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Innovating into the new year: Social Networking Key Areas for Business to foucs on

January 1, 2009

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 55 percent of teens used social networks. Almost half visited one daily, and nearly a quarter of teens visited several times per day.College students are the heaviest users. Approximately 80 percent of U.S. college students maintain a profile at the popular social network Facebook.

Usage is also surging for the postcollege set. The fastest-growing group on Facebook is people over twenty-five. These figures are not limited to Facebook or to the United States. The same trends are playing out across the world on hundreds of social networking Web sites.

The following features define social networks and distinguish them from other types of Web sites:

* The profile page: a page that allows you to describe yourself through text, video, and music
* A network of friends: a public or semipublic list of friends, usually displayed as small photographic icons
* A public commenting system: allows friends and strangers to write a short note or statement that will be displayed publicly on your profile page
* A private messaging system: enables friends to send private messages to you via your profile page

Contrary to public perception, most of the groups that form on social networking sites are not made up of strangers. Although people may browse profiles of others who are unknown to them, most use social networking sites to support preexisting real-life social groups. Friends use them to meet up and hang out, just as they would in cafés or bars.

Calculate Opportunity Costs

If you’re working with young people, chances are that they already spend time on a social network or networks. Your supporters’ choice of network(s) will determine the range of practical and technical possibilities. If potential supporters are spread across many networks or even within a single network, the task of reaching them becomes more diffi-cult and expensive. After some experimentation and measurement, determined that its per-friend acquisition cost on MySpace was $12.27 Does this level of investment make sense for your organization? Once you find your supporters’ networks of choice, roughly calculate the cost of conducting a campaign in these spaces. In many cases, there may be a more cost-effective way to interact with supporters.

Understand Social Dynamics

How do people interact with one another on their social network of choice? What actions and behaviors are valued? Who are the leaders and followers?

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion of “connectors” and “mavens.” He theorizes that you can lead crowds by influencing the influencers. Some network theorists disagree. They believe that group dynamics drive social movements, and recommend influencing the easily influenced. Anthropologists will tell you that both theories have merit. Groups behave differently at different times. Identify group and individual motivations and then craft your campaign to guide both leaders and followers without condescension or marketing spin. Most young people appreciate an honest and forthright approach.

You can build credibility by enhancing the community. Some social networks offer easy entry to the “inner circle.” In the case of content-focused social networks (such as Digg), community members respect those who add value to their community. People who submit interesting news on Digg are respected. This concrete definition of community value can offer a clear path for your campaign strategy. As an organization, you’ll undoubtedly have more resources at your disposal than many individuals. Apply these resources to adding value to a social network.

Figure Out Friending

If you read the news about social networks, you might determine that social networking is about making the most friends. These “friend collecting” stories draw the majority of media attention. However, the value of a friend differs by social network. On MySpace, more is better. On Facebook, authentic connections between individuals are valued more than the quantity of friendships. Neither is worse or better, but they are distinctly dissimilar. If you understand the nature of friendship on your network of choice, you can develop a more focused campaign strategy

Fit Social Networking into Your “Ecosystem”

Social networking is a “part of a participatory ecosystem.”How does social networking fit within the broader context of your campaign? Do you have other ways for people to participate? Social networks are just one area in which people can interact with one another. Think about complementary ways in which people can take action and communicate. Most important, create mechanisms to motivate offline action. In-person meetups have been shown to make people more likely to become an activis

Build Your Own Social Network?

Businesses are great candidates for custom-built social networks. Their hierarchical structure makes it easy for the boss to say, “Use this social network.” But most nonprofits and political campaigns will find this path difficult. Be warned that many organizations have tried this route and failed. Persuading people to switch or add social networks will require a lot of effort. Consider this option only if you have an ultra-energized group of supporters or a compelling need that’s not being served by other social networks. Such organizations as succeeded with this approach because they built social tools around a network of people who were already online and engaged with their organization.

Instead of building your own network, think about adding social features to your existing Web site. You can add a blog, a commenting area, or a discussion group. Offer widgets. There are ways to gain many of the benefits of a social network without building one from scratch. Services like KickApps aim to provide skilled software developers with tools to incorporate socialization features into existing Web sites.

Tell a Story

Web 2.0 is predicated on the idea that users define the things they use. Your role as a campaign organizer is to provide structure and guidance and to encourage communication among supporters. The first part of this task is to define multiple ways in which supporters can take action and meet each other. Fortunately, social networks were designed with participation in mind. Use your network’s built-in tools to encourage involvement.

Encourage Participation and Let Go

Dramas play out across social networks every day. Study these dramas and learn how to tell your story in a way that will be familiar and compelling to your audience.

But you must also be willing to let supporters take your story and run with it. They will post comments, use your graphics on their profiles, and dream up ways of participating that you could not have imagined. If you encourage this kind of open-ended participation, supporters will internalize your cause and make it their own. Consider how you’ll respond when supporters start to modify your story. Design it from the start to become more compelling as they personalize it.

Get comfortable with negative comments. They spark discussion, and, when constructive, they can help you learn more about your supporters, make smarter decisions, and demonstrate a willingness to listen. Even nonconstructive comments have value. They often create an inverse reaction among people who support your organization and cause. It gives them a rallying cry and binds them together.

Be an Organizer

There’s a good reason that social networking campaigns need nurturing from people. Social networks are groups of . . . people. There’s a tendency to call people “users” or “target audiences.” (I’m as guilty of using these terms as anyone.) But such language obscures the fact that computer users are human beings. In social networks, online groups behave a lot like offline groups. Intrusions by unknown individuals or organizations are repelled, marketing spin is disdained, and authenticity is valued.

To be effective in this environment, you have to behave more like an organizer and less like a marketer. Instead of broadcasting messages, identify and develop leadership and encourage supporters to reach out to each other because they believe in your shared values. Bring people together and give them the tools to act on behalf of these shared values. Build a network of relationships that is deep enough to provide a foundation for community action—and offer social rewards for individual action. Show supporters why they should advocate for an issue and then encourage them to do it.

Ask for Help

How will new supporters interact with your campaign? What are you asking them to do? Many campaigns do a great job of storytelling but neglect to capitalize on the enthusiasm and empathy that their story generates. Develop a list of actions that you’d like supporters to take.
Make a List of Actions

Are there other organizations in your field interested in your campaign? Do they already have an established presence on a social network? Ask them to send a message to their friends about your campaign. Form a mutually beneficial social networking coalition. The most effective nonprofits reach out for help and collaborate frequently.

Measure Results

How will you know if your social networking campaign is successful? Was it worth all the effort? Was there something else you could have done with better results? If you set up a plan for measuring results, you’ll have the answer to these questions at the end of your campaign. One easy way to measure results is to develop metrics based on your list of actions.

For example, for a three-month-long MySpace campaign staffed by one part-time person, you might develop the following list of action-oriented goals and associated data for comparison:

We want to

* Make ten thousand friends.
* Sign 10 percent of those friends to sign our mailing list.
* Get 1 percent to volunteer for our annual event.

In the past, we have

* Spent $3 per new member to sign our mailing list
* Spent $25 to recruit one new volunteer through our traditional e-mail campaigns
* Tasked one employee with managing the campaign to recruit new members and volunteers, which required ten hours per week over a three-month period

Keep track of staff time and dollars spent on your social networking campaign, and you’ll know how it compares to your historical experience and to other options.

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