By Leonard Sipes
The purpose of the series is to explain social media and to attempt to “cut through the clutter” and offer an understanding of social media and effective methods to employ.
We were one of the first agencies to engage in social media and a large number of government, criminal justice and nonprofit agencies have come to us for advice and guidance. This paper is a collective overview of our experience.
What is social media?
First, a working definition of social media; it’s a web based effort to give customers interesting material so they have a better understanding as to what your agency or organization does. Customers read, watch or listen to your materials and respond thus giving the agency the information it needs to accomplish operational goals.
The key aspect is the word “social.” You have an on-line conversation with your customers. You offer content that’s compelling; they offer their opinions or provide needed information. Social media is, in essence, today’s focus group.
Social media accomplishes operational goals. We’re not doing this to be interesting or informative; we’re doing it to advance the mission of the organization.
It sounds so simple but the reality is anything but. Those entering social media have expressed considerable dismay regarding the complexity and work required and they have every reason to be concerned.
Social media is like a dog-fight; it’s quick and furious and confusing. Those inhabiting the internet can be sophomoric and crude—they can also be insightful and informative. It’s like having a party for thousands of people where most bring something to contribute and some get obnoxious and loud.
For those who like things nice and tidy, social media is not for you. For those who like to get things done, well, the reality is that social media is a daily and ongoing process that never ends.
Two Kinds of Social Media Efforts
Keep in mind that there are two kinds of social media efforts. Some sites are static. You do your best to create really interesting content and you update that content and you have a method of contacting staff but that’s it. I suggest that most of you start with a static site and gradually move towards more frequent postings.
But social media can and often does mean daily or frequent creation of content. Every day (or very often) you are offering new material (often referred to as a blog) or a great video or television show or a dynamite audio or radio product or an analysis of someone’s work.
People come to your site because you frequently post new material. There are legions of people who will come to your site daily because they really like what you do. Your association goes from little influence to a national source of information on the subject you care about. You are now a nationally-known authority.
But getting there involves a price in time and money and there are many who are unwilling to pay the price. I “may” be correct when I observe that most who want their organization to be influential drop out of the process. It’s simply too confusing; too demanding.
Posting daily (or frequent) content is marketing and may be the best form of reaching other people. But content does not have to be long or complex; it can be a couple paragraphs about a new initiative or recent research. The bottom-line is that it’s interesting and informative. Most bureaucracies kill writers or other content creators with too much control so no one on staff wants to write or create.
Your bureaucracy need to understand that content creation needs a simple approval process.
We need to get beyond what we were taught in college about writing; material for the web needs to be short (200-400 words) and it needs to get to the point quickly. Internet readers skim rather than read. They will spend a minute or two on your site and move on.
Video and audio? Doing a short (one to two minutes) audio or video post on a new subject and posting it on your site and YouTube takes minutes to do.
There are flip video cameras that cost well less than $200.00 (many closer to $100.00) that will allow almost instant creations and posting to your site and/or YouTube.
Please note that internet users (and all learners) want a variety of formats; there are people who would rather watch or listen than read.
But the question is exposure. Would you rather have 10,000 people interested in what you do come to you and spend two minutes a day being exposed to your material? Most companies would love to have that exposure.
Just remember that speed, relevancy and interest rules the internet. Most organizations move with the speed of a wounded snail thus taking them out of contention. The question remains, are you willing to talk to millions or are you willing to concede the issue to others?
National Social Media Sites
There are endless social media sites out there to post material to.
Posting material from your website to lots of additional websites gives your material greater exposure and created additional links back to your site (see below for a discussion on links).
You don’t need many. At this writing, Twitter, Facebook and StumbleUpon (sometimes Reddit) seem to work best for non-profits and government agencies. Note that every organization will discover for themselves what works best, but too many trying to do social media are posting their content in too many forums. Note that you can have thousands of followers yet traffic to your site can be negligible. Many follow just to market to you.
Dot Gov or Dot Org
Search engines like Google like government sites so if that applies to you, get a .gov as part of your domain name (address for your site).
For you poor smucks that have associations, woe be unto you. Google and the other search engines distrust new websites and will not send you traffic until your sites ages and you have a sufficient number of links (people placing something on their sites that point back to yours). Most successful sites are two to three years old and have a minimum of 500 links (view a link as a vote of confidence for your site or something you posted on your site).
That means that you will create all that great content and few will see it during the first year, but they will see it later when Google starts send you greater amounts of traffic “if” you index it properly or place it into categories your audience is interested in.
One more item to consider; Google and the other search engines do not have the ability to judge the quality of sites. I’ve seen sites that haven’t posted material in years with terrible and inaccurate content rank much higher than great sites with wonderful content because the competing site is old and carries many links.
If you have an older site, please develop your social media effort using the address for the older site; don’t start a new site. Why? I assisted a national criminal justice organization that had a website for the last ten years and they were not aware that had hundreds of links. All they had to do was create new content and use keywords within content (keywords are the words-phrases people are searching for).
They went from being un-findable to quickly going to the top of the list on Google searches (for those keywords) all because that added relevant content (with key words) and posted frequently and were willing to interact with their “customers.”
Interacting with Customers
Don’t worry about the time you need to spend with people who react to your sites. Develop fact sheets on all of your main content areas and use the fact sheets to respond. Most people using our sites simply complement us on our efforts, But when they offer information you can use, thank them. When they offer good information or criticism, interact with them; ask them what it is that they need or get clarification. It’s important to your mission.
Don’t develop sites with Flash (software presenting motion). Keep it simple. Users want simplicity and quick access. Big corporations use Flash all the time but they can get away with it. You want to keep your site relevant to the needs of users.
We’ve seen sites created entirely in Flash. But the search engines can’t search Flash or photographs; the search engines search words. All their effort to become a presence on the internet were doomed to failure because no one could find their site unless that already knew the address (URL).
Finding People to Interact With or Market to–Facebook
For many of us, finding our key audience is almost impossible. For me, finding people interested in criminal justice related issues is very hard unless you have the budget to advertise in publications or websites.
People who represent issues that are popular and who use the internet frequently have a much easier time finding like-minded individuals or organizations. There are topics like technology, religion, entertainment or politics that are very popular.
But if you are looking for firefighters, teachers or plumbers, how do you find your audience?
Facebook offers the most interactive web presence on the internet. They now have hundreds of millions of daily users who stay on the site longer than any other site. Facebook claims to drive more people to websites than Google (not our experience).
Facebook gives you two options, developing a page (for businesses and organizations) and developing a personal, site driven by an individual’s name.
The page selection for Facebook almost seems to be a questionable option.
You can open a Facebook page and use your key term but that term will be buried by all the organizations that have come before you. You could be “the” authority in your field, but everyone who came before you will come first in the search regardless as to the worthiness of content. In essence, they can’t find you.
Creating a Facebook site using the name of a trusted person within your organization is the way to go. That person creates the site and asks others who have the same interests as you to be their friend.
Once they have accepted your offer to be your friend, you have access to everyone else who are their friends and you contact them as well. Soon you could have thousands of people representing thousands of organizations similar to yours creating a mechanism to interact.
But beware Facebook and Twitter and similar sites also get you many who have no interest in your topic. They sign up or agree to be your friend solely to market to you. It’s part of the price for doing social media.
In summary, these are the most important ingredients to marketing a social media site:
Choose your strategy—a static site or one with frequent postings.
Create a simple word-based website. Leave the fancy graphics to General Motors
Use a .gov address whenever possible
Build your social media presences within the framework of an older, existing site
Have a content approval process that doesn’t edit with a heavy hand
Ad material frequently
Post what your audience wants
Make material very easy to find (create categories—post categories at the top of your site)
Post material in a variety of formats (audio, video, fact sheets, story-based articles)
Place your content on Facebook, Stumble Upon and Twitter (or the sites that work best for your audience). Don’t worry about the endless options.
Create fact sheets on key topics so you won’t feel overwhelmed by user requests
Please contact me at [email protected] if you have additional suggestions.