Advice to People Who Are Trying to Use Social Media for a Grassroots Network

How much time do you have?  My top pieces of advice are:

1. Know your end goal – social media are not the same thing as social capital. You can have all of the connections in the universe, but if those people aren’t willing to act on your behalf, it doesn’t matter.

I was reminded of this in a conversation with  Betsy Vetter, director of government relations for the American Heart Association in North Carolina. She has learned that  “the way you recruit someone is the way they will continue to be active. If you recruit online, that’s probably how they’re going to engage in the future.”  And frankly, fair or unfair, online engagement is the lowest form of commitment. It simply doesn’t take the effort and time commitment as it does to meet with an elected official, to hold a small group meeting, etc.  Even Newsweek, in their extensive post-presidential campaign series, revealed that in Florida, the Obama team was able to turn out 3 percent of its e-mail list for on the ground volunteer work. That response rate is virtually the same as for a direct mail response rate.

2. You have to know your audience. For example, there are many powerful grassroots organizations such as the American Medical Association and other professional societies such as the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Chemical Society that use these tools all with varying degrees of success. However, there are groups like the Lance Armstrong Foundation whose audience lends itself more to that type of communication. With the health care reform debate, many of the professional medical societies, who have always had strong grassroots organizations, are gearing up their social media machines. Their staff are  realistic, however, about what can and can’t be accomplished. Are surgeons going to follow someone on Twitter? Does a nurse have the time to update her Facebook page regularly or to sign up as a fan on someone’s Facebook page?  I’m not sure about that. So, you have to know your audience. Leann Fox of the American Osteopathic Association twitters to her members who have signed up for quick updates, but she does not expect them to provide constant feedback to her.

3. You have to be realistic about the time that is required to maintain your social media presence. Betsy Vetter recommends that you “find a volunteer who likes to be engaged online and get them to maintain the sites for you.”

4. Think hard about transparency – anything you post can be swiped and commandeered by your opponent. Depending on what you’re putting out there, they can “friend you” and follow you. And the research shows that if you want to keep people engaged, you have to bring exclusive information to them. Do you want your opponents also having access to that exclusive information?

5. Your social media have to be a two-way conversation.
They can’t be predominantly “top-down” messages from your volunteer leaders or paid staff, followed by messages you don’t respond to. So, someone has to monitor and respond to all feedback.