reporters can still be engaged using social media sites and using hash tags on Twitter to draw attention to a campaign or an issue.

The tools are simply a means to an end. NGOs have to begin first by defining the problem that needs solving, and then identify the tools that can help solve it, not the other way around.  Once the goals are clear, NGOs can focus on how to accomplish them – the kind of network approach to best support the end goal and the tools to be used.

Combine top-down and bottom-up approaches. Wikipedia is an excellent example of how NGOs can mix user-generated content, such as comments on Facebook or membership of a community site, with various levels of top-down control. The challenge is to find ways to tap the generative nature of the network, while still maintaining oversight, checks, and balances to ensure appropriate direction.

NGOs who successfully lever on social media as a new engagement channel understand that it’s not just about using new technologies.  Just because someone is young and has grown up with social media does not necessarily mean they have any clue how to represent an entity online or engage with various audiences in a strategic manner. NGOs, like any other business, have to increase leverage and effectiveness by thinking and working in new ways.  It’s about reimagining social change with a network mind-set.

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Location Based Services and Mobile Monday

I got involved with the local chapter of Mobile Monday in September 2009, about 9 days before its launch, after a phone call from Rene Magri, the local chapter founder.  Rene had Jari Tammisto, the CEO of Mobile Monday Global and a key speaker scheduled to fly to Malta for the 10th, but still had to assemble a crowd for the launch.  He had no ready access to the media, telco operators, regulators and sponsors – or any significant online presence to market the event.  He just knew that he couldn’t afford to fail.

I now remember the 2009 chat in my garden with some amusement – in the end, I’d resorted to scrawling through names on my mobile and some plain old-fashioned lobbying in the subsequent days.  But Rene and his two co-founders got their crowd and the room had sparkled with some energetic debate on technology, entrepreneurship, IP and social networks.

MOMO Malta holds its third meeting tomorrow, having finally secured funding that will allow it to hopefully get some traction.  In this video, Ric Ferraro, the key speaker,  talks to Rene about location based services, scale, start-ups and why he thinks mobile is becoming a more pervasive delivery channel than the web.

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Anecdotes from the brink

My friend Jim Sims pointed me to the short video I’ve embedded below.  It comes fast on the heels of Chris Anderson’s piece that the World Wide Web is dead.

So we’re back to the age of speed and anecdotes.  It’s not like it ever went away.

The only thing we all seem to agree about is that ‘now‘ is this very transitional phase to whatever’s the next breakthrough in technology and milestone in Internet culture.  We have no clue about the timeframe for this phase, or if it will ever end, or if we will even recognise the milestone when we get to it – because we’ll all be too busy rushing to what’s next.  And we may no longer be reading signposts anyway.

It seems like only yesterday that we were all making fun of the iPad while planning to buy one (and I was thinking of how useful it would be for kids, and people over 40 with fading eyesight.. if only Apple got the battery life right.)

Everything’s transient, every version is better than the previous (unless it’s an iPhone with a dodgy antenna), everything yesterday needs to be discarded for the urgency of today.

And yet, all these are building blocks.  Meaning they topple easily.

In academia, it’s all about standing on the shoulders of giants.  In technology, people are still running around in a frenzy, looking for the next customised app, the next geo-tagged location to open the holy grail of that key network which will lead to that key deal or the next huge community which will make us the next buck.

It still seems to me that the bucks keeping ending up in the usual pockets.

But the shiny tools look as shiny as ever and my eyesight is not getting any better.  And like you, I love the future like there’s no tomorrow.

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Grown up digital

I’m reading Don Tapscott’s excellent Grown up Digital, which focuses on the Net generation. It’s particularly pertinent as I’m preparing a talk on social media strategy for the local chapter of YPO. What’s interesting is that the event is organised by the YPO ‘kids’, the children of the YPOers. When I asked for a brief from my twenty-something contact, she said: “Do what you did the last time I heard you speak. Our parents need a wake up call. They need to realise that things have really changed. A while ago. They need to stop pretending that new media is about kids being silly on Facebook or sniggering over someone’s photo. They need to understand that ordinary people are using social media channels all the time, and that it’s impacting their business. Whether they like it or not.”

I’m slightly bemused by this.  I’m 49.   The people who ‘don’t get it’ are the successful captains of industry and entrepreneurship on this island. Many of them are younger than I am. I’m wondering how I can earn the attention of people who may not feel compelled to change anything about the way their business operates… Facebook or no Facebook.

So I go back to Tapscott, and the Net generation. That’s the Millennials, or Generation Y – people born between January 1977 and December 1997, now aged 13-33. Tapscott’s book is based on on a 4.5 million dollar study of 6,000 young people, and has some great handouts – for employers, instructors, parents, marketers and political leaders. What’s fascinating is not so much insights about how the Net generation uses technology – but what Tapscott calls the ‘The Net Gen Norms’ – the distinctive attitudinal and behavioural characteristics that differentiate this generation from their parents and other generations. His research identified eight characteristics:

1. Freedom. In everything they do, from freedom of choice to freedom of expression.

2. Customisation. A need to personalise anything, from media to job descriptions.

3. Scrutiny. The Net Gen have a love of transparency, and know that their market power allows them to demand more of companies and employers.

4. Integrity. Net Geners looks for openness and corporate integrity when deciding what to buy and where to work.  They expect company values to be aligned with their own.

5. Entertainment. This generation wants play in work, education and social life.  It has been bred on interactive experiences.  Brand recognition alone is no longer enough.

6. Collaboration. NetGeners are all about relationships. Nine out of ten young people interviewed said that if a best friend recommended a product, they were likely to buy it. The conversations on online networks also include discussions on brands, companies, products and services.

7. Speed. That’s not just in video games, but in flow of information.  Many marketers and employers still have to understand that NetGerns expect the same quick communication from others – every instant message should draw an instant response.

8. Innovation. A twenty-something in the workforce wants the new BlackBerry or iPhone not because the old one is no longer cool, but because the new one does so much more.  They seek innovative companies as employers.  Sometimes, they just don’t want to be employed, and prefer to strike out and do their own thing.

My most recent wake up call – about the Net Generation having come of age – came last May.  My wife called me to say that she’d just found out that she was ‘watching 26 unusual items on eBay’. The 26 items were all ‘Playmobil cowboys.’ When she cornered our son Jacob, then aged 7, he immediately admitted to being the watcher.

“Sure,” he said. “Did you know that Playmobil don’t make cowboys any more? They seem to think that kids only want this modern stuff, like cars and aircraft. Well they don’t! I know you use eBay to find stuff that you cannot find easily in a shop. So I did a quick search! Look – you cannot find any of these cowboys on sale at the Playmobil Fun Park!  And there’s nothing of interest for kids on their website either! I’m going to write a letter to the CEO of Playmobil and let her know!”

You still can’t get Playmobil cowboys very easily, unless you get on eBay or find some in your attic. Jacob’s letter to Playmobil, complaining about the demise of the cowboy range, and offering his services as a ‘consultant’ was answered promptly and very graciously by the Playmobil CEO.  Jacob still can’t understand why so many companies won’t listen to what kids are telling them to do.

Posted in Business Strategy, Malta, Social media, Strategy | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A history of blogging

This video from Scott Rosenberg, author of ‘Say Everything‘, is a great crash course on where blogging came from; how open source and WordPress in particular has provided a powerful platform for citizen journalists; and why blogging matters more than ever, despite several announcements of its demise.

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Everyone is worried about Facebook

Suddenly, Facebook has become Big Brother.  Almost at par with Google.  Or perhaps even bigger, since most people still cannot quite understand how Google monetises our content.  While Facebook appears to have finally changed its rules of engagement one time too many, and everyone is currently taking a potshot, from the BBC to the Economist.  Mark Zuckerberg has just issued a statement saying Facebook moved too quickly and made a bunch of mistakes.

In my country, concerns about Facebook privacy have been exacerbated by a court ruling.   Last week, a 24 year-old got a fine and a suspended jail sentence for saying nasty things about the Pope on a Facebook page.  Inevitably, there are many in this wired micro-state who feel we are gently moving from the open Internet to a brave new world where the disruptive nature of web 2.0 technologies is about to be tamed by over-zealous magistrates clinging to antiquated Press Laws.  Others see this as the first important step in bringing online unpleasantness under control.

The privacy situation is still evolving, but the camps seem to be congregating as follows:

1. Facebook is like a utility, and should be regulated as such.  In this post and this post, Danah Boyd, an academic working for Microsoft Research, makes a compelling argument.

2. The issue is not privacy, but the fact that Facebook is trying to make a buck from something that is social.  Help will soon be at hand.  This post, by Venessa Miermis, rattles the cage.

3. Get off Facebook, get off the Internet, get a real social life.

4. It’s a storm in a teacup compared to the benefits people get from Facebook.  We just need to keep unchecking those privacy boxes.  And our kids will find a way of working it out.  Whether it’s Facebook, or some other social network which will end up taking its pace.

Today, I found this paragraph in a great book by the academic Mathieu O’Neil called Cyberchiefs.  It was published in 2009, so Mathieu does not have the benefit of hindsight:

“The traditional libertarian concern for privacy has its limits:  when it contradicts the profit motive.  For the exhaustive profiles listing people’s most intimate material, spiritual or consumer preferences – which they have themselves helpfully created – legally belongs to the owners of Facebook, and to the advertisers they sell this information to.  In informational capitalism individual users can freely copy and distribute digitised corporate content, and corporations can freely copy and distribute digitised user-generated content.”

It’s not like we haven’t been warned.

Whatever we choose to share online is public.

Whatever our friends choose to share about us online is also public.

Yes, whatever we write, film, record, do online can come back to haunt us.  It’s the public sphere, not some genteel living room.  In the old days, if you had an argument with someone, you could just walk away, lick your wounds and make up.  Now, the evidence of your conflict is permanent.  And possibly visible to others, who may have an interest in making that conflict public or permanent.

So go educate your kids.  Educate yourself.  Educate your judiciary.  Educate your media.  And educate your politicians, your rulers, your church, your friends.

And then, fight with all your energy, to keep the Internet open, and away from the grasps of those who may be in a position of power, likely to be less informed than you, or your children.  And who may start tampering with your basic freedoms in the name of doing what’s best for you.

It’s not like it would be the first time this has happened.  Or the last.

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Questions to be answered on social media

Presenting has a lot to do with theatre. Except you don’t have a script – just pointers to key messages that you hope will connect, challenge, inspire, trigger. And the audience is not just a passive recipient – especially when it comes to social media. Each performance is different; each audience has a different insight. Hopefully, by the end of the session, both the speaker and the ‘presented to’ have learnt something new.

The Q&A at the end of a presentation to the local Chamber of Commerce, and a couple of subsequent emails from participants, threw up some interesting points which gave me food for thought.

These questions stood out:

1. Will Facebook continue to rule the roost, when there are so many worries that the company is meddling with our privacy? Isn’t trust in the entire ecosystem being undermined by Facebook constantly changing the rules of engagement?

2. How can social media tackle the marketing of unpalatable products, like cigarettes for instance?

3. There are plenty of examples of large companies using social media, and even they were making slip ups. How can an average SME learn from these mistakes? Say, a firm in the incoming tourism sector, or an exporter of a local product?

4. How can teens and kids get educated on the opportunities and hazards of social media engagement? Particularly in the case of young people who will soon have to get on the career ladder? Is there such a thing as social media or mobile device etiquette, in the way that we developed email and other netiquette?

I’ll try and address these issues in future posts.

Posted in Social media | Tagged | 2 Comments

Talk on social media and SMEs

I’m running a session at the Chamber of Commerce in Malta this Wednesday, 19 May at 16.00.  It’s aimed at people managing small businesses who are still trying to work out how it impacts their businesses, brand equity, customer engagement and more  Here’s what the session will cover.  I’ll also run a Q&A session at the end.

This piece is also pertinent.

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Home Truths on Social Media

In December 2007, there were 14,000 Maltese people on Facebook.  Fast forward to May 2010, and that number is 162,000, and growing daily.  As a nation, we’re right up there with the top 15 worldwide in terms of our national, proportional take-up of the social network – something which says as much about our access to technology as to our desire to connect with others.

Web 2.0, or social media as it’s colloquially known, is much more than Facebook.  It’s ‘two-way’ technology that enables sharing, online conversations and many forms of user-generated content. There are literally thousands of tools that can be loosely grouped as social media:  videos, blogs, micro-blogs, podcasts, social networking, community and social bookmarking sites, forums, wikis and more.  The read-write web where everyone can potentially publish what they want to a global audience should by now have made social media as mainstream as the daily newspaper.  And yet, it is one of the most misunderstood phenomena by the business community.  Locally, a recent spate of scandals and law suits fuelled by blogs and Facebook pictures has only helped increase the confusion and anxiety. As one business person told me, “I have no idea if I should ignore this stuff, get my kids off Facebook or try and understand what’s going on because it may well impact my business.”

I have been using social media technologies since 2005 and researching their applicability for business for the past three years.  Here’s a little of what I’ve learned so far:

The rules of marketing are changing. Social media has taken the institutional control of marketing and put it in the hands of the general public. With technology increasingly ubiquitous and available to all, people now have the tools to carry on conversations and express their views on brands and their content online. Prospects inevitably form many of their opinions and impressions of a brand or a company from others they come in contact with online.

Two-way means engagement. This is a far cry from the traditional broadcasting way of doing things. In the old days, you used to be able to throw money in print, TV and radio advertising and wait for the ripples to come back to you in the form of clients.  Now, the ripples have a voice, and can bite back or come back to haunt you.

Your employees can become terrific online ambassadors, or a total embarrassment.  They need to be guided how to engage.  Trying to block them from using the media is always counter-productive.  Most people nowadays access their favourite social networks via mobile devices.

Social media is not about PR. It’s about social engagement.  It’s definitely not just about you, or your business. It can be used for PR, and marketing, brand building, customer support, reputation management, community building and a pile of other social engagements.  But the tools were originally devised to do other things.

Having a website is no longer enough. A blog can be a terrific substitute for an expensive website.  There is no substitute for great content.

You don’t need to use all the tools. But you do need to have a basic understanding of most of them.  Because your customers and prospects are engaging on many of them, and you need to understand what they are saying about you, and your business.

To succeed, you have to be transparent, open, and reactive. That’s difficult for many businesses that have thrived over the years by doing the exact opposite.

You cannot just set up shop and do nothing else. There are thousands of Facebook fan pages hijacked by the competition, dead blogs and inactive Twitter accounts.  You need a real commitment to succeed.

Social media is not free. Many of the tools are free to use, but your time isn’t free and neither is that of your employees.  Good content costs money.

Trust is a huge factor in social engagement. Social media marketing is most effective when users in the community know you.  Building trust online takes time and management of your social web presence across communities.

Social media builds awareness and drives conversations. It’s a powerful way of enabling interaction between the company and customer. Selling is a secondary or tertiary benefit of social media.

Beware of self-proclaimed social media experts. Especially people who have never been in the trenches of business and understand the pressure there is to generate sales, reduce costs, engage customers and do something about a brand.  Knowing how to set up a website, or a Facebook fan page or dabbling in some SEO does not qualify someone to call themselves an ‘expert’.

You need a strategy before you dive in. Get a road map.  Smart people first start by listening.  And there are tools that enable you to do just that. What most organisations lack is how to structure and create an interaction with consumers which is consistent in approach and enticing enough for third parties to engage.

Social media can be measured for ROI purposes. You can set KPIs and measure the success of social media campaigns. Much of what you spend in traditional mainstream PR and marketing cannot.

Social media doesn’t work when you’re shouting about yourself.  You need to find a way of getting other people to shout about you, for you – of their own free will.

It’s not so much about the future as learning from the lessons of the past. You cannot ignore social change when ordinary citizens believe that they have access to new ways of getting their voices heard, and engaging with the people and issues that really matter to their lives.  If you run a business or a country, social media is both opportunity and threat.  Ignore that at your peril.

This article first appeared in The Commercial Courier, April-May 2010

Posted in Malta, Social media | Tagged , | 2 Comments

What you post online is permanent

If someone talks to you about privacy and Internet safety and you know something about the web, you’re probably just bound to yawn.

In Malta, where I happen to live right now, there is a sudden awareness that what you share online, and particularly on Facebook, is ‘not your living room’, but public property. Over the next months, a high-profile case will unravel some of these issues.

In the meantime, here’s a YouTube clip commissioned by Connect Safely that says what has to be said in a gentle way.

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