How Nonprofits & NGOs Can Press Their Home Court Advantage in Social Business

I have written often about various facets of social business disruption, which usually causes organizations angst because they have to learn to change how they do things. On a happier note, nonprofits and NGOs, long accustomed to being (relatively) disadvantaged do-gooders grateful for commercial bodies’ largesse, actually have more of an advantage in social business than commercial firms (“brands”).

In this context, government usually lies between nonprofits and brands because it’s not commercially focused (advantage), but it rarely considers individuals in meaningful ways (disadvantage). Here I’ll lay out the rationale for these claims before giving some practical pointers for unlocking social business potential by understanding the social good of your business. Brands and governments, you can learn from this, too.

Disruptive Elements of Social Business

Please bear with me in this brief comparison of mass and network communications; it may sound boring, but it can help you mine the gold in the specific recommendations below.

20th Century: Mass Communications

The mass communication age reflected the Industrial Economy from which it was born in the mid-twentieth century. It created value through control and scale. Brands, big media and governments controlled virtually all communications—print, radio, TV, film—that most people saw. Brands’ goals were grounded in marketing and promotion. Big media has wavered between promotion/marketing and service, and its emphasis is rarely transparent. Governments have been formulaic, self-focused and low budget.

The point is, as people and leaders, we have an unconscious assumption that “communications” means marketing and promotion.

Mass communications is expensive to fund, although it’s scaled and cheap on a per-person basis (to reach one person). Organizations can’t afford it without rationalizing it from a business perspective. Most of the innovation springs from the commercial area because it’s best funded.

In this context, nonprofits, community service organizations, governments [and NGOs] have been at a disadvantage because they have been less funded, and they haven’t easily been able to rationalize large expenditures to dip into the mass communications well. They face similar costs as commercial organizations do. They often use commercial techniques since brands lead in innovation.

21st Century: Network Communications

The Internet is the infrastructure of social business [more in Networks vs Mass Communications: Using Disruption to Compete], and social business is changing all human organizations because it disrupts the mass communications monopoly *and* it digitizes “word of mouth,” which has always been the most powerful people-influencer. People almost always trust people they know to give them advice, and now word of mouth is online, so it is scalable. Huge disruption.

Networked communications is very difficult for brands, nonprofits and governments to understand because they’ve been inculcated with the rules of mass communications. The landmark differences are:

  • Mass communications is one-to-many: the organization directly accesses a large audience via the (expensive) commercial vehicle (TV channel, newspaper..)
  • Network communications is many-to-many: the organization indirectly accesses a large number of people via its “fans,” “connections,” “followers,” etc. by inspiring them to interact and share. Their interactions and sharing grant the organization access to their networks. This is earned.

Authentic Inspiration is the Master Passkey

Most offline word of mouth is reactive: people ask their family, friends, neighbors or colleagues advice when they are unsure about a decision. However, social business has made it much easier for people to volunteer their advice by sharing something they find extraordinary—and/or something that they feel their networks would value, thereby enhancing the sharer’s reputation.

Marketers and advertisers have long talked the talk of “inspiration,” but their context has usually been the brand, the product/service, not the individual. From the latter’s perspective, brands have not walked the walk.

Since CSRA’s founding, we have served large B2C and B2B brands, governments and nonprofits, and our experience suggests that the most reliable means to “inspire” people is to show consistently that you care about them. Part of caring is helping them to do things that are most important to them. By being relevant to them, you encourage them to care for you.

How Nonprofits & NGOs Can Press Their Home Court Advantage in Social Business

People are less likely to get inspired by “products” or “services” that brands try to promote unless products/services help them to do something important in an unusual or remarkable way. Everyone knows that brands’ primary interest is making money, so brands have a higher hurdle to pass than nonprofits when they claim to be focused on people or causes.

Nonprofits and NGOs are cause-focused, not commercially focused, which gives them the social business home court advantage. They serve the cause first, so they are more congruent with “service-first.”

Here’s how they can use it:

  1. Nonprofits, like all organizations, need to get stakeholder-focused (common stakeholders are donors, volunteers, beneficiaries, partners, governments..). Most organizations, once they get established, fall in love with themselves and their missions, and they assume that stakeholders will always love them [as they once did]. Every organization says and believes that it’s stakeholder-focused, but the market is dynamic, and many organizations diverge from stakeholders over time without realizing it.
  2. Recognize that, whether nonprofit, for-profit or for fun, all organizations compete for attention more than ever. Attention is necessary for “engagement” and involvement. Therefore, nonprofits need to develop a rich and pragmatic understanding of how relevant they are to each stakeholder. They’ve got to be honest here and look at stakeholders as real people, not “personas” or “demographics.”
  3. Test the understanding of #2 in digital social venues by observing how stakeholders talk among themselves about the part of their lives you address. Stakeholders mirror each other better than organizations do (i.e. when they survey stakeholders).
  4. Develop an analogous understanding of stakeholders’ most important goals—and what actions they take—that are relevant to your causes. We call this “workstream analysis” because all people have work processes with several steps that they follow to accomplish things. This can be a huge part of your relevance because your value may be not only the type of cause but also how you fit their workstream. For a simple example, you offer members or volunteers phone bank opportunities to raise money for cervical cancer victims. But your phone banks have childcare for 2-10 year olds. That could be the deciding factor for volunteers with young children. If they are an important stakeholder, you encourage conversations about “volunteering with young children” as a part of your social business interactions.
  5. Ask yourself what unusual information or capability your organization has that it could share easily, that stakeholders would value.
  6. Consider #2, #4 and #5, and create your interaction strategy for digital social venues (forums, blogs, Facebook…). Social media firms talk about “content strategy,” but this is predicated on distributing content (via “media”), which is an outdated remnant of mass communications, so avoid it.
  7. Instead, focus your interactions on offering help or information that’s relevant to key steps in your stakeholders’ workstreams. Pay close attention to how people respond, and iterate/adjust your approach.

In addition, nonprofits need to consider stakeholders as real people. For example, many people get involved in service- or cause-related work for social reasons. Our client work has shown that many parents are concerned about the “consumer culture,” and they want their kids to develop more awareness and compassion for others. Others volunteer to meet people or potential dates.

Using a holistic approach gives nonprofits a huge advantage because they can address the whole person and nurture relevant conversations.

Lastly, learn to focus on the minority of stakeholders that are most aligned with you. They are the ones that are most predisposed to get excited about you, interact with you and share enthusiastically. This is a big change from the mass communications mentality, which holds that communicating general messages to big audiences is the way to go. It’s a death knell in social business. General, “nice” interaction has rarely inspired; its goal is to get the brand out there and avoid offending. It’s not “real.” Looking at most brands’ “content,” it’s obvious they haven’t caught on to this reality yet. Nonprofits and governments also fall into the mass communications trap.

Lessons Learned for Brands

Obviously the diversity of commercial brands is wide, so this general guidance will be of varying relevance to yours. I encourage you to post specific questions in comments.

Brands have long spoken about “surpassing expectations” and “delighting” clients/customers, and they’ve tried to leverage that idea in social “media” to encourage spontaneous sharing, with limited success. Although well meant, most initiatives I’ve seen have been firm-focused, not stakeholder-focused. They won’t achieve meaningful results until they reinvent themselves. Here’s how:

  1. I’ll wager that any brand has unusual, personal importance to niche stakeholders. Brand stewards have long focused on delivering general messages to big numbers, but the way to big numbers in network communications comes from engaging power niches. Analyzing digital social venues is a great way to discover power niches.
  2. Look at your products/services holistically. You need to ground yourself in the “stakeholder experience,” forget about the product or service itself for a minute. For example, I love CSRA’s Social Network Roadmap. But our clients don’t care about our methodology. They want to crack the “social media code,” to be heroes in their organizations and to improve their careers, etc. They’d prefer to avoid the SNR, but they learn to appreciate how it saves them from many missteps that their competitors make. So I don’t mention it often when interacting with people online. Note how this explanation is grounded in who stakeholders are as people. The closer you get to the root, the less risk you’ll have of spinning your wheels.
  3. Look at your products/services socially. What social benefits can your products and services produce? Analyze digital social venues to discover and define social value in stakeholder terms, not yours. Often power niches are using your product/service in unorthodox ways that you may not even like. But you’re #2 to the stakeholder if you want access to his/her network. It’s that simple. Sure, I’d never recommend to BIC to engage the bicycle thieves who used their pens to open Kryptonite u-locks. But most stakeholder “hacks” aren’t that objectionable. Your ability to create social good may be surprising, but you have to look for it.
  4. To engage, you need to reinvent your mission and help stakeholders achieve their personal goals. When you serve people in digital social venues, you can create significant leverage. Your product or service is a prop to that end in almost every case.
  5. Follow Nonprofit #2, #4 and #5 to build your interaction strategy f0r power niches.
  6. Experiment in appropriate social venues, see what works. Kill what doesn’t.
  7. For more thoughts on how you can create a social channel of value, see How Giving Can Help CMOs Create Serious Value and Giving as Cultural Glue and Smart Business.

Lessons for Government

Although they are not for-profit enterprises, governments face many of the same challenges as brands when stakeholders perceive them as self-focused, not stakeholder-focused. In 2012, many branches of local, state, federal and global government are being questioned by voters, who are quite disillusioned right now. However, government budgets are being slashed in many parts of the world, especially in the G7, and this trend is accelerating. It’s a perfect storm for using social business to engage stakeholders to cut costs. Here’s how:

  1. Of course, democratic governments are accountable to voters, which means they must appeal to large numbers. They are constrained in ways that brands aren’t (although brands are constrained by profit goals).
  2. Like brands, you need to discover your power niches. All voters are not equal when it comes to getting engaged and collaborating with you to achieve goals around which you are aligned with them.
  3. Pursue Brand #2, #4 and #5. The secret is starting and supporting conversations that are relevant to your programs. When you do this right, you will not be doing most of the talking.
  4. Avoid sounding “political” or defensive, which comes across as self-focused and reduce your credibility.
  5. Enable your contributors in social venues to be themselves, once you establish a social business policy that explicitly lays out the ground rules. It’s good to have diversity of opinions within the rules. Your contributors need to feel that they can “be themselves.”
  6. You are part of network communications, too. When you engage with your power niches, you will reach a large network with relative ease, which can help you to prioritize how you serve voters. You’ll be more relevant and responsive. One of our clients, a local government on the U.S. East Coast, significantly increased its stature and trust with voters by showing that it cared through its highly visible social business interactions.
  7. Here are some government social business case studies to inspire you. By engaging citizens, you can change your relationship with them—toward being more collaborative. Some case studies show how to save significant budget, too, through collaboration.

Other Insights

  • You have probably heard the Web 2.0 slogan, “Humanize the enterprise.” Although trite by now, it is valuable because it reflects that organizations have been self-focused (“I’m sorry, Ms. Customer, but that’s not our department, please hold on while I transfer you.” – this is transfer #4). They foist their organizational problems on customers.
  • The social business age is many-to-many. People mirror each other en masse in digital social venues, and this is changing their expectations. People increasingly go to online forums to solve problems because other people “get it,” organizations don’t. They’re out of touch.
  • Another way to think about this is to contrast your experience buying something from a faceless huge retailer that may have great prices and store hours, but has a very impersonal approach to helping you—to buying from a store where people know you. For certain types of purchases, personal knowledge adds serious value. Being personal is where the puck is going.
  • Organizations need to learn how to become more personal, so their challenge is to learn how to be true to their missions while “being personal” in a congruent way. And social business enables the scaling of “personality.” That’s why it’s transformational to all human organizations—and why it will largely define who survives and thrives.
  • Nonprofits, brands and governments can tap social business, but they have to unlearn certain mass communications rules, namely: “communicate generally to large audiences while not offending anyone.” Of course, I’m not encouraging you to try to offend anyone, but “being real” while interacting is a must. And realizing that you reach large numbers through energizing power niches.

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