Lots of people in the voluntary sector will tell you that your organisation should be using Twitter*, and that it’s easy to engage with your audience by doing so. What many seem to overlook is that while Twitter may well be a useful tool for your work, there is no ‘one size fits all’ model for using it.
If there was a mantra of ‘you only get back if you put in’, I would have heard it a thousand times by now. It’s very true of course: forming connections with people via social media takes energy and commitment, just as it does in any other setting. But also the nature of your work will impact on the level of engagement you’re comfortable with.
For example, imagine someone works for an organisation with an attractive cause. They use Twitter regularly and comfortably to chat and engage with their audience. But move that person to an organisation with a complex or controversial cause and I almost guarantee they will find the experience very different, even if they’re given the same capacity and resources as before.
Take the charity Dogs Trust. It is often (and quite rightly) held up as a shining example of how a charity can use Twitter effectively. Some people see them as a benchmark; I would caution against that, and instead encourage people to understand the communications needs of their own organisation before trying to fit into someone else’s social media model. Alexandra Goldstein, of Dogs Trusts’ digital team, puts it like this:
“When we do a presentation, we’re saying ‘this is what we do’, not ‘this is what you should do’. The idea is to pick those ideas that work for your message and objectives. The conversational style for Twitter can be very powerful, but doesn’t work for everyone”.
To illustrate, imagine you are given the following instructions:
Define a dog in simple terms. Define animal welfare in simple terms. Go to a random pub. Find some people who are interested in dogs. Start an enjoyable conversation with someone about dogs. Find some people who agree with you about animal welfare.
Not too difficult, I imagine.** Now try it again, this time with a different subject:
Define citizenship in simple terms. Define citizenship education in simple terms. Go to a random pub. Find some people who are interested in citizenship education. Start an enjoyable conversation with someone about citizenship education. Find some people who agree with you about citizenship education.
Easy? I doubt it.
Citizenship and citizenship education are not easy subjects to talk about comfortably with any authority. To do so requires a lot of knowledge, a fair amount of experience and more than a generous dollop of confidence. Conversation participants will tend towards the intellectual, often have strong views, and can be quick to challenge. The poor sod ‘holding the keys’ to the Twitter account has to be able to respond engagingly, sensitively and – especially – on the same intellectual level.
It’s also much easier to strike up a relationship by responding to light, open banter than by imposing on someone’s time with a serious subject that expects a degree of reflection. It’s very hard to make small-talk around a topic such as citizenship education (small-talk about pets, on the other hand, is second nature to many people), and therefore starting a meaningful relationship with a stranger is quite difficult – particularly when they’re as physically and socially removed from you as they often are on Twitter.
I used to think Twitter was all about conversing and engaging. It certainly can be, and it is very good for that: I have found it easy to build a strong network of friends and colleagues in my personal capacity as @citizensheep. But I have also found it incredibly hard to strike the right balance with our organisation’s Twitter presence (@citizenship).
I have come to the conclusion that if my work strategy, capacity and comfort levels lead me simply to broadcast rather than chat, then why shouldn’t I? After all, the power is in the hands of the reader: it’s their choice to read my tweets; in fact, they probably won’t even follow me if they don’t find me interesting.
The loss from not engaging is ours; and, if our strategy is to get information out, those losses would be even greater if I didn’t use Twitter at all.
Twitter is a social tool; there is no correct way to use it. Different organisations will need to use it in different ways (if at all), and with different levels of importance given to it. Dogs and citizens are, after all, very different beasts.
* You can probably replace ‘Twitter’ with ‘social media’ throughout this post.
** This is in no way meant to undervalue the excellent work of the Dogs Trust’s Digital team. I’m not for a moment suggesting their job is easier than ours, just that the use of tools appropriate for one organisation will not always be so for another. And many thanks to said team for their input in this post.