One year after the Arab Spring, where emerging technologies like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs are thought to have played a crucial role, many organizations are asking themselves how social media can best be used to shape debates and organize for advocacy in developing and emerging market countries.
CIPE has worked with nearly 500 business associations and chambers of commerce, think tanks, entrepreneurship training programs, and other organizations in more than 100 countries around the world. For Social Media Week, I asked some of them about how they were using social media most effectively to carry out their work.
The results were impressive: many, if not most CIPE partners are active across the whole spectrum of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and local or regional social networks. For groups that are trying to shape and contribute to national policy debates on a limited budget, social media can be a highly effective way to reach a large and influential audience.
Here are five key lessons that can be distilled from CIPE’s partners’ experience:
1. Know your audience.
This is truism for all communications, but is especially important in the social media space, where it can be easy to blur the lines between the professional and personal. Eduardo Reyes, communications director at the Center of Research for Development (CIDAC), a Mexican think-tank, notes that content should be tailored for different platforms. “We strongly recommend not to use these channels as a mirror of what you do in terms of your traditional content development or even your web site efforts,” he said. “Social media requieres dedicated content.”
At the same time, it is important to maintain authenticity. Serdar Dinler, a civil society activist and chair of the Corporate Social Responsibility Association of Turkey, stressed that maintaining trust on social networks is vital, “because once innocence is lost, it will never come back.”
2. Be responsive.
All of the partners I spoke to stressed the importance of monitoring, and responding to, audience engagement and responses, and adjusting accordingly. Dinler said he uses feedback from social media users to crowdsource the direction his advocacy will take. “In this Information Era, users are the only source to find the right way to go,” he said.
Reyes noted that at CIDAC, which is the most active think tank on social media in Mexico, they measure success not only in terms of “followers” or “likes,” but “for the level of engagement we have with them and the fact that we have consolidated through these channels as a reliable and creative source of information.” This engagement goes both ways: Reyes added that “social media in Mexico has been very helpful as watchdog, but also to share new ideas and incorporate them in public discussion in order to improve democratic debate.”
3. Use the right channels for the right purposes.
CIPE works with many different kinds of organizations, and each organization has different needs that social media tools can meet. For example, membership organizations like chambers of commerce may want to use social media to build their membership and promote discussion within their member community, while think tanks and advocacy organizations can leverage these same platforms to get their message out and contribute to key policy debates.
CIPE Pakistan has helped partners embrace both types of roles, encouraging business associations to build up their Facebook presence and also planning training sessions for bloggers on how to write about economic reform, corruption, and entrepreneurship. “They are the new wave of reformers that we want to focus on immediately,” said Hammad Siddiqui, Senior Program Manager for CIPE Pakistan.
4. Don’t neglect offline interactions.
This is another social media truism, but one that is crucial for economic reform and democracy advocacy groups. Spreading a message and engaging a large following is only part of the work that CIPE’s partners do: at the end of the day, real policy changes require policy-makers to sit down face-to-face with stakeholders and their constituents, which is what CIPE and its partners try to facilitate. Social media works best when it complements, rather than supplants, “offline” relationships and conversations.
In many countries, this holds especially true because only a minority of the population has access to social media. Despite the explosive growth of the Internet and mobile phones, even in middle-income countries many people lack regular Internet access. As Reyes points out, ”Internet penetration is about 40% in Mexico. Although most of them use at least one social network, any [entirely] web based effort will be missing a significant population share.”
5. Social media requires dedicated resources.
This is an important point, especially for organizations who are initially attracted to social media due to the apparent ease of reaching a large audience with a relatively limited effort. Although the return on investment can be huge, maintaining a high-quality and consistent presence on social media takes time and resources.
For example, Revista Perspectiva, which publishes a successful print magazine covering economic, political, and social issues throughout Latin America from a pro-democracy perspective, has recently revamped and expanded their social media strategy. Newly-hired Web Editor Carolina Gomez says that staff now hold an “editorial board” meeting each day to plan content for the blog and social media accounts, and use extensive metrics to track audience interests, engagement, and the best times to post. Social media channels are of little value without staff dedicated to producing content for them, as well as monitoring, tracking, and engaging with the community.
The Future of Social Media
All of the partners I talked to agreed that social media would play an increasingly important role in their future work. The huge growth of internet penetration in developing and emerging market countries is expected to drive an increasing focus on social media as a key part of the public debate on economic policy, governance, and institutions.
So far, social media tools have also been effective, to some extent, at bypassing the restrictions put in place by authoritarian rulers. In such countries, said Gomez, “the use of internet and social media allow citizens to easily access quality information without control measures. In this sense, social media is especially important to promote market oriented themes and democratic ideas.”
Dinler said he believes that the rapid uptake of social media, especially among young people, is part of a broader generational phenomenon. “We believe there is only one place where all people are equal; it is the web and social media environment. So we should strongly defend our rights using web and social media to communicate.”