Social Networking

November 15, 2006       Tom Pope      

Check out the American Cancer Society (ACS) on the Web portal YouTube.com and you’d think the nonprofit is active in showing videos. If you search for the organization on YouTube, you’ll see the cartoon The Flintstones appearing to change directions after smoking. You’ll also see that $100,000 was raised during one event at Michigan State University. News regarding colorectal cancer is in one video, and the Relay for Life details are shown in another video.

But Marty Coelho, national managing director for marketing and communication at ACS, isn’t using YouTube for Relay for Life. Volunteers took to the net and uploaded more than 120 videos.

Volunteers and donors are flocking to MySpace for personal pages, Flickr.com for photo sharing, and YouTube.com for viewing and uploading videos and social networking in general.

Viewer members regularly share videos by uploading clips free of charge. In the burgeoning industry of more than 100 free, Web-based video-hosting services, YouTube has mushroomed by beaming 50 million videos per day to more than 12.5 million people each month, according to Nielsen NetRatings.

It is so popular the search engine Google agreed to pay $1.6 billion in stock for the site. YouTube’s content is uploaded by individuals or groups in the form of a video with a maximum length of 10 minutes. Novices can upload a file to YouTube’s servers which transcode the video, provide a browser-based player, manage the servers, and provide the bandwidth.

YouTube management declined to comment on whether they thought the portal led to content issues.

All of the exposure is both a blessing and a curse. “We encourage our volunteers with a community-based marketing,” Coelho said from his office in McKinleyville, Calif. “Volunteers use marketing with coaching, guidance, and training material. It becomes self-policed, and if it’s not successful, we hear about it.”

And as yet, facts are not getting in the way of a good story on YouTube. “In general, the volunteers are well aware of the facts,” he said. “They are promoting an event, and when they mention scientific or medical material, they refer to our site or phone number.”

What about the fear that videos could be copied and pasted into a video for a less-than positive purpose? “That’s a unique example that we haven’t run into yet,” he said. “We would have to deal with that legally when it happened.”

While YouTube is relatively new, Relay for Life participants have been making their own videos for around 10 years. Coelho sees this as part of the audience’s culture. “They like to create something to use on the national level,” he said.

Besides seeing The Flintstones help the ACS, the public can check into YouTube.com to a world of pictures showing people, events, and places.

“Anyone can upload the video,”said Sheeraz Haji, CEO and co-founder of GetActive Software in Berkeley, Calif. “The challenge is that users haven’t figured out how to protect brands, copyrights, and trademarks.”

He gave an example: A fringe animal rights group, which does some things they think are provocative, could make a video using similar colors or a logo from a more formal group, putting that organization in a bad light.

In another example, a small, unknown relief organization might decide to build a reputation by linking a cause with the logo from a well-known relief organization. That group could be in no way affiliated, but might accept dollars from unsuspecting donors.

“We stress that if the message doesn’t really look like the known organization, don’t give to the message sender,” Haji said. “Editing tools are developed, so nothing is sacred. … New technology like YouTube and MySpace doesn’t change anything, but in some ways the technology makes it easier to grab brands,” he said. “YouTube has become such a powerful device of incorporating images from one area or event that it’s possible a video of you exists right now on YouTube.”

Despite the potential problems, Haji basked in the optimism that benefits of using the new technology are huge. “YouTube has proven that people are eager to grab material from all over the Web,” he said. “YouTube gives a power to hundreds of millions of viewers. And while the nonprofit has to be careful of losing control, the benefits of cutting-edge tech outweigh the problems.”

Todd Whitley has seen evidence of others cutting and pasting from the American Lung Association (ALA), where he serves as assistant vice president for online services in New York City. The ALA recently started using YouTube. Yet, he said that this loss of control “comes with the territory” of people creating their own videos. “Some do it on behalf of the ALA, but the editorial content could be wrong,” he said.

Damage control has not been a major issue. “We touch base with them, suggesting they use the correct facts,” Whitley said. “People are willing because they want to improve the outreach of the cause.”

In most cases, an individual has the best of intentions, according to Whitley. “They might want to do a smoking cession video and see material in a popular song or movie that fits in,” he said. “This prompts people to put together a personalized version of the material.”

With the advent of earlier technologies there were some brand issues. “We experienced problems in the height of the tobacco wars when some vitriolic emails and hacking issues erupted,” he said. “But we want the dialogue, even if a negative opportunity prompts our message, to become known by people.”

People in online services walk a fine line, according to Whitley. “We’re conservative, but more and more, we’re evaluating outreach with emerging trends to develop online communities.”

Actually, the very participatory nature of social networking offers nonprofits a built-in protection that comes right from supporters, according to Mike Johnston of Hewitt & Johnston Consultants, a full-service fundraising firm in Toronto. “If supporters see something wrong, they are likely to respond online to post corrections or dispute claims.”

One place he sees a problem is in the for-profit world. A car company asked people to design a commercial as part of a contest during an SUV launch. Some people designed a commercial that was an anti-SUV ad, which they posted on YouTube.

The next step could occur when some charities engage in an open competition with people submitting television spots and the winner has a real ad. “One worry could be that people might design an anti-brand ad that is shown on YouTube,” he said. “But that’s a very different phenomena.”

While a piece of software to prevent being ripped off doesn’t exist, according to Haji, he described it as “pretty slim” that there are downside risks. “A mass movement to use nonprofits’ clips hasn’t emerged, and we’re just seeing YouTube spoofing with songs or concepts,” he said.

YouTube, MySpace and others are examples of a very different type of medium. The communication offers a different way of connecting people, according to Johnston.

Many people now possess a high-quality video camera. Political candidates find their speech gaffes online nearly instantly. And, executives must be careful of what they say at any meeting. People have cameras and can place spots online.

“Such a problem of control for a national office becomes that of cutting off the problem at the pass,” Johnston said. “Be collaborative. Let participators do the content, but with guidance.”

The opportunity exists to tie into a different mindset of a younger-than-usual audience for fundraising. “The challenge can be to build a real community by motivating viewers of like-minded people to pass along messages,” he said.

However, such a mentality to use the new medium is a new venture. “Just a few organizations are starting to use YouTube,” he said. “And this has hit in just the past few months.”

Whitley sees the participatory movement as a natural extension of friends asking friends for involvement. “We found a way to mine that marketing by jumping in and becoming a player with a totally different medium than a newsletter or ad,” he said.

Whitley believes core messages can be so basic that problems in fact will not become an issue. The messages to “Get a Flu Shot” or “Quit Smoking” can be relayed without fear of loss of control. “If viewers want to get more information, they are directed to the Web site.”

On the other hand, Whitley explained that using social marketing is part of a transition from dealing with a paper product to an online community resource. “The social networking consists of different audiences, such as MySpace and YouTube,” he said. “Almost all our PSAs include a reference to our site.”

GetActive Software’s Haji echoed the strategy. He encourages clients to make official Web sites more participatory as a way to tie into the new medium. The strategy retains control, yet allows nonprofits to create a version of the social networking community.

“The whole movement of the participatory Web can have a huge impact on the nonprofit sector,” he said. While YouTube and MySpace are not direct competitors to nonprofits, they are competitors for attention, he said.

“We’re encouraging nonprofits to avoid a static, boring Web site,” Haji said. “Include participatory devices like personal pages.”

The ACS still hasn’t decided whether to develop a participatory page on its Web site or to use the portals of the established networks. “We’re in the development of our own Relay for Life site,” Coelho said. “But we haven’t yet talked about all the different features.”

He’s also uncertain about in-house or outside management. “We’re weighing the pros and cons of either keeping control or seeking a large audience from the portals,” he said.

The right strategy is to do both, according to Haji. “Because of the huge audience built into the portal, you want to tap into that,” he said.

With your own site, extra work is needed to make personal pages and to respond to viewers, should you opt for a participatory approach. “If you neglect your own site and viewers don’t see fresh content, they won’t come back,” he said. “Use teasers in YouTube and thoughtful, engaging pages to drive viewers to your own site where you maintain more control,” said Haji.

The best practice is to take a good look at your site. Many organizations still have separate content management systems for fundraising and email. “Put those into one integrated system,” he said. “Increase the level of engagement and personalization.”

Web experts downplay the dangers of loss of control.

Sreenath Sreenivasan, assistant professor of professional practice at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, remembers “these arguments” about simple Web pages. “Now we use email, and transfer funds to everyone,” he said. “But 20 years ago, the same arguments about a loss of control were mentioned.”

Nonprofits should be involved with portals like YouTube. “That’s where the young people are looking for information,” Sreenivasan said. “If you’re not there, much worse than losing control could happen to nonprofits.”

The Columbia Journalism School’s outgoing class created a video for the incoming international students. Instead of developing 33 DVDs and sending them to 33 countries, the school posted the video on YouTube. “Now every student , including domestic ones, can see it,” he said. “And this cost us nothing, took nine minutes of my time, and now someone searching for our J school can view information.”

Some tips for using the portal include the careful identification of places to locate the video. Watch that someone doesn’t reply to your video with an inappropriate response. “You just have to flag that on the YouTube as being inappropriate,” he said. “That’s very easy, but it requires a new kind of monitoring.”

Johnston’s message is to be aware constantly by watching your content. That requires nonprofits to gear up for possibly new functions. Get officers and branch people on the same page about how the message is sent and what to monitor.

Take responsibility to inform and engage local people in how they use the local brand.  The Webmaster at the national office has to be more in touch with people around the local branches.

Also, the new dimension may require a larger scope for the public relations staff to stay on top of broadcast material.  An increase in the number of sets of eyes might be required to work with the Web staff.  NPT

Tom Pope, a New York City-based journalist, writes on management issues.

NonProfit  Times
The Leading Business Publication For Nonprofit Management