This post originally written September 8, 2009.  Posted on Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Opinion blog.  Visit the original post here.

It’s back-to-school time for many countries and that means a switch from summer programs, outdoor community events, and many youth campaigns.  New research out today from nfpSynergy shows that organizations who serve youth may want to be going online to reach them.

The Research

nfpSynergy, a leading nonprofit sector think-tank and research consultancy in the UK, “tracks a representative sample of over 1000 11-25 year olds throughout mainland Britain twice-yearly, gaining insights into their views and habits, both social and charity-related” in its Youth Engagement Monitor.  The newest report, out today, focused on the use of social networking platforms by young people who are/aren’t also involved with charities.  (Read the full press release here or download the Social Media data slides here.) Some of the results include:

  • Facebook is by far the most popular social networking site amongst young people – used by over 7 in 10 (72%) of all 11-25 year olds; rising to 80% of 17-25 year olds, those of college/university age – and to 83% of those who are currently at, or who have already been to, university.
  • Amongst 11-25 year olds, Facebook is trailed by Bebo (28%), MySpace (25%), Twitter (12%), MSN (9%), YouTube (2%) and “other” (4%)
  • Those involved regularly with charities are far more likely to use such social media than those who are not, with four fifths (79%) of those claiming regular charitable involvement using Facebook, compared with just 69% of those claiming no involvement
  • Bebo is the only major networking site to be more popular amongst 11-16 year olds (35%) than amongst 17-25 year olds (24%)
  • Female respondents reported a significantly higher usage across all the top 4 networking sites

Despite this, less than half (48%) of the 187 charities that were surveyed as part of nfpSynergy’s Virtual Promise (2008) report said that their organization used social networking websites.

What It Means

First, what the research does not mean: Don’t jump into Facebook immediately!  It’s easy for organizations, especially ones with small staff sizes and lots, and lots on the growing “to do” lists to see stats or research like this and automatically say, “Okay, then we should be on Facebook and it’ll solve all of our youth engagement problems.” Or, maybe not that statement exactly, but close to it.  This data does confirm many thing we already knew: that most young people are using social networking platforms of one kind or another, that females are more likely to use networking tools than males, etc.  It also shows that those young people who are engaged or involved with charities are also those using social networking tools. But, it does not say that they want to engage with charities in social networking platforms or, if they do, how they want that connection to start and continue.

So, if your organization serves or engages with youth and you want to think about moving into social networking spaces, here are a few pointers to help you get started!

No running in the halls!

There’s no point rushing into things, so give yourself the time to think strategically about how you want to use social networking platforms in your organization’s work and how it best fits with what you are doing now and the goals you want to achieve.  If you are thinking of using Facebook, for example, you will want to consider whether you want to create an individual account, or Fan page, or a group; each platform has it’s own options for how organizations could be represented and each option has different ways that other users would be able to interact.  You also want to consider which young people you want to connect with: as noted above, different ages may use different platforms; there’s lots of research also discussing the different regions or nationalities using each platform, as well as socioeconomic groups (check out Danah Boyd’s recent dissertation on the way teenagers use social networks!).

Secrets, secrets are no fun!

Regardless of which platform/s you decide to use, remember to be authentic and transparent. No one likes secrets!  Young people you are trying to connect with online (anyone, really) will judge you by your profile information: does it say who you are, which individuals at the organization may be speaking on behalf of the organization via the account? does it give your contact information outside of the social network (website, email, blog, or address)?  how about information – if you provide mental health services, for example, post information about how to get help if you need it, or how to help a friend, and so on. All this will help to make your profile more reliable and trustworthy, as well as put information out into a social space where youth could come across it without necessarily looking for your organization specifically.

Going to Johnny’s party?

The parties, the dances, the school events, they all helped shape many of the memories from being school-aged.  There’s no reason to leave them out of your plan for connecting with young people in social networks!  Create opportunities and events that bring people together online and offline – these activities can help move people up the ladder of engagement, get them volunteering or advocating for your organization, using your services or helping promote them.  Plus, social networking is all about connecting with friends, new and old; if your organization is a catalyst for community by connecting those who are affected or interested in the causes you work on, it will be easier to round up participation for your campaigns (on or offline) and find more supporters to help push your mission and work forward.  So, throw a party or two, and have fun!

What do you think? Are you an organization that works with young people, and are you using social networking sites to connect with them? What lessons or examples do you want to share?

Comment here, or visit the original post at SSIR here.

Back to School, Back Online
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