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How associations can use social media to build influence and increase their reach

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Brands & Campaigns

This Q-and-A is with Maddie Grant, chief social media strategist at Social Fish and co-author of “Open Community.”

What are the biggest challenges that associations face when they decide to embrace social media?

We’re finding the biggest challenges are, unsurprisingly, the need for social media infrastructure and integration. What we mean by this is things like having a clear social media policy; having a response triage process for responding to negative comments; figuring out how to staff the social media position internally (whether it’s an individual or team). Once these very operational, administrative elements are in place, we find that organizations are off and running.

Who is the primary audience for an association’s social media efforts? Is it more important to engage association members or the general public?

Every association has different organizational goals, and defining those audiences are part of making social strategy work. If your goal is advocacy-related, reaching the general public (as well as building relationships with the right people in government) may be most important. If your goal is providing a collaborative work space for members, then fulfilling members’ needs is most important. Most associations have a combination of [these goals].

How can associations use social tools to increase their membership? What platforms work best for member drives?

The way for associations to grow their membership is to have a thriving open community around them where stakeholders (members and non-members, who care about what they care about) are able and willing to share the love with their individual networks. In order to do that, they need to be fully part of that community; they need to be present in the obvious outposts where their members are (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn…); they need to make sure their home base websites are mobile-friendly; they need to make it easy.

All kinds of platforms can work and all kinds of platforms can fail — the key is to be out there listening to what members want and how they want it. It’s not one-size-fits-all, and it’s definitely OK and even desirable to experiment with different tools to see what works best. An open community is an ecosystem — it’s about connecting people in different places to each other, as well as back to the organization’s online properties.

Many associations have very precise focus areas. How can they go about creating compelling content that broadens their reach while still remaining true to their core mission?

Actually we’ve found that the “creating compelling content” part is super easy for most associations. Their business model has always been based on publishing industry information for members. What has changed is that members want to be able to react to that content, to share it easily, to not have to log in or pay to get it. The fact that associations are “niche” by definition is an asset, meaning that people looking for that specific content via Google searches should be able to come straight to the association if they have made their content shareable and SEO-friendly enough.

What’s the role of day-to-day staff in an association’s social media presence? Should organizations be hiring new people to handle their social presence or retraining existing staff?

We believe that eventually social media will be part of everyone’s job (or at least every member-facing staff person). It will become as invisible and ubiquitous as e-mail (though “invisible” may not be the right word when it comes to e-mail!). But for now, it’s very important for organizations to allow their staff to build relationships with stakeholders online — even if they need to set social media policies first. In terms of staffing, we’ve seen several different models work. But the core social media practice role inside an organization is 1) collaborative, connecting dots between many different departments, and 2) administrative, able to organize the workflow and the communications between the organizations’ homebase and outposts as well as manage internal processes (like who responds and when). So regardless of whether an individual is hired to do this full time or the efforts are shared by a team of people internally, there’s a lot of administration involved. It’s not enough to be a “social personality” out there on the interwebs — it’s hard work and it’s extremely collaborative work.

What can large associations learn from small associations about social media? What can small associations learn from large associations?

Actually one of the posts on our Virtual Book Tour was about this exact question — Small Staff organizations and Open Community! In our consulting work, we’ve found that small associations have it much easier — they are closer to their members, they are more collaborative, they operate more strategically in the sense that a much larger percentage of staff know exactly why they do the work they do and how that fits into the bigger picture. Larger organizations tend to need much more “change management” help from us, specifically in terms of how to break down silos and set up a collaborative infrastructure that will allow social media work to happen the most effectively.

On the other hand, though, large organizations sometimes have the budget to try more daring experiments or campaigns, and since everything lives on the Internet, smaller groups can get ideas and learn lessons from them without having to necessarily spend that kind of money.

Image credit: studiovision, iStockphoto