Top 10 Tips for the Effective Use of Social Media

While my job here at Microsoft consumes much of my waking life, I spend a little of my spare time volunteering with a small charitable organization called HEAL Africa. They do work in the Democratic Republic of Congo healing victims of sexual violence from the ongoing civil war there. It’s a compelling story of how an organization is changing lives in an appalling situation, but I digress from the purpose of this entry.

One area they asked me to think about is how they can use social media effectively – a question that many charities and non-profit organizations wrestle with. And of course, it’s an area of great interest to evangelists like myself: an area that is a daily focus as we attempt to change perceptions of emerging technologies like IE9 and Silverlight.

So I thought I’d share a few thoughts here, both as a forcing function for me to distil a few ideas and hopefully as something that might be of interest to others.

  1. Know what you’re trying to achieve. Too few organizations have a clear sense of the outcomes they hope to realize from engaging in social networks. What are your goals? Many organizations spend a lot of time encouraging supporters to ‘follow’ them on networks like Twitter and Facebook without much sense of why this is important or what they’ll do with these people once mobilized. This has a negative, rather than a positive effect – it diverts attention away from a core mission, and it leaves supporters with a premature feeling that they’ve ‘done their part’. Remember your core mission and be cautious about using followers as a proxy metric of success.
  2. Know your audience. Assuming some measure of success, it’s important to have a clear sense of who you’re communicating with. In a non-profit setting, those who follow you on a social network are likely already your supporters. A familiar trap is organizations who fail to recognize the difference between converting and energizing. In this setting, converting is the act of trying to persuade new people to side with your cause or invest in some way; energizing is the act of deepening an existing relationship or motivating someone to act in some way. The way you engage online should vary depending on whether your audience primarily consists of dedicated volunteers or those who have no prior knowledge of your organization. Fortunately, online channels tend to self-segment – a Facebook page is likely to be dominated with those who need energizing. A blog will often reach a far more diverse audience who aren’t already invested.
  3. Use social and online media to humanize your organization. It’s tempting to take press releases or other news items and blast them out on all available channels. But that’s not the best use of social media – it disconnects you from your audience rather than creating a closer connection. This is your opportunity to put a more human face to your organization: telling the inside story, being open and transparent about how you think through issues and challenges, and providing a perspective that others can relate to. Ensure that you don’t edit out the personality. Tell people about the things you’ve done right, and the things you can learn from.
  4. Be timely. Social media is about a flow of discourse and a conversation, rather than about blasting your message out to an audience. Use channels like Twitter and blogs to provide an up-to-the-minute view of the work you’re doing, offering fresh, first-hand updates on the situation that respond to current trends or news. You can only set the news agenda when you’re part of this flow.
  5. Don’t moderate views that you dislike. To some people this is obvious, to others it’s counter-intuitive. If you are changing perceptions, you’re necessarily going to be bumping into those who don’t share your views. On a blog, it’s tempting to moderate or delete comments that provide an opposing view: it feels like a guest has come into your home and is insulting your choice of décor. Yet for the most part, these are the comments to relish: they demonstrate that you are engaged in an authentic conversation that is generating a reaction. There’s a lot more to say on this topic that I’ll perhaps address in a future post.
  6. Build a public record. Particularly with blogs, podcasts and similar channels, consistency is key. Unless you establish a regular cadence of content, you’ll never establish a regular cadence of visitors. That doesn’t mean you have to post at a certain time each day: you don’t have to be rigid about it, but don’t go dark for weeks on end either. Remember that everything you post has a lifetime that extends for years beyond the original week of posting. Looking at the traffic to my blog, maybe as much as two-thirds of it goes to content I wrote in the preceding months rather than what is on the current home page.
  7. Be a recommendation engine. In social media, the currency traded isn’t the dollar: it’s influence, reputation and audience. Use your own influence and reputation to give other interesting organizations or individuals their own spotlight. Follow and link to those around you who are doing interesting things. Unlike real money, trading online currency is that it isn’t a zero-sum game – in fact, the more you give, the more you earn. Even your competitors can be your allies in this regard. But whatever you do, be authentic – don’t fall into the trap of trading links for cynical gain. Make your recommendations count.
  8. Strike up a conversation. The single most valuable outcome of social media is to strike up a conversation with your supporters or customers, giving you a much more accurate ability to channel their needs and wants. Don’t just pontificate: ask questions. The goal isn’t to preach, it’s to collaborate. You need to listen more than you talk. Give air for others to contribute – don’t leap in immediately with a reply to any comment that’s made because that stifles a broader discussion. Show you’re listening by responding, but don’t necessarily feel the need to offer a blow-by-blow response to every point that’s made.
  9. Understand the volume level. Once in a while you have an earth-shattering announcement that blows out the barn doors. But not everything “goes to 11”. It’s important to understand the volume level you want to apply to what you share, otherwise it’ll be hard for others to spot when you’re telling them something big. My team often talks about new things we’re doing in terms of the impact it’s going to make – to use another analogy, how much it “moves the needle”. You have to have dynamic range in your communications – if everything is shouted from the rooftops, people will stop listening.
  10. To build traffic, go where your audience is. Don’t spam or steal someone else’s platform to push your cause. But spend time growing your profile and influence through others’ sites. Get involved and comment – become known for insightful responses that add value to the debates folks are having in other forums. When posting comments on another blog, use your real email and web address, but don’t be nakedly self-promoting.

What do you think? What would you add? What are your most effective strategies? Have you seen good counter-examples where the “accepted wisdom” is in fact the wrong way to engage?