Communication and Community are Different

As I talk with and work with schools and districts interested in using social media they often talk about their communication strategy and how they might use social media in a strategic way. My first reaction is you can’t.

The word “strategic” implies a tactical and deliberate approach. While that might be fine for communication before social media, it doesn’t work so well now. Communication strategies from a organizational perspective was traditionally about “getting the word out”, “keeping stakeholders informed” and these notions are essentially about broadcasting. I noticed a school district who recently purchased brand new signage for their schools to provide a consistent look and message regarding upcoming events. I have no idea the cost and am not suggesting it’s not an important part of the communication strategy but it once again points to an emphasis on broadcasting. These efforts certainly communicate, but they don’t really build community.

I recently had a conversation online with Darren Draper, Karl Fisch and others on the struggle schools and districts have in implementing social media. Darren summarized the conversation quite well. I think part of the issue is a fundamental dissonance between traditional communication strategies and the way social media works. Social media is essentially about relationships and relationships and strategies are a lousy mix. I’m sure it’s possible, but I have a hard time using the word strategy when it comes to building a relationship. When I think of organizations I connect with online, there are a few that purely broadcast. This may be useful but it’s also frustrating when I click reply, ask a follow up and get no response. At that point, I feel like they’d be better off just posting information on a website and I’ll go there when I need the information. Other organizations have essentially used twitter as an extended helpdesk. This is a great way to build relationship, trust and loyalty. My local cable company is a good example of being able to reach out quickly and get a response. Other companies actually move to a more personal interaction. My favorite example is Smart.

Going beyond simply responding to questions and actually interacting with people takes the relationship to a whole other level. This is one of the ways you build a tribe. This exchange isn’t about connecting personally with your constituents. Humor is a great way to do it but there are other ways as well. I can only speak from experience and having been part of a district’s communication plan as well as working closely with Steve Dembo at Discovery, let me share with you a few ways I think organizations might consider using social media, not strategically but rather organically to build community.

1. Share the load. Steve is essentially the Director of Social Media for Discovery Education and likely tweets 80% of the DE twitter account. But many of us have access to the account and help out during events or just as the mood hits. While some might argue this may not provide a consistent voice, we all keep a similar voice but if you look closely, you can often determine who’s posting. This is not a secret or something we even discuss as an issue.

2. Talk to people. This is the single biggest idea when it comes to building community. When someone tweets you. Respond.

3. Point to others. We love to use this space to promote the work of others in our community as much as possible. Given the account has over 80,000 followers we understand the reach and take advantage of sharing our members good work. That said, we also point to other organizations, we think are doing good work too.

Add to all this the fact that many 0f our DEN team have active personal accounts that we are happy to point to and offer additional ways for people to connect to Discovery Education. I understand that many schools and districts don’t feel they are in a position to embrace social media for a variety of reasons. But my first piece of advice is to avoid thinking strategy and instead think of relationships and community. That’s what social media does differently from traditional communication approaches. You can go to this page to learn about effective communication strategies to improve your organization. My second piece of advice is to be sure you ask yourself if you really want to build community. I’m not sure every district or school really wants to.