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How puppies, kittens and smartphones can engage communities

by: Amy Gahran |

Don't discount cuteness when building community.
Don't discount cuteness when building community.
If you want to engage your community around important matters, it's important to offer news, data and information -- but by themselves, these tools won't get the job done. Attracting and keeping the attention and enthusiasm of your community means connecting with people emotionally and personally, not just informationally. This is where community-focused digital media projects can borrow a page from advocates and activists.

That means adding puppies and kittens to your community engagement efforts. Fortunately no newspapers or scratching posts are required.

Deanna Zandt, a longtime social media advisor and author of Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, explained: "The problem that advocates, journalists, and people in the public sector have had forever is that they have assumed that the facts will set us free -- but they just don't. Facts and information don't activate the emotional centers of our brain that cause us to take action. We don't take action because 56% of the people in the U.S. aren't getting a good breakfast. But if our neighbor's house gets destroyed, we'll help them rebuild because we care. It's personal."

Zandt is a principal in Lux Digital, a new consultancy that helps the public, private and social sectors devise online strategies that create measurable impact and deep engagement. She admires the work of several community foundations, including the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Greater Kansas City Foundation.

She recommends that community foundations, organizations, and projects use social media not just to publicize their work or push out "messaging," but for listening and connecting with individuals and partners in their community. "Social media is an amazing listening device. People are sharing their stories, what's happening in their lives -- and you can and should connect with that."

She recommends taking the time to follow people in your community; to 'like,' share and retweet what they post; to respond to them directly in public via social media. These actions don't take long, you can do a lot of connecting with your community in just a few minutes a day. It's an investment of time and attention that can pay off big. When you demonstrate interest in the people in your community, they're more likely to pay attention to you -- and to spread the word about what you're doing to their networks.

"Act as a curator in your community. You're probably already doing this without noticing. Try being conscious about it," Zandt said.

It's also important to engage people by spreading positive emotions.

Zandt offered the example of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "For ages the ASPCA ran these commercials that would always get me bawling, showing neglected animals with Sarah MacLaughlin singing 'In the Arms of an Angel' in the background. I'd feel terrible and think that I should probably give them money.

"Fast forward to the advent of social media -- and if those sorts of appeals were all the ASPCA posted, no one would follow them. Instead, they do the smart thing and share lots of adorable pictures of cats and dogs, pet adoption success stories, and useful resources like their pet poison control hotline that has now helped me twice. They've built up a hugely positive emotional relationship. I think so positively about them, they're an organization that loves animals.

"I tell everyone who's trying to engage a community or build support: YOU have puppies and kittens in your work! What things come up in your work that will resonate positively with people, give them positive feelings? Share these as part of your story. Show the result of people's lives being changed in an emotional way. A lot of your puppies and kittens are probably smiling human faces."

"For instance, if your organization or project focuses on local education issues -- schools have cute kids. How about posting stories, photos, and videos of a local afterschool program that's helping kids and their families? When you talk about impact, don't just make it about numbers. Make it about people."

"All of the little tidbits that people in your community share through social media add up to a pointillist painting. It's the same as when you have a dataset -- the individual data points are not important, but the big picture that emerges from the data is what matters. Getting people to see the bigger picture is crucial to fostering change. Not every item you share will be puppies and kittens, but puppies and kittens will help people form a stronger relationship to your issue.

A lot of emotional resonance can spring from helping people in your community share their own personal stories. But it's important to foster this storytelling in a way that's empowering, not exploitative.

Exhale, an advocacy organization for abortion rights, has published an advocate's guide to ethical storytelling. While this guide focuses on storytelling about a single controversial and national/global topic, its principles can apply to almost any kind of personal storytelling. Community-focused projects could offer community workshops, training, or mentoring to help people tell their own stories -- as well as provide a public platform for these stories.

Once you post emotionally resonant content online, if you've done the groundwork of connecting with individuals in your community via social media, it's likely that they'll share links to your content, generating a ripple effect of interest.

Social media is a very popular mobile activity, and people tend to form very strong emotional connections to their cell phones. So Zandt observed that mobile users of social media can be a great source of community engagement. Posting mobile-friendly content with positive emotional resonance for your community and sharing it via social media can be an especially successful engagement strategy.

"Photos and videos are big for sharing on Facebook," said Zandt. "Imagery works less well on Twitter because you have to click through on a phone to see it elsewhere, and that takes time and effort. But useful information, or fun or inspirational quotes, work very well on Twitter. Learn what works well in each kind of social media, emulate what successful organizations and projects do. And make sure you keep mobile users in mind."

She noted that recent research shows that magazine sales in retail checkout lines have dropped precipitously since the advent of smartphones. "Everybody has to go to grocery store sometime, and they'll be standing in line. If you catch them in those bits of downtime when the kids are under control for a few seconds, that's the moment to connect with people. Mobile-friendly social media is a great tool to make that kind of engagement happen."

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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