Health With a Capital H

Conversations and Community: The Human Touch

November 29, 2011

By Sarah Byrnes, Senior Health Communications Associate

Social Media

An astounding 97 percent of nonprofit organizations use some form of social media, although many still struggle to understand how to use it effectively. A recent expert panel hosted by the Communications department at my alma mater Johns Hopkins University—Communicating Causes: How nonprofits are using social media—discussed how nonprofits, large or small, can maximize their social media use to increase engagement with their cause. The panelists didn’t talk up the latest social media platform or focus much on the go-mobile movement or fawn over viral marketing (“If someone promises to make your campaign viral, fire them.”). Instead, they reminded us that successful social media is about conversations, community, and the human element.

The panel, held on November 17, featured some of DC’s leaders in cause marketing (there were some last-minute changes to the panel thanks to local DC traffic):

Join the Conversation

The panel began with one simple premise: Social media starts with conversation. It’s about listening to the conversation, contributing something of value, and/or starting your own conversations. No matter what your issue, cause, or interest is, you have supporters—you just need to find them. And when you find that community, engage them with dialogue that is authentic and relatable and show a sense of humor. In other words, be human. And be original.

Success will be knocking at your door sooner than you think.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of duplication of messaging in social media (retweeting is an epidemic!). Social media is a place to be creative. Users that contribute fresh content appear more engaged and will be more successful in “influencing the grass tops as opposed to the grass roots.” And as long as you are keeping your organization’s or campaign’s goals in mind, you should never be afraid to fail.

Key points made during the panel included reminders to take a break, let down your guard, and weave in the occasional personal anecdote or post a picture not directly related to the cause. Those types of human touches generate genuine dialogue and strengthen the community’s connections. 

Give Everyone in Your Organization a Voice

Corporate integration is very important—every department should be a part of the conversation. To expand the personality of an organization, allow various staff to lend their voice, share different perspectives on the latest developments of the campaign they support, and connect to different segments of your community. 

Another option, if your company is diverse enough, you may want to consider giving key staff members their own social media “sub-accounts” that capture their own marketing share based on their expertise. For example, the Center for American Progress has a corporate Twitter account @AmProg, and most of its policy experts have their own Twitter accounts with their own audiences. This allows the Center for American Progress to put a “human face” to each cause.

You may also face the dilemma that not everyone should talk to the public directly—the accounting practices of your organization are probably not the most engaging content if you’re trying to raise awareness and action around environmental issues. Though internally, an ongoing conversation should exist. Elements of internal organizational news may carry enough weight to funnel through to external communication.

Mistakes Are Okay—Learn from Them

When asked how an organization should react if mistakes are made using social media, the panelists answered that rapid-response crisis management should be a part of an organization’s social media plan. Silence is the worst possible response. Instead, the organization should face the issue head-on and use it as an opportunity to show their human side and engage the audience in a conversation.

The panelists referenced a case study involving an errant tweet sent out by the Red Cross earlier this year. An employee with access to the @RedCross Twitter account accidentally posted an update meant for her personal account to the @RedCross feed that said “Ryan found two more four-bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer . . .when we drink, we do it right. #gettngslizzerd.” The Red Cross deleted the Tweet, but acknowledged it with a followup Tweet “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet, but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.” By embracing the mistake and displaying a sense of humor, the Red Cross saw a flurry of supportive comments in their Twitter feed and a brief increase of donations. The hashtag #gettngslizzerd became an inside joke and Dogfish Head brewery even got in on the action by encouraging its followers to donate. 

The Red Cross incident illustrates how much people love the human element behind social media. Knowing there is an actual person behind the username living, sharing, and listening, makes the organization more relevant and its message resonate more with its community.

How do you ensure that the person behind the computer is exposed in your organization? Have you noticed an increased effectiveness of social media when you let down your guard?