NGOs and Facebook: This ain’t Kansas, Dorothy.

While social media has been successful in some respects to raising awareness and participation in any number of issues, there are many groups across the spectrum struggling for attention. This may be due to their misuse of social media, relying on it as more of a one-way avenue of communications. By treating Facebook more like a newsletter than a conversation, and by engaging as an organization instead of as individuals, the NGO community may be missing out on the full potential of this medium. For the basics, Climate Access has already put together a handy Tip Sheet.
 

Here at Climate Nexus, we are focused on communicating the science of climate change through both traditional as well as new media sources. As a communications associate, part of my job is figuring out how to best utilize these new forms of media to bring as much attention to the science as possible. In the ideal world, we’d make the science of climate change as well known as the latest celebrity divorce.

Let’s step away from our communications positions and take a minute to remember the reason most people use Facebook.  
 
Remember when you were in high school, and there was that person you had a crush on, but they didn’t know you existed? Facebook is for finding, stalking and impressing them. You find their profile, and thus their interests. “Oh, he’s big into motorcycles?” You then join the Harley page and find something to post to Mr. Right’s wall, thereby getting him to notice you AND showing him that you two have something in common. Of course, you’ve never ridden (helmet hair? No thanks) but, if he ever asks, you get to fish for an invitation for a ride!
 
What’s that mean for people like us, who are certainly not using Facebook to woo our dream dates? It means that in some ways, we need to find, stalk and charm the public into “like”-ing our page as though we were pursuing a crush.
 
To do this, we must remember that people don’t just post things to talk about who they are; they post things to show who they want to be, to show who they want others to think they are. Keep this in mind as you stalk out your future followers and speak to their aspirations, their hopes and dreams. If you want something shared, it’s got to be something that makes the share-er look cool or sexy or (most important on the Internet) clever or snarky! Reposting something funny makes YOU look funny. (And as we all know, a sense of humor is often top priority in a relationship!)
 
But don’t feel too much pressure! Just posting something original allows people to feel like part of the “inner circle,” the group first to see some picture, or to get the real scoop on the latest story. Keep in mind that any original content will enable people to think “Pfff, I knew about that before it was cool!” (Because deep down, everyone on the Internet has that hipster mentality.)
 
We’ve found from our [Warning: obligatory shameless self-promotion link follows] I <3 Climate Scientists FB page that while some people share around news stories, more tend to share some of the professional comics that we post. Surprisingly, sometimes our in-house creations are even more popular -- and those are basically just cute animal pictures with some mildy-punny text! After a quick search for the animal in the picture, we found a variety of groups that shared our interest in, say, polar bears, so we posted it there. Lo and behold, people who “liked” a polar bear fan page also became fans of ours! We had found new followers simply by reaching out to a different group with similar interests. This can be repeated with just about anything, since almost anything you can imagine has its own Facebook page already!
 
Obviously we’re not as big and shared around as, say, NRDC’s pages, which go with a similar, but more serious, approach: absolutely gorgeous (or just plain adorable) pictures of wild life. Always put yourself in your audience’s shoes and ask, “How does this post make me look?”  Will people who see this say “Awww cute!” or “Awww, sad…”? Sure, our die-hard supporters will respond to sad, but even more will respond to cute! These images and the responses to them may seem insignificant, but by having your followers share images with their network, you bring new people to your page. Further, these cute images may be a way to stir up some conversation, helping you to build the engagement and interaction necessary for a thriving community.
 
Turning from general awareness to a specific action-orientation, 350.org’s page does a great job channeling and fostering a single emotion: righteous group anger. Their posts and images often speak to the basic human drive to belong to a group by showing crowds of people at protests. Note the constant use of “We” in images, which offers subtle comfort and reassurance to the viewer that they are not alone. This is another key aspect to keep in mind when Internetting. People are lonely, so they turn to Facebook to feel a connection to others, to be part of something big. Let’s not forget that.
 
Furthermore, we should remember that people are often in the middle of their own climate change-related arguments with friends, family, random Internet losers, etc. Give these climate warriors ammo. Give them bold, research-supported statements. Give them strongly worded graphics that prove a point. Give them the images and talking points necessary to allow them to do our job and message effectively on climate change.
 
Regarding our job as messengers, let’s keep in mind that Facebook isn’t the newsletters NGOs are long accustomed to writing. It’s not a promotional video or conference presentation, rather it is a totally new form of interactive media -- and that needs to influence your message. Remember, in this post-modern world, the medium IS the message! (+10 points for the first person to name that philosopher!)
 
There’s another tip, though you’re all probably already aware, that asking questions, and offering rewards, even if meaningless and intangible, is a way to prompt some responses. The more you engage your audience, the more active your page and lively the discussion, they more likely you are to pick up new followers. Again, people long for a sense of community. Build it by encouraging participation and feedback. (Granted, most of us working in social media know that’s much harder than it sounds. A goal, nonetheless.)
 
Now, before you get all carried away taking my advice as gospel and trying to be the coolest kid on the Internet, a word of caution. Actually, it’s more of an acronym of caution: PETA.
 
While the Internet is a fun place full of cursing and snark, remember that, in a best OR worst case scenario, what you do in social media may be reported on by the traditional media. So keep that in mind before you think it’s a good idea to buy a .xxx domain and piss off a sizable portion of your audience.
 
To wrap it up, remember to speak to people’s aspirations, create or curate “cool” or beautiful original content, supply followers with ammo for their own fights, build a strong sense of belonging and community, and try to pull them into a conversation--perhaps by making bold, easy-to-disagree-with statements “[enemy] says we should kill nature! Do you all agree?”
 
But most of all, remember social networks are about making yourself look impressive, so help your fans to do that. 
 

 

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Philip Newell