Monday, March 30, 2009

My Question of the Day: How Can Social Media be Used to Increase the Reach of Small NGOs?

While going on a Twitter Search this evening I found this page, which I could argue is about the use of social media technology in international development.

In a way, it does fall under that category, despite the link not really being from entirely the same angle as this post is going to be. It of course barely scratches the surface of a whole ocean of topics, when it considers how SMS is being used to promote sexual health in Uganda.

It's nice to see a really innovative project embracing new technology to reach its target directly. I haven't looked into it in any detail, but I hope it's as amazing a project as it first sounds.

It reminds me (as if I need reminding) of my own obsession with technology, and the Internet in particular, and my current pet project. Any of my friends reading this blog will already know that in just less than seven weeks, I'll be returning to Tanzania to volunteer for the Hoja Project, an NGO I helped set up in my friend's village.

I'm also, as some may have noticed, a recent convert to Twitter, having set up my own @evilflea account. What really caught my attention was how I will be able to micro-blog via SMS from the village, where I will have an intermittent mobile phone reception, but no Internet connection.

I can also feed this blog automatically into Twitter using a third party application called Twitterfeed. Not only that but the Twitter Facebook application will automatically synchronise my Facebook status to my Twitter updates.

It all ties in so beautifully and easily, all thanks to Twitter's simplicity and hence versatility. I can post one thing on one site, and it will automatically update all my other social media personas.

So, a couple of weeks ago, believing I was realising some unlocked potential in this suddenly trendy social media phenomenon, I set up @hojaproject too. Surely this powerful tool could easily reach hundreds, if not thousands, of new supporters instantly?

But there is a problem with that line of thinking. It's utter twaddle.

I linked in Twitterfeed to the Hoja blog, and then set about promoting Hoja to anyone who might possibly care to add us (whilst trying not to be too spammy). I searched for and then added anyone who had recently tweeted various combinations of the words Africa, Tanzania, international development, sexual health, education project, and so on.

We had over a hundred "followers" pretty quickly, without too much effort, and after a day or two, people were finding @hojaproject without me having added them first.

One problem is that I'm sure at least half of these "followers" aren't really following @hojaproject at all, each for one of these reasons:

* we started following them, so they returned the favour out of courtesy, but aren't actually interested
* they added us randomly, despite not being interested, in the hope they'd acquire more followers
* they are following thousands of other people, and will never ever notice Hoja tweets in amongst all the other stuff they're "following"

Even those who are interested, and do spot our tweets, may not be very useful to us as supporters. Many of them are located outside of the UK, and so would find it difficult to support us by getting involved in activities and events.

Most of all, these new people don't know me. They don't know Julia, or Lucy, or Oswin, or anyone else involved in the Hoja Project. They have no emotional attachment to the project or anyone involved in it.

Twitter is useful. If that's how someone wants to follow Hoja's news, then it's in our interest to be on Twitter. The last update directed a handful of people to our blog, and that's a handful of people who probably wouldn't otherwise have seen it.

But its usefulness lies far more in keeping existing supporters informed (mostly our friends and families), than in finding new people. I'm sure we'll catch a few people's attention along the way, and make a few new friends, but let's not get carried away, shall we?

Having said that, in four days I'll be finishing my teaching job, and for six weeks I'll have a lot more time on my hands to look into the fascinating potential of social media and NGOs.

I think you can see where this is going...


  1. Very interesting - I am doing a lot of reading, testing and philosophizing about social media, in regard to its impact on traditional media mechanics and economics - my former online newspaper job was erased recently and the entire news/paper sector in Norway is a tottering mess - and its interesting to try and gauge what can happen from the current blend of ingredients and developments.

    Also, I do a lot of work for Yara, and they have a wide variety of development activities in Africa, most recently in Tanzania and Malawi - do you ever hear of them there?

  2. No, I have never heard of them. But I can Google them...

    ...and er, find some chemical and fashion companies.

    Oh, hang on, I think the chemical fertiliser company is the one you mean - Clicky

    I do agree, the whole social media thing is dragging traditional media into the mire, and very little of it has found its place just yet. So much potential, but so easy to find yourself just pissing in the wind, for want of a better expression.

  3. Yes, usually agricultural development, but today I just got an update about support for schools in Malawi, funding raised at local plant level rather than from the top. You may run into their projects while you are there.

  4. Maybe, but probably not.

    There ain't many of us NGOs working in Songea region - not touristy enough.

    Will keep a look out all the same.


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