My oldest son was starting to walk. We were upstairs in the tiny house we lived in at the time. My mind wandered for a second, and, before I knew it, he was standing at the top of the stairs with a goofy smile on his face. I ran to catch him, but was too late. He took a big step, and then his chubby body rolled down about 15 carpeted stairs, plopping onto the landing on the first floor. I was right behind trying to catch him, but he stayed just out of reach. Like in the movies, it felt as though it was happening in slow motion. He wasn’t hurt. He was crying, though, and suddenly had a full load in his diaper. I learned an important lesson. Babies (and drunk people) are good fallers because they don’t try to stop themselves. They just go with it. I also learned that a gate at the top of the steps might be a good idea. My son learned a pretty good lesson that day about how stairways work and how that first step can be a doozy. You learn new and useful things every day, especially when you are trying something new—like walking … or social media.
I certainly learned my share of lessons during my years working on social media at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Earlier this week, I shared some of those lessons at the Grantmakers in Health annual meeting. (My partners in the session were Len Bartel from the Maine Health Access Foundation and Elizabeth Krause of the Connecticut Health Foundation. Len has been piloting an effort to get feedback on grant proposals using Facebook. Elizabeth is involved in a fascinating initiative to use social media to advance the issue of disparities in health care. I hope to provide more on that in the future. Stay tuned. )
Here are my seven lessons. (I hope they help you take those first cautious steps.)
LESSON 1. Start with a strategy in mind
Seems obvious, but a lot of times people just leap to the tool—“We should have a Twitter feed.”—without thinking through the big picture of their strategy first and whether a Twitter feed fits with that strategy. At RWJF, the mission is pretty straightforward. The foundation wants to make a difference on the issues it is working on. (You hear a lot at the foundation that it is not in the grantmaking business, it is in the social change business.) When we launched social media tools it was because the tools flowed out of that strategy of making a difference on the issues. Some examples:
- About four years ago, the Pioneer team wanted to share the progress it was making on its work and generate some conversation in the field around that work. It decided to launch a blog.
- Last year, the group working on health reform knew it would be important to get the foundation’s research and other materials into the conversation as the government worked through reform efforts. It also needed a flexible means of sharing that information and the thinking behind it. Once again, a blog looked like the right tool.
- This year, the Vulnerable Populations team wanted to get some feedback from the field to shape its work. For that team, a forum where they could pose questions and generate discussion made sense.
Bottom line: Your social media efforts should flow out of your overall mission and strategy. Sort those out first.
LESSON 2. Baby steps are OK
One of the questions I get a lot is, “How did you convince the foundation to do all this.” The answer is, “We did it a little at a time.” At RWJF, we were lucky that social media had strong support from the president. As interest grew, we pushed out of our comfort zone in baby steps—a little more cautiously than my son did. Before the Pioneer team received approval to launch its blog, senior management and the legal people wanted a careful process for moderating all comments before they could appear on the site. The big worry? People would use this forum to attack the foundation. In the first three years, guess how many people used the Pioneer blog to criticize the foundation. None. Senior management saw that and began to breath easier. When the health reform blog was launched, comments were allowed to appear without moderation. (We just kept a close eye on them and quickly removed the occasional inappropriate entry.)
Bottom line: Push out of your comfort zone a little at a time (especially if you don’t have support from senior people, yet).
LESSON 3. Embrace failure
This is all one big experiment right now. Everybody is learning together. Look at everything you do as a pilot. You are just trying to see what works.
We launched a Year in Research poll two years ago. We wanted to find out what our audience thought were the 10 most influential research articles of the year (from work we funded). The biggest worry? What if nobody votes? Guess what? Some 1,400 people voted across 48 states. That worked.
On the other hand, this year we decided to announce the results on the health reform blog and invite people to suggest articles we missed. We even e-mailed all of the winning authors asking them to provide other articles of interest in their field. We didn’t get one comment that was on topic. Not one. That was a learning experience. We saw how difficult it can be to generate comments.
Bottom line: If you look at things as an experiment, everything becomes an opportunity to learn.
LESSON 4. It is all about conversation
Put down the megaphone. Broadcasting is dying. This is another one that seems simple on the surface, but it truly takes a shift to a different mind set to do this well. Whatever the tool, social media is ultimately about building a community of people with a shared interest.
If you are launching a blog, remember that you are the host and your goal is to seed interesting discussions not hog the limelight. If you want to get conversation going at a dinner party, you don’t ask some blowhard to lecture for 30 minutes. You carefully drop conversational nuggets around the room and watch them take root. On Twitter, make sure you pose questions to your followers and ask for their help. Tap into their wisdom. The point of having those followers is so that you can learn from them. Throw ideas out to the field on a Wiki or blog or forum or Facebook before they are fully cooked. Asking for help is the best way to generate conversation. One last thought on this topic. Don’t worry that you might lose control of “the message.” Guess what? You never really had control of it, anyway. And a conversation where you think you already know all the answers is pretty dull stuff. It is OK to let go of the idea that you or your CEO or whoever you are working with is the expert expounding wisdom from on high. It is freeing to say, “I had this idea, but sure could use some help making it better.”
Bottom line: Social media is not about dominating the conversation. It is about generating discussion that we can all learn from.
LESSON 5. This is much harder than it looks
This is a key lesson that a lot of organizations learn the hard way. It is easy to get started with social media. It is much harder to do it effectively. I’m not looking to scare you, but good blogs take a large chunk of time. Aside from the time spent writing, editing, soliciting guest blog entries, there is all of the effort that goes into generating and managing comments. Plus, if you are doing it right, you should be spending time commenting on other blogs and offering guest blogs there. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, user comments on your site, they all place demands on your time and resources. Be realistic. If you don’t have the resources to launch a blog, start with a Twitter feed. Don’t launch a community if you are not ready to dedicate some serious time to building it and managing engagement. Look for an existing community on the topic (maybe on Facebook) and join the conversation there.
Bottom line: Be realistic upfront about committing the resources to do this well. The world doesn’t need another blog that nobody reads or a community that feels lonelier than a hobo at Christmas.
LESSON 6. Don’t let a lack of clear metrics prevent you from getting started
I’ve produced my share of dashboards (and am working on an upcoming post on measuring social media success in the foundation world), so am a big believer in analytics. But go back to lesson three. We are all figuring this stuff out together. It is a grand experiment. At some point, you need to sort out how to measure progress toward your goals. Over the last few years at RWJF, we launched three or four blogs, five or six Twitter feeds, a couple of YouTube pages, a Facebook presence, and much more. When I left , we were still figuring out how to measure progress. That is OK. The foundation will get there.
Bottom line: Think about your strategy, then get out there and get your feet wet. The analytics will come.
LESSON 7. Social media isn’t just about communications
I was in the communications department at RWJF. That is where a lot of social media got started. But I think the real sweet spot is using these tools and the principles behind them—transparency, experimentation, openness to feedback, a willingness to share work that is only half baked—to change the way foundations do program work. If we truly want to make a difference on the issues we care about, shouldn’t we be trying everything we can to increase our impact? Isn’t that what this is all about?
Bottom line: Think of ways to use social media tools and principles throughout your organization to be more effective at what you do.
Those are my seven lessons. Like my son, I learned some by taking a good size fall. Others by taking careful baby steps. The one thing I’m sure of is that I have lots more to learn. What do you think? Do you have any other lessons to share? Do any of these resonate with you?