Make Thee a Social Media Handbook, Organization!

"Point" by <a href=>Sarah G.</a>Photo by Sarah G.

The American Red Cross has issued a comprehensive Social Media Strategy Handbook, which Beth Kanter rightly lauds as excellent.

The ARC's slideshow notes that the Handbook "is not just for communicators and marketers it's for anyone who: spends online and is a Red Crosser." To make that transition, the Red Cross encourages its associates to play around with social media personally, and then make the leap to representing the ARC online. It's telling that the ARC social media page says, "The Red Cross belongs to the American people. You fund it, you donate your blood, you prepare for and respond to disasters, you take and instruct first aid classes. You make the Red Cross what it is today, and you hold the keys to its future."

So for the ARC, an organization that defines itself as being BY and FOR you, it makes sense that social media would be the same. Is this a practice that more non-profits should adopt? An 87-slide presentation (with additional links), the Handbook contains a complete outline of the who, how, what, and why of the ARC's social media presence. It strongly emphasizes serious contemplation and hard work developing a solid, organization-wide social media strategy. It then goes on to outline how the most popular tools can best be employed, and what interacting with (on? through?) them looks like. It also, very explicitly, gives "fundamental principles" and states in no uncertain terms that, "we’re a 501(c)(3) organization, so you must not join any political or religious advocacy groups."

I think that what the ARC's Handbook does so well is that it combines the practical advice that newbies might need as they venture forth into the world of social media while still including solid, program-specific information that more advanced users will need when creating sites that conform to the ARC standards. I think it very clearly addresses issues that I raised before about the fuzzy area between a personal and professional online presence, and the importance that a person managing social media to be invested in the NPO's mission. It leaves very little wiggle room on the basics, but encourages individuals to find ways to be creative within the ARC's expectations.

One thing that could be emphasized at greater length, however, is the time commitment that such a project can be, and what this might mean for someone who already has a full plate. (Slide 85: have someone dedicated to checking your photos once/day.)

As anyone who spends a portion of their workday dealing in social media knows, social media can be fun, engaging, and has an uncanny ability to sucks hours out of a day. It is both constantly, easily accessible (on your phone, iPod touch, laptop, home computer, work computer...) and, sometimes, frighteningly inescapable. It becomes easy for things to slip through the cracks (an email checked on the fly, a couple of days working on the road, a misplaced note-to-self to update a page and approve new fans), and, conversely, easy to get pulled into in such a way that suddenly half the workday has gone by and your non-social-media responsibilities have suffered. I found this out firsthand, when I took a self-imposed four-day Independence Day Holiday from my technological tether, and felt both refreshed and vaguely alarmed that there were discussions, tweets, articles, emails and so forth that I wasn't getting to. Just because I took a break didn't mean that there wasn't someone, somewhere, expecting a response.

Thus, I would recommend that any organization pursuing a guide like the ARC's consider what I feel to be the two most fundamental components to social media presence: WHY (see slides in the 30s) and WHO. Who is going to do this? And what are the time commitments and expectations are of those developing their presence? If you are going to build it, you need to maintain it, and you must have a clear idea of what that maintenance looks like. I find few things as frustrating as outdated NPO sites, or unmonitored NPO-associated accounts. It can be difficult to separate your personal social media activity from your professional, and a person's social media presence can become inextricably connected to their professional work, meaning that s/he can no longer just "pop on Facebook" for a minute to check in on friends without getting caught up in page maintenance. How many people are going to contribute to the online presence, and how much communication will they have with one another?

As the Handbook cautions, there is a lot that is out of your control, but what is within your control is something you must be willing to keep up with. Creating a clear, written-out guideline can be a great help for getting everyone on the same page and enabling constructive social media growth.