Now on Sale: Social Media Management?

No organization would ask an intern to manage its communications or marketing departments. So why do so many of them put volunteers in charge of their all-important social media efforts?

Tuesday afternoon, an all-too-familiar email went out to participants from last month’s C-BOM blog sustainability meeting. I won’t name the organization it came from, but here is a portion of their ask…

“I was wondering if those of you who work with students wouldn’t mind passing the below job description on. The stipend isn’t much, but this is a great opportunity…

We’re looking for part-time interns to help increase the impact of our (Blabety-Blah) Project. Ideal candidates are snappy writers, have a good grasp of social networks and are self-starters…Please forward this email widely!

…Here are some of the perks:

  • Build writing skills and portfolio.
  • Telecommuting is possible!
  • Plug in to a fantastic network of independent media makers.
  • If you’re based in Chicago, come and work from our comfy (popular neighborhood) office. We’ll supply you with coffee and workspace.

Thanks, (Jane Doe)”

Sound like a good opportunity? If you’re a nonprofit with no clue about social media, it just might. Then again, those are just about the only organizations who put out asks like this. Why? Oh, why? Oh, why-oh?

To better understand my consternation, let me run the above email through my handy-dandy, happy-peppiness remover. Translated into more sober terms, here’s what offers like the above usually mean:

“Hello. I represent a nonprofit that desperately wants to be on the Tweeter and the My Face because everyone is on there, and everyone else says we ought to. We have no clue how to get there. But we hear all the college kids talking about them, and we know from past experience that students usually work cheap.

After all, they seemed fine with eight bucks and hour plus college credit when they were stuffing our envelopes for our snail-mail fundraising campaign last summer. So we want one of them.

We’d love to think a little deeper about this but–hey–cheap labor is cheap labor. So instead, we’ll just ignore the following items:

  • Our internal communications department.
  • Our internal marketing department.
  • Our official communications plan and branded messaging.
  • Any attempt to think strategically.

We’ll just let those college interns handle everything. It’s okay to give them total control over the accounts they set up in our name, right? No matter, we have more important things to do with our time like writing memos and sending thank-you letters. It’s just webby-bloggy stuff anyway, and no one important reads those, so what could possibly go wrong?

Fingers crossed,

My Exec. Dir. Told Me to Write This Email”

In fact, significant damage can be done–and instantly–to organizational brands that eschew strategic thought and professional insight when planning and rolling out their initial social media forays. The power of Twitter, Facebook, and other major social networks to elevate a given company or toss it over a cliff needn’t be belabored to this blog’s audience.

But as any nonprofit manager should know, outreach is outreach is outreach. It doesn’t matter whether you do it in person, by U.S. Post, by email, or on Twitter. A social-networking service is as much a front-line contact opportunity for an organization as is answering the front-desk phone.

I’d bet money most nonprofit receptionists receive more training than do most “social media interns”.

Truly wise organizations start their social media efforts internally, taking stock of and leveraging the expertise of existing staff. Then working alone through their communications or marketing departments or together with outside consultants, they review their existing branding, messaging, and mission-critical needs, identify target audience segments, figure out which social networks each segment populates, draft appropriate new messages, and then–and only then–identify and train staff to manage the resulting Twitter, Facebook, and whatever-else-have-you accounts.

I’ve encountered many such wise, forward-thinking organizations in my communications career. I’ve also encountered executive directors with their heads stuck firmly in the 1990s 1980s who refuse to use cell phones and email. The beauty of being your own boss is in being able to pick and choose your clients.

Ultimately, email asks like the above set the entire communications process in reverse. How can any intern make an organization shine on Twitter if said organization has no idea why it’s on there, what it wants from being there, and who it’s trying to reach?

The frequent protest I get whenever I raise this topic to friends in the nonprofit world tends to be a version of the following:

“We don’t have the time/money to do it better/ourselves/any other way because we have more important things to take care of than social media.”

I generally answer with a single question: What year do you think you’re living in?

It’s 2009. If your communications plan is not Internet based yet, it had better be soon. If you don’t believe having a social media presence–not to mention an informative website and regularly updated blog–is fundamental to success with contemporary audiences, then you better re-examine your beliefs.

Yesterday’s aged donors who spent the early 2000s demanding to remain on your snail-mailing lists won’t be around forever. And if you think you’re going to mobilize tomorrow’s supporters by half-hearted, cut-rate outreach attempts, I have two final words.

Think again.

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