Is Social Networking Oversold?

On the Pubtalkblog.org reading list, I recently linked to an article series title Climbing the Pyramid of Nonprofit Technology Needs. The author suggests the social media tools (e.g. Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, et al.) are being oversold to nonprofits that have neither the internal infrastructure nor the tech-savvy people to make effective use of them. He says this is particularly true for small nonprofits operating without a dedicated IT staffer or department.

Think of this as a hierarchy of things your nonprofit should probably have in place before you can get to doing social media. There’s no doubt that each level represents a moving part that may require a nonprofit’s focus from time to time. That’s the nature of how nonprofits work. However, for the small nonprofit still spinning up their operations, it’s best to approach this pyramid from the bottom up as you really cannot move towards social media without everything else working.

My schoolmate Peter Fleck and I both made presentations to the New Times - New Tech conference last Friday. Peter's deck of slides included a quote from Marshall Ganz: "Tools don't build houses. Carpenters build houses." For me, this summarizes the misplaced priorities that trap some organizations in a seemingly endless cycle of "tech mediocrity."

The temptation to reach out to a new audience using the latest social networking tool is great. After all, signing up for an account on Facebook, for example, is free. Using Facebook effectively, however, is not free. Effective use of any tool (hammer, scalpel, computer, etc.) requires a not-insignificant investment of time and energy. Further, measuring the results that accrue from use of the tool may not be a trivial task.

Building technology infrastructure is cheaper than ever. "Cloud computing," commodity tech components, and advances in networking technology have greatly reduced the marginal cost of meeting a growing organization's technology needs.

Given the low cost of technology relative to human resources or training, throwing the kitchen sink at an ill-defined technology "problem" seems to be too easy--an irresistible temptation. Does this "hierarchy of tech needs" seem to make sense for today's small nonprofits? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments!

UPDATE: I just read this article at Minnpost.com:

Photos, video, maps, restaurant reviews and more have become "socially connected," enabling people who are connected to share information, aggregate this data, move it and participate in its creation with digital devices and Internet connections instantly. The expectation of these "always-on, always-connected" people is this: You, your business or organization are right there alongside them engaged and participating online.

You're not? Then, increasingly this group will perceive you as not terribly savvy, perhaps arrogant, disinterested or disconnected and, therefore, less than worthy of doing business or connecting with going forward.

I counter that being perceived to be "un-savvy" or "arrogant" is not necessarily more damaging than mediocre effectiveness. Given limited staff time and resources, is it better to be spread thin across many social networks or invest deeply in a free-standing website. I think it's an open question--what do you think?

Comments

While it seems essential to have a communication plan in place- after all these approaches are just one more technique for communication-I would be disappointed if nonprofits stayed away from Social Media because they don't have every other thing done.

In my organization I've found that this is an opportunity to build on the strengths of our staff. A few individuals who are particuallarly interested in these communication venues are exploring. In this way, we are learning about the possiblities without over investing too early.

Further, while our primary audience is not yet the Twitter/Facebook crowd- it seems irresonsible not to try to begin to understand where tomorrow's donors are coming from.

Suzy--thanks for the comment. You are right, understanding the medium through which tomorrow's donors communicate is important. Giving your staff the freedom to explore is great--strategically crafting small-scale experiments will expose both the possibility inherent in social media as well as its limitations and costs. All best!

Thanks for linking to the article I wrote, Bjorn. I understand Suzy's concern but I have to point out that many of the things I see undone (because they're publicly viewable) are primarily websites for nonprofits. They quite frequently have low Google PageRank and website.grader.com scores even after an expensive redesign.

Most of the fixes I suggest take less than 10 minutes to do (assuming the site is using a content management system) and the adoption of a couple of habitual behaviors when posting new content to the Web. When you compare that to the tremendous amount of time that one needs to invest in a social media strategy, well, let's just say I'm a proponent of working smarter rather than harder.

Social media strategies center around building relationships with donors but all nonprofit staff must sleep and the only proxy for their work is their website. If the website is poorly implemented, what good is a social media strategy? The potential synergies that can result from having a well-done web site and a good social media strategy would never be fully realized. It's clear to me that capacity issues at small nonprofits, especially those under $5 million in revenue, will always make it difficult for them to carry out social media strategies.

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