Whether you’re an individual or an organization, engaging people online is easier if you have a good toolkit. Here’s a very basic guide to how you can integrate some free/cheap popular services to join the public conversation and make sure your voice gets heard…
(Note: This toolkit is a work in progress. I invite comments and suggestions. I’m trying to keep it simple — just a few key tools and tips to get people started with basic online engagement.)
Links make the web go round, so first things first: You’ll need an easily findable home base on the web that people can link to. This is the most important way to gain search visibility and improve your search ranking.
Your home base should be entirely under your control, easy for search engines to index and understand what’s new, and easy for you to update.
This means you need a blog. If you don’t already have one, I recommend you sign up for a free blog at WordPress.com, and then pay the extra $17/year to register a domain name and “map” (apply) it to your blog.
Getting your own domain name right from the start helps substantially. In the long run you’ll get better search engine visibility, faster, compared to using a subdomain from a service like myblog.blogspot.com. Also, if you end up not liking your blog host (WordPress.com, in this case), you can move your blog elsewhere without breaking inbound links. (That’s not necessarily easy or trouble free, but it’s important to have that option)
You can also use a custom domain with a blog on Tumblr, another popular free blogging platform — but the process is a just little bit more technical.
You don’t need to post often to your blog. But anytime you have something to say that’s more than a tweet or two in length, consider posting it to your blog and then linking to that from social media. This encourages people not just to engage with you, but to share links to your blog — which helps improve your search visibility.
If you already have your own blog, and it’s not under your own domain, don’t panic. If you’ve had that blog for more than a couple of years, and it’s been at least occasionally active, just keep it and use it more frequently. That usually helps more than starting over with a new blog from scratch.
Allow moderated comments. If you publish a blog, it’s a good idea to allow people to comment on your posts. This demonstrates you’re open to discourse. However, do use a comment spam filter like Akismet (which comes with WordPress.com blogs). And if you’re writing about a controversial or sensitive topic, use the WordPress comment moderation feature. To encourage conversation, set up e-mail notifications so you’ll know when you get a comment, and then review and approve/deny them quickly.
You don’t have to take abuse or approve off-topic ramblings, but being willing to engage politely with people who disagree with you is one of the best ways to boost your credibility and visibility.
Make it easy to post to your blog. Install and configure the WordPress Press this bookmarklet in your web browser toolbar. (Other blogging platforms usually have similar posting bookmarklets.) This allows you to blog something you see on the web, and add some commentary, just by pushing one button. Whenever you make something fast and easy, you’re likely to do it more often.
2. General rules of engagement
Whenever you’re interacting with people online — whether in public discussion or private/semiprivate conversation, use these guidelines:
- Create a useful profile for every service you join. People will want to know who you are before they engage with you. Clarify who you are, what you do or what roles you play, and where you work or other important organizational affiliations. Post at least one picture. It’s helpful to try to use the same, or a similar, username or handle across as many services as possible. But if you use a handle, I recommend also giving your real name to aid credibility.
- Listen first — a lot! It’s always easier, and more effective. to join a conversation than start one. Also, listening forces you to question your assumptions about what other people think or want.
- When you do post, respond to or amplify others more than you speak up, self promote, or advocate. Prove that you’re listening, and that you care what others say, and they’ll return the favor. This is basically socially appropriate ingratiation. To see it in action, Aaron Williams just did it here! And hey, so did I, just now 😉
- Always be helpful, useful, interesting, and supportive — or at the very least, be civil and not creepy. Adding context, clarifying, or clearing up misconceptions (politely, without scolding) with links to supporting material (on your blog or elsewhere) is a great approach to public engagement.
- Use your blog first. If you have something important to say, or an important question to ask or issue/concern to raise, say it on your blog first and then link to it via social media. This gets you maximum visibility and gets around some of the limitations of services like Twitter or Facebook.
- Be careful with humor. People are touchy and it’s easy to seem sarcastic online. If you offend someone by accident, apologize, even if you think they’re being thin-skinned.
- Disagreement and criticism are good — as long as it’s civil. They are opportunities to learn, explore, and extend your reach beyond your existing circle. Engage with your critics, and be humble (but not self-denigrating). You don’t have to agree with them to treat them with respect.
- Don’t be a jerk. Resist the temptation to defend yourself, argue with people, or demean/ridicule/bait others. That behavior not only discourages positive engagement; it attracts trolls.
- Do not feed the trolls. There will always be trolls. Just ignore them. If they’re overly aggressive or persistent, then block/unfriend them. But do not respond to them or engage them.
3. Use Twitter
Once you grasp the rules of online engagement, it’s time to put them to use. Twitter is a good place to start.
If you haven’t done so already, sign up for Twitter. I recommend just using one account so you present a coherent and nuanced identity, which is inherently more credible and engaging. If you try to be all professional all the time on Twitter, that tends to discourage engagement. And maintaining multiple Twitter accounts can get really confusing.
Who to follow? Follow the people you want to engage on Twitter, see what they’re talking about and who they’re engaging with on topics that interest you. Don’t just automatically follow everyone you know, or anyone who follows you. That quickly makes Twitter seem too chaotic and less useful.
Another way to find good people to follow is to search Twitter for relevant keywords or hashtags (keywords that start with “#”, a Twitter convention that makes it easier to follow topics or events rather than people).
If you’re highly focused on discussion of certain topics or events, I recommend using a column-based Twitter application such as Tweetdeckor Hootsuite so that you can more easily filter the firehose of incoming tweets into more understandable streams.
What to tweet. I recommend that 2/3 of your tweets should be either responses to other people’s tweets, or retweets of tweets you find especially useful or engaging. The people you’re responding to or retweeting will see that (Twitter makes that obvious). If you’re being helpful, useful, supportive, complimentary — or at least polite, fun, or interesting — they’ll probably think well of you and may follow you.
If you’re tweeting regularly about a topic, look for relevant current hashtags that people are using and include them in your tweets. This will expand your community, making you visible to people who aren’t yet directly following you.
Monitor your replies and direct messages. When someone tries to address you directly, respond as quickly as possible.
4. Use Facebook
While Twitter is useful for reaching almost any group of people about any topic, Facebook is sometimes useful and sometimes not. It depends on who you’re trying to reach, whether those people tend to hang out on Facebook, and what they tend to use Facebook for. But Facebook is so popular that it’s important to learn how to use it, in case you need it.
In my experience, Facebook is generally not the best venue for high-level conversations among specialists, such as utility engineers discussing power grid management strategies. But it might be a very good place to engage a consumer-level audience in a discussion about energy efficiency, or renewable power, or the smart grid.
I recommend that you search Facebook for groups and pages that would seem to attract the kind of people you wish to engage. Join the discussions there — but only stay with the groups that seem most relevant or useful.
Use your Facebook wall to post things that you think might interest the people you’re trying to engage — and occasionally tag items with the names of specific Facebook friends if you’re pretty sure they’d be interested.
Separate accounts? If, after you learn how to use Facebook, you decide you should seriously use it to engage people for professional or issue-related purposes, it’s a good idea to set up a separate Facebook account for that. (The people you friend on Facebook to interest in protecting your watershed probably would get annoyed by your photos of your kitchen renovation — although your actual friends might really like those photos.). This gets a little complicated, because Facebook accounts are about people, not organizations.
However, if you aren’t using Facebook much for professional/issue-related outreach or advocacy, you can probably get by well enough with using your personal Facebook account. If you’re not sure, just use your personal account to learn and experiment.
Facebook apps, pages, groups, and events. Facebook offers lots of ways to connect with people. In general, it’s a good idea to use your personal account to experiment with using things like pages and groups that other people have already set up, before you try it yourself. And in general, don’t try to create something new when an existing effort is already going strong. Just try to be a constructive, visible part of what people are already doing.
4. E-mail lists, forums, and other social media
People talk in all kinds of ways online besides Twitter and Facebook. In general, figure out where the people you need to engage already are, and go there. E-mail lists and forums are still very popular, especially on niche topics. Sometimes you might need to get permission from the group leader to join.
Social bookmarking services such as Delicious and Diigo can help you engage for some communities, on some topics. They generally aren’t a venue for direct discussion, for the most part, but they’re valuable for sharing links to information and resources. If you’re already using one of these tools as a “backup brain,” why not get some more mileage out of that effort? Generally you can set up groups, lists, and other modes of sharing on these services.
Sometimes communities form around tags or other features of social bookmarking services. For example, lots of smart, influential technologists follow the nonprofit technology (NPtech) tag on Delicious.
5. Scribd and Slideshare
Both allow you to post the full document and create a YouTube-style embeddable player, which you (or others) can then add to blog posts, event invitations, or other online media. These players also include a “download” button.
Make sure you’re only publishing content that you own the rights to, is not subject to copyright, or that you have permission from the copyright holder to post.
The advantage of using these services to host documents is that they allow you to easily bundle substantial content into a blog post, so people don’t have to follow a link somewhere to get it. Also, if you annotate or highlight a document, you can post a version of the document with those additions.
So for instance, if you’re a chemist and you have the right to publish your latest journal article about mercury pollution in rivers, you could annotate the pdf of that article to highlight points that would be important to non-experts, and explain what they mean in plain language.
But also, these services get very good search visibility in their own right. So when you post documents to these sites, make sure each document includes a link back to the relevant post on your blog (or at least to your blog’s home page) so people who discover you there can connect to you via your online home base.
…These are just a few very basic tools to start your online engagement strategy. There are plenty more, but based on my extensive experience these are the best places to start. Learn how to use these tools — and how to use them together — to cultivate the kind of online engagement you seek.
IF YOU’RE REALLY SERIOUS ABOUT ACTIVISM or advocacy of any kind, I highly recommend Deanna Zandt’s recent book Share This: How you will change the world with social networking. I bow to her greatness 🙂