Social networking: has the train left the station?

It’s certainly no secret, and it seems like everyone has jumped on the Facebook bandwagon these days. I don’t have to search far to find a news article, blog, or radio broadcast talking about the political, cultural, and social implications of social networking - particularly the Facebook phenomenon. Teachers are using it to communicate with their students, friends are getting back in contact after years out of touch, even parents are signing online to keep track of their kids.

One of the biggest users of the social networking site (which also happens to be the second most visited daily website in the United States) are non-profit organizations. And why not? It’s a fantastic tool that helps mobilize communities, connects groups in disparate locations, rallies people around causes, and segments demographics in such detail that it is easy to learn what your users want and subsequently serve up customized content. The new application addition to Facebook also enhances the user experience and allows these organizations to create fun widgets that provide a fun and unique service and allows them to take action, while further cementing their relationship with the organization. Once action is taken - be it via signing a petition, RSVPing to an event or rally, or sharing what you do (or your application) to a friend, that user is much more likely to support your organization in the future, either financially or through in-kind support or volunteering. Now with Facebook profiles becoming semi-public and searchable through engines like Google and Yahoo, the potential seems unlimited.

But these opportunities don’t come easily and organizations will find that if they weren’t early adopters, being today’s flavor on Facebook isn’t as easy as it once was. Facebook has gone from a small network to a vast playground of profiles, groups, and applications in mere months, and it’s growing at an exponential rate. If non-profits haven’t already gotten into the Facebook game, chances are it may be harder to be an “original” and to be “found” by your prospective audience. The number of applications sponsored by organizations grows on a daily basis, and if you’re searching for a Cause to donate to, you have nearly 2,000 in the category of Public Advocacy alone. Instead of competing with 100 user created groups, there are now over 500 to weed through.

For my organization, the presence of several user groups featuring our name and likeness, has been one of the key motivators to begin fleshing out a Facebook strategy. We’ve gone back and forth about whether it makes sense for us to take the time trying to leverage the social networking tool, and what exactly we might accomplish once we get students, alumni, and friends onboard. Not to mention the human resources to manage the community. As we all know - or at least some of us do - Facebook can be a huge time suck.

Doing some initial research on Facebook to determine whether or not our user basis even used the tool already resulted in 35 related groups, several of them featuring our likeness and logos. There was even one group devoted to students who were waitlisted on our programs. Who knew? But then this brought up new questions - how do we control the use of our logos, and should we create an official presence when all of this activity was already happening organically? At first I was tempted to join all of the groups, but thought better of that and decided that could impede the natural behavior of these users who obviously felt some affinity to our organization, but wanted to take on a bit of ownership for their passion.

So should we avoid the Facebook game altogether and leave them to it? Or should we swoop down, remind the users that those logos are ours and say they need to find another “look” for their rogue Facebook community? Copyright issues aside, which tend to be a bit complicated when trying to nurture fledgling affinity groups, we instead decided to form a strategy intended to bring these pre-existent mini-networks into the fold without treading on their individuality or ownership. It comes at a perfect time as we’re just now determining how best to engage with folks online, widely publicize our events, as well as develop creative and effective ways to publicize our re branding coming in February. I’m not sure yet as to whether we’ll create a flagship Facebook group providing information and resources that our Facebook nodes might take advantage of, or if communications will come individually and on a more customized basis. I think I’ll probably ask these groups what they prefer and go from there. But for all of us, the social networking game is a learning process.

The nice thing about non-profits though is that people ultimately (most times) care about making a difference in the world, and as a result, industry knowledge is readily and willingly shared. I can’t imagine Nike or Proctor and Gamble discussing their marketing strategy on a blog before it launches it, let alone on a listserv :o). I’ve already gained great insight from some fantastic discussion on Progressive Exchange and the subsequent Facebook group that was formed to discuss some of these issues will hopefully be a venue to share lessons-learned and best practices of other organizations in our same boat. I’ll plan to share our experience here, and am open to thoughts and suggestions in the meantime!

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