Tag: sms

Online and mobile chat or text options are being offered by more nonprofit organizations everyday, including loveisrespect, Planned Parenthood, RAINN as well as other intimate and domestic partner violence counseling services. For people in situations where making a phone call isn’t possible, online chat services can provide a desperately needed lifeline that traditional telephone hotlines can’t.

Additionally, an increasing number of younger people don’t use the telephone in the way other generations do, often preferring chat or text for communication. Chat can feel more anonymous, helping people be more open and honest. And if English is a second language for someone, they may feel more comfortable typing than speaking.

I worked with four domestic violence service agencies over the last few years on a collaborative project to create just such a service for domestic violence survivors in the San Jose, California area, launched last year as SafeChat Silicon Valley. Based on what we learned in that project, here are some facts as well as questions to help you assess the feasibility, organizational readiness, and capacity of starting a similar service in your nonprofit.  

What you need to know

Chat vs. text

Nonprofits who provide these services report  that online and mobile chat is far more popular than text or SMS. If your organization is considering both types of services, chat is the one to consider implementing first. Some organizations provide chat only, since it works on any internet-connected device and doesn’t create the charges clients may have to pay for each text. However, if you operate in an area with limited internet connectivity, text or SMS may be a better solution. It’s best to ask your clients and other potential users to understand their needs.

It’s different

While people are more honest and forthcoming via chat, you do lose the tone of voice and inflection that you get when you speak to someone on the phone. Advocates or others who staff the chat service will need to adjust their tactics and communication accordingly.

Health & safety

As with many technology tools, the health and safety of the user must be a priority. It’s vital to inform users how to delete chat histories and text conversations. Your organization must understand what data is kept about the person requesting the chat, how to safeguard that data against hacks, and what process is needed to erase that data. Always keep your users’ safety and health concerns in mind when exploring these services

7 questions to assess your nonprofit’s readiness

1. Is our technology ready?

Adding a chat or text service requires your technology to meet a variety of minimum standards.

Are your computers, operating systems like Windows or MacOS, and other software up to date? Some services require the newest versions of software and won’t work on outdated hardware.

Is your internet connection up to speed? Have you tested all locations for download and upload speeds? Chat tools—and your constituents who use them—require fast speeds to allow you to respond to chats without long delays. Several of the domestic violence agencies I worked withhad to upgrade their connection speed.

One tool to test your internet speed: www.speedtest.net (requires Adobe Flash Player).

2. Are our staff and volunteers ready?

While many folks talk about capacity building, to be successful with technology, nonprofits must look at capability and skill building. Adding a chat or text service requires thoughtful planning, careful implementation, and a commitment to ongoing maintenance.

  • Has your organization developed a technology plan to help you be strategic in your tech investments?
  • Does your staff need training on managing technology projects?
  • Are staff familiar with the language used to talk about online chat services, broadband,  websites, and other related technology pieces?
  • Is there a staff person, board member, or volunteer with experience managing technology projects who can make a commitment to help with this project?

If you answered “no” to any of these, start building up those skills with resources from places like Tech Soup or NTEN, or your state’s nonprofit association.

3. What does “success” look like?

Describing exactly what you want your chat services to do, who it will serve, how it will be staffed, and what information or service(s) it will provide is essential to being successful. Some organizations start with unrealistic expectations about who will use a piece of technology and how. Clearly articulating what success looks like for the project ensures focus, provides a clear goal that everyone can work toward, and saves resources by clearing stating what the project will – and will not – accomplish.

Careful planning is required to get the positive results you desire. What pieces of data or metrics will you use to measure how successful you are? Will you merely measure the number of conversations or will you evaluate the quality of those conversations to help improve the service?

Marketing will also be vital to the success of the new service. What metrics will you measure when it comes to website visits, engagement with social media posts, clicks on emails and other similar measures?

Taking the time to have staff and management contribute to the vision of how the service(s) will operate and be supported creates a clear vision of success.

4. Is this feasible?

The first three factors above help you determine if an online chat or text project is feasible for your nonprofit.

If you find don’t currently have the capacity to improve your technology readiness, you may need to look for a funder to support you in providing this type of service and where technology needs can be woven into the funding request. You may need to adjust budgets to allocate more resources to updating technology hardware, software, and most importantly, staff technology skills. If the service is a success and you have a high demand for your services, how will you increase your capacity to cover the work staff does currently and this added responsibility?

Nonprofits are endlessly creative in finding solutions to these kinds of issues, so you may identify areas that need work before a chat project is feasible. If none of these are possible and solutions can’t be found, you may find this type of project is not currently feasible. During the initial research and discovery phase, you may realize that you are not able to handle adding an additional service or that your constituents may not be interested. You can continue to build your skills and capacity and revisit the project later.

5. What are the roles and responsibilities we need to map out?

For SafeChat Silicon Valley, we defined a set of roles that the project required: leads for the project management, for technology, for tool selection, for data, for staffing, for training, for marketing and for fiscal management. Each of these roles had detailed descriptions and work plans created during planning to map out exactly how we would arrive at success.

As an expert in nonprofit technology management, part of my consulting role was to help guide the creation and execution of these plans. Distractions and circumstances can often derail big projects, so my role also included keeping us on track, providing the outsider’s view, offering advice about technology-related pitfalls to avoid, and even being a cheerleader when enthusiasm waned or difficulties were encountered.

6. Which tool is the best for our needs?

There are many online chat tools and new ones coming to market every month. It’s important to define your needs before you begin looking at tools. This includes what data is collected, the ways in which you will communicate, creating a databank of responses, initial and ongoing costs.

Online chat tools are primarily built for commercial customer support and sales, so they are designed to gather and store as much information as possible about the person chatting. In fields like domestic violence, concerns about safety, health and privacy are most important. As you define your needs for a tool, describe what, if any, data you want to collect. For SafeChat Silicon Valley, we had to create a process for staff to purge data from the system on a regular basis to reduce the danger of the system being hacked by an abuser and used against the survivor or the organization.

For some nonprofits, the ability to communicate in multiple languages is essential. Some tools can handle translations but need to be tested to ensure the translations are accurate. Some organizations will require that the person staffing the chat is able to write in another language if the translation software is inadequate.

Many of the systems allow for a databank of responses to be created, which allows for consistency in responses and the ability to track which common questions are asked and what responses are provided, without sacrificing anonymity of the person with whom they are chatting. Does the tool have that capability? Who will craft the responses and who will maintain the response databank?

While cost is a consideration, never choose a tool based on cost alone. Only if all other attributes are equal can you choose a tool based on price. Choose the tool that best fits all of your other needs first, then look at costs. “Free” tools are rarely free—you either get them free for a short time, then pay inflated prices later, or the free version has such restricted functionality that it ends up not being a bargain at all.

7. Are we ready to commit long-term?

Even if you’re ready and your community needs a service like this, it won’t be successful without a commitment to the long term. These services are not like a chair that you buy once and just use until it wears out. They require active management, staffing, and support to maintain. Marketing, training, changes based on tool upgrades, upgrading technology as the tools are improved, and adjusting processes to incorporate new features or functions all have to be considered when thinking about your long term commitment to providing these services.

 

With the proper guidance and thoughtful planning, nonprofits of all sizes and technology capabilities can be successful in providing chat or text services.

 

There is a plethora of research out there indicating that your nonprofit will raise more money with an SMS (short message service, aka texting) donation service in your fundraising mix than it will without one. Offering SMS donations to your donors increases the number of opportunities your organization has to collect donations from your prospects.

Consider these statistics:

The data indicates that SMS donations can increase your overall reach, giving you new audiences that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to connect with. As younger audiences have begun to move away from traditional giving and towards mobile giving, adding this technology to your fundraising mix means your nonprofit will be better positioned to meet prospective donors where they are.

Two Main Types of Text Giving Services

Basically, there are two types of text-to-donate services. One is text-to-give: Donors text a keyword to your short code, and later their mobile carrier charges them $5 or $10 extra on their bill. Once donors pays their bill, the mobile carrier sends you the donation.

The second type is a service whereby donors make a pledge by text message. It works the same as the other, except that the donor’s phone bill is not billed. Instead, the donor is sent a payment link (like Paypal) to complete the donation.

Is Donating By Text Effective?

Absolutely. People carry their cell phones everywhere nowadays: on the beach, in the delivery room, in the movie theater—there is almost nowhere people go where they do not take their phones. Texting is one of the most ubiquitous, effective forms of communication ever invented.

Texting is fast, simple and easy. And it’s built in by default into every phone manufactured. No app to download, you don’t even need a data plan or WiFi in many cases. With text to donate services like Gnosis, you can reach prospective donors wherever they are, and know with 97% certainty they will read your message—because they initiated the conversation.

So the moral is: If you’re not taking advantage of texting for fundraising, you could be missing out on an essential component of your fundraising marketing mix.

Imagine you are the Executive Director of an amazing nonprofit. You are standing on stage at your annual gala, staring out into a warm and excited crowd of your supporters. You smile as you begin your speech.

I was at a great gala last week. There were over 800 people in the room, there was great food, great speakers, a wonderful auction, and craft beer.

Could you imagine the potential of filling a room with 800 of your strongest supporters? These are people who are coming out to support your organization and all the wonderful things you are doing, many of whom come year after year. These people are your core supporters. Your champions. Your peeps.

This group of 800 people could sustain your organization (and many others!) for years. They will volunteer, take action, and donate. Imagine if each of them gave your organization $100 a year; $200 a year; $500 a year.

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Your challenge is to activate them. What if, within 5 minutes, you had the mobile cell numbers, names, and email addresses of everyone in the audience? They are already excited about your work, and now you can connect with them directly.

You Sold Out Your Event, But Do You Have Mobile Numbers?

If you are operating like tons of other nonprofits, chances are that you have likely used a tool like Eventbrite to sell tickets online. People registered, bought their tickets, and were added to your lists of RSVPs. They may have supplied a phone number; they might have added additional people; they might have added donations on top of their ticket price.

By the time you are launching into your speech, chances are a ton of people will have exchanged tickets, or not shown up at all. This means that, in the best case scenario, you might have 50% of the mobile phone numbers of the people in the room. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to contact everyone at your event directly and immediately?

Can I Bring a Friend? 

When I was the Executive Director of Pivot Legal Society, we used lots of sign-up sheets at events— at our annual general meeting, at parties, and at fundraisers. And you don’t need me to tell you, paper is the worst.

When we started using Eventbrite and then NationBuilder, things got a bit better. We had a list of people who had bought tickets online printed at the door, and volunteers crossed off people as they came in so that we knew who attended. Even though NationBuilder makes it very easy to determine between RSVPs and attendees, we still were missing all the plus-ones and the people who just showed up. Sometimes, if we had a very diligent volunteer, they would write down the name of the plus-ones, but then we were back to paper.

When I walked into the gala last week, I walked up to the registration table and told them my name. They had me down for two tickets. I had brought a friend who had never supported this organization before. I wanted to show him what they were all about. At the registration table, however, he went nameless. All they had on the sign-up sheet was “Peter Wrinch for two,” and in we went.

The Power of Mobile Texting

Let’s be honest, mobile numbers are gold, and the trends are telling. In 2013, the number of households using cell phones in Canada (where I am from) was 83%, up from 78% in 2010; the number of households that are using traditional landlines is down from 66% in 2010 to 56% in 2013. If you want to connect with your supporters, you need to have their cell numbers.

Let’s go back to the moment where you are about to start your speech at your event. What if, right when you finished your speech and after the crowd gave you a standing ovation, you asked everyone in the room to pull out their cell phones and hold them up in the air. You then asked them to text CONNECT to your dedicated local phone number. Once they sent their text, they would be asked to text their name and email address.

Within five minutes, you have the mobile numbers, names, and email addresses of all of your attendees (or at least a huge percentage). They are excited about your work and now you can connect with them directly.

I recently tested this while presenting to a group of 200 politicos, labor leaders, environmentalists, and social justice advocates. I asked the audience to text keywords based on what sector they were working in (e.g., text UNION if you are working in labor). Five minutes later, I had 90% of the mobile numbers in the room and a clear picture of the composition of the audience. 

The Sign-up Sheet Is Dead

Your core supporters are your organizational life blood. Being able to connect with them is the difference between thriving and surviving (or worse). Text messaging allows you to capture the most direct way to contact your supporters. Text messaging tools allow you to scale your efforts, giving you the ability to capture thousands (or 10,000s, or 100,000s) of mobile numbers in minutes.

Imagine inspiring your supporters at your next event and then imagine connecting with them directly the next time you need to engage them. The potential is endless. The next time you are inspiring your people, get them to pull out their cell phones and send you a text!

Epilogue—Paths and Goals

You are inspiring. People have sent you a text. Now what? In September this year, NationBuilder released a major upgrade that included two new features: Paths and Goals. These two features bake ladder of engagement right into your tech infrastructure. So now, when you receive an incoming text, you can automatically set someone on a path, with a number of steps, in service of a larger goal. When I was an Executive Director, we had lots of goals for our supporters, but the main one was to become a donor. However, even though we knew we wanted people to donate, we didn’t really think through the steps to get from attending an event (or sending a text message) to becoming a donor. Getting your supporters to send a text is just the beginning—walk them down the path to your organization’s goals.

Imagine you are the Executive Director of an amazing nonprofit. You are standing on stage at your annual gala, staring out into a warm and excited crowd of your supporters. You smile as you begin your speech.

I was at a great gala last week. There were over 800 people in the room, there was great food, great speakers, a wonderful auction, and craft beer.

Could you imagine the potential of filling a room with 800 of your strongest supporters? These are people who are coming out to support your organization and all the wonderful things you are doing, many of whom come year after year. These people are your core supporters. Your champions. Your peeps.

This group of 800 people could sustain your organization (and many others!) for years. They will volunteer, take action, and donate. Imagine if each of them gave your organization $100 a year; $200 a year; $500 a year.

Get more tips! Subscribe to Connect Monthly to receive more content like this in your inbox.

Subscribe

Your challenge is to activate them. What if, within 5 minutes, you had the mobile cell numbers, names, and email addresses of everyone in the audience? They are already excited about your work, and now you can connect with them directly.

You Sold Out Your Event, But Do You Have Mobile Numbers?

If you are operating like tons of other nonprofits, chances are that you have likely used a tool like Eventbrite to sell tickets online. People registered, bought their tickets, and were added to your lists of RSVPs. They may have supplied a phone number; they might have added additional people; they might have added donations on top of their ticket price.

By the time you are launching into your speech, chances are a ton of people will have exchanged tickets, or not shown up at all. This means that, in the best case scenario, you might have 50% of the mobile phone numbers of the people in the room. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to contact everyone at your event directly and immediately?

Can I Bring a Friend? 

When I was the Executive Director of Pivot Legal Society, we used lots of sign-up sheets at events— at our annual general meeting, at parties, and at fundraisers. And you don’t need me to tell you, paper is the worst.

When we started using Eventbrite and then NationBuilder, things got a bit better. We had a list of people who had bought tickets online printed at the door, and volunteers crossed off people as they came in so that we knew who attended. Even though NationBuilder makes it very easy to determine between RSVPs and attendees, we still were missing all the plus-ones and the people who just showed up. Sometimes, if we had a very diligent volunteer, they would write down the name of the plus-ones, but then we were back to paper.

When I walked into the gala last week, I walked up to the registration table and told them my name. They had me down for two tickets. I had brought a friend who had never supported this organization before. I wanted to show him what they were all about. At the registration table, however, he went nameless. All they had on the sign-up sheet was “Peter Wrinch for two,” and in we went.

The Power of Mobile Texting

Let’s be honest, mobile numbers are gold, and the trends are telling. In 2013, the number of households using cell phones in Canada (where I am from) was 83%, up from 78% in 2010; the number of households that are using traditional landlines is down from 66% in 2010 to 56% in 2013. If you want to connect with your supporters, you need to have their cell numbers.

Let’s go back to the moment where you are about to start your speech at your event. What if, right when you finished your speech and after the crowd gave you a standing ovation, you asked everyone in the room to pull out their cell phones and hold them up in the air. You then asked them to text CONNECT to your dedicated local phone number. Once they sent their text, they would be asked to text their name and email address.

Within five minutes, you have the mobile numbers, names, and email addresses of all of your attendees (or at least a huge percentage). They are excited about your work and now you can connect with them directly.

I recently tested this while presenting to a group of 200 politicos, labor leaders, environmentalists, and social justice advocates. I asked the audience to text keywords based on what sector they were working in (e.g., text UNION if you are working in labor). Five minutes later, I had 90% of the mobile numbers in the room and a clear picture of the composition of the audience. 

The Sign-up Sheet Is Dead

Your core supporters are your organizational life blood. Being able to connect with them is the difference between thriving and surviving (or worse). Text messaging allows you to capture the most direct way to contact your supporters. Text messaging tools allow you to scale your efforts, giving you the ability to capture thousands (or 10,000s, or 100,000s) of mobile numbers in minutes.

Imagine inspiring your supporters at your next event and then imagine connecting with them directly the next time you need to engage them. The potential is endless. The next time you are inspiring your people, get them to pull out their cell phones and send you a text!

At World Wildlife Fund (WWF), we’ve seen an explosion in mobile visitors over the past three years, and I’m betting that you’ve experienced the same.  We want to make sure we can provide these supporters with the content they are seeking, no matter what device they are using.  Thinking “mobile first,” we’ve focused optimizing our marketing efforts in these three key areas:

Website

Nielsen reports that over two-thirds (67%) of mobile subscribers in the U.S. owned smartphones in Q4 2013—and in December they spent 34 hours using apps and the mobile web on those devices. Many of these people are visiting your website on their smartphones!  Make it a top priority for your organization to have a mobile-friendly website in 2014.

How and where do you start?

  1. Check your analytics to determine which devices your supporters most commonly use while visiting your website.  Optimize your page layout—or make sure your site is responsive—to accommodate those screen dimensions.
  2. Also, use your analytics to find which pages these people frequent.  Make sure those pages have a clean-looking layout and load quickly on mobile.  Consider hiding content that may not be relevant to a mobile user (for example: they wouldn’t need to download desktop wallpapers, but mobile-sized wallpapers are appropriate).
  3. Make sure your donation forms (especially the most-used ones, if you can’t get to all) work on smaller screens. Take time to go through the process of giving and figure out how to make it easy for a supporter who wants to donate via a mobile device.  What does that mean? Think large buttons and/or easy to select giving amounts, and integration to other payment methods besides credit cards.

Email

Though the stats vary, approximately half of emails are opened on a mobile device.  In addition, the same subscriber may view your email on their mobile and, later, on their desktop, so you want to ensure that your message renders nicely in both situations.

Where to begin?

  1. Much like your website, make sure the font size is large enough to be read easily on a small screen and include a clear call-to-action with an easy-to-tap button.
  2. Think about optimizing images: Choose photos and graphics that look good both on a large and small screen (nothing with too much detail). And, make sure that when the image scales down to a small screen resolution, it still has the impact you want.
  3. Don’t just assume you know what is best for your subscribers.  Take time to test into your code, especially if you are hiding some content that is visible on a desktop.  You want to make sure that you are showing and hiding the correct items! Use an email preview tool to see how your message renders across various browsers, email service providers (ESPs) and mobile devices.  And allow yourself time to review deployment results to determine what subscribers are (and aren’t) clicking on.

SMS

Over 90% of all text messages are read within a few minutes of receipt! This is a sure-fire way to reach your supporters, so if you haven’t starting building your list of mobile phone opt-ins, now is the time.  Compared to a few years ago, connecting with your supporters today via mobile is more acceptable—and will continue to be even more so in the future.

Just how do you grow this list?

  1. Ask your advocates for their mobile phone numbers (as an optional field) on all pledges. We’ve found that including this additional field doesn’t deter constituents from completing the call-to-action.
  2. Give them a reason to connect via mobile: WWF offers mobile wallpapers as an incentive to sign up for SMS. We also promise to remind them of specific events and dates right before they happen, and this has proven to be successful. For example, with our Earth Hour campaign this year, we saw a ~30% increase in mobile sign-ups because we offered an SMS reminder the day of the event.
  3. Have a persona in your communications via SMS (I send messages from “Jess at WWF”) as this helps fit the messaging to the medium.  When you are casual and let your personality show through, it gives your audience the desire to engage.  But don’t just send messages from your organization; respond to inbound SMS, too.  Monitor conversations and reply appropriately when possible (note: you can also automate responses based on keywords!).  Your supporters expect a person is texting them, not a machine, so engage in two-way communications—you’ll keep your subscribers more engaged and less likely to opt out. 

As the Mobile Marketing Association states in their “Mobile Marketing Roadmap”: mobile isn’t a channel, it’s a medium.  It allows your supporters to easily stay engaged, as they are using mobile more and more for their online activities.

So, make it simple for them—and you—by taking the time now to ensure that all components of your marketing campaigns work on a mobile device.  You’ll be grateful you did, especially as you watch that mobile activity increase month over month into the future!


About the author:

Jessica Fraser Sotelo is the Deputy Director of Online Marketing at World Wildlife Fund.  She oversees email marketing campaigns for the organization’s Membership and Marketing Department, heads up SMS and text-to-give efforts, and manages the online Gift Center.  Jessica has nearly 15 years’ worth of experience working for non-profits, with a focus on online marketing for the past 10 years.  She holds a BA in Anthropology and a BA in French from the College of William and Mary.

A couple of years ago, my colleagues and I were spending over 150 hours a month on the phone trying to reach high school students in our program. Each time an event took place, or there was a change in our scheduling, we would have to notify several hundred teenagers by phone. The average call would take approximately 6 minutes. Of those 6 minutes, less than a minute was actually spent talking to the student. The other 5 minutes were spent doing one of the following:

  1. Listening to a ring tone.
  2. Getting a busy signal and redialing.
  3. Listening to an automated message indicating that the number has been disconnected or changed.
  4. Waiting on the phone while a parent/sibling called for a student.
  5. Listening to a voice mail message.

We were doing this several times a month and it didn’t make sense – especially since we were relaying notification messages that did not require a response. The amount of time we spent trying to reach students significantly overshadowed the amount of time we actually spent talking to them.

Why not just send an email instead? Other program sites had tried this and the results were abysmal: the email open rates of students were approximately 10%. How do you send email to a demographic that doesn’t use email?

The answer is simple. You don’t. Whether you are a front line youth worker, a parent, or a social media marketer, the question remains the same: “How do you communicate so that teenagers will listen?”

Many of our students could often be seen using Facebook at their schools and community centres, yet using Facebook as a professional tool for communicating with students had not yet been given serious consideration in our organization.

Then, we developed a social media policy using the free tool at PolicyTool.net and a small pilot project was launched. Staff were provided with the option of creating a professional Facebook account account and the results were remarkable: within a year, there was 95% staff participation and we are now saving approximately 3,600 hours annually, the equivalent of two full-time staff positions.

I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to meet weekly with a small student advisory group and they have provided valuable feedback on our program and our various projects. The students are forthright in their assessments of how our organization is using social media and their insight has provided valuable information regarding their day-to-day use of technology.

Based on my experience, here are the six trends you need to know about engaging youth with social media:

  1. Facebook is now the primary online communication medium for the majority of youth in high school.
  2. The majority of youth who have email accounts do not regularly check their inboxes.
  3. Some youth do not use email at all, preferring to use only Facebook for online communication, since Facebook allows students to authenticate accounts with mobile phones.
  4. Students with cell phones typically average between 1,200 – 1,500 sent messages per month.
  5. The number of text messages sent is lower for students who use smartphones. Instead, they are using BBM, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter.
  6. SMS broadcasting is a particularly effective tool to remind and engage students of upcoming events or tasks that need to be completed.

The trends identified above are based on my experience of working with high-school aged youth who reside in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods. I suspect these trends apply readily to many other communities in the United States and Canada. In order to get a more accurate picture of what is going on in your individual communities, just ask the youth around you. Assemble a group of youth on a regular basis and ask them what they do on a day-to-day basis with technology. It is also helpful to sign up for the social networks that they frequent and simply observe.

But let’s go a little more in-depth: What do youth think about online communications?

Let’s start with email. Youth generally consider email to be outdated. Some youth do not use email at all and this number has increased since Facebook started allowing accounts to be authenticated via a mobile phone. For youth who do have email accounts, the majority of youth check them infrequently, not more than once every few days days. Youth who check their email frequently report that they do so because they are receiving notices relating to school or volunteer placements. Students who may not be engaged in school or volunteer opportunities have less incentive to check emails regularly.

Youth attitudes towards email shift significantly when students are provisioned with a college or university email account. Since it is usually the primary and official means of communication with the college or university, youth report that they check it daily. However, personal accounts are still checked infrequently.

While all communication with schools and other organizations are conducted via email, nearly all communication with friends is conducted via Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, BBM, or iMessage. Students will typically only accept people into their networks that they know and trust, so it is important for youth workers to ensure that they have established a working relationship with students before communicating with them on social media channels.

When youth log into a computer, the first sites that are typically visited are Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. Email is mentioned only as an afterthought. Facebook is regarded as a “public” space where youth can hang out, chat and make plans with friends.

In contrast, Twitter is regarded as a more “personal” space. Twitter is used to see what is going on with friends and celebrities. Youth also report that it is used for venting and saying anything that may be bothering them or whatever they may be thinking about. It has been described as a “personal feelings page” that is “better than Facebook” because it provides more of a feeling of connectedness.

If youth have access to a smartphone, both Facebook and Twitter are accessed primarily on the mobile devices. Otherwise, access is conducted primarily on desktop and laptop computers. Mobile devices, especially smartphones, are favoured because they can do all these things without having to “go on the Internet”. For youth, the “traditional” way going on the Internet involves having to turn on a computer, log on, and stay in one place. Even a laptop is considered inconvenient when compared to a smartphone.

With a smartphone, youth can take whatever they are reading, searching, and/or tweeting. When considering youth-friendly spaces, wifi availability is important for students who may not be subscribed to data plans. If given the option, many students would prefer to use a smartphone over a standard cell phone without extended functionality. Currently, the favoured smartphones brands are Samsung, Blackberry, and the iPhone.

Text messaging is ubiquitous among students and, when presented with the opportunity, students appreciate receiving text message reminders of upcoming events. The ability to text pre-determined lists of people is now available on many cell phone plans, and websites such as Remind101.com are an indication that being able to reach students while protecting personal boundaries is an industry that is still nascent. FrontlineSMS can also be used by organizations with the technology capacity to implement an in-house text-messaging solution.

As a youth worker, it can be challenging to stay on top of rapidly shifting technology trends, but the efforts have been worthwhile. Utilizing social media has not only allowed our organization to better communicate and engage with our youth – it has also provided easier ways for our youth to communicate with us. The switch has allowed staff in our program to spend more time focusing on building more positive relationships with our youth and less time listening to busy signals.

If you would like to share your experiences in engaging youth on the front lines, please feel free to share in the comments below! And if you are interested in learning more, please come out to my presentation at the 2012 Nonprofit Technology Conference, “OMG WTF: Engaging Youth on the Front Lines of Social Media”