Embrace User-Generated Content

A group of people in the 19th Century
These users never got the chance to “generate content,” but their great-great-great grandchildren can!

Organizational communications have transformed from one-way broadcasting to two-way engagement. Central to this change is technology that allows a person receiving communication to endorse, share, and respond to it. And so I am always surprised by how many people seem to fear social media, ((I use the term “social media” here broadly, including Facebook and Twitter but also blogging and commenting.)) the foundation of two-way communication. So let’s conquer that fear by talking about how to ease in to this new world and why you should start now and finish later.

Why It’s Good

There are many great reasons for why you should embrace “user-generated content” and social media.

1) Connections = Engagement

By providing a Facebook wall or public comment form, users see that they can contact your organization. This makes your organization more approachable. When they choose to write or share or like, that connection becomes even stronger.

2) Free (And Genuine) Publicity

When people “retweet” (“RT” for short) an entry on Twitter or react to a story you wrote on a blog, that’s not just free publicity for your organization; it is also an “endorsement” by the sharer to their network of friends, family, and colleagues. Rather than a sterile ad in a sidebar, having your content delivered by another individual—someone who chooses to share that content on their own volition—makes that information more trustworthy and likely to impact the reader.

3) Your Visitors Are There (Every Day)

Depending on the audience you’re trying to reach, a social network may very well be the best place to reach them. Getting people to your website every day is almost impossible, but that’s exactly what Facebook, Twitter, and Google Reader ((Google Reader is a website tool used to read updates from multiple blogs while staying on a single website.)) have accomplished. By getting your content on those platforms, you can keep in consistent contact with potential supporters, volunteers, and clients.

The Low Stakes Getting Started

The best piece of advice I’ve received about social media—one I’ve heard from multiple and varied sources—is to just start. There are multiple reasons for this:

  • Even though you absolutely need a plan for your social media, there’s nothing like a real, silent social media page to get you motivated! Otherwise, it’s just too easy to procrastinate.
  • Developing a clear voice, attracting a significant number of followers/likes/subscribers, and building up an archive of content all take time. If you want your social media to really be cranking in 6 months, you should start now.
  • You probably won’t have too many people paying attention to you at first, and that’s a good thing. That gives you the space and low-stakes to experiment and find out what your core-audience wants to hear from you.

Worst Case Scenarios

Now that I’ve laid out many of the advantages of social media—and why you should stop reading this article and just get started—let’s talk about the fears that keep boards and executive directors and CEOs away from social media.


This is probably the most likely to actually happen: you post and no one responds. If that happens, you probably haven’t tapped into the right audience or aren’t posting content that connects with them. As long as you go into social media with an open mind and a willingness to experiment, this should resolve itself with time and a bit of effort.

A Bad Apple

Once you overcome that silence, if you have a big enough social media presence, I think this scenario is pretty likely too. One person misreads a post, has a fluke-y bad experience, or just needs to rant. This has happened to me.

It’s an unsettling experience, but if it’s just a tangential rant or a “troll,” someone who leaves an abrasive or abusive comment purely to get a response, you can ignore it. A majority of people won’t notice this if it really is an isolated incident, and a lack of response will usually make the person stop.

However, if that comment really is a well-intentioned criticism of you or your organization—even if its tone is less-than-pleasant—you can and should engage the person. Thank them for sharing their opinion. Acknowledge their comment and offer an alternate view of the situation, or even agree with the criticism and discuss ways that you’re working to improve the problem.

A True Social Media Crisis

As long as you’re thoughtful with your social media and don’t have thousands and thousands and thousands of followers, the chance of having a true social media crisis is tiny. If you’re in a position where something of that scale occurs, you’ve also done a lot of things right to get such good exposure. (CONGRATULATIONS!) Through that process, you will have developed social media policies and guidelines and someone who devotes significant time to social media. Certainly, some organizations have run into trouble with social media, but others have had problems with boards, staff members, or anything else. Anything can cause a problem, not just social media.

The take home point: Just because something could go wrong doesn’t mean you should avoid it.

Stay Flexible

So, seriously, just start. You don’t need the first two months of posts planned to the millisecond. So long as you 1) commit to devoting regular attention to your social media presence and 2) think that there is some (ANY!) meaningful reason to use social media, just start. You can start with a blog or one social network. Embrace the advantages of two-way communication and reap the rewards.

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