Dancing as fast as we can — takeaways from CommNet ’09

October 16, 2009 at 10:18 pm | Posted in Digital strategy, Multimedia, Social media, Storytelling, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

The Communications Network’s just-concluded annual conference provided equal installments of the cutting-edge — how to leverage social media — and the basic — how to craft and implement core communications strategies and overhaul your web site.

A squad of volunteers tweeted and blogged about the conference in real time. Rather than recount what other have already said far better than I, see the results of this useful and interesting experiment in using social media to discuss, among other things, how to best use social media, on the Network blog and archived Twitter stream.

My own thoughts, which I hope add some value to the ongoing conversation.

Social media. The biggest buzz. Keynoter Clay Shirky, an NYU professor and Web 2.0 big thinker, made me want to rush downtown to sign up for what must be a very entertaining and informative class. But I was also reminded that it’s important not to get too caught up in any evangelist’s fervor, even as they motivate you to a higher calling.

Shirky offered a series of compelling take-home messages about the revolutionary nature of the web in general and social media tools in particular, especially their ability to encourage unfettered information-sharing that can easily translate into calls to action. The good news – these tools offer those of us in strategic communications numerous opportunities to connect, monitor, listen and interact with audiences that not only are interested in what we do but can be helpful to advancing the goals of the institutions for which we work. The big challenge – getting past the notion that we can exert the same level of “message control” in this vigorous e-discourse that we might through more traditional one-way channels. As Shirky notes, “give it up” (you might want to use that in your next communications planning memo to the boss).

I fully buy into the potentially substantial upside and the argument that if you’re not part of the conversation, you’re letting others define you. After all, the train is moving, fast, and we’re be best advised to hop on in some appropriate and useful fashion while the thing figures out where it’s going. I actually would have liked a little more leavening discussion from Shirky of the “dark side” of this ride; Frank Rich did cover that, in spades, the night before, in the broader context of how the media have been ripe for manipulation for decades and now it’s just a lot easier. But Shirky did remind us of the need to be sure that we’re weighing the value of these tools as we would any others. Because at the end of the day, that’s what they are – tools, to be used strategically and carefully, like any other.

Story-telling has been a popular theme in non-profit communications for years, a mantra for many of us trying to get the word out and engage key audiences with more than just the latest white paper. And so it was at this conference. My main takeaway here was a useful discussion of the tricky business of getting top-level buy-in for the notion (“that’s just not what we do”); program-level buy-in for  identifying and vetting the stories we want to tell (“I’m just too busy helping grantees effect real change”) and a realistic process for the storytelling itself, regardless of the media formats we choose to use.

Digital strategies, from web site overhauls to more aggressive use of multimedia to jumping into the social media space, are critical to get right, as we all know. And they should be intelligently and firmly integrated into an overall communications strategy that is a solid extension of clearly defined institutional goals, aligned fully with grant-making. So it was a reassuring reality check to hear that no one – not even some of the big guys – has quite yet reached this strategic Nirvana. At the end of the day, we’re all just doing the very best we can to get it right. And while there were plenty of tips about what to do and scores of suggestions of tools with which to experiment, the bottom lines were familiar and worth repeating, maybe even reTweeting.

  • Focus on a clear number of agreed-upon, critical goals.
  • Plan. Rinse. Repeat.
  • Work tirelessly for enterprise-wide buy-in, giving credit where it’s due.
  • Do your homework on technical issues (and get expert help if needed).
  • Establish performance baselines and realistic metrics for improvement.
  • Monitor progress over time and adjust as you go.
  • Don’t fall in love with gadgets.
  • Don’t kill good ideas with endless discussion.
  • Just try it.

How well will we have applied these lessons when we meet for next fall’s conference? And what will be the new new thing by then?

Stay tuned.

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