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Thoughts on Nonprofit Land’s “Social Media Pitching”

About a week ago I decided to do a Twitter search for “nonprofit” and found people tweeting “Nonprofit Land >> Social Media Pitching“.  With the number of people tweeting the link, I thought I would see what was there.

Adrienne Royer discusses the usefulness of social media to effectively fundraise and build relationships.  She brings up how Twitter can be particularly useful in establishing and building relationships with the local media.  However, she oversimplifies the strategic use of Twitter and other social media tools, thereby lending support for her argument against the usefulness of social media consultants.  This is a troubling considering that most of the people I know who work for nonprofits are a bit more old school—still heavily relying on stuffing envelopes and print press releases!

A few disagreements:

  1. Royer isn’t sure if nonprofits will ever be able to connect tweets with the bottom line.  This is already happening with for-profit businesses using Twitter.  While one tweet isn’t likely to snag the big fish, the building of a relationship over time may yield a positive response to an ask.  This can all be tracked through Google analytics or another web analytics program.
  2. Twitter is good for building relationships, but it shouldn’t be thought of as exclusively for reaching the local media for two reasons.  First, not all of the local media is on Twitter and also (I’m speculating here), that someone on Twitter is more likely to reach non-traditional media makers like bloggers, podcasters, and videographers.  Those who read my entry earlier this week on the Boston Globe may know my bias: nonprofits need to effectively use online channels because it is the way the world communicates and it will be more cost-effective.   Building relationships with the media, while important (and traditional), isn’t the be-all, end-all of success.  Building relationships directly with the people who care and believe in what you do is more direct and more effective.  Nonprofits are usually very savvy and creative when building communities; and building a following on Twitter or on another network online should be a natural progression.
  3. Yes, Adrienne Royer is correct that there are a lot of social media consultants out there selling their services, but I disagree with her that they don’t serve a purpose and their services are “pointless.”  While nonprofits are veterans at building communities, they aren’t always the most internet savvy.  Their work serves the public need and they have experience building social movements in their specific disciplines.  However, most of this has been done at cocktail parties, fundraisers, speeches made on soapboxes, and a few connections from graduate school.  The internet and the various social outlets are populist, but strategic planning with the help of an “expert” may spare the amateur efforts notably seen when established organizations begin their first foray into more non-traditional outlets.  I discussed this previously when talking an article in the November 2008 issue of Fast Company.
  4. Royer oversells how easy it is to do. “Social media is no different from real conversations. You don’t need to create elaborate new strategies on how to reach social media users. Just think of social media as a very large townhall or church. Information spreads on the interwebs the same way that it does in real life. In fact watching a message get retweeted is a lot like playing the playground game of telephone.”  While tools like Twitter and social networks like Facebook are free, the time it takes to develop compelling content and build the network is substantial.  Everything is measurable.  Through click-paths, an organization will know how many people are coming from Twitter and completing some kind of online transaction.  Web analytics can tell an organization how many people came from a specific link and if that traffic is yielding results.  A consultant who is worth the money will work with the organization to establish metrics and to define success.

Royer linked to Bulldog Reporter’s “Superior Social Media Pitches” which mentions two suggestions “Dive in and engage—test different social media tools” and “Admit ignorance—ask before committing social media snafus.”  Since nonprofits are traditionally understaffed and under resourced, and prioritization and maximization of time are essential, there simply may not be a staff member who has the time.  The people I know who are working for nonprofits, like baseball players, are creatures of habit.  If something isn’t broken, they don’t fix it.  If something has worked, they are reluctant to change, especially if the resources are not easily available.  The old guard of nonprofit management executives that have built the organizational structures around the United States that encourage charitable giving are be visionaries; they should not pass up opportunities to innovate.

If someone on the staff of a nonprofit—particularly the marketing, communications, and public relationship staff members—doesn’t know the tools, strategies for communication, or time hasn’t been allocated to do this, it’s already too late.  The time was yesterday and it’s time to catch up and integrate social media into the overall marketing and communications plan.

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What’s after the Boston Globe?

I happened to be awake last night when the Washington Post’s breaking news email arrived in my Inbox.  This alert: “Boston Globe faces closure”.  Over the past month, I’ve thought about the implications of the Globe’s closure for Boston arts organizations.

Rick Burnes discussed the the solution in the context of how the question was being identified—that the Globe’s situation isn’t about finding ways to sustain the current, traditional media model but instead find out what comes next.

Rick hit on a key point that I observed in Geoff Edger’s interviews with local arts leaders about the Globe’s situation.  There’s 20/20 hindsight and even a touch of nostalgia when Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, recalls what the exhaustive Globe coverage of the opening of their new building did for the city and the celebration.  While the coverage was indeed excellent, what appears to be lost by Medvedow is the understanding that this happened two and a half years ago and a lot can change in time.

Boston Symphony Orchestra Managing Director, Mark Volpe has a similar nostalgia when he discussed the departure of Seiji Ozawa and the subsequent arrival of James Levine.  This coverage that “fueled” audience growth in Ozawa’s final and Levine’s first year happened in 2002.  Imagine how much has changed since then.

Anne Hawley, director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum expresses her discomfort with online journalism:

The Globe is the center of the whole communications structure in the city. People say, oh, you can go online. Well, there’s no journalistic standard there. It’s not the way civilization should be organized. It’s very disturbing to me.”

The problem (and this kind of commentary may have been dropped through Edger’s writing of the piece) is that the arts leaders interviewed can’t seem to imagine the Boston Globe not existing.  Like the Boston blog rally, instead of brainstorming ideas about what the future of community reporting and media coverage may be, the goal appears to be finding a way to bring back the Boston Globe in the form and structure that is the most familiar.

I attended the “Hacking the Government” session at Barcamp Boston 4 two weekends ago and through the conversation about governmental transparency and public access to data for the purposes of private analysis, there were some comments about the Globe.  In the context of having governmental data available for public consumption, analysis, and discourse, someone asked who would take the time to exhaustively pour through it (even the most banal information) and report the findings.  Clay Shirky describes this as society’s “heavy lifting,” and he doesn’t have (and no proposal I’ve seen yet does) have a replacement.  The detailed investigative coverage of local events as a check and balance forcing transparency can only happen if someone (the reporter) is being paid for their time.

Over the five-plus years I worked for Boston theatre companies, I found local arts groups to have a reliance on print coverage, especially the Globe.  For small arts organizations a preview or review in the Globe was a public relations holy grail.  For many, it still is.  When I arrived in 2003, I was told preview articles would come out two weeks before a show opened allowing for presales and word-of-mouth—early momentum.  Over the past few years, the Globe has published preview articles when performances begin which are only a few days before the make or break review is published.  With a diminishing number of arts reporters and the same or growing amount of arts groups desiring coverage, not everybody will be covered in the Globe or even other places, for that matter.

Arts organizations will need to find other ways build, inform, and influence their communities.  Instead of waxing nostalgic about the Globe and the past, they will need to find out what happens next and be part of it.

The question is, are they prepared to do that “heavy lifting” and where will the money come from?

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Open Letter to The Boston Globe’s Alex Beam regarding “Downturn’s upside”

Dear Mr. Beam:

Your March 31, 2008 column, “Downturn’s upside” was disappointing.  It was clever, but it wasn’t funny and it misses the mark.

In your first paragraph, you aim directly at the Huntington Theatre Company and, by proxy, the entire Boston arts community by suggesting that attending the arts is an “obligation from which the recession has officially freed us”.   There are many among us who would, not so cleverly, disagree.  Theatre enriches our lives, brings us joy, pushes us to examine life’s dilemmas, and sustains us through difficult times.

What you’ve done in that paragraph is what marketing staffs for any arts organization do: Find pull quotes to promote the performance.  In the very same sentence that you claim to love the Huntington, you tip the scales by highlighting negative quotes from reviews:

The Huntington Theatre called the other day, trying to interest me in Richard Goodwin’s fabulous new play, “Two Men of Florence.” (“Dense speeches, stock characters, and heavy-handed displays of stagecraft” – Globe reviewer Louise Kennedy.) I love the Huntington, and who doesn’t want to spend a couple of hours watching “good actors . . . wasted on caricatured cameos” (Carolyn Clay in the Phoenix). But I had to say no. It’s the recession, you see.

Curiously, the online version of your article has no links to the reviews which would provide easy access to the whole story, or more importantly the context.  In this world of abbreviated thoughts and truncated communication, context still counts for something.

We are in a recession; individuals, families, and nonprofit organizations are hurting.  Theatre Communications Group recently released the results of a phone survey (“The New Normal” pdf) reporting that “[v]irtually every” one of the 495 theatres questioned will be cutting their operating budgets by between 5 and 30 percent.  Furthermore, theatres with an endowment or an invested cash reserve are reporting losses of between 15 and 30 percent.  This is not an easy time for any nonprofit theatre company.  Everyone is sacrificing; some of necessity more than others.  Theatre may be a luxury in hard times.  And all theatre is not created equal, or as Hamlet said of the players “they imitated humanity so abominably.”  But even with shortcomings, as every school child knows, “the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The recession has not “freed” anyone from their “obligation to attend the theatre”; it has made it more relevant to go, to explore the human experience from the safety of a dark room in a cushy chair, occasionally not so comfortable.

Leave the reviews for those who actually saw the performance.  Reading the New York Review of Books, instead of the book only counts at cocktail parties.


Nicholas Peterson
Somerville, MA

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