Anyone who’s new to social media and community engagement can attest: There are dozens of articles published weekly on the subject. If you add up “The 8 Essential Things You Must Do on Social Media” plus “The Top 10 Things Every Community Manager Should Know” plus “The Top 20 Ways to Rock Twitter,” it all adds up to a LOT of details, a lot of advice, and sometimes…a lot of noise.
Of course, it’s hugely helpful to get tips, and it’s wise to seek new ideas and strategies. But in my experience, there are a few basics that make engagement work—and they’re not driven by hashtags or apps or vanity metrics…or even That One Weird Old Trick. To illustrate what’s worked for our community, let me paint a picture.
Imagine you are on a camping trip with a whole bunch of people you hardly know. You want to bring people together, so you build a fire under the starlit sky. You know your fire will burn hot, so before you light it, you encircle the kindling with stones. You light it and, indeed, it begins to burn brightly. You are warmed by the glow, and others are drawn by the heat. As people gather, you invite them to sit down. To interest even more people, you begin to tell a story—an old favorite that also has a great embedded moral, something you actually believe really deeply. Then you invite someone else to the front to tell a story—but before they start, you call out to the people in the back, “You’re welcome to build your own fire; there’s wood over there.” And the stories resume, and in the circle of connected, expectant faces, the warmth continues to grow…and in the distance, you see the first sparks of a new fire.
This is community engagement.
The warm, bright fire in the story above is the core of everything you do—it is the collective values that are deepest and most essential to your work. It’s the reason you took this job. It’s why your organization exists. It’s more basic even than your mission statement. It could be, “All people deserve to live with dignity,” or, “The right to vote is inalienable,” or, “We must protect natural life on this planet.”
Your core values should drive every aspect of what you do. If you build your work around this, you will draw in an engaged community of people who share (partially or wholly) those values. They are subconsciously saying, “This is true in my experience. This is my moral universe. I want to align my life (or at least my reading) more around these core truths.”
(Pro tip: speaking from a deeply held truth every day will give you HUGE job satisfaction.)
Before you lit your fire, you drew a circle of stones around it. This is your organization’s mission. It’s how you express those values in the world. It’s how you focus your efforts. Maybe your organization cannot get the vote for every person on the planet. But your organization can work tirelessly to re-enfranchise voters in the American South. And this guides your content strategy; you may then choose to focus your efforts by profiling an American civil rights leader like Ella Baker instead of Nelson Mandela.
Voice and Story
Whether they know it or not, every organization tells a story. And it’s up to you how you shape that narrative, how believable it is, and who its hero is.
At The Story of Stuff Project, we tell the same story over and over again. “We have a problem with Stuff. We make too much of it, and we trash people and the planet all along the way, from extraction to disposal. Each of us has the power to change the story. Global citizens are the heroes who can take action to build a world that is more sustainable, fair, and fun.” Sometimes it takes a little digging to uncover the real story you want to tell. Consider Humans of New York. It’s one of the most viral pages on Facebook. All they post is quotes with pictures. Stop and take a moment right now and ask yourself: what is the Humans of New York story?
And how about the storyteller? At Story of Stuff, we believe in using a voice that is friendly and straightforward. It’s clear and simple but never dumbed down. In this way, we invite our global community, including and especially people those whose first language is not English, to participate. What’s your voice? (Just a hint: your organization’s voice may sound a lot like its founder or Executive Director. Evaluate whether this works for your community.) If you’re the person managing social media, it’s also helpful to examine how your organization’s voice is (and is not) similar to your own personal voice.
When you’re clear on your values, your mission, and your voice, the way to finding or creating content that amplifies them is clear, too. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re sharing from the New York Times, The Onion, or your own blog, as long as you’re getting the message out there and inviting great conversation.
You may also use certain core phrases or themes to tie all this together. For us, it’s “Growing Solutions.” We’ve done a lot of coverage of the water situation in Flint. And we found some good explanatory pieces, but we also found that a lot of the media coverage paints the community as helpless victims. So we took some time out to profile citizen changemakers in Flint—the people who rolled up their sleeves, demanded answers, and didn’t stop until they got help for the people of their town. This is how we were able to bust open a mainstream narrative and tell a story that centers around people power.
A Community of Heroes
We all know we need our supporters. But you can take your engagement strategy to the next level when you imagine each of them as heroes, without whom the story will not continue. Can you profile community leaders on your blog? Retweet them? Turn their well-written comment into a share-graphic? Enable (and moderate) discussion on your blog?
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and their stories are often incomplete when you meet. So be sure you have a process in place for monitoring their journey and telling their story when it is ready. We jumped at the chance to not only profile a young zero waste media superstar but also tell the story of Marianne, who convinced her entire city to throw a simultaneous garage sale on the same day…for the last 25 years.
The Hero’s Journey
Ultimately, you want your supporters to DO something. To sign up, to donate, to attend events, to become leaders. All those how-to articles I mentioned in the opening will give you tech ideas for how to support that journey. What I’d say to you is this: shine a light on how people can take the actions that align with their fiercely held beliefs. Offer the tools or hold the space for them to do so…and then get out of their way as they boldly charge forward.
It’s that simple: lead with what you love; invite and encourage dialogue; reflect the community back to itself; provide a clear pathway forward. And then watch your community come together to accomplish amazing things.
P.S. I can’t leave you without one foolproof practical tip. So here it is. GET VISUAL. Every social share you create should have a great image. Sized correctly for the channel, clear, sharp, and ideally with a person or really striking center of focus. How do you make those images? Don’t settle for “easy” image creation services like Canva; they’ll hold you back creatively. Adobe now offers stand-alone Photoshop for a low monthly rate; Creative Commons is a great place to source imagery; and Lynda.com offers great tutorials.
Finally: don’t forget to have fun.