The New Peer-to-Peer Potential

hand
The Giving USA Foundation/Giving Institute released its Annual Report on Philanthropy for the year ending December 31, 2008 in June of this year. Notably, despite the impact of the recession and arguably the most challenging economy since the Great Depression, total giving to charitable causes in the United States reached an estimated $307.65 billion.

The key finding here is that individual giving continues to account for the largest percentage of overall giving at 75 percent of the total. Individual giving is an estimated $229.28 billion, (down by 2.7 percent over 2007 with a -6.3 percent adjustment for inflation). Education organizations received an estimated $40.94 billion, or 13 percent of the total. Gifts to this type of organization decreased 5.5 percent with a -9 percent adjusted for inflation.

As fundraisers, the path is clear. Individuals represent our greatest opportunity for recovery and growth. That said, our methods of securing individual donations definitely deserve some scrutiny and consideration—especially in light of rapid-fire technological changes impacting the landscape.

Just how can we maximize individual giving? And what are the fundamental trends and challenges influencing the proven solicitation process?

Throughout my career, I have heard mentors chant, “People don’t give to institutions; they give to people.” It is a time-tested fundraising adage, and it defines the essential nature of one-on-one solicitation at the very heart of fundraising. The process of one person asking another to give is what fundraising is all about. One-on-one meetings and conversations are the moments where the school’s case for support is made most effectively with a blend of passion and hard facts. It is the personal relationships between volunteer solicitors and donors that generate funding and continuing support for institutions across the street and across the globe. Research, cultivation and stewardship are all part of the solicitation process, but nothing happens until—we ask.

As we learned from the game-changing success of Internet fundraising in the last presidential campaign, closed–door handshakes and smoke-filled rooms are anachronisms. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Obama groundswell was the return of grassroots participation—the return to people. That is, people reaching out—one to another—to ask for support. Whether online or on the front porch, people asked— peers and strangers.

The automation of the contact process was nothing short of amazing—phone scripts downloaded seamlessly to kitchen and dining-room computers all over the nation and people giving up their Sunday afternoons to attend calling parties with cell phones in hand. Real-time tracking reports updated party calling returns as it the volunteers were dialing—thus enlivening the competitive spirit along with the political passion for change.

This was the fruitful marriage of personal peer-to-peer power and technology.

Today, the world of online fundraising tools and platforms is evolving rapidly. Social media is a radical new milieu impacting the time-honored one-on-one tradition. Think about Facebook CAUSES with more than 33 million monthly active users and social action sites such as www.change.org. or www.care2.com.

Everyone is trying to figure out how the infuse electronic appeal with the authenticity of human emotion. Photos, audio, video—innovations are expanding exponentially. Charity:Water has used video as the medium for its organization’s message very effectively.

So, what are some other opportunities tools and methods? I am interested in learning how schools, universities, and institutions are absorbing these tactics. What’s working? What’s not? What’s changing? What needs to change? How can we best automate and streamline the peer-to-peer solicitation process?

In a world with so many demands on time and attention, we as fundraisers will be more successful if we can appeal to the behaviors and preferences of those making the asks—our volunteers, ambassadors, and emerging Gen X leaders of today and tomorrow.

Contact me at elgantz @ yahoo.com.

Getting smart about online communities

capI am excited about my new focus on helping universities, colleges, and private schools provide continuing, multi-dimensional value to their alumni through social media—and specifically, custom online communities.

The opportunities for engagement and exchange are rich and powerful in a higher education environment. Leveraging the strength of the profound personal connection through the “ambient intimacy” of online interaction can ultimately help increase giving, boost admissions referrals, and engage more alumni in meaningful ways. For alumni associations, the applications are very compelling:

• Increase investment in affinity products and institution-related activities.
• Enrich and deepen the institution’s “brand” experience for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends.
• Promote and strengthen the foundations of affiliation (class year, school/college, dorm/Greek organization, student activity, professional focus)
• Position the institution’s community to positively impact loyalty-related outcomes, such as annual giving, association membership, reunion attendance, and etc.

The challenge is maximizing the ongoing value of an online community by balancing institution content control with user participation. Remember, it’s about relationships—building on the ephemeral—memories, experiences, and bonds based less on practical deliverables and more the emotions of affiliation.

In his August 2009 Wall Street Journal article on corporate branded communities, The Fans Know Best, Dr.Uptal Dholakia of Rice University contends:

“Allowing discussion and activities like networking and socializing leads visitors to participate in the site for emotional and social reasons. It keeps them coming back, and thus strengthens the bond between them and the company (and each other). Part of giving up control is also giving visitors the freedom to complain and criticize the brand, or to wax lyrical about a competitor, to their heart’s content.”

Therefore, our task becomes more focused on orchestrating, monitoring, and responding–rather than drafting, editing, and deleting.

Though Dr. Dholakia is speaking of the corporate sector here, I think the ideas can be applied to association communities, as well. Visitors frequent communities, because they enjoy the experience—not because it is something on the to-do list. Think about the silly quizzes on Facebook. The “fun factor” should not be underestimated as a key driver of engagement. Yet, it’s possible for universities and colleges to deliver real value in the process. We must not forget the truly “social” component of social media—providing a platform for witty banter. And universities alumni already have a built-in affinity. The potential is boundless—to create what I call the “perpetual reunion.” It’s 365/24/7 engagement.

Dr.Uptal Dholakia offers a high-octane example of community-building savvy from the corporate world:
lego
“When Lego Group set out to develop Mindstorms NXT, the latest version of its game for building programmable robots, it enlisted help from a group of adult enthusiasts whom it found on Lugnet.com, the largest unofficial community of Lego fans. While the marketing target for Mindstorms is mainly teenage boys, the people that Lego reached out to were men in their 40s and 50s who knew each other from communicating and working together on elaborate Lego projects on Lugnet.com.

The group’s members, according to a Lego spokesman, contributed ‘incredibly valuable insights’ in hardware, software, design and usability based on their own experiences. The company credits the group with helping to make Mindstorms NXT appeal both to adults and ‘a new, younger generation of robotics enthusiasts.’”

Just think of the application for a university community—building connection between alumni, faculty, and staff—students and even prospective students. Not all colleges and universities are systematically monitoring their “unofficial” user-driven groups on LinkedIn, Fan Pages on Facebook, and Twitter feeds. But tracking and engaging these communities can provide a wealth of opportunities, alliances, ideas, innovations, and energy.

What are your thoughts? To learn more about unleashing the power of the web, contact me: elgantz @ yahoo.com.

The ROI that would be king

ElaineGantzWright’s blog is for people interested in using the Web and online marketing to drive social change. Elaine covers social media for nonprofits, philanthropy trends, online giving, cause marketing, random life musings, and more.

crown2The pursuit of social media ROI (return on investment) continues to vex me. Last week, my blog post featured some comments about its confounding elusiveness and sparked lively discussion—on and offline. It’s still a very hot topic—at conferences, webinars, cocktail parties, bunko nights, and marketing strategy meetings going on as I type.

Once again, I turn to one of my master media mentors—Clay Shirky. He says:

“A revolution does not happen when a society adopts new tools. It happens when a society adopts new behaviors.”

And I think that quote sums up the core conundrum. At the end of the day, social media is really not “a program” at all. It is a fundamental shift in the way customers, donors, constituents, and employees consume and produce information. It’s behavior—a change in the way we are in the world.

Therefore, the future of marketing is not about telling people things—but about doing things with and for people. Think about it. How do you calculate ROI on messaging coming from your target audience? How do you calculate ROI (an old media metric) in a new media environment? It’s a brave new world, indeed—where we are “creating an environment for coordination and collaboration.”

Even if you consider the question in old media terms, isn’t it like trying to figure ROI on your phone, your conference room, or your fax? Few of us really think about these things in relationship to ROI. But since it’s the Internet, there is still a certain geek mystique. We are a little squeamish and feel the need to “ROI everything”—even if it means constructing elaborate parallel expense models based on paid Google adwords or other media buys. But the truth is, social media will soon be the rule—not the exception. Cost of doing business. David Spark addresses some of these issues from a refreshing perspective on socialmedia.biz. The requirement that everything fit in a discrete ROI queue is simply unrealistic and soon, anachronistic.

Perhaps, a 21st century take on this question would be Return on Engagement—taking the focus away from the justification of hard costs and considering opportunity costs. What do we sacrifice if we are not involved? What are the benefits—tangible and intangible—of spending your time monitoring and creating conversation? What business or donor involvement have you created?

Rules of Engagement

talking Still, even in the ROE context, just having a blog, Facebook account, or Twitter profile does not a social media strategy make. The fabric of social media success is woven from many threads and yarns, including compelling content, irresistible contests/quizzes, provocative video/photos, and authentic voices. You wouldn’t use just one traditional channel to market your product or organization, so it is probably not useful to think that one Twitter account or a blog post by itself can somehow produce ROI—or even ROE—overnight. Attributing a direct revenue equation to an isolated social media marketing activity simply isn’t relevant or accurate. Though weak individually, coordinated social media activities can certainly move the needle.

Engagement fosters affinity, trust, commitment—and ultimately, investment. Marketing has become equal parts science and art. Remember, creating a blog on WordPress of Blogger is free. Right now, Facebook and Twitter are free. So, social media’s costs are mostly labor, time, and creative energy. Therefore, social media success really comes down to commitment, clarity about your objectives, and getting over your fear of exposure—a horse that has already left the barn, I might add. Also, it helps if you have something to say that will interest your audience. Whether you call it—ROI, ROE, or RBI (wait, that’s baseball), here are some thoughts on how to plan, launch, and execute an effective social media plan:

• Focus on conversation, content, and benefits—not tools and technology
• Highlight intangibles
• Justify qualitative, as well as quantitative objectives.
• Compare costs of alternatives, benefits, and of not doing anything.
• Use pilot projects to test and evaluate
• Streamline data collection
• Get buy-in by using a cross-functional team or committee
• Release your fear

The pre-social media business universe was built on linear measurement. I think it’s time to consider using a different kind of yardstick—something with multiple dimensions and constant movement, something we have yet to invent. If small is the new big and free is the new economic engine, what are the new metrics? Is it time to get comfortable with a whole new level of ambiguity. What do you think?

Change of Heart?

ElaineGantzWright’s blog is for people interested in using the Web and online marketing to drive social change. Elaine covers social media for nonprofits, philanthropy trends, online giving, cause marketing, random life musings, and more. Find out more at SocialFuse.

“It is not enough to stay busy. So, too, are the ants. The question is what you are busy about.” Henry David Thoreau

heartimageSeth Godin has ignited an Internet firestorm with his recent blog post condemning nonprofits for their aversion to change and their resistance to embracing social media in a passionate way. I think he has hit a nerve, but I suspect the emotional reaction is indicative of a much deeper, lurking tension at the very heart of the public sector.

As I wrote on this blog last week, social media is more a functional change in the way we live – as opposed to just the newest bright, shiny gadget. Clay Shirky calls it “the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.” Seth, this is a vast, ubiquitous, socio-cultural revolution. Perhaps, that explains why nonprofit and for-profit enterprises, alike, are a little reticent about just “showing up” haphazardly on Twitter, Facebook, etc. If you may recall, Seth laments, “Where are the big charities, the urgent charities, the famous charities that face such timely needs and are in a hurry to make change? Very few of them have bothered to show up in a big way.” I think it’s more than “showing up.” Although, one of my favorite quotes is Woody Allen’s, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” I guess it’s complicated, as they say on Facebook. Perhaps we all need to just start swimming and learn to stay afloat as we go. Regardless, I think communicators have a daunting task ahead—no matter where they play—figuring out how to harness the enormous power within some sort of workable plan.

Still, I have to admit that on some level, Seth’s righteous indignation about an entire sector defining itself by “what it is not” (i.e. nonprofit) resonated strongly with me. As a wordsmith and amateur psychologist, I think this negative identity creates an inherent tension or incongruity of purpose. Perhaps even a self-esteem problem?

I was reminded of a brilliant closing session speaker I saw at last year’s Governor’s Conference for nonprofits presented by Austin’s One Star Foundation last year. The dynamic and innovative Valerie Keller, CEO of the Outreach Center in Lafayette, LA, spoke to this group of passionate Texas nonprofit leaders about this very issue. Her fervor took on the urgency of a battle cry—as she chided the well-meaning, often overly self-effacing social sector for settling for this dismissive “non” moniker. This concept also aligns with what I discussed last week when I mused about the emerging imperative for the nonprofit sector to rethink the ways it does business and functions at a core level.

In Valerie’s case, she definitely walks her talk. She has successfully reenergized a social service agency in a struggling region of Louisiana through creative public/private entrepreneurial partnerships and a social enterprise model. Social enterprise—now, that’s a term that jazzes me.

uncharitableAnother thought-leader in this area is Dan Pallotta, author of Uncharitable. Dan harshly critiques the underlying value system that confines our charities and other nonprofit organizations. Pallotta sheds light on the frugal, almost prudish constraints the public expects from nonprofits—everything from banning paid advertising, to perpetuating substandard wages for nonprofit employees. He examines the public’s unconscious expectation that nonprofits behave differently from for-profits and points the finger at Americans’ Puritan heritage of self-denial and frugality. That’s an interesting notion that may not tell the whole story—but may contribute to the perception.

We say, “Grow, grow, and do more . . . but, uh, don’t spend money!” On some level, we seem to want the nonprofit sector to shun the very strategies and tactics that drive the business sector. There’s the rub—a fundamental disconnect. Further, Pallotta argues that the public tends to fixate too tenaciously on fundraising ratios and low overhead costs as the only relevant success measures. These arbitrary efficiency calculations do not always translate into results—or impact, for that matter. Instead, he calls for donors to focus on this:

“What has the organization achieved, and what can it achieve with my donation?”

Pallotta challenges us to speak up on behalf of nonprofits and actively educate donors on the necessity of cost-effective administrative expenses and business techniques that can build the best launching pads for nonprofits and—the change they seek to create.

What do you think?

What are you?

ElaineGantzWright’s blog is for people interested in using the Web and online marketing to drive social change. Elaine covers social media for nonprofits, philanthropy trends, online giving, cause marketing, random life musings, and more. Find out more at SocialFuse.

ringquestion I am the first to admit it. I am an anomaly—a distinctive amalgam of eclectic experiences and pronounced passions. I am a seasoned, accomplished professional, schooled in the most traditional marketing media techniques; but I have also journeyed to the cutting edge of the vast social media abyss. It’s largely uncharted territory for my brethren “of a certain age,” so carving out my professional niche while straddling disparate worlds, approaches, and generations can be a challenge.

In fact, I am still processing a recent conversation with a respected nonprofit headhunter in Dallas. The silver-maned, super-savvy staffing pro peered over his polished tortoiseshell reading glasses, took a breath, and asked, “So, Elaine, what are you?” The silence was palpable. I’m thinking in my rattled brain things like—single mom, daughter, job-seeker, brunette, social media consultant, and . . . derailed.

He continued, “So really, are you a fundraiser, or are you a marketer? Which one? I think you need to decide.” My first reaction to that was, “Well, of course, I’m both, and that is the value that I bring to my clients and my employers.” I’m not sure he bought that, because he added, “Well, you have to understand that my client needs to churn out hundreds of funding proposals.” I think he was just a product of his context—his pre-Web 2.0 consciousness.

All weekend, I have pondered that three-hour conversation and its many nuances. Lots of food for thought as he expertly excised ever decision I have ever made since age four. Invasive yet thought-provoking. Later, I mused that I really do hate labels, but I understand they are a necessary evil in the recruiting biz—especially with this economy with such a buyer’s market. But, I suspect I do have to address the question—what (or who) am I, anyway? And what is it I am on this earth to accomplish?

I know I have I entered the social media space for a reason—even though I am not your typical demographic for the job. And I believe more strongly than ever that social media is becoming the new norm and the essential vehicle for product and service communication—whether it’s for nonprofits or for-profits. It’s merging the accepted definitions of marketing, sales, public relations, market research, customer service—and even fundraising for nonprofits.

socapThe recent Socap 09 Conference is a salient example of this invention and innovation. It exemplifies our morphing toolbox for addressing social needs. The whole realm of social enterprise fascinates me. Though the concept of the “social entrepreneur” may even seem like an oxymoron to some, it’s the emerging reinvention of society’s approach to achieving results in the social sector—a new way to think about ROI and change the world.

Socap09 in San Francisco brought together a unique mix of the world’s leading social innovators—traditional investors, impact investors, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, new media evangelists, NGOs and nonprofits, wealth managers, development agencies, venture capitalists, MBA students, and other groups interested in the growing opportunities related to social capital. These folks account for a new breed of philanthropist—the social catalysts. Last year’s conference gathered more than 650 leading global investors and entrepreneurs from 26 countries. This year’s sold out again and featured speakers from the Skoll Foundation, Food Inc, LINKtv, Invisible Children, Global Giving, the World Economic Forum, Virgance, Kiva, Change.org, Ushahidi, McKinsey, The Economist, and many others. The opening keynote will be given by Sonal Shah, director of the White House Office for Social Innovation.

Founder Kevin Jones said, “In these turbulent times, social innovators in the public and private sectors, from foundations to social venture funds to development agencies to grassroots Web 2.0 activists, are working together to build a new economic foundation for the world.”

I heard about one panel that particularly intrigued me. Having worked with a fledgling cause website, I know this space can be tricky and challenging. “The Future of Social Innovation on the Web” panel was facilitated by Dennis Whittle of Global Giving and featured Premal Shah of Kiva.org, Jonathan Greenblatt of Our Good Works, Steve Newcomb of Virgance, and Ben Rattray of Change.org.

Beth Kanter attended and interviewed several of these guys after their presentation. She reported that Premal talked about the need for creating “magic for users” and building in workflow software that actively facilitates relationship-building through a clear process of engagement. In talking about the next Web transition, he said, “If Web 1.0 is about one-way communication, and Web 2.0 is about two-way communication, then Web 3.0 is about building a bridge between two-way online communication and offline actions and impact.”

Ben Rattray commented on the effectiveness of social media platforms—now and down the road:

“The vast majority of social good platforms have failed because they have modeled social-good platforms on commercial applications. We assumed that if we created a generic platform that people would start their own actions. They don’t. It isn’t as easy to throw up an action on the web as it is to throw up a video. The vision is to provide a platform for collective social action, so it is easy for people who care about an issue to connect. There must be catalytic organizations. If you build the platform, will spontaneous organizing happen? No! Synthesis of grassroots organizations is needed to channel social change.”

And from Premal Shah:

“Kiva is at the intersection of money and meaning. There is going to be a socially responsible investment. There is a third access – it is not about ROI or social impact. It’s the user experience that drives adoption. Never underestimate something that is fun and has short feedback loops. If we want people to engage, it has to be easy, fun, and addictive. Return on experience versus investment.”

Clearly, the line between for-profit and nonprofit is blurring. It’s less about “what you are,” and more about what you can achieve.

Stay tuned, hold on tight, and think about it . . .
“What are you?” or better yet, “What do you want to be?”

No more waiting in the weeds: Make time to grow your social media garden

ElaineGantzWright’s blog is for people interested in using the Web and online marketing to drive social change. Elaine covers social media for nonprofits, philanthropy trends, online giving, cause marketing, random life musings, and more. Find her at SocialFuse.

gardenI recently read Josh Catone’s Mashable post on the “5 Essential Tips for Promoting Your Charity Using Social Media.” I applaud Josh’s concise synthesis of the basic-level concepts defining social media. But I really think it’s time to help organizations get specific and tactical. We need to move from musing to mastering. Many of the organizations I advise are still befuddled and overwhelmed by social media. They seem to view social media as some separate, daunting frontier they need to confront and invade. However, in many ways, social media is really just a new, better way of helping nonprofits do what they do best – engage. It’s made for us! We need to move the conversation from “Why should we?” to “How should we?” It’s now more of a functional shift than a philosophical one. Josh’s recommendations are well-taken and commonly held. Yet, here are some additional thoughts to ponder to take your strategy to the next level:

Build a Plan and Work It.
Josh instructs that you’ll get a much better return on your investment in social media if you take the time to actually engage your followers, friends, and constituents. He warns that we should not just broadcast information. We should consume it, as well. Indeed, this is the way social media works, but the question is – How do we work this? To foster relationships, organizations need to officially delegate responsibility for regular care, feeding, and cultivation of online communities to staff, trained volunteers, or perhaps, an outside agency or consultant. Simply creating a Facebook fan page or Twitter profile will not produce results. Start by assessing the following:

• Your Goals – SEO, PR, traffic (to drive awareness? advertising click-thrus? conversions?)
• Your Audience – Where do your constituents/stakeholders live? What do you want them to do?
• Your Resources – You, interns, staff, agency, consultant? Budget? Communication tools?

Social media is organic – much like a garden which must be regularly tended and even weeded. It’s all about activity and careful attention. Here are some specific tasks to help your garden take root and thrive:

• Create and update blogs and tags at least once a week.
• Respond to all blog comments within 24 hours.
• Pose questions in and respond to queries in relevant Linked In discussion groups.
• Tweet at least once daily and retweet (RT@) content relevant to your mission.
• Respond to Facebook comments promptly, and update Facebook status at least daily.
• Post high-value content, such as videos, articles, and blogs across key social media platforms.
• Identify the A-List blogs and cultivate positive relationships with as many as possible to persuade them to blog about your issue. Or guest blog for them.
• Drop html links with target anchor text related to a specific call to action, relevant product, or web resource for an additional SEO lift and traffic increase.
• Start and update a custom, branded community such as Ning to drive engagement and enhance SEO on your own site.

Create a Human Persona.
Social media is your opportunity to put a face on your organization and to humanize interaction. Those who are immersed in social media are not really looking for a press release or canned “mission statement.” They are hungry for intimate, behind-the-scenes, authentic access. Think about ways to make the private public. This is the messaging that will attract and embrace.

Create Valuable Content.
Josh recommends sharing only the highest quality content. This is key. I was speaking with a friend just today about the challenge of being inundated with information. With so much competition for the attention of constituents, you need to make sure the content you publish and share is relevant and real. So, be sure to consider the context and the medium. Perhaps, consider experimenting with videos on your website – feature video testimonials from donors and/or recipients. Social media is about storytelling – truth that touches the heart.

Create Community Instantly
Social media gives you the power to spread information quickly. Using social media platforms to issue a call to action online can trigger viral campaigns rapidly, economically, and effectively – enabling you to reach new audiences. Plus, using tools, such as #hashtags on Twitter, can help you create improvised communities around issues on the fly. Hashtags are a community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets. They’re like tags on Flickr, but you add them directly to your post. You create a hashtag simply by prefixing a word with a hash symbol: #hashtag. Read more about them on Beth Kanter’s blog.

Create a Social Media Culture.
Just as everyone in a healthy organization is a salesperson, everyone in your organization should help cultivate your social media presence. As Josh says, if everyone at your charity is connecting with people on Twitter and Facebook, you’ll be able to engage many more people than if just a couple of folks are tasked with using social media tools. But, in the realm of the tactical, you should not expect this to “just happen magically.” Create a social media policy – even if it consists of a simple public relations calendar of messages, events, or campaigns to discuss organization-wide. Include your staff, donors, and even recipients. And don’t forget your board of directors. Nonprofits are constantly seeking ways to engage boards in resource building, and social media is a great way to involve boards of directors – especially when it comes to tapping into their potentially powerful spheres of influence.

“That is well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.”
-Voltaire

How are you cultivating your social media garden? What’s helping you thrive? Let me know if you need help planting the seeds. Find me at SocialFuse.

The New General Store

general2Think back to the days of the old general store. We knew our merchants in the neighborhood personally—around the corner and down the road. We knew exactly what they sold and where they stood. They were members of the community, and they earned trust through referral and association. Enter the industrial age—efficiency trumped personalization. People didn’t mind where they shopped—as long as goods were cheap and abundant. Soon, the suburbs emerged, and the impersonal, monolithic box stores were born. In many ways, we are now coming full circle. Perceived value of anonymous, depersonalized transactions is waning.

Consumers are once again seeking personalization, even intimacy, from business interactions—large and small. In terms of accountability and integrity, marketing spin is no longer enough. It can even ring hollow. The Internet has rendered a heightened expectation of veracity and transparency. Now, we are quick to question the authenticity of advertising and the sincerity of sales pitches. Once again, consumers want to know the store’s owner, the business dealings of the board’s president, and the organization’s endowment investment practices, etc. Focus has returned to key customers and core consciousness. The beauty of social media is that it allows us to accelerate cultivation of these open, honest relationships. Through social media, businesses can make themselves more accessible, more personable, more real, and almost instantly differentiate.

Integration. ROI. Relevance. These are all terms buzzing around the implementation of social media. My niche is nonprofits, but the same questions are swirling about for small businesses, as well. I hear many people say they need to be able to measure ROI and justify the expense. The concern is understandable in our strapped economic climate, but the truth is that we can’t afford to ignore social media! It is more than just the shiniest tool in the drawer or a trend relegated to eager interns. It’s becoming the new communication standard –- expected and demanded by an enlightened, savvy class of consumers and/or donors who require personal, real-time engagement, instant response, and interactive branding.

And it’s applicable to every type of business. Cafes, retail stores, professional services, and grassroots nonprofits can use social media to build online reputations, propel trust to new levels, and jettison concerns about the time required to manage the process. It’s a dance—not a speech. In fact, the magic is in the mambo! Here are 4 essential ways to get started today:

1. Think locally.
Consumers are using local social networks, such as Yelp and The Examiner to find businesses and make recreational decisons. And they also get the “social proof” they need when making choices. They use comments and reviews to determine the “best” listing and make the buying decision. Because these sites attract people ready to make a decision, small businesses can see a great return from local social networks. Many of these sites will let business owners “claim” their listings and add information, such as phone numbers, store hours, menus, etc.

2. Create on online destination and sales pipeline.
When you think about social media, you may focus on Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. You may not immediately consider a dedicated presence on your own site. It makes enormous business sense to aggregate your social profiles in one place. And, remember to make your profile decisions carefully. Choose your “tent posts” strategically. Don’t pepper the world with a plethora of profiles. In fact, consider creating a blog or custom social community on your own site. Why push your consumers to connect with you on other sites, but not give them a reason to visit yours? Building and writing a blog may seem time-consuming, but it creates a way to connect with users through your own web address. Additionally, creating useful content such as how-tos or industry insights will attract and engage customers. For business owners or nonprofit execs who are daunted by the prospect of regular blog updates, build a “Connect” or “Community” page. This offers readers a way to find your business’ most active profiles and join you on those social sites. The page could also include a short bio or how you use each social site. Giving consumers a reason to visit your site is extremely important. A blog or “social hub” can pull consumers to your site and directly into the sales process.

3. Jump into Facebook and Twitter.
Everyone is talking about Twitter and Facebook, but you may be stumped about how to actually get started. With Twitter, you can cater to your customer or donor needs, requests, and complaints instantly. In a world where everything needs to be done yesterday, a quick response can create a lifelong customer and fervent brand advocate. On Facebook, a Fan Page allows a business to visualize and build a community, similar to Twitter. However, unlike Twitter, you can add and customize a great deal more.

At the very least, you should update your Fan Page “status” to keep consumers informed and engaged. A more advanced technique would be to add things like coupons or Google maps directions to the storefront.

4. Discover crowdsourcing.
Finally, consider creating a custom wiki, which harnesses the phenomenon called crowdsourcing. In other words, use your customers to give information to other consumers. Wikipedia is often cited as a successful example of crowdsourcing, despite objections by co-founder Jimmy Wales to the term.

The easiest way to do this is by creating a wiki for your FAQ or Customer Service knowledge base. Let your consumers enter the problems they’ve had via a public forum (the wiki), and provide your responses publicly as well. Although showing problems may seem backwards, it’s a very effective way to retain customers and generate new sales in the new context of social media.

Consumers know that mistakes happen, and they now expect their questions will be answered quickly. Also, with a public wiki, customers can reference response to the concern, saving time for both you and the customer. With minimal moderation, a wiki can build trust in your business and make your customer service more efficient.

The contextual shift is about engaging in dialogue, and opposed to delivering a message. How are you making the transition? Let me know.

Finding Faith in Social Media

Mo Ranch 2009
Mo Ranch 2009

Theoretically, I know that church is much more than a building or a weekly activity on the to-do list. But no other experience proves that more clearly than my annual trip to Mo Ranch outside of Kerrville, Texas in the pristine splendor of the Texas Hill Country. Though I consider myself an inveterate urban gal, there is something so ethereal, so transformational about the majestic beauty of the grand, sweeping vistas of the Presbyterian Mo Ranch retreat. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes—even as I type this.

Leaving behind responsibilities, have-tos, and the clanging of electronic gadgets is actually no easy task (particularly challenging for my teenagers). No Internet, no cell phones, no WiFi—but, oh, some amazing connections—of the human kind. I relished the hours of talking and listening, of singing and laughing, of weeping and praying. One of my fellow retreaters suggested this environment gives God the space to utter, “Can you hear me now?”

The stillness reminds us of the clutter and clatter we muddle through every day—increasing in density and volume with every new Tweet, Ringtone, and Poke.

But, it’s our reality—and our opportunity, really. Just as there is a time and place for sharing the view of a thousand glittering diamonds strewn across the deep dark blanket of a Texas night sky, there is also a place for connecting in new, unexpected ways through the mysteries of new media.

I have been thinking a great deal about using social media to enhance my church community and perhaps the lives of other congregations. I see it as a natural way to build the community of God with bold, new voices— beyond Sunday morning and the bricks and mortar of the tangible place called church. In her article, “The Church on Facebook” in The Christian Century, Lenora Rand makes a compelling argument on behalf of virtual community for churches. As she points out, “Church isn’t where you meet. Church isn’t a building. Church is what you do. Church is who you are.”

Church is carrying out the work of God in our lives, homes, and communities. I am so proud of the work of First Presbyterian Church of Dallas—serving about 1,500 meals a day through The Stewpot in conjunction with The Bridge to those in desperate need, as well as sponsoring other youth and adult-driven community service projects around the city, the country, and the world.

On Sunday morning each week, we meet with others of like mind and beliefs to worship; however, social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter can provide a valuable, even profound extension of our community-building opportunities. In our hectic world, we can look to Facebook, Twitter, or other online communities to provide a safe place for revealing our truths, sharing our frustrations, supporting each other in sorrow and joy, and even praying for one another in specific ways. We are hungry for a place to share our burdens and offer shoulders.

Often, the authenticity and truth of much of the communication on Facebook and Twitter astounds me. Admissions can range from cries of hopelessness after a layoff, to the anguish of life upheaval after divorce, to the utter joy of a child’s first steps. It’s a way to connect, engage, and soothe frayed emotions, weakened bodies, and aching hearts—woven into the fabric of our over-scheduled days and sleepless nights.

Last week, I wrote about the concept associated with Twitter called “ambient intimacy.” Commenting on my blog post, one of my readers clarified that blogger Leisa Reichelt originally coined the term. Reichelt says, “Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.”

Some may say—who cares?

But she contents, “There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like. Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catch up with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch.”

Social media a powerful, intimate way to share the human experience—and perhaps even the Holy Spirit as we reach out to touch souls in an evolving, increasingly complicated world.

There are so many contradictions
In all these messages we send
(We keep asking)
How do I get out of here
Where do I fit in?
Though the world is torn and shaken
Even if your heart is breakin’
It’s waiting for you to awaken
And someday you will-
Learn to be still
Learn to be still

from “Learn to Be Still,” The Eagles

The Tweet Life: Ambient Intimacy and other Epiphanies

twitter6To say Twitter is hot would be quite the understatement. In a world thirsty for leadership, everyone seems to be following these days! In the past week, I have attended some interesting presentations on the Internet and making sense of social media for business. It’s a reality and a resource—no doubt, but there is still rampant confusion about how to optimize it. I am very interested to know how you view social media and use it.

I met a true social media master this week—Ben Smithee. He is an astute Gen Y entrepreneur steeped in the savvy of social media—particularly for market research. He says no one has ever called him a guru, but I certainly would. Ben has an impressive grasp of all the latest and greatest tools. Regarding Twitter, he recommends we not Tweet as a business, but as a human voice. Make your messages personal, conversational—not institutional or programmatic. Interact with customers, donors, or clients as individuals, not a solid mass. It’s Communication 101. Make it intimate. In fact, I absolutely loved Ben’s term for social media—“ambient intimacy.”

And then, it hit me! That’s the magic of social media. It permeates our everyday lives. Call it habit or even addiction, as some have. For many, social media can become part of their everyday unconscious impulses. That why we need to pay attention to this stuff. We can actually use Twitter and other social media tools to enhance intimacy with patrons, donors, customers, or clients by humanizing your missions and our value propositions. Focus on the anecdotal—on stories with authentic fiber, as opposed to carefully crafted messages. It takes so much more than an understanding of the tools and technology that power social networks to inspire change and build long-term, meaningful relationships. You must immerse yourself in the conversation.

You are the personality and the soul of the brand you represent. Think of social media as the page where compose the poetry to inspire. These tools are born from technological advances, but they are rooted in the most basic elements of human communication—conversation, curiosity, caring, and connection. I guess you could call them the four “Cs” of social media—a girl’s (or boy’s) “second” best friend, I suspect. Here are a few more tips and concepts for your Tweet Sheet:

Tweet. Message to your followers.
Retweet. Share status messages on Twitter. It’s a great way of building relationships.
@Replies. Direct a message that is available to all. Great way to lift others up.
#Hastags. Create ways to search and group information/initiatives/activities.#MoRanch
Promote your blog or podcast. But try to do it conversationally. Ask people what they think or pose a rhetorical question. Don’t just SPAM the URL. Also, be careful about headlines or questions that are TOO provocative. I have learned this the hard way. Sometimes it’s best to leave your clever copywriter hat in the closet and just be REAL.
Follow a specific cause of entity. Consider finding the right people tweeting about that cause or entity, and build a blended dashboard tool such as Hootsuite.
Understand how people are really using Twitter. Monitor the @ replies, and see how they interact with others. Some folks use Twitter like a megaphone, and others use it like a walkie-talkie.
Make business connections. As always, listen first. Learn more about the person, follow their links, read their blogs, and get to know them. As I have said in the past on my blog, it’s a courtship. You date before you marry. In this space, you listen, respond, and participate—before you pitch or solicit!
Create a tweet strategy. Instead of tweeting “what are you doing?” try “What are you passionate about?” The answer to that could be very interesting and revealing.

And for nonprofit causes, hashtags have become an effective tool in building awareness and motivating action. They make it easy to search and identify a particular trend. Blame Drew’s Cancer http://blamedrewscancer.com/# (hashtag: #blamedrewscancer) is a great example. Drew Olanoff recently contracted Hodgkins Lymphoma, and launched his campaign. The tweets are pulled into http://www.blamedrewscancer.com with the goal that their sheer volume will trigger a large donation from a nonprofit organization. The site recently announced that Livestrong will be a partner.

So, get creative! And let us know—what’s working for you? Follow me.

Tweet Surrender: The Truth about Twitter

tweet_twoThe decibel level of Twitter buzz only continues to crescendo. Harvard Business School is even studying the complexities of Tweet-ology. A Harvard MBA student examined the activity of a random sample of 300,000 Twitter users in May of this year—to try to understand the phenomenon that is Twitter. We hear it referenced almost daily—and more and more, you can follow just about anyone or anything on Twitter, but what’s really going on? And this begs the question—just how do we make it work for us?

Continuing along my own journey of social media comprehension, I have to admit I was startled by this recent data—especially in comparison to what I know about other popular social media sites, such as Facebook. The researchers discovered that 80% of those sampled were “followed by” or “followed” at least one user. By comparison, only 60 to 65% of other online social media site members have at least one friend (measuring these stats for sites at similar levels of development). This suggests that entrenched, active users really do understand exactly how Twitter works. (Unlike much of the non-Web 2.0 world.) The initiated get it — not really too much of a revelation, methinks.

However, it’s the metrics around gender behavior that particularly intrigue me. Although men and women follow a similar number of Twitter users, men have 15% more followers than women. And, men also have more reciprocated relationships, in which two users follow each other. This “follower split” suggests that women are driven less by followers than men, or perhaps they have more stringent criteria for reciprocating relationships. This seems somehow counter-intuitive, though—especially given that females hold a slight majority on Twitter—45% are men, and 55% are women.

Even more enlightening is— who follows whom:
• A man is two times more likely to follow another man than a woman.
• A woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman.
• A man is 40% more likely to be followed by another man than by a woman.

This cannot be explained by different tweeting activity, either, because both men and women tweet at the same rate. These results are remarkable in light of previous social media research. On other social networks, most of the activity is focused around women. Men seem to follow content produced by women they do and do not know, and women follow content produced by women they know.

Generally, men receive comparatively little attention from other men or from women. The researchers conjectured that perhaps men and women find the content produced by other men on Twitter more compelling than on other social networks. And maybe, men find the content produced by women less compelling because of the lack of photo sharing, detailed biographies, etc. After all, men are visual creatures.

Or could the cryptic nature of the 140-character-post limit and truncated URLs inhibit more meaningful sharing—that women often prefer? It’s a thought-provoking question.

Overall, Twitter’s usage patterns are also very different from a typical online social network. On Twitter, there is a small, very active user group. Specifically, the top 10% of Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. Oh, there’s that old 90/10 rule again! Fundraising 101, indeed. On a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for only about 30% of all production.

From this perspective, Twitter is actually more of a one-way, one-to-many communication vehicle than a two-way, peer-to-peer network. Perhaps this is why it has logged greater success in the fundraising realm for nonprofits than some of the other more widely distributed social media options. Worth considering. The leaders initiate and the followers acquiesce. Hmmm . . . a whole new way to think about the social web? Perhaps a new social science. I wonder.

What do you think? @ellagantz