AmysLinkedInThis week I’ve had four people ask me this question. Two are lawyers in large, successful practices. One is an executive looking for work. One is a nonprofit professional. All are mid-40’s to early 50’s. My answer is a resounding “yes!” to all of them, with varying reasons why.   If you are already well-versed in social media, feel free to duck out of this post.  But if you or your boss is trying to decide whether it’s worth it, read on.

Some Facts to Consider…

Nielsen recently released these intriguing study results:

1. In February social network usage exceeded Web-based e-mail usage for the first time. Ever.

2. There are 87 percent more online social media users now than in 2003, with 883 percent more time devoted to those sites.

3. In April, Nielson also reported that the number of American users frequenting online video destinations has climbed 339 percent since 2003. Time spent on video sites has shot up almost 2,000 percent over the same period.

4. Unique visitors to Twitter increased 1,382 percent year-over-year, from 475,000 unique visitors in February 2008 to 7 million in February 2009, making it the fastest growing site in the Member Communities category for the month.

5.  And here’s one that might surprise you. The largest age group on Twitter right now is 35-49 year olds. Yep. 41% of Twitter-ers are in this group, representing almost 3 million users.

So …?

This data shows that many of the people you need to connect with aren’t just using social media, they are migrating to it in droves.  And just like you, they only have a limited amount of time, so that means they are using other networking tools less/differently.  For example, we have all heard the reports that many conferences have cancelled this year due to the economy.  But perhaps there’s also less interest in networking in this way when you can have an ongoing conversations with colleagues, fellow activists or customers through Facebook and Twitter? We’re also doing less in print. According to the US Department of Labor wage and salary outlook in the printing and related support activities industry is projected to “decline 22 percent over the 2006-16 period, compared with 11 percent growth projected for the economy as a whole.” This decrease reflects our increased use of computerized documents and sharing information via the internet and social media sources.

I’m Still Unconvinced. My Time is Too Valuable.

In fairness, you’re right. Social media can be a big Time Sucker. So you need a plan to manage that, both personally and organizationally, in much the same way you adjusted your work patterns when email and FedEx came along. And just as those inventions saved time in new ways, you will need to maximize the time you save in these new mediums.  Here are a few tips on incorporating social media into your professional communications strategy.

Five Tools for Getting What You Need From Social Media

1.   First, decide what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you reconnecting with classmates? Trying to reach new customers? Engaging other social activists in your cause? Increasing your visibility as an expert in your field? Promoting your new book or agency report? Trying to find a new job?  Each goal requires a slightly different strategy and time commitment. Having only the goal of finding out what everyone else is talking about is an acceptable starting point, but if you want to prove to yourself/your boss that you’ve gotten ROI, you need a more structured goal.

2.    Decide who you want to converse with. I use the term “converse” because social media is a conversation, not you blasting information to an “audience.” But you need to know who you’re looking for and where they are. For example, women over 55 are the fastest growing demographic on Facebook.  So if that’s who you need to reach, consider spending time there. Facebook is also a good way to cross-promote a book, podcast or blog, so consider it a part of your strategy, not your entire game plan.

3.    Decide what value you can bring to the conversation. Some of the best Twitterers are healthcare organizations, because they have a lot of already well-researched content and their goals are to make us all healthier.  See @childrenshealth and @redcross for good examples. My least favorite Twitterers are those who are too prolific, so that even their good content gets lost in their own clutter. Luckily the trend is moving away from people twittering about every move they make. With the exception of politicians and broadcast anchors.

4.    Figure out how much time you can commit each day/week/month. Start by looking at the time you already spend achieving the same goal through more traditional means. Perhaps you attend several professional networking events a month and four major conferences each year.  Take part of the time you would a lot to those and target the same goal through social media.

5.    Identify useful as well as negative content –that is, for content you value, but also content that might be de-valueing or diluting your brand. Use blog search tools like Technorati to conduct real-time searches for user-generated media (including blogs) by topics of interest to you or use Stumbleupon to both see and offer your own ratings of content you find useful. Remember that some good content tends to pop up in unexpected places, such as federal government blogs.  Here’s a useful one from the Dept. of Energy with tips for energy efficiency .

6.    Consider a Group Blog. If your firm or organization wants to put a toe in the water on blogging, consider identifying 5-20 people who could be regular contributors and rotate the job. Posts can be brief—even as little as a paragraph.  Be sure to post on the same day or days of the week, so that blog search and aggregating tools can find you.

7.    What Can You Bring to You-Tube? If you already have video content (and assuming you can acquire the right permissions), this is a no-brainer. But you may also be giving a workshop that you can have videotaped. Or consider asking your own stakeholders for user-generated content of their own. This works particularly well for nonprofit causes, where real people and real stories are so compelling.

8.    Use social networks to find people who can help you do your job better. Consider incorporating LinkedIn to your organization’s job posting strategy, as well as using it for your own professional networking. Linked In was founded before Facebook, but has taken off more recently due to improvements in its interface, the increased use of its professional forums, and the widgets that can bring additional content to your page (i.e. pull your blog into it, as it does on my page—shameless self-promotion moment here—at http://www.linkedin.com/in/amydelouise . If you are a job-seeker, as so many are in our economy, this is a great tool. Prospective employers can check out your page (which is essentially a resume), download your resume, and see recommendations you’ve received from bosses/clients.  As someone who employes others, I’ve found LinkedIn extremely useful when trying to find a good vendor or consultant for a project. I posted a query to my contacts and within seconds had 6 recommendations with national experience, all of whom I could then look up and contact via LinkedIn.

Okay, Okay, But How Do I Get Started?

Here’s your summer assignment:
Month 1. In the next 30 days, set up a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.  Do at least a basic Google search for your company’s/organization’s/issue’s/expertise’s name. Index some blogs or websites that seem useful, or are saying hateful or incorrect things about your organization/issue. Use Technorati or Stumbleupon accounts to send you blogs on topics of professional interest to you so you don’t have to go search for them.
Month 2. Sign up for Twitter and follow 10 people you admire.  Could you say it better? Can you add value to this conversation? Could this be valuable to you/your organization/your customers, donors, or volunteers? You make the call.
Month 3. Get at least 5 recommendations for yourself on LinkedIn, and more if you are a job-seeker.  Join one Linked In discussion group. Join some Facebook causes that mean something to you.  Comment on one or two blogs related to your area of expertise.
Month 4. Summer’s over! Spend no more than 30 minutes a day checking your most useful blog and Twitter feeds.  Spend 30 minutes per weekend for the next four weekends cranking out a list of potential blog topics you could generate with help from colleagues (so you can decide if this is a go or no-go for a January launch).

If you have some more ideas to contribute, please do!

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth ten thousand.  That’s why You-Tpower snackube, Vimeo and other online video tools have become so useful to small businesses, nonprofit organizations and federal agencies who in the past may have avoided video because of the cost of mass distribution. (The cost of quality production isn’t necessarily cheap, but if you are able to get your video 100,000 views rather than 100, obviously your cost per view goes way down).

So what are video content best practices?

After having produced roughly 400 such projects, here are my Top Five Tips for Creating Successful Video Content:

1.  Know How the Video Fits Into Your Brand Plan. You have a great story—someone touched by your organization, or some important piece of information that needs to be disseminated to the public. Great. But know how it fits into your overall messaging and branding strategy. Will your name or the name of a particular product/service be consistently mentioned? Are you trying to promote recognition for your organization, for a particular project or person? Do you need to build support for an initiative or connect viewers to your larger mission? Will there be other supporting media for this video content? (i.e. direct mail and/or email campaigns to drive traffic?)  Do you need other lives for this content after it is first published (see #4)?

2.  Know Your Target Audience. If your audience is “everyone,” think again.  Develop target sub-demographics and learn what kinds of content appeals to them.   If your story has multiple parts/levels, consider breaking into smaller pieces and placing the content with different headings/links in order to attract the right audience.

3.  Buy the Best You Can Afford. Remember what your mother once told you about buying a dining room set?  “Buy the best you can because you want it to last.”   Many organizations make the mistake of thinking that if something is going to appear on the web or in a podcast, it can be produced on a shoestring because it’s a one-use item.  To the contrary, every penny you spend should be powerful and credible.  The production plan should include multiple ways to use your source material after the initial roll-out.  For example, if you have an interview-driven story, plan the interviews so that other selects can be used elsewhere (and make sure your permissions cover this alternate usage!).  Background footage (“b-roll”) can also be re-purposed.  My personal preference is to shoot high definition, widescreen video because it makes a bigger impact even when compressed for the web, since it degrades less.  But whatever your format, a polished production, professionally produced, will also allow you to “multi-purpose” the end-product more reliably, pulling parts for your website, your intranet, an email campaign, or a large-screen projection at a major donor event.

4.  Make it Short and Sweet. When watching television, people can relax in their favorite comfy chair, and even then the average program contains only 22 minutes of actual content.  On the web, viewed in a tiny box, in a show that likely does not contain professional actors and perhaps offers a glimpse of you speaking or some kind of advocacy message, your time-frame for catching attention drops to minutes.  And when you consider mobile video going to iPhones and the like, we’re talking seconds.  So make every second count. That means using visuals, music, audio, graphics–everything at your disposal–to make a message with impact. (Important note on copyright: make sure the visuals and audio belongs to you, or that you’ve licensed it for mass distribution!)

5.  Measure Impact. Speaking of impact, measure it! So many organizations produce video content without a handle on whether or not it is effective. Plan a way to find out. It could be a short email survey to a random sampling of people who received your web link or signed up for you podcast. It could be an audience survey for a live event. It could be simply aggregating the data already provided to you by You Tube or your podcast distributor.  Analyzing and disseminating this information amongst your leadership and communications team will help you refine your approach the next time.

Social media and the web of access provided by Web 2.0 have had a profound impact on how organizations function.  And while corporations were early adopters, government agencies and nonprofits have now caught up and are fundamentally changing the way they connect to the people they serve.

But there are pitfalls to instant communications.

As anyone who has sent an email and wished they hadn’t knows, in a Blackberry world, it is all too easy to push something out of our in-box and into someone else’s without taking much time to think about that transaction. We need to remember that we represent a brand–for ourselves, or perhaps as a staff person for a government entity or board volunteer for a nonprofit.  We need to remind ourselves that however trivial it may seem, every piece of information we send communicates something about our brand.

I thought about this recently when I sent an email to the head of an organization with whom I’ve been involved for five years with a concern about a staff policy with respect to its “customers.”  Within seconds, he had forwarded my email to those very staff whose actions concerned me (note to self: mark such emails Confidential).  He later explained that he was busy getting ready for an upcoming conference and didn’t really have time to deal with it himself and wanted to be sure the matter was handled. The takeaway I got from that interaction–rightly or wrongly–was 1) he was overwhelmed by the job;  2) he didn’t value the direct communication of an involved supporter; 3) he wasn’t a great communicator.

We can all be more mindful of how quickly we press that “send” or “forward” button, whether we represent only ourselves or an entire organization.

On the positive side, the instant message world offers new opportunities to promote your mission and brand. Many organizations routinely change the “tag line” for staff emails to include current campaigns, web links, new You Tube videos, twitter feeds, etc.  But there are just as many who miss the opportunity and have staff who send emails with no information at all.

Here are the kinds of communications that are often overlooked, but which your staff (and board) should always consider affects the perception of your brand:

1. Letters to Your Constituents/Community.  Especially those updating people on an important issue (for example, how you are handling swine flu with respect to your upcoming conference)

2. External Emails.  Every staff person should have contact info, tag line, web links, and any other relevant link-of-the week on their emails to keep your constituents up to date.  Anyone with a Blackberry should be careful where they point that thing!

3. Internal/Staff Emails. Be sure it’s clear these are for internal consumption only, but still think about how it would look posted on your website.

4. Staff Blogs. This is becoming a significant issue for hospitals, law firms and universities, since many doctors, legal experts and professors have their own blogs. And while they are independent individuals with opinions, they also must operate within the framework of their institution (not to mention federal laws like HIPPA).

5. You Tube Videos. Be sure you have permission from anyone in your videos and any music or voiceover talent you use in them to be on the Internet (often, organizations create internal videos and the licensing for the music and narrator, as well as the permissions for on-camera appearances have not been cleared for internet use).

6. Facebook Pages. Many organizations are now encouraging staff to post to their FB pages and to show a more personal side. Just think about exactly how personal you really want to be in a work context.

7. Twitter Feeds. Thankfully brief, these should still link back to mission and direct readers to your other brand presences.

Your brand can both benefit from and suffer from our Web 2.0/Blackberry world. Taking the time to think through your electronic brand extensions is now mission-critical.

In a recession, successful branding may seem to be a challenge for nonprofits, but there are also opportunities to improve brand awareness.

Brand defines an emotional connection between the entity providing a good or service and the people it wants to reach. Corporations measure the impact of their brand by market share and profits. For nonprofits, the product is change. Successful nonprofit branding communicates the change the organization makes in the world quickly and easily to a multi-layered audience: people in need, donors, volunteers, staff, public policymakers, and the general public.
In difficult financial times, some for-profits will be able to increase market share because advertising costs go down and/or their competitors go out of business.  Nonprofits can also take advantage of the new fiscal playing field to jockey for better position. One tool they can use is social networking sites. These allow nonprofits to magnify their brand power and increase reach for minimal overhead and out-of-pocket costs. For example, an increasing number of nonprofits are creating Facebook group and fan page sites to increase “market share.” Readers/viewers are not just potential donors, but also current and future volunteers–the lifeblood of nonprofit work. Organizations can use traditional online tools (web, email) to drive existing supporters to these pages.  At the same time, they can encourage their “fans” or “members” on the social networking site to spread the word about the mission they care about.  501(c)3’s can also register as a “cause” in order to raise funds. And they can take content originally created for web, print and video and re-purpose it to find new audiences on these sites. You-Tube offers another opportunity for building brand awareness. Video through this web portal can be a powerful tool to tell how a nonprofit is changing lives.
So while the economic times are creating fundraising challenges, nonprofits can and must take advantage of social networks to spread their unique brand of change.