Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Engaging My Community Using Social Media

This morning's post is in response to the question, "How has engaging your community changed with your use of social media?" The question was posed by Amy Sample Ward as the July Net2 Think Tank. The Think Tank is sponsored by Net2d (Net Squared) which is an initiative from techsoup. The answer has multiple parts because I am part of several communities, as are most of us.

My organization is not yet using social networking tools other than to post job openings. My personal use of social networking tools is beginning to creep into the picture though. And, they are in the early stages of website redesign that will bring more community/client interaction to them through the website. They will do more with social networking, I'm sure, once they understand it better and can clarify how to use it to enhance their mission.

Client Community
For my client community, social media hasn't had as much effect on how I engage because so many of my clients are not using social media. I hope this will change and I am actually a partner in an effort, the Cyber Cafe @ Malden Square, to provide the technology, tools, and training so they can engage electronically. But many of them are a long way off from doing so. Despite this, I use blogging tools to provide resources and other information to them and thus am exposing them to bits and pieces of it. It's very limited engagement, as it's primarily one way communication.

One example is a jobs posting list. We used to print out copious pages of job listings and place them in a binder and hope people would find something that fit them. It was a huge drain on resources and often out-of-date. Now, we use a blogging tool to email job postings to the blog as they arrive on our desk and link that site off our main site. Clients sit down at the public computers and can search through current listings and email their resume without ever having to print anything out. It saves time, money, and trees. It puts them in charge of the process as they can use hyperlinks to explore other job opportunities with that company too.

Even with limited use, client feedback is strongly positive. They come looking for assistance with one issue, but end up with tools that will help them work on several issues. These tools empower them, even if they're not the one using the tool. If they don't know how to use a computer or a particular tool, the Cyber Cafe often has volunteers who can work one-on-one with them to learn and yet be productive during that learning curve. They walk out the door with more options that they had when they came in the door.

Peer Community
Social networking has expanded my ability to keep up with my peers within my organization as well as in the larger community. I'm a networker. I have a question or problem -- I ask someone whom I think will know the answer. I don't care much about organizational boundaries. Someone out there probably knows the answer and I use lists, contacts, and shared contacts* to get answers. LinkedIn has good tools for that. I tend to use Facebook more, though. It just is a more relaxed, casual interface; I use it a lot for professional pursuits and I also use it for personal pursuits.

A colleague from another organization and I just set up a social networking tool for a network of organizations who meet regularly around health care access. We physically meet monthly; in the virtual world, we can meet more often and accomplish so much more; share resources, ideas, and documents; collaborate more quickly on deadline oriented issues, etc. For my tastes, having a group that combines social networking with face-to-face gatherings is ideal.

All work and no play makes Claire grumpy. So I also use social networking with my peers to be me -- playful, joking, serious, hard working... The social time we spend with people is often what drives them to come to us with a work question. In fact, I think it's very important to be able to socialize with your colleagues, away from work, occasionally. Timewise, it doesn't happen often in the real world because our days are long and the work is intense. In the virtual world, however, I can take a few minutes in the early morning or late evening and engage using social networking and do something frivolous with them. Facebook has some fun tools for that.

Volunteer Community
Volunteers are unpaid staff; that's a long-held philosophy of mine. So they need the same nurturing (if not more) as paid staff, yet I don't have a lot of time to spend with them. And many of them are not physically on site; they're on committees or work on projects remotely. Various social networking tools aide me in communicating, informing, scheduling, and generally interacting with them. Wiggio has become my recent group collaboration tool. It's fairly new and is developing new tools, but I need basic calendaring and communication for now and it does the job.

What's Coming
As I develop better CMS (content management sytem) web developer skills, I'll be converting a bunch of my websites to ones where all 3 of these communities can interact more easily, which basically means sharing my networks more broadly. What I see happening as a result is that some of these will overlap.

I don't want to lose sight of the fact that sometimes we need to keep our client community somewhat distanced from our personal communities. So I don't want too much overlap. There are times when we need to close our door and have some time for ourselves. Client needs can be overwhelming and that's where I do need boundaries. Many of our clients don't have any boundaries. So expanding social networking to meet their needs will take some balance between meeting their needs and meeting my own needs for a separate space and some "me time."

For me, spending less time on the phone trying to chase down a lead, answer, or person is one of the blessings of Web 2.0 tools. Phone tag is so wasteful. Sending an email is more productive. But using a tool that gets the message out to many, with responses from a broader community, including our clients, brings more options into play.

Options -- I like having options, especially since there are no "one size fits all" solutions to people's problems. At the end of the day, I have to remember that I am not dealing with problems, I am dealing with people. Social Networking tools put me in touch with so many more people, who arrive at solutions differently and arrive at different solutions. I end up with more information, more options, and better solutions that let me do a better job of helping the client who doesn't use social networking -- yet!

*shared contacts: for the uninitiated, my definition of a shared contact is someone who is not in my network but is in one of my network contact's network; I ask you and you ask that person and put us in touch with each other.

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