“What are people saying about me online?” article

This article was submitted to the Not for profit management magazine July 2008 issue.

Right now a supporter could be writing on the internet about your cause or organisation. The chances are you won’t even know it.

There are many, many ways this happens. Personal fundraising websites, blogs, microblogging, discussions forum and comments on articles are some of the ways people can say their say.

A keen supporter running a marathon can easily collect funds on your organisation’s behalf. The appeal for funds is just one part of what they’re doing. Before running the 42.195 km they’ll tell their story why your work is important.

It’s good to know what people are saying about you. Taking things a step further, organisations can reach out to supporters as a way of building their constituency.

You might think this means a lot of time needs in front of a computer searching bebo and facebook, but that is not necessarily the case. Many strategies raised at the Connecting Up 08 conference, held in Brisbane 19-20 May 2008, pointed to low stress ways of using online tools to benefit not for profit organisations.

Start by watching

Conference keynote presenter Beth Kanter, a professional blogger from Boston, watches what community and voluntary organisations are doing online. She’s had to develop some effective techniques to stay informed, but not be swamped.

She let it slip that she has a few thousand friends on facebook and on twitter.com she has hundreds followers. On her authoritative blog Beth gets tonnes of feedback and heady conversation sometimes flows over several days.

From these different websites Beth has created a virtual network of people, many working in IT and communications roles within not-for-profit organisations. The beauty of the network is that people are openly talking and sharing information about their work. Beth provokes conversation, and dips in from time-to-time by asking direct questions. People also volunteer information about projects and ideas.

On whatever scale might be appropriate, this type of networking is available to anybody or any organisation. It’s a way of connecting that the internet uniquely enables.

Beth recommends three steps for organisations wanting to use new online tools:

1. Start by listening.
Get online and search out places where people maybe talking about your organisation. This maybe popular websites such as daily newspapers or auction sites, or it could be individual bloggers. You can automate listening to some by using Google Alerts, or signing up to feeds from social bookmarks and blogs.

2. When you’re ready, join the conversation.
Start simply by making a comment. But as you begin to see the benefits of conversing, dig deeper by watching what other people say in response to your comments. Keep a track of responses and add your own.

3. Finally, experiment.
Beth recommends starting with a blog, but you could also start with an individual profile on a social networking website. The best rule of thumb is use to trial and error as there is replacement for hands-on experience (see the article on TechSoup listed below).

Some other hints

When I wandered around the Connecting Up conference, at times people had glazed looks in their eyes as they tried to cope with the sheer volume of opportunities online. One person I spoke said she’d heard people say, “this is all too much” about a hundred times.

Stuart Jones, who offers IT training in a small community centre in Milang, South Australia, is very aware of this. That’s why he ran a workshop at the conference on how to avoid being swamped (see side box for more details).

“If you think there is just too much to take in, don’t panic,” Stuart says. “Technology should be enjoyed, and even more importantly… you should enjoy learning about it.”

Beth Kanter talked about personal discipline. Just dip into facebook when you’ve finished a big piece of work. Or designate Friday for flickr and Tuesday for twitter.

Assigning someone the role technology scout within an organisation was suggested. Rather than someone who fixes printers and helps with software problems, the scout’s role is to explore emerging technologies and suggest what could work for your group. (See the Webguide article listed below.)

Members of a team or organisation may agree to share around the task of exploring new online tools. Each week schedule a report back on the usefulness of tools to specific organisational goals. There is a danger of licensing unproductive surfing unless you set boundaries.

Even a small amount of time can be useful. While running an online community or network may take 20 or more hours a week, to listen in on what’s being said about your organisation takes as little as 10 minutes a day.

The newness of what is happening online can’t hide the fact that people are all too human. From time to time, there’ll be stuff raised you don’t want to hear. Should I turn a blind eye or is it better to know what’s being said?

It’s not easy being open to the world wide web and accepting everyone’s point of view. But hearing what people have to say – the good, bad and ugly – and connecting with supporters, can help you achieve more than you might otherwise be able to.

CISA (now called Connecting Up Australia) sponsored Stephen to attend the Connecting Up 08 conference.

Box 1: The fritz and sauce method for dealing with the information flood

On the shores of Lake Alexandrina 75km south of Adelaide they serve pretty good fritz and sauce (a South Australian delicacy consisting of fried luncheon sausage and sauce encased in fresh, white bread). Although this dish wasn’t on the Connecting Up 08 conference menu, Stuart Jones, the IT support and training officer at Milang Old School House Community Centre (MOSHCC), served up some advice on how the Centre deals with the flood of information online.

During his workshop Stuart shared his personal favourites from the many ways MOSHCC stays on top:

  1. Listen to podcasts to keep on top of technology changes. Favourite shows include “This Week in Tech”, “net@nite” on twit.tv, and the “Buzz Report” (buzz.cnet.com).
  2. To keep track of social networks, rss and multimedia media try the Flock web browser (flock.com).
  3. Keep reading, or listening, let it soak into the back of your brain. Even if you don’t know yet, it may come in handy, but it also introduces you to those ideas behind where all this stuff is going.
  4. The key thing is, to quote Leo Laporte, host of “This Week In Tech” on www.twit.tv:
  5. “There is an old way of thinking that you have to somehow keep up. That is really what is getting in your way: you can’t, give up, release, let go. However if you bathe in this stream of information you get plenty. Wade through this stream without holding on…the key is not worrying about missing something.”

MOSHCC website and Stuart’s new blog Fritz and Sauce

Box 2: What’s twitter all about?

On twitter.com you can send micro messages (140 characters or less) to let people know what you’re doing, or ask questions, or crack a joke. Beth Kanter describes twitter as a giant cocktail party. People can follow your micro messages on the internet or even by sms text messages.

According to Eddie Harran from Brisbane, “Twitter is my “brain trust” – a source of collaborative intelligence where everyone is on a level playing field. Utilised effectively, it can help one connect with others, discuss ideas, and share knowledge.”

Useful links

“Technology scout – an asset for every organisation”, Webguide NZ
“Eight secrets for effective online networking”, TechSoup
Beth Kanter’s blog
Connecting Up 08 conference papers and resources

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