4:05 PM Tuesday June 16, 2009
by Alexandra Samuel
Online community and social media are hot areas for business these days, as companies recognize the Internet’s potential to deepen customer relationships, share knowledge and strengthen teams. In the nonprofit sector, relationships have always been the key currency: the relationships with the members, donors and supporters that NGOs depend on for volunteer labor, financial support and advocacy muscle.
Because nonprofits are so deeply invested in the relationship business, and because they often have not just a notional but a structural accountability to their members, many NGOs were early adopters of online community tools. NGO-run online communities and social media presences offered nonprofits a new way of stoking and harnessing their members’ loyalty and passion; and in their many successes, businesses can find key lessons for using social media to enhance customer relationships, too:
1. Engage your audience by speaking to their core concerns.
Social media marketing campaigns often rely on humor, gimmicks or sex appeal to hook participants. But the best way to your audience’s heart is to speak to what they care about most. In the case of the March of Dimes, members care about their kids: specifically, the premature or disabled babies that the organization aims to assist. Social media offered a new way to do just that: Share Your Story launched in 2004 as a site for parents to blog about their infants’ daily struggles. Those blogs not only offered a way for parents to connect and support one another, but also told the story of the March of Dimes’ mission in a personal and compelling way. What do your customers care about most, and how can you speak to those concerns?
2. Put your audience in the driver’s seat.
In 2008, the Brooklyn Museum turned the idea of an art exhibit on its head. Instead of telling audiences what to look at, they asked: the Click! exhibit invited artists to submit photos of the “Changing Faces of Brooklyn” and used an online system to let the community curate the exhibit by choosing what to include. More than 3,000 community members submitted a total of over 400,000 evaluations. The result was an exhibit with greater levels of public interest, and one that was arguably more reflective of the community’s self-perception. How can you engage your customers’ interest by letting them drive decision-making online?
3. Offer a mix of tangible and social benefits.
The AARP’s online community is primarily a way for over-50s to connect and socialize online. But community members also get online photo and video storage — great for those who want to swap pictures of the grandchildren. A more common approach is to run contests with modest prizes, to induce community members to upload stories and pictures; the American Humane Society scored a home run with its “LOLSeals” contest, which asked members to make their own funny seal photos (inspired by LOLcats) and awarded a gift basket to the author of the top photo. Offer a social experience that has intrinsic value by helping people connect, learn or laugh; then nudge people into joining or participating by giving them something concrete like a prize or premium service. How can you help your customers connect with one another — and what tangible benefits can you offer that will encourage their participation?
4. Embrace emergent value propositions
KaBOOM! is a nonprofit that started in 1995 with the goal of building playgrounds in underserved areas, so that every kid would have access to outdoor space. By 1999, the organization was building 50 playgrounds a year — but soon realized it could help build even more by supporting communities in planning playgrounds and raising money themselves. They created a KaBOOM! Toolkit that is now available online. Community members can trade advice online, supporting each other instead of relying exclusively on KaBOOM! staff. The organization also has a user-driven PlaySpace Finder that maps playgrounds across the US. The online toolkit and playspace finder have extended KaBOOM’s reach and impact; instead of relying entirely on staff and funders, KaBOOM! uses online community tools to engage volunteers in mapping and developing playspaces nationwide. How can you extend or transform your value proposition by engaging your customers in value creation?
5. Innovate within the bounds of your core mission
The Mid-Atlantic Great Dane Rescue League does what its name suggests: finds homes for abandoned Great Danes. And now they do it via Twitter: tweeting descriptions and photos of dogs that become available for adoption. It’s a great example of how social media can not only promote your core mission, but actually deliver on it. What value or services do you offer that could be delivered through a social network or online community?
Non-profits came early to the social media party, thanks to their experience as member-driven organizations. But businesses are succeeding with social media by following the same principles: the principles of community participation, mission-driven activity, and online value creation. Adopt these principles in your own social media activities, and you can profit from the lessons of non-profit innovators.