This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Social media for small organizations

“How can our organization create a social media presence?”

The latest person to ask me that question was a dear friend who is on the board of a 2,000-member non-profit. Their next board meeting was coming up, and social media was on the agenda. What kind of approach would I recommend?

This series of blog posts will answer that question. It’s for all the organizations that are creating their social media presences while working with a limited budget and a limited potential audience. And it speaks specifically to the challenge of building a social media presence now, in 2010, with the social web already well established.

Unlike the first wave of web 2.0 adopters, who were mostly larger organizations with the financial and organizational capacity to innovate, this wave includes lots and lots of smaller-scale, smaller-budget businesses and organizations. They’re trying to find their way into social media as a tool for connecting with an audience that can be quite small, but which nonetheless expects an organization or business web site to look like a professional, 2010 presence: in other words, a web presence that includes ways of contributing content or comments, rather than just pushing out information.

These organizations can still succeed with social media by following the Rule of 84: 80/20 + 90-9-1. The 80/20 rule tells you that you can get 80% of the way to a good social media presence with a relatively limited (20% effort); in this case, following one of our two recommended approaches rather than undertaking the 100% effort (and cost) of creating your own vision and approach from scratch. The 90-9-1 rule tells us that only 1% of your site visitors will actively contribute content: working back from that guideline, you can think about what kind of online approach is realistic and sustainable if the total size of your audience is constrained.

Working with a limited budget

The good news is that in 2010, there’s lots you can do even if your budget or audience is constrained. Compared to 5 years ago, it’s now much easier to create something really useful on a modest budget, whether modest is $10k or $100k (and yes, in a world of 7-figure online communities, $100k now counts as a modest budget. More on that later.) If you have a very limited budget (under $20k per year), you can use an existing platform (like creating a Facebook page, a LinkedIn group, a YouTube channel or a hosted blog) and spend that $20k on a half-time salary for a young, enthusiastic person who can be your social media manager. That $20k will go a long way towards creating a high-quality, frequently updated stream of content that engages your audience on a platform where they are already active; if you spent it on development you’d end up with a very simple site, and no resources to create content, foster conversation or promote what you’ve built.

If you have a little more money to play with, you can create a really compelling presence using open source tools like Drupal or WordPress, and have money left over to pay for content, promotion and animation. In this case, your main challenge is figuring out what to create. That’s where most of our client engagements start, but in many cases, it doesn’t take a full engagement for us to figure out what a client’s options might be. This series provides a concise overview of the options we typically recommend to constrained clients, beginning with an understanding of the key constraint: the 90-9-1 principle of online community participation.

Working with a limited audience

If budget constraints loom large in the minds of small businesses and non-profits, the size and makeup of your audience is an even harder constraint. After all, you can in theory get more money (especially if you’re clever with grants) but if your audience is tiny or has no internet access, it’s going to be hard to get much user-generated content. Organizations with audience constraints include:

  • organizations that serve a developing world or economically disadvantaged audience, which is less likely to have computers or broadband access (though may be very connected via mobile/SMS)
  • businesses and organizations that serve senior professionals with very heavy workloads (which cut into time online)
  • businesses and organizations that are highly local, catering to people in a narrow geographic area
  • businesses and organizations that are highly specialized, serving or speaking to people with a specific niche interest or need
  • organizations that focus on serving the needs of a defined set of members, like a professional association
  • umbrella organizations or B2B companies, whose membership or customer base consists of other organizations or companies

We hear frequently from organizations and businesses in these last two categories, because they are just the kind of organizations that should be able to benefit from social media. Many of these organizations and businesses figure that if they can get a social media presence up and running, it will rapidly become self-sustaining thanks to the enthusiastic and frequent content contributions of its members/customers/users. After all, if you’re a membership-oriented organization that exists to support the needs of a specific profession or group, don’t those members want to connect with one another? If you’re a B2B company that helps other companies with particular professional needs, don’t those companies want to work with/sell to/learn from one another? If you’re an umbrella organization for a set of non-profits, didn’t those non-profits come under your umbrella specifically so that they could work more closely together?

Yes, yes, and yes. But that doesn’t mean social media or online community will be easy. In fact, while most organizations and businesses in the list above may find social media a useful channel of engagement, their social media presences are unlikely to becoming self-sustaining on the basis of user-generated content. The reason is that social media presences and online communities run on what has become known as the 90-9-1 principle.

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