Kristin Clarke is books editor for Associations Now and a business journalist and sustainability director for ASAE.
Social-media consultant and author Amber Mac offers advice for associations building their strategies and metrics in the new world of communication. Plus, she shares her favorite app, conference, social-media innovation, and more.
Associations should take time to research, understand trends, and ask themselves three questions before drafting a social media strategy, says Amber Mac, the Canadian author of Power Friending: Demystifying Social Media to Grow Your Business.
Otherwise, associations risk making mistakes that could easily have been avoided or, perhaps worse, develop a ho-hum strategy that never takes off and wastes everyone's time. Mac can point to a number of social media failures—in fact, those are her favorite anecdotes of the book—but "you'll also see that the majority of those companies are still in the social media space ... . They realized that they made a mistake, learned from it—the community made them accountable—and they've come back and done an even better job in social media."
Associations Now connected with Mac the old-fashioned way—by phone—to inquire about many of the most common challenges and issues mentioned by associations struggling to leverage the rapidly changing, sometimes overwhelming social media universe.
Associations Now: What kind of research is needed for you settle on a social media strategy?
Mac: The most important research to be done before a strategic plan is put in place is to understanding what people are currently saying about your brand in the first place, so get your ear to the digital ground and listen to any conversations that are happening around your association.
Also, check out what your competitors are doing in the same space. There are some great lessons to be learned from individuals who are already out there connecting.
What are three key questions that should be answered before drafting a strategy?
The first question before you draft a social media strategic plan is to [ask] what your goals are. Those will be different for everyone. There will be people who simply want to continue to engage with existing customers, or they may want to get new customers or members.
The second question is to [ask] which tools you want to use and when. Some people try to do too much up front. I recommend focusing on two or three areas of social media and really using them to the full potential. That may mean you use Twitter, YouTube, and blogging, and those would be what you'd focus on for six months. Then, if you decide you want to expand that, maybe you add Flickr and other tools and start to use those services as well.
The third question to answer is to figure out how you measure success. For some people that's not a simple thing. They really want to see the return on their investment in the form of dollars, and we all know that's not always the case with social media. It's more a return on engagement. You create and find people out there who are brand ambassadors who truly love what you do, and you continue to nurture your relationship with them. You [also] can use tools like Hootsuite for Twitter, which is free, to track your stats, and even in Facebook there's a tool called Insights that can keep track of your audience. Those things can become really valuable in terms of bettering your success, and that's the final piece of the plan.
Is a social media strategy a hybrid between a pilot project and the more traditional strategic communications plan?
If there is anyone I'd recommend a three-month plan to, it's those people who are really skeptical about a social media plan or maybe they haven't wrapped their heads around it and don't really believe in it. I would say, "Let's try three months to get a sense of how it works," and by the end of three months, you should have seen some of the benefits, and maybe you can work on a longer social media plan then.
What are the key metrics that can be generated?
On the quantitative side, being able to measure how big your community is out there and how quickly it's growing. On the qualitative side, getting a sense of what people are saying about your association and—if you're interested in potentially increasing your membership—finding out why people are joining your association. I hit that need for conversations again and again, because you want people to see the value of your organization, and if they start sharing the content you've been blogging about and posting it on their own social media accounts, that type of reaction is proof that what you're doing is working.
What are you asked most in your job as a consultant?
I do get a lot of the same questions, but the biggest question I get is, "How much time should I spend on this?" People really struggle with that. They think that social media is going to take over their lives, or that they'll have to post really personal pictures about what they eat for breakfast or what their kids are doing. That's not the case.
You need to figure out how much time you can afford to spend, and as long as it's on a fairly regular basis, you should be able to create some kind of community on some kind of level.
How, or should, association or nonprofit social media strategies differ from corporate social media strategies?
There definitely is a difference. You're not necessarily selling a product, but there are great opportunities for associations and nonprofits to build up a presence online. All the tracking tools I mentioned are free, so while you may not be able to afford to hire a social media manager who steps up and runs all of these initiatives, you should be able to find someone in your organization who can devote a small part of the day to managing your social media efforts.
It comes down to budgeting and what you can afford. We have seen in the nonprofit space examples of how organizations have used tools like Twitter and done a really good job of connecting with other people and growing their brand. But it doesn't have to be a full-time resource if you can't afford it.
What are the major trends associations should be aware of when it comes to social media campaigns?
Probably one of the most exciting is location-based services. Let's say an association is having a certain event or getting people together in one place. It's always interesting to use a tool like Foursquare to get people to check in, … [because then you can see who is there], and [they might even] become "mayor" of that location.
You also can have badges on Foursquare, so it adds a fun social gaming element to that particular tool and event.
Just don't underestimate the value of using traditional social media tools that may not be trending anymore but are still really successful. Blogging would be one example, so I'd set up a blog maybe using Wordpress or Tumblr. [The latter] allows you to do what's called 'light blogging,' which essentially takes away the pressure of doing long, text-heavy blog posts. You just post videos, snippets of text, or pictures, so it's a simple way to get into the blogging world without having to invest a ton of time upfront.
Organizations often forget to make social media a visible part of their events, so they don't get as much impact out of them as they could, according to Amber Mac, author of Power Friending: Demystifying Social Media to Grow Your Business.
"Think signage," says the Canadian social media expert. "If you're using Twitter, Facebook, or a blog, make sure you promote them and let people see them."
One top tip? "Twitterfountains," a live Twitter feed on a wall that encourages people to interact both inside the conference and outside with people who can't attend the event. Here are other Mac favorites:
Favorite app: Instagram. It lets you take pictures on your iPhone 4 and then [applies] up to 14 filters to make even really bad pictures look good. It's free!
Favorite social media innovation: I want to say location-based services, but I'm kind of excited about group-buying services like Groupon … . It's going to change the way people spend money and shop, and there's an opportunity for lots of organizations to use Groupon.
Favorite way to build strong e-friendships: On Twitter. It's an online social hangout … . I feel I've had real relationships with people on there whom I haven't even met, but we have common interests.
Favorite online publication: Mashable.com, my social
Favorite conference: South by Southwest.
Favorite motto about social media strategies: You need to think about it like going to the gym. If you only go once a week, you're not going to see the results you want. Be consistent. Even if you don't know what you're doing right away, if you practice consistency, you will see results.
Contributed by Kristin Clarke, a business journalist and writer and researcher for ASAE. Email: [email protected]