In recent years, sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter have shown all of us the power and potential of online communities. However, we shouldn't forget about "in-house social networks" — online communities that you as a nonprofit have complete ownership and control of.
Why Do In-House Social Networks Matter?
Humans were built to connect with others — to form communities. And online communities are a natural extension of our real-world lives. In an online community, your supporters are surrounded by, and consistently interact with, like-minded people with similar interests and passions. The result is a new level of energy, heightened communication, and a significantly greater exchange of opinions and knowledge.
Facebook has its place, as do other public social networks. (By the way, I'm a huge fan of nonprofits using more public or third-party social networking sites such as Facebook. You can read more on NetWits Think Tank.) On the other hand, as a nonprofit, don't you want to know as much as you can about the interaction, relationship building, opinion sharing, and engagement that's going on around your issue? Wouldn't you like to learn more about the people who are supporting you by capturing that data? I bet you would.
The Web Is Catching Up
Let's take a step back. Given all the current talk about "social networking," you might assume that the Web's core technology has changed. Not so. The Internet was conceived as a social medium. E-mail, the original driver of social computing, was invented 38 years ago! Discussion groups and file-sharing made their debut on the USENET system some 30 years ago. Real-time chat programs (think Yahoo! Messenger or AOL Instant Messenger) arrived on the scene 26 years ago. And the now venerable World Wide Web made its debut a full two decades ago.
With that history, why was the first Wikipedia entry for "social media" not created until 2005? Well, consider these two developments:
1. The Internet's ability to move and store large volumes of data has quintupled in the last decade.
2. A majority of people in the U.S. now have a high-speed Internet connection in their homes.
Together, these two trends have created the technical and social infrastructure needed for the original vision of the Internet as social medium to "go mainstream." And that's what's different: the Internet no longer has the potential to be social; it is social!
The Phenomenon That Is Facebook
Facebook has over 500 million (yes, MILLION) users. See for yourself here. Fifty percent of those users log on to the site daily, and people spend over 700 billion minutes per month there. Amazing, eh? Oh, and people use it to share over 30 billion pieces of content (Web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums, etc.) each month.
What's my point? Well, Facebook, in a lot of ways, has put social networking on the mainstream map and taught us what to expect from an online community. As a result, more and more people want to be a part of an online community where they can connect with friends, family, and others who share common interests. Which means now is the time to begin thinking about incorporating an in-house social network into your organization's Web site.
Four Benefits of an In-House Social Network
1. Consistent branding to ensure your nonprofit's image and brand are recognized
You've likely worked very hard at branding your organization in a way that reflects what you're all about. And, as much as possible, you probably want to ensure that your brand is consistently applied to everything you do online. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the like don't allow you to completely own the branding of your page or channel, whereas an in-house social network gives you complete control, thus ensuring that your online image is consistent.
2. Increased Web site traffic through relevant, timely, and engaging content
Static Web sites aren't good enough anymore. You have to find ways to build a community that keeps people coming back. Compelling content, engaging activities, and consistent interaction are the keys to connecting with your Web site visitors. Once people have come to your site and experienced the community and connections to be made there, those visitors are bound to come back, increasing your site traffic over the long term. Here are a few thoughts about how to make that happen:
- Dedicate a community manager whose focus it is to build up, support, and encourage community on your site.
- Community managers and members should be encouraged to publish content that stirs debate, initiates conversations, and engages other members of the community.
- Community members should be encouraged to support each other through challenging times as well as connect with others who've gone through similar professional transitions.
- Encourage members to share life experiences that resonate with casual observers who may be interested in joining the community.
- Make it easy for community members to share content of all types (photos, videos, blog posts, forum comments, etc).
- Connect with the thought leaders in your community and reach out to them to create conversational threads that will draw in other community members as well as the causal visitor.
- Position "comment" buttons boldly in proximity to blogs and/or other content so that visitors can join the discussion.
At the same time, don't forget that increasing traffic on your site is only important if you're also getting more people to take the actions you're promoting (i.e., increasing conversions). Make sure you have well placed and visible calls to action blended into your community content so that community members can take action when and where you need them to.
3. Tighter privacy control so that your supports feel safe
It's no secret that Facebook has faced its fair share of criticism when it comes to protecting the privacy of its users. (If you need a refresher, take some time to read about criticism of Facebook's evolving privacy policies.) At the same time, it should be noted that while Facebook's privavcy issues have been the most publicized, plenty of other social networking sites have had their own security issues. Why does that matter?
A poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion found that 50 percent of people who use social networking sites are concerned about privacy issues, with 23 percent indicating they are very concerned.
Simply stated, people are concerned about privacy issues online and that's not likely to change in the foreseeable future. By creating an in-house social network, you can build a community where your supporters don't have to worry about their privacy or whether their data will be shared with others without their permission.
4. Greater insight through data capture and analysis
There is a fine line to be walked when it comes to security and privacy. You'll have access to all the data being shared by your supporters on your in-house social network, but you'll also need to be a responsible steward of that data.
The data you have access to also will allow you to learn incredible things about your supporters, thus allowing you to further engage them with customized content (offers, updates, upcoming events) and requests for support (donations, volunteering opportunities, awareness-raising events).
If you're one who thinks a lot about audience segmentation, the in-house social network could be the next stage in the evolution of that concept. Segmenting your supporters using the type of social data you can gather through an in-house social network allows you to know, engage, encourage, connect with, and support them like never before.
As you continue to think about and experiment in your approach to social networking and social media, don't forget to think about how an in-house social network could fit in with your plans. The benefits of consistent branding, increased Web site traffic, better privacy controls, and added insights from the data you'll capture make in-house social networks an attractive option for many nonprofits — and one that should be considered as part of a multi-channel approach in the online space.