The New York Times just ran an interesting article titled, Social Networking's Next Phase.

The piece offers a clue as to why the ability and imagination — the marketing smarts — of the web team at your nonprofit is so critical.

Nonprofit websites have evolved from simple brochureware, to cluttered electronic libraries, to full-time fundraising ATMs, to online campaign command posts, to multi-faceted engagement vehicles for members, donors and prospects. In marketing-speak, conventional websites are “pull” vehicles that draw visitors with appealing benefits and features.

Along with websites, nonprofits have had to master the “push” strategies and tactics of e-mail — e-newsletters, email fundraising, email action alerts.

In both cases, the nonprofit's web team is in control. They determine the editorial content and the messaging. In both cases, the communications stream is primarily vertical — up and down contact between headquarters (usually issuing the marching orders and reading content) and the rank-and-file (paying attention to or ignoring the orders and content). And in both cases, the creativity and effectiveness achieved has varied wildly.

Now along come the “social networking” sites, like YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and many more, that are built around the dual premises of: a) letting the users create their own content, and b) connecting users horizontally with each other. The net result is user-created and empowered communities.

Mostly because it's where the latest buzz is, the more adventuresome nonprofits are plowing into the social networking space, trying to collect “friends” and clever videos from amongst their followers.

I detect little strategy behind all this, and The Agitator has been critical of experimenting online for the sake of experimenting. We believe marketers must study their current and potential audiences, understand the communications habits and preferences of those targeted, and then experiment to test explicit marketing hypotheses relating to reaching and moving more effectively those targeted.

For most nonprofits, I'll wager that less than half your current supporters have visited your website, that less than 10% of your current donors have contributed online, that less than 5% of prospects visiting to your website are “captured” by any means of registration or conversion. And a miniscule number have posted MySpace or Wikipedia entries or YouTube videos.

This is not to be critical. Rather, it's to underscore the strategic and tactical challenges presented by the online medium. Nonprofits are just starting to get good at the basics of marketing in this medium.

Now along come the social networking sites, whose consumer-centered premises and user expectations will perplex even the smartest marketers.

Moreover, as the NYT piece points out, even these sites will evolve. Instead of simply aggregating masses of users with little common interest, the compelling social networking sites will be those focused on attracting and empowering communities of shared interest, whether the interest be chess or human rights, paintballing or fighting poverty.

When individuals begin in large numbers (again, today the numbers are tiny) to organize themselves around common interests, sharing information, opinions and action strategies, the very raison d'entre of a whole universe of nonprofits will be called into question.

For at the end of the day, the core function of so many nonprofits, certainly the cause groups, has been to package specialized (sometimes obscure or privileged) information about the environment, human rights, whatever issue, and use it to mobilize people.

You could read this post as asking: Will certain kinds of nonprofits become anachronistic as online self-organized communities become more pervasive? But this is a bigger question than I wish to take on … now.

For now, I'm simply harping on the theme: The online medium is truly transformative. It's not just another channel. If your nonprofit requires public support, to have any hope of remaining alive, let alone effective, you had better be investing in the best web team your money can buy. And if you're running a nonprofit, become best buddies with your webmaster.

Tom

This article was posted in: Nonprofit management, Social media.
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