It’s not a surprise to any of us that social media is changing the way our organizations work, not just communicate.  The lessons in social media are especially important for organizations working with the public, whether it’s public service or opinion.  The Hatcher Group, a Maryland-based public affairs and communications firm, released a great report this past fall called New Media & Social Change: How Nonprofits are Using Web-based Technologies to Reach Their Goals (PDF).  Despite the generic title, this is a report chock full of examples, best practices and data about the effects of joining the conversation online.

The 30 participating organizations in the report are members of the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative, a group of independent, nonprofits with a shared commitment to responsible budget and tax policies.  As such, it’s easy to identify some of the goals these organizations have for using social media, including: engaging with and even influencing the general [voting] public, influencing news, engaging with and influencing politicians and legislation, and sharing data, information or viewpoints. Social media is a prominent social gathering place where these goals can definitely be met. Joining the conversation is incredibly important if these organizations expect to change policy and change minds.

Joining the conversation really means conversations.

It’s not just a phrase or some insider lingo, when I recommend organizations join the conversation, I mean just that!  People are talking online and the best way to influence what they are saying or how they are thinking about issues is to talk with them.  The survey found that blogging and blog outreach was the most popular social media choice.

  • 83 percent currently reach out to bloggers and the remaining 17 percent plan to in the future
  • more than 93 percent now monitor citations of their organization in the blogosphere

Many groups included in the report maintained blogs (either on their own site or elsewhere), but what the numbers above (and the effects listed below) indicate is that you don’t necessarily have to create your own blog to join the conversation. It’s already happening, so go there!

Being an active member of the conversation pays off.

  • 88 per-cent of the organizations said they had been cited in blogs as a result of their outreach efforts
  • 64 percent felt that they had successfully affected blog coverage of an issue.
  • 16 percent of the organizations were subsequently invited to submit guest-posts

Real-time is just as important.

Over half of the organizations surveyed reported that they do not use Twitter and do not intend to, with only 24% reporting use of the tool.  This is a huge missed opportunity to influence public opinion, participate in the conversation, attract attention from journalists and policy makers, and more.  Twitter is part of the real-time Web, meaning it enables people to communicate, share information, spread news, and distribute links in “real-time” as it happens.  As more and more people join the micro-blogging platform Twitter, it becomes an even more relevant tool for organizations working on impacting legislation and connecting with voters.  It’s true that with blogs, there’s a bit more time for responses to be prepared (and even approved internally) before posting.  But, that should not stop organizations joining Twitter and empowering staff to leverage organizational talking points, resources and research to better information the conversations there.

One organization had particular success using Twitter to facilitate its state policy work. As the legislative session in the group’s state was winding down, things began moving at such a rapid pace that daily newspaper updates were not sufficient to inform and promote its advocacy efforts. The organization found that following Twitter updates posted by reporters and advocates from the statehouse was the fastest and easiest way to track legislative developments. The group’s representatives were also able to update their Twitter profile to provide rapid-response statements. These short and timely statements sent out on Twitter caught the attention of local reporters, who then contacted the organization to solicit quotes for stories.

What do you think?

How has your organization joined the conversation online? Are there any tools or techniques in particular that have helped you find or contribute to the conversations taking place across the web?

(Download the full report in PDF: New Media & Social Change: How Nonprofits are Using Web-based Technologies to Reach Their Goals)