Social Media for Associations: Challenges and Opportunities

Associations and non-profits are very busy trying to figure out social media.  How can we use them to enhance our communications and how can we prepare for attacks launched using these new tools?  The opportunities for enhanced sharing and collaboration presented by social media are mind-blowing.  But these new tools also come with the potential for significant disruption.

Associations have always provided forums for their members to exchange information and ideas.  The Internet makes it dramatically easier to do this.   Pre-social media, the way associations used the Internet was pretty straightforward; but that’s all changing now.

Social media allow your members to quickly and easily communicate directly among themselves.  Even if an association is a little slow in getting the word out about a development, their members can chat about it instantly using a growing variety of tools, with Facebook, Linked In, YouTube, and Twitter, leading the list for now.

And the speed and flexibility of social media are about to soar with the added element of mobile communications.

But what about the challenges presented by social media?  Associations sometimes represent groups or causes with critics; “activists” is what they are usually called.  I’m all for the vigorous exchange of ideas, but I’m not sure we’ve really seen how disruptive social media can be when used to attack established organizations.  In the old days, being an activist required you to show up, perhaps to even travel to a meeting or a site.  Then you had to hold a rally or protest in front of a shareholders meeting trying to rattle the company’s leadership.  Why should protesters bother with all this when they have social media?

My research into what social media mean for associations uncovered a fascinating report by The Foundation for Public Affairs, Beyond Control, How Social Media and Mobile Communications Are Changing Public Affairs, by Tom Price.  This report was published last year, but it remains fascinating, relevant, and alarming.  Quite simply, social media are reinventing associations, business, activism, and everything in between.

A few highlights from the report with my thoughts in brackets:

  • Many people still have a hard time taking social media seriously. [This is a generational issue.  Most organizations are run by older people who didn’t grow up with social media.]
  • Social media allow activists to converse with their stakeholders – not just broadcast messages one way. [Fortunately, this applies to associations and businesses too, but we have to use this new power.]
  • By 2015, according to Cisco Systems, the entire world will have as many mobile Internet devices as human beings (7.1 billion) – a 26-fold increase from 2011.
  • According to two Burson-Marsteller studies in 2010, 97 percent of U.S. advocacy groups were using at least one social media platform, and 91 percent were using all three major platforms (Twitter, Facebook and YouTube).  In contrast, just 72 percent of major U.S. corporations had Twitter feeds, 69 percent had Facebook pages and 59 percent had YouTube accounts.
  • Through social media, anyone can add to the information supply, whether what’s added is true or not.  Public affairs practitioners who are slow to respond to negative information can wake up to discover their organizations have been defined unfavorably by whatever filled the vacuum.  [The 24/7 monitoring that associations and businesses need to conduct in response to this is becoming very expensive.]

I was glad to see the food & beverage industry show up in this report.  Susan Neely, President and CEO of the American Beverage Association says if an organization doesn’t post information to social media, “you’re missing a gigantic opportunity to tell your point of view…we’ve had reporters call who have gotten leads from our tweets.”

Gatorade has created a mission control center in the marketing department at its Chicago headquarters.  Gatorade staff track online conversations, monitoring what’s said about the brand, its competitors, sports nutrition and the athletes who endorse Gatorade products.

All Verto Solutions managed associations are updating their communications and marketing plans to include the incredible challenges and opportunities that come with social media.  Our associations are all related to food, agriculture, or science-based industries, where the rules related to transparency are changing.  The report highlights the challenge of being more open while still protecting confidential business information.

This new world of social media reminds me of an Alanis Morissette line:  “what it all boils down to is that no one’s really got it figured out just yet.”

Let me know what you think.

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2 Responses to Social Media for Associations: Challenges and Opportunities

  1. Pingback: Cutting Edge Social Media for Associations | the Association Navigator

  2. Shelton says:

    Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular post!
    It’s the little changes that make the largest changes.
    Thanks a lot for sharing!

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