Despite the myriad good reasons to be using social media (including data indicating social media’s leading role in motivating visitation and donor support), some nonprofit organizations and museums have been hesitant to open content-related communications to online audiences. They wonder: What if someone posts something bad about us? What if they use our Facebook page to promulgate viewpoints that are contrary to our mission or practices? What if they say something inaccurate on our expert page?
Data suggests that fears regarding radical trust may be largely unfounded and/or dramatically over-emphasized. Why? Because there is proof that people do not believe everything that they read online. Though this may sound axiomatic or silly to some (“Of course people don’t believe everything that they read online!”), organizations that don’t trust their online audiences to make informed, intelligent assessments often cite this doubt as a justification to not embrace open authority. Simply put, many organizations are frightened by social media and the means by which it empowers online audiences to express their respective points of view – which may be negative about the nonprofit, factually incorrect, or even “irrational.”
The data concerning this reticence to trust is quite clear: Organizations that instinctively move to limit communications - or react to a crisis only when standing on the sidelines is simply no longer an option – are failing their constituents. Here are three things to consider regarding reticence to engage on social media due to fears of opening authority to others:
1. Data suggests that social media is used by the public to gather information to form opinions… and not as a tool to dictate facts
Online audiences visit your social media sites to assess how you react and engage with the public in order to determine their level of personal affinity with your organization. They want to make their own decisions about what they think about your posts…and, similarly, they consider comments from others (and your responses to these comments) as key components of their information-gathering process.
Consider data from IMPACTS regarding the general public’s trust of various marketing channels and note the level of trust that the public ascribes to social media:
I’ve posted this data before highlighting the reach, amplification, trust and overall weighted-values of various information channels. It may well be the single most “expensive to acquire” data freely available to nonprofit organizations on Know Your Own Bone. (Read: I hope that you’ll please take advantage of this free-to-you information that was originally funded by for-profit clients. After all, that’s why I write!)
This data indicates the public’s relatively low trust in social media when compared to other information channels with higher publication thresholds (e.g. newspapers) and “traceable,” credible endorsers (e.g. word of mouth). While the findings suggest that social media is, overall, the most powerful channel as a source for information, it additionally indicates that the public understands that there are some crazy people on social media.
Online audiences do not believe that other fans typing on Facebook walls are writing truisms in stone. While these comments may exist for the world to see, what is more important is how organizations react to these comments…
2. Online interactions establish relevance and transparency… and may clarify negative comments that organizations fear
As described previously, online audiences referencing your website and social media platforms are making decisions about how to feel about your organization. It is important that you are transparent, trustworthy, and authentically engage with these potential online evangelists. Some may even test you like this little lady did in her post on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Facebook page…
This interaction demonstrates the importance of responding to comments and interactions on your social sites – even, at times, when “negative” comments strike. If the museum hadn’t responded, the public may have perceived that the museum does not pay attention to online audiences, so why bother engaging? Worse yet, such perceived indifference may have actually inspired additional negative sentiment. At the very least, not-yet visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History may consider that perhaps the museum is indeed “really boring” without having uncovered that feedback from this user was not sincere.
Nonprofit leaders need not fear comments such as the one above because being an “online organization” allows for both social media users and the nonprofit to uncover information that may aid other users in determining their level of trust in these communications.
3. Online interactions provide constructive feedback that, if acted upon, may position your nonprofit to evolve and thrive
While some executive leaders may claim to fear comments from less educated audiences than their own employed “experts” posting on social platforms, many may actually be concerned about receiving plain old negative feedback that stakeholders might observe on these same sites. They may fear that these critiques might then resurface in board rooms or donor conversations.
Avoiding feedback by denying a platform for conversation is rejecting low-hanging fruit to aid in the improvement of the organization. For executive leaders or marketing managers for which this is the case, well, you may have bigger issues within your organization than not being active on social media.
As the world changes (new technologies arise, new generations take the lead…), organizations confront numerous challenges. Often, the severity of these changes is correlated with how quickly the organization can evolve and adapt in alignment with changing constituent and stakeholder needs. Organizations that fear feedback may already know that they are behind the times. The solution to this is not to back away, but, rather, to consider embracing the insight that social media interactions may provide for your organization.
Leaders may be surprised how positively a simple, “Thank you for your feedback. We hear you and we’re getting started on fixing that by…!” resonates with online audience members with thoughtful, informative gripes (provided, of course, that you indeed start to address issues that arise and further complaints do not surface that may indicate insincerity). Also, executives and managers may breathe a little more easily knowing that – if a comment is legitimate – your organization probably (hopefully?) has the knowledge required to respond to thoughtful, negative feedback in a considered and helpful manner.
All this is not intended to suggest that negative comments do not have the ability to impact your brand. Instead, it suggests that organizations who fail to actively engage their audiences, do not respond to interactions, and adopt a “hear no evil” position when confronted by a challenging comment are doing themselves a grave disservice by not treating these moments as important customer service (and audience engagement) opportunities. In the end, if an organization rightfully considers thoughtful, negative comments as opportunities to listen, obtain feedback, and improve, and if the public is already considering the veracity of fan comments, what plausible excuse remains for an organization to fear social media?
You can’t argue with crazy. And, you can’t argue with facts. The public has figured this out. Isn’t it time that nonprofit organizations catch-up with the public when it comes to the ways and means by which we communicate with our constituents?
Barely a few weeks removed from our nation’s most recent Inauguration, please excuse me as I play off of arguably the most famous inaugural address in our history to drive an important point home for nonprofit executive leaders: When it comes to social media, perhaps the only thing that we have to fear is fear itself.
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About the author
MPA. Chief Digital Marketing Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Gen Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore