We've all seen the use of social media explode during the past two years, and Canadians are some of the biggest online users in the world. A report by emarketer released last year reveals that Canada's Internet population continues to grow: it?s predicted to hit 25.9 million by 2013 with many users spending 45 hours or more online each month.
Studies also show that Canadians love their online social networking sites — Forrester research says that Canadians are the most active social networkers in any market they survey, while a survey from 6S Marketing announced that 70% of Canadians use social media.
Facebook leads the pack as Canada's favourite social network with over 16 million Canadian users, though Twitter, Youtube, Flickr, LinkedIn and blogs are also extremely popular.
With all of this conversation happening online, nonprofits are realizing they can no longer ignore social media if they want to stay relevant, connect with stakeholders, raise awareness or mobilize the public.
Now, organizations are starting to hire social media managers to handle their social media presences. South of the border, a survey of nonprofits by the Nonprofit Technology Network found that one-half of organizations plan to increase employee staffing related to commercial social networks in the coming 12 months, and one in five will increase funding for external resources such as consultants, designers and programmers.
Though there have been no similar Canadian studies describing how nonprofits are deploying social media resources, CharityVillage® has seen 18 job advertisements and 20 volunteer postings for social media positions in the past two years. (You can view the CharityVillage® job board here.) Before that, there was nothing.
With the emergence of the social media manager as an important role, nonprofits are now facing a crucial shift in how they communicate their messages and engage their supporters.
What do social media managers do?
They use Facebook and Twitter, but that's not all. Social media managers create social media strategy, grow audiences, educate, mobilize, fundraise, share relevant content, raise awareness about important issues, launch campaigns and interact with the community. Depending on the organization, they do a couple or all of the above.
Social media managers are great listeners, strategic thinkers, experienced online content creators and conversational writers. They have energy and passion, sound judgment, curious natures and innovative spirits.
No matter the tools employed, social media is not divorced from an organization's overall strategic goals. Any good social media manager will come to the table understanding that social media does not operate in a vacuum; that it is simply an additional way to connect with audiences. "The same questions and the same considerations you would take into account in old-school communications you take into account now," says Theo Lamb, a community manager for The Big Wild and BC Children's Hospital Foundation. "Things like who's your audience, and what are you trying to say? It's an old rules, new tools sort of thing."
Benefits and challenges of social media manager positions
Catherine Kenwell, director of marketing and communications at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), was recently approached by her research team colleagues. They had been looking for study participants for awhile and couldn't reach the numbers they needed. Kenwell put the word out on the CCNM's Facebook page and within a week, the organization was overflowing with qualified people who wanted to participate.
This result helped propel Kenwell to post a social media specialist position.
"That really spoke to the importance of us having a dedicated social media person," she says. "We realized that we had a need and an opportunity to really reach out to communities we weren't getting to. We have so many different areas we work with and we can touch them all through social media."
Alexandra Samuel is the co-founder of Social Signal, the world's oldest social media agency. She's been helping organizations build communities online since 2005, before tools like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube were on the scene. She believes that nonprofits are better positioned than corporations to succeed using social media.
"The difference between getting eyeballs and getting conversation online is to get conversation going, your audience has to care passionately about whatever it is that you're putting on the table for discussion," she says. "And people care a hell of a lot more about homelessness, or kids with cancer, or environmental issues than they care about what kind of toothbrush they use. I think not-for-profits have an incredible asset in that they have built themselves upon participation and they've built themselves upon the passion of their audiences."
Lamb says that social media managers truly understand the online medium and exercise quick, rational judgment that maximizes an organization's online presence.
"It's all valuable real estate, so you don't just want to put anything out there," she says. "It's got to be vetted and considered and I think that's why it's valuable to have an online community manager — they know how to do that quickly, efficiently, succinctly and in an engaging manner."
Planned Parenthood Toronto created a social media position because it allows them to better reach their youth audience — who are primarily online.
"Increasingly, teens are accessing services through the web through social media," says Saad Hussain, Planned Parenthood's director of community services. "We felt this was the best way to connect and get our message out to them."
Equally, the Alzheimer Society of Ontario is reaching out to boomers, as they are a swiftly growing segment of online users. In addition to raising awareness and education, the nonprofit hopes to build relationships with people who may decide to donate down the line.
"You can't ask people for money or ask people to take action until you've built that relationship with them using social media," says Kathryn Richardson, the society's senior marketing and communications officer.
Of course, social media manager roles are not without their challenges. Many organizations are fearful of social media tools, making progress an uphill climb for staff implementing social strategies. Resources play a large part as well, since some nonprofits can't afford dedicated social media staff. And with the increased number of organizations using social media, it can be difficult to get your message heard.
"It's a lot noisier, so you have to be really clear about what your message is in that space," says Kate Barazzuol, a social media strategist for Vancity who has been moderating the online community Change Everything since 2006.
Samuel points out that a big pitfall for senior staff is thinking if they hire someone to handle social media, they don't have to understand it themselves.
"Whether you are making your social role a volunteer role or a paid role, you cannot delegate it entirely," she says. "A communications director needs to be able to meaningfully participate in shaping an online message. The message I really want anyone in communications or marketing to hear is that social media is now a core part of your work."
Should your social media manager be a paid or volunteer role?
For many nonprofits with limited resources, a volunteer social media manager is a huge asset.
Ottawa-based Canadian Organic Growers has only two paid staff, so they work very closely with a communications student who manages their online presence to raise awareness about organics.
"There was just no way that we could hire a new staff. We don't have enough core funding for that," says Danielle Chabassol, the organization's office manager. "So it had to be a volunteer position — as most of our positions are."
While finances are part of why Public Dreams uses a social media volunteer, it isn't the whole reason: their volunteer is an artist who is active online and well-connected in the artistic world, which benefits the small arts organization. Public Dreams' three staff members are already using social media, so the volunteer acts as a complement to the nonprofit's social media strategy instead of its caretaker.
"We were looking for someone who was up on all of the relevant issues and already active in the field that we're in," says Laura Grieco, general manager of Public Dreams. "It felt like the right kind of fit for us."
Samuel, however, isn't in favour of volunteer social media roles.
"If you're an organization who would have your media relations as a volunteer position, then go ahead and have your social media relations done by a volunteer," she says. "But if the idea of having a volunteer call up the Globe and Mail on your behalf fills you with a cold terror, then apply the same standard to having a volunteer do your Twitter feed.
"As heretical as it may seem," she continues, "I think there are not-for-profits for whom the way of making resources available for social media is going to be eliminating other channels they've relied on in the past."
Kenwell feels that a paid staff member is well worth the money.
"I think return on investment is huge. You're using a lot of intellectual capital, but you're not spending a lot of money," she says. "It's quite exciting when you think that this one role is going to have an impact on the entire organization and expand our community."
The future of social media manager positions
Samuel suggests there's a great opportunity for public relations firms to handle the social media crises that being online inevitably bring.
Lamb believes that there is room in the future for specialized roles — be it graphic designers, web developers, fundraisers, or writers — that social media managers can tap into.
Undoubtedly, social media is here to stay and if anything, it's only going to get bigger. In a few years, social media managers may not even be a separate position ? their job responsibilities will likely be integrated into all communications work. If they haven't already, nonprofits need to determine how to best use the potential of social media so they can extend their impact.
"If social media is used mindfully and creatively, we can do really amazing things," says Barazzuol. "There's such an opportunity for us to actually change the world that we've created. To me, that's a really exciting thing."
Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and holistic nutrition student. Find out more about her writing services at www.sondibruner.com, and explore vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes on her food blog, The Copycat Cook.
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