Saturday, 10 October 2015

Three things I want to say about controlling volunteers on social media

I’ve just read a great blog from Kevan Lee in the team at Buffer [1]. The blog explores the concept of 360 degree advocacy and the future of social media. Kevan looks at how brands can maximise their social media potential thus:

“A business feels personal not when it speaks like a person but when it reflects the persons that make up the business.”

This line really got my attention because I think it hits upon a key belief I come across regularly when the subject of volunteers and social media arises. You see, quite often when I train on social media in a volunteering context I am told that volunteers cannot be involved in an organisation’s social media work because what they say and do cannot be controlled. The fear is that volunteers will be loose cannons, firing off any old tweet or post that might cut across the carefully controlled brand the organisation wants to project.

There are a three things I want to highlight in response.

First, it isn’t just Communications / Marketing / Branding and / or Senior Management staff I hear this from. It is sometimes from Volunteer Managers too. That might be out of fear or ignorance about social media but sometimes it’s born of a real concern that volunteers won’t be able to be controlled on social media. To me such comments speak volumes about what volunteer management has become to some people, a means of organising people to control their involvement in as low a risk setting as possible rather than inspiring and enabling people to achieve the most for our mission & cause.

Oh, and why by default assume what volunteers say online about you won’t be positive? What does that tell you?

Second, to steer clear of involving volunteers in social media because of an anxiety that we cannot control them is to fundamentally misunderstand social media. As I frequently say in response to such anxieties, control disappeared on 4 February 2004, the day Mark Zuckerberg turned Facebook on. For more than eleven years we’ve had less and less control of what people say about us as more social networks have appeared and more of us join them.

The appropriate response is not to foolishly try to shut the gate a decade after the horse has bolted but to learn to work with the lack of control and manage it appropriately. People, including volunteers, are already talking about you on social media - if you do not or are prevented from engaging with this key communication tool you just won’t know what they are saying. It’s the digital equivalent of putting your head in the sand and hoping it’ll all be OK.

Third, not engaging volunteers (and indeed other supporters) in social media might mean you are failing to realise an emerging key aspect of the very purpose of social media in an organisational context. This is where Kevan Lee’s blog post comes back into focus.

You need to read the post in full to get the complete picture but this quote sums up the key issue:

“Fundamentally, they [businesses, in our contact Volunteer Involving Organisations] are not a person, they are not a human being. What they are is a collection of humans.The individuals that make up the company are what also make the company unique, approachable, relatable. And for a really long time, the best practice for social media marketing has not been about embracing these awesome people. Wow, what a big miss! With a full view of social media advocacy, I think it raises the question: What if this changed? What if we began inviting individuals to contribute to the voice of the brand?”

In other words, we’ve been getting it all wrong if we’ve been trying to control the brand / message on social media and only engage people who are prepared to toe that party line. Instead of running scared that volunteers may say something ‘wrong’, what we perhaps should be doing is finding a way for the corporate voice to be made up of all the individual voices of staff, volunteers, donors and other supporters.

For example, on Twitter, a non-profit organisation maintains a list of all it’s supporters who have Twitter accounts. It then retweets what it’s supporters say that chimes with the brand, making use of those peoples’ own unique voice rather than trying to control what they say. In fact, in a charitable context, doesn’t this make even more sense as often volunteers and other supporters have a persona connection to the cause and so speak with far more authenticity than a social media employee in the central communications team?

Put like that it sounds so obvious. Well it does to me anyway. We need to stop trying to do the impossible and control what people say about us online and instead inspire and enable people to use their voice to help our cause. Just like our approach to volunteer management needs to become less about control and fear of risk and more about empowerment and enabling opportunity.

As Kevan says:

“Brands can embrace the individuality of their team and become more relatable to their audience. The team can have a positive impact on the quality and variety of content the brand shares. I’m particularly excited about how wholeness, personality, and diversity can fit into the equation here, too. For all the work we aim to do with refining and perfecting a social media strategy, perhaps this exact type of variety is the next frontier for brands to engage on a deeper level with the wonderful, creative, unique individuals that make up an audience.”

Once again, you really need to read the whole of Kevan’s blog to get a firm handle on what he is exploring. I highly recommend you do this.

Afterwards, pop back here and let me know what you think about his ides in a volunteering context. I’d love to hear your thoughts and maybe discuss these ideas further through my blog’s comments function.


  1. Buffer is a company which provides a social media scheduling tool. They also produce an excellent blog on social media issues that is both informative and highly practical.  ↩