Go viral, but keep fostering meaningful relationships

(originally written for AskCharity, October 29, 2009)

American author Adam Penenberg, has published a book called Viral Loop, where he argues that social media is far from a fad – and in fact we are all kind of ‘hard-wired’ to socialise with each other. I definitely think he’s onto something, and I’ve been trying to employ the ‘viral business model’ into Whizz-Kidz’s PR.

The biggest viral mediums right now that encourage people to send links to each other and share their opinions and advice on just about anything (including charities they support), are probably Twitter, Facebook and YouTube; the social media. And in social networks, we don’t just broadcast (never just broadcast!), we become ‘friends’ with other people, and I’d argue this demands of us a fair amount of social responsibility.

Let’s be friends

Penenberg cites research that indicates that engaging with friends helps us live longer and ‘better’ lives, and those with strong friendship-bonds apparently have lower incidents of heart disease – and even get fewer colds and flu!

And a decade-long Australian study meanwhile found that subjects with a sizable network of friends were 22% less likely to die than those with a small circle of friends—the distance separating those friends and the amount of contact made no difference. In other words, it didn’t matter if the friends stayed in contact via phone, by letter or email. Just the fact they had a social network of friends acted as a protective barrier (no wonder some of us are addicted to Facebook… we crave to have a community around us).

So where do we – charities – fit into people’s online social lives in an authentic way and get swept up in the good feeling? And how do we go viral within these networks and don’t just get lost in the noise? Well, Twitter for example, requires that you tweet as a real person. It’s a real turn off to have someone just pushing links to the corporate website and press releases. If you enter into it, you have to commit a bit of time and treat the tweeting community with respect. It’s certainly how I approach our Whizz-Kidz Twitter profile. In befriending people, I have to employ diplomacy, gratitude, humour, and be ‘a bit interesting’ – all whilst representing Whizz-Kidz’s ‘personality’.

For instance, parents of disabled children we have supported ‘tweet’ Whizz-Kidz because they have an affinity with us, feel they know us, and want to say thank you – to a person, as well as an organisation. And if they have a good conversation with us, get signposted somewhere useful or learn something new about us – they’ll spread the good word. Think of ‘retweets’ and hashtags like #charitytuesday and #followfriday.

All of these sites allow us to open a dialogue with our supporters, and gain important feedback on how we are viewed outside the bubble we work in. It allows us to speak to individuals – as individuals – using the platforms they use, and in their language. A nice by-product of charities being helpful, upbeat, friendly and informal is that a good reputation starts to build up virally about us.

I now speak directly with a diverse set of audiences; including staff from our corporate partners, fundraisers, volunteers, and direct beneficiaries of our work – all outside of the interaction they might be more used to such as board meetings, therapist visits and application forms.

I love the scope this has for allowing us all to develop more meaningful relationships as we become much more accessible and inclusive.

It’s still early days for most of us – and the mediums themselves are changing and evolving all the time, but Whizz-Kidz has already begun to reap the benefits of talking and sharing as opposed to picking up the loudspeaker and broadcasting. Have you?


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