Bringing the lessons of social media to the real world, part 1: volunteerism

Friends have recently sent me a number of parodies of social media, among them that YouTube video suggesting how silly FB would be in real life and Flutter, the 26 character microblog parody. The fact that these trends are being parodied suggests that social media and lifeblogging is now mainstream, and that social media has crossed the chasm and moved to main street. But what do we do with this knowledge? How can we take the lessons of social media and apply them to the real world, while not over-reaching in each? I think that volunteerism is an area where social media cross-over into the real world can be particularly effective.

Local volunteerism is a prime candidate to use the lessons of social media to its advantage. The American Diabetes Association sponsors a Tour De Cure cycling and fundraising event in many cities around the US annually (shameless plug: I’m planning to ride in the Seattle version on May 16th). The Tour de Cure works because it uses selling techniques and an easy-to-understand cause to rally riders who raise money.

ADA’s event could be even more effective, however, if the 600 riders in the Seattle event each used the power of social media to raise awareness of the event and the cause. Encouraging friends in other cities to “donate” their status and using Twitter and other tools to remind cautious givers that there other ways to participate in raising diabetes awareness than simply riding in the event or contributing funds. Care should be taken, however, to avoid oversaturation. Just as the “short-attention-span-theater” crowd tires of ever-updating status messages, people can be easily overwhelmed with “support my cause” requests.

The ADA uses software from Convio to support the Tour de Cure ride. Interestingly, although Convio is promoting a Facebook strategy, the ADA isn’t using this facet of the software. Why might that be? Ease of use challenges, limited integration with existing technology, or that old bugaboo of “you must upgrade for the new feature” might be some of the reasons. The specific reasons aren’t that important — the point is that a major client is not taking advantage of the functionality — and volunteers who want to help the cause are missing out on an easy way to raise awareness among their friends.

Why should the ADA care about social media like Twitter and Facebook? Using “lifestreams” to communicate about causes or activities is now mainstream, rather than a fringe geek activity. Using these tools can increase engagement, precisely as Convio suggests in their post linked above, but more importantly can raise awareness for an important cause. I can let people know through my blog or my status messages that I am participating in the Tour de Cure event, but this message will be more effective if some of the people who casually monitor (or ignore) my status messages allow this cause to enter into their consideration set. Raising the profile of the ADA and making more people aware of the mission of the event and the organization should be the ultimate goal. Transforming some of the everyday social media messages people send can be a strong driver for that work.

[postscript – check out Allison Fine’s Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age for more ideas on this topic]

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