social networks, walled gardens, and decision trees

Once again, it would appear that Beth Kanter is reading my mind.  Or at least my email!  Not two hours after I had a meeting to discuss the pros and cons of rolling out an organization-specific social network, I found this post in my feed reader.

She raises the question of whether or not it makes sense for nonprofits – especially small or medium nonprofits – to roll out self-contained social networks, rather than just go ahead and use, in whatever limited way, the big box SoNets we all already know and love, like Facebook, MySpace, and the like.

Three key points jumped right out at me, because they were practically verbatim the main topics of the conversation I had just been having with my web development folks:

  1. Facebook and MySpace are only good for reaching younger supporters.
    BUT
  2. Custom SoNets offer branding and data integration that you can’t get on those sites
    AND
  3. Most organizations’ donors aren’t on those sites anyway.

This seems like circular thinking to me, to be honest.  Of course most of your current donors aren’t on Facebook and MySpace – it’s still a pretty new thing for most of the population.  However, most internet usage has historically been led by the young and the early adopters, followed – in time – by the rest of the general population.

When your constituency finally makes it to Facebook, MySpace, or whatever global site we are using in 5 to 8 years, don’t you want to be there when they go looking for you?

And don’t you want to be already quite good at it?

I take a long view of the return on investment in social networks.  It’s like learning to conjugate your French verbs or memorizing the multiplication table:  At the time, it seems like a waste of time and utterly impractical.

But one day, when you’re scrambling for the right bon mot in an interview, or need to rapidly figure out just how many blasted seats you need at your tables of ten at your next big fat fundraiser, the knowledge is THERE.  It’s just there, ready to be used.

The time when you need to be fluent is NOT the time to start learning the language.

And, just like learning French, immersion is often the best method.  You just have to get out there and hack away, atrocious accent and all, until you get the hang of it.

So, first of all, I believe that it is just a matter of time until most of our constituents are all over Facebook, etc.  As it is, right now there are Boomers swarming all over MySpace.  And we should be there to greet them.

Second, you have to make a decision about whether or not you are content to only reach your current members.  Although it may be true that most of your members are not currently using SoNets, could not those who are using SoNets be your next obvious target market?

I work with a lot of cultural organizations, like opera companies, theaters, and symphonies, and these groups have long bemoaned the aging of their audience.  Eventually, all of our current constituencies are going to age up.  Smart organizations will have a plan for recruiting the next generation of audience members, supporters, and donors.

All this having been said, I find the idea of rolling out a custom Social Network very intriguing indeed.  And I am intrigued for all the reasons Beth talks about in her post:

  1. I want to integrate the data I am getting from web users with the data I am getting from my members offline.  I want, in short, to put a face with the IP address.
  2. I want to customize the experience to the particular needs and interests of my organization’s constituency, so that I can further our mission, not Facebook’s mission.
  3. I want to brand the heck out of it.

And our constituency is older and rather tech-resistant.  However, they have increasingly been voicing their desire for more online delivery of services (online grant applications, online tutorials and webinars, online resource sharing and collaboration). 

Are they saying We want a social network?

Of course not.

But is a custom social network a potentially powerful and practical way to build the core around which these services can be provided?

I think so.

You want clear objectives and a measurable way of gauging our success?  I’m going to suggest we stick with what we know: Advance Our Mission.

For us, this may simply boil down to increased service delivery.  We have a set menu of programs we offer our members – how can a custom social network help us increase the reach and grasp of these programs?

We can easily enough look at what our current numbers are along such metrics as:

  1. Number of grant applications received
  2. Number enrolled in workshops and classes
  3. Number assisted through collaborative marketing
  4. Number of members renewing each year (in as much as this implies satisfaction with service delivery)

And there are many more – these are just a few.  Then we can measure those numbers again after a year on a custom social network.

And finally, I hope that I can find somebody to design a site that will be able to take part in the OpenSocial wave of the next few years.  Whether the site is based on Ning or some other platform, it should be built on open enough architecture to allow for widgets to be built and used on your site.  Otherwise, you run the risk of creating yet another silo of information – yet another walled garden.

And good God, do those things get weedy.

***

So, what were those main points again, from way back at the beginning of the post?

  1. Facebook and MySpace are only good for reaching younger supporters.
    BUT
  2. Custom SoNets offer branding and data integration that you can’t get on those sites
    AND
  3. Most organizations’ donors aren’t on those sites anyway.

What if we changed that to:

  1. Facebook and MySpace are good for reaching younger supporters
    AND
  2. It’s likely that usage by oldsters will increase over time
    AND
  3. It would be great to reach those younger, tech-savvy audiences we are currently not reaching
    AND
  4. It’s clear that our organization should be fluent in the language, etiquette, and mores of Social Networks
    SO
  5. Let’s consider developing some small, manageable project – suited to our mission, strategic plan, and budget – that might be obtainable by getting started on a big box social network.

AND

  1. A custom social network might fulfill different needs and desires, such as better branding, more custom features, and improved data integration
    AND
  2. We could improve our services to our current members
    AND
  3. We could help introduce our more tech-resistant constituents to the language, etiquette, and mores of social networks by giving them a safe, familiar place to get started
    SO
  4. Let’s see if building a custom social network fits our mission, our strategic plan,  and our budget.

The most important thing is to keep our mission firmly in sight at all times.  Resist mission creep!

13 Thoughts.

  1. Jason Calacanis on This Week in Tech with Leo LaPorte #121 – http://twit.tv/121 – makes a good case for organizations setting up in-house SocNets using Ning or comparable systems, as opposed to FaceBook. One point he made is that, at this point, you can’t get much data from FB on who’s using your group, and how.

    I love your analogy of learning a language in advance of when you need to use it. This is a powerful insight into what smart organizations need to be doing NOW regarding social networks. Il faut les apprendre toute de suite, eh?

  2. Liz, with limited time and resources – what would you chose first? Both require time investment which equals dollars. How are you translating these points into value for your organization?

    And, what is the first baby step …

    Can you take a baby step with rolling your own social network? I look at it as an online community – and that takes time and attention. If you give time and attention to that, what isn’t getting done? Is there a cost to that?

  3. Great questions. I have thought of a few practical baby steps when it comes to MyFace (I love that). For instance, we would like to recruit more volunteers – specifically, more youthful, tech-savvy volunteers. MyFace might be a great place to try that. I’ve suggested making it (managing our page) a project for an intern or a volunteer. A digital native would regard it as a dream job, I would think, to tend the garden of the organization’s Facebook page.

    I think many organizations would do well to plan a modest, but quantifiable project like that (i.e., recruit X new volunteers; generate X new student memberships; generate X more submissions to student art competition), to meet the twin goals of (1) fulfilling a certain part of your mission to which Facebook is naturally suited, and (2) increasing staff fluency in the use of Social Networks.

    I agree that rolling out a custom social network takes time, but so does maintaining the old website (presumably). In my case, I am looking into revising our entire web presence anyway, and the cost of including a social network is not turning out to be THAT much more than simply rolling out a revised (albeit rather ambitious) web 1.0 website.

    A baby step here might be to simply revise the website on an open architecture, minus the white-label SoNet, and watch for ways to integrate free widgets as they become available. Then perhaps certain components of a custom social network could be rolled out over time, in a modular way.

    I see the MyFace baby step plan as an almost purely evangelism strategy, really. To use a FB metaphor, i want to bite the other staff members and make them into zombies, too. Then, can the zombie apocalypse be far behind?

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  5. The company I work for is also planning on recruiting volunteers to moderate our social networks. I’m hoping to find some of those volunteers just by asking for help from some of the first people to friend us.

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