I recently had the opportunity to give a presentation to folks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and members of the Monterey community on online engagement best practices (Big thanks to the aquarium for being great hosts!) Though I have shared similar versions of this presentation before, my prep got me thinking about easy, “cheat sheet” ways to tie together not only these terrific examples of online engagement, but nearly all successful initiatives in this arena.
I came up with four elements that make for a successful social media initiative and overall mindset. None of these necessities are new or unique. In fact, they are the opposite: tried-and-true elements that make up a successful social media mindset and have been proven to position organizations to better reach online engagement goals. The “cheat sheet” part? They are presented as four “T”s.
It may also be the cheesiest part, but don’t judge. Mneumonic devices can be helpful, folks say… and to be missing even one of these elements in your engagement strategy could really cut your organization short of reaching its engagement potential. So make sure that your organization has integrated these things to develop a strong foundation, and then move forward from there.
First thing’s first, and the first thing is absolutely transparency (or perceived transparency). That is, providing enough content to tell behind-the-scenes stories and give folks a peek though the alternative entrance. Transparency is achieved through the content that is shared. This content must be ongoing, often organic (not planned in advance), and portray a sense of honesty. Trust is built online through transparency, which challenges the way that we traditionally think about marketing. Traditionally, marketers would go out of their way to hide flaws. While it’s still not a good idea to scream every internal issue from the rooftops, sharing select, relevant PR issues (before they come up on their own), is a good idea. In other words, if your organization is taking a risk- trying something new, publicising the birth of an animal with a high mortality rate, or doing something that might garner negative attention later- let your online audience know what you are up to. Show them that you are taking that risk. When you engage in radical trust, the trust is often returned.
This has two parts to it: being timely in your responses to community members, and taking on timely initiatives. Being timely in responding to community members is simple and boils down to answering questions on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms as quickly as possible. Don’t make people wait. If someone asks a question or posts a comment related to public relations (as opposed to admission price, parking, etc) it is just as important to respond in a timely manner- if not more important. Aim for a few hours (4 max, with exceptions for overnight). People will notice a silence online if you don’t respond. That silence is particularly awkward if you wait longer than 24 hours.
When dealing with a particular online initiative, “timeliness” means taking into account the broader context of the world (or your demographic) at large during the time of the project. Often, the most successful online strategies capitalize on things that are happening in the world around us. Take, for example, The National Constitution Center’s Address America project. This initiative took place in the time leading up to Barak Obama’s Inaugural Address. The timing of the initiative lent relevance and buy-in to the project.
Or, accessibility. Successful online engagement minds don’t just post information directly to social media outlets. They filter it through a sort-of “touchability” lens so that folks can relate. As we know- especially in zoos, aquariums, and museums- some content is important, but dense. (This is true for nearly all nonprofits, especially those with messages regarding legislation which can make certain people “check-out” quickly). Online, it is important to have simple messages that can be understood immediately, or people won’t read the content. A few organizations that I work with have expressed frustration with this, commenting that people will post comments on the nonprofit’s blog without reading anything more than the title of the post- and completely miss the point. If your headline is something that is meaningful to people, then they are more likely to listen. In fact, if your content OR initiative are relevant and “touchable” to an audience, then it is more likely to be digested and shared. When coming up with an online engagement strategy, make it about your online audience- not about your organization.
Be human. Also, show and don’t just tell. On Facebook, users engage with brands as if they are their friends. Embrace this (read: be very careful of excessive “hard sells”). Would you be friends with someone who could not stop talking about how your giving them money would make you a good person. I sure wouldn’t. It would be exhausting. Not to mention, that’s not a functional relationship. The folks who like you on Facebook will engage with your brand in exchange for relevant information- and a product that they feel fulfills a purpose for them. Don’t tell them to donate or visit too often- show them why they should donate or visit. Being “human” about it will help. We all know that there is someone behind the computer screen. Be transparent (circling back to T #1) and have personality. We have seen time and again that tone makes a big difference. If you take on a human voice, people will be more drawn to your organization as well as your initiative.
So print this out– or even just jot down these four words and put them on the online engagement team’s whiteboard. If you are the only person running social media for your organization, you can jot it on a post-it and put it above your desk (that’s what I do!). Whatever floats your boat. Regardless, I hope that these four Ts put words to the things that you already knew to be effective in online community management or pointed out something new to help your move forward.