By Meera Vijayann | Originally published on The Guardian
Young, new social entrepreneurs around the world face a similar problem: building an audience and sustaining virtual communities. With social media playing an important role in audience building, early-stage entrepreneurs have begun to focus on popular networking sites to leverage engagement and maximise reach. Yet this is the reason that most early enterprises often fail in garnering public interest.
Peter W Roberts, the academic director of social enterprise at the Goizueta Business School of Emory University, pointed out in the Harvard Business Review that there was a definite link between successful enterprises and an established social media presence. He also suggested that the success of most of these enterprises often depended on factors relating to age [of the entrepreneur, sector and approach. However, my own learning has been different.
Organisation v cause:
Most emerging enterprises focus on promoting their organisation instead of the cause. While the former is necessary, it fails to make a personal connect. Prakhar Bhartiya, the founder of Youth Alliance, told me that credibility was one of the biggest challenges when he started his organisation over a year ago. “We get around 60% of our applications on Facebook because our viral reach is high. But, initially, we had to rely on newspaper coverage or visibility through established organisations to validate the work we do,” he said, “We focused on the cause we were supporting, and today, since we can boast of impact, we use it to promote our organisation. This worked for us.” The trick to good organisational visibility is to allow people to understand your vision and not just your venture. Cause-driven organisations enjoy a high-recall value and have often sailed the social media wave effortlessly.
The digital disconnect:
Since audience building and participation largely happens online, another challenge that young entrepreneurs face is the sheer lack of physical interaction with their audience. Young social entrepreneurs such as Kuldeep Dantewadia, founder of Reap Benefit, an organisation that focuses on low-cost waste management solutions, are still sceptical about the right use of social media communities. “For us, word of mouth has achieved the best impact. Social media is merely a validating factor. It works as a platform to spark interest rather than induce action,” he suggested. “Facebook lets us know that people are interested. But this interest doesn’t translate into an impulse to act.”
On Twitter, too, targeted audience building seems a distant dream for those who work on the ground. “Twitter is great for conversations. But I work mostly with rural schools, and my audience, primarily school children, are absent from Twitter,” Kuldeep said. “We simply didn’t know how to position Reap Benefit on Twitter, so now we use it to chronicle our work instead.”
Personality v problem:
A good way to tell when an organisation is moving away from its goal is when it begins to leverage social media engagement by maintaining a central focus entirely on the person who is the driving force behind the organisation. This diverts an audience attention from the problem and allows the audience to favour the personality behind the cause. For instance, when one talks of Selco online, it is easy to associate the organisation with Harish Hande, its founder, instead of its great work in the field of solar energy.
Competition v collaboration:
In recent years, overcrowding has led to a pressure to compete in the Indian social sector. Organisations that focus on similar social causes usually work parallel to each other when leveraging their online communities to highlight their own unique approaches to problems. But the audience eventually drifts, looking for newer interests. Healthy collaborations and strategic partnerships with other players in the sector online will encourage dialogue and create a synergy among online communities. Medhavi Gandhi, who founded the Happy Hands Foundation to help create sustainable livelihoods, is a great example. Through her work, she focused on cross-sector dialogues with the corporate world and involved them through gift giving. These partnerships helped validate her organisation’s online presence as well.
Success v excess:
Early-stage enterprises also make the mistake of prioritising reach while building online communities. Scheduling tools for Twitter and Facebook adverts are seen as fantastic, easy options to reach big numbers. But this doesn’t help in driving engagement. And engagement is crucial to sustaining online communities. Inclusivity ensures that an audience stays interested and adds value to your organisation’s outreach. Leveraging two-way communication through active forums such as Google groups or Facebook groups makes sure that conversation with the audience isn’t stifled. If there is an excess of information being generated one way, it’s possible to misinterpret those numbers that organisations think they are reaching.
So what is the secret to establishing a solid presence online? In all honesty, it is hard to tell. Every organisation’s needs differ, as do its priorities. The key, however, is to identify the exact space where entrepreneurs can communicate their core message. Social media platforms can often tempt with numbers, but there’s often more to numbers than meets the eye.
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