I heard about a nonprofit the other day who said this: “we don’t want to engage in social media with our supporters because we think it will erode the personal connection we have with them.”
A few weeks ago I took the plunge and experimented with Words with Friends. You may have heard about the nascent universe of social gaming coming from companies like Zynga, experiencing huge success with games designed around social interaction. Words With Friends is effectively Scrabble, played with people connected to me via Facebook. I currently have games going with a church friend, two college friends (whom I see once every five years, if that), and the pianist for my high school choral group, whose face I have not seen in twenty years. I play Scrabble with them every night, and several times a day. If I were to bump into any of them in real life, I wouldn’t treat them as long-forgotten friends but as people with whom I share a current, personal connection.
I recently had dinner with a group of friends who date back to my post-college days, all of whom are now married with children. We make the (rather laborious) effort to coordinate our schedules to see each other face-to-face maybe once or twice per year. But rather than catching up on what had transpired since our last get-together, we spent time on other subjects. Why? Because I see them every day on Facebook. I’m watching their children grow up, sharing their family achievements, sharing a joke or a funny picture, and I’m doing that daily. They don’t feel like long-lost friends – they feel like I “see” them every day.
So when that nonprofit suggested that social media might make connections with their supporters less personal, it was all I could do not to drop my jaw in amazement. If your organization (be it a business of nonprofit or something else) believes that it has a personal connection with its supporters now, wait till you see what happens when you embrace them on the new turf being staked out by social technologies.
Can you play word games with your supporters? Sure. Can you post pictures of your organization’s big “life” events? Sure. In fact, the more personal you get, the more support you’ll receive. Malcolm Gladwell describes the weak, fleeting connections we make with each other as the fundamental currency of social interactions. People who make lots of them, all the time, retain the “top of mind” position in their networks. When the request for volunteers or donations occurs, the organization that hasn’t been heard from since the *last* fundraising request gets less attention than the one you engaged with last week.
Are you the “long lost” organization for your supporters? Do they ask “so what have you been up to?” when they hear from you?
But here’s what else was going on with that statement: change feels risky. “The old system used to work, and I’m not sure how the new one will. Until I do, I’m not going to risk it.” And there’s a grain of truth in that. No one knows how the new system will work. We see glimmers and hear about successes at a distance, but for right now the old ways still pay the bills. But there’s a difference between experimenting with new ways of doing things and betting the farm on them. There’s no reason to leave gala fundraisers or major donor campaigns behind, but it makes all the sense in the world to embrace your community on its own terms and learn from the process.