May/June 2007

Why it Makes Sense, if Not Immediate Cents, to Experiment with Participatory Media Sites

by Sheeraz Haji, President, Convio

My to-do list is pretty long these days and the boundaries between my professional and personal life are often blurred. I need to prepare for several upcoming speaking engagements, participate in numerous client meetings, and interview more than two dozen partners. I also have to update my profile in LinkedIn, respond to a message in Orkut, create an avatar on Second Life, figure out how to use Dodgeball during my upcoming trip to Austin, and checkout three pages clients have setup in MySpace. But before I even begin to chip away at my to-do list, I should probably Twitter that I'm writing this article. I'd like to think that there's someone out there who cares about what I'm doing this exact moment.

I can almost hear a few of you saying aloud as you read this, "Wow, I'm surprised Sheeraz wastes his time on some of these Web sites!" But am I wasting my time? Every one of the major presidential campaigns is actively using MySpace, YouTube, and other participatory Web sites to reach out to younger audiences. And surely their time is more precious than mine. They are building groups of friends and followers within various social networks now, knowing that later these folks could make the difference between a campaign win and a loss.

So, why should a nonprofit professional like you care about these social networking sites that are the foundation of Web 2.0? Admittedly, I can't provide you with hard results that quantify the value of these networks. The verdict is still officially out, but I believe these Web sites can provide a new, cost-effective way to build your email list and engage existing supporters. And building your email list remains one of the most important things that your organization can do. What has changed is how you can build your list. Gone are the days that you can just sit back and wait for people to land on your organization's Web site and expect them to give you their email addresses. Now you must proactively reach out to your target audience in places where they are likely to be and then impress them.

Building an engaging Web presence on your own site is critical once you have attracted a critical mass of online supporters, but this should be done in conjunction with other Web 2.0-related outreach efforts. Experiment with YouTube by posting short videos that will get forwarded to people with similar interests. Create a MySpace page that allows supporters to create a banner they can place on their own profile pages (http://www.myspace.com/thehumanesociety). Take your most successful event and replicate it as a virtual event in Second Life (you might even learn a few things in the process that can help you improve your offline events). Consider experimenting with social mapping on sites like CommunityWalk, MapBuzz, MyMaps, Platial, and MapBuilder.

When combined with your current online communication efforts, these new channels could help you collect email addresses and expand your universe of constituents. You might make inroads into a demographic that you struggled to reach in the past. You could even surprise yourself by discovering that certain folks who you've never considered targeting before are actually very interested in supporting your efforts.

Before I sign off, a word of caution: most nonprofits are still struggling to generate significant new donors, activists, or volunteers from Web 2.0 sites. The numbers are encouraging, but still relatively small, with success stories few and far between. To optimize list growth, any outreach efforts should be combined with a strong program to collect email addresses offline (e.g., in-person, over the phone, via mail) and through paid and co-marketing programs (e.g., co-registration, search advertising, contests). List growth can also be driven through the media (e.g., by publicizing a campaign on various blogs). It's all about leveraging multiple channels.

And now I'll quickly Twitter that I've finished writing this article and can cross it off my to-do list. One task down, twenty-seven more to go!

Social networking Web sites mentioned in this article:

Why it Makes Sense, if Not Immediate Cents, to Experiment with Participatory Media Sites | Convio