Twitter: Panacea or Savior?

A colleague of mine had an idea at a senior managers’ meeting I attended a few years ago. “We should do viral marketing!” she suggested excitedly. “Wouldn’t it be great if people forwarded our content to one another and started buzz about us?” When asked what that content might be, though, she had no ideas. She was just dazzled by the possibilities of a new medium.

You can’t really blame her. Nowadays the hot topic is social networking, but the dynamic is the same: enormous claims are being made for a medium, while the message is treated as a secondary or even trivial consideration. The result, not surprisingly, is that nonprofits often use new media badly. And many of the biggest offenders are the largest organizations.

Social networking is touted as not only the Next Big Thing, but as absolutely indispensable. There’s a YouTube video, previously linked on this site, that is typical of the muddled thinking around social media. Amid a welter of statistics it proclaims that 70% of 18-to-34-year-olds have watched TV on the web, as if that tells us something about social networking. But there’s actually nothing social about Hulu; it’s just new way to watch a one-way communication. The point they’re making is that the world is changing and you don’t want to be left behind, which is very different from documenting the value of social networking media in particular.

The danger in that kind of thinking is that it can result in leaping first and asking questions later. When I looked at the Tweets (Twitter posts) from several arts-related organizations I saw a wide spectrum of styles and effectiveness. One of America’s most venerable orchestras, the Boston Symphony, uses Twitter largely to promote ticket sales. Its Tweets exclaim the urgency of its concerts: “Keith Lockhart conducts the Boston Pops, followed by sixty minutes of Chris Botti Live in Concert!” “Limited tix available for James Taylor & Friends at Tanglewood on 8/27@8PM and 8/28@7PM! Call 888-266-1200 or visit!” It comes as no surprise that the BSO’s Tweets have only 30 followers.

By contrast, the Metropolitan Opera has 3227 followers. It also gets excited about ticket availability – “Single tickets to the 09-10 season are now on sale!” – but it occasionally adds news that is less self-interested and more informative for its core audience. Last week it Tweeted, “Mourning the loss of the great soprano Hildegard Behrens.” One of the hippest chamber ensembles in classical music, eighth blackbird, has an entirely different tone on Twitter. They write about their tours, including endearing posts like “Hanover, NH, aka home of Dartmouth, is bloody gorgeous, and the accents are both unintelligible and wonderful.”

Interestingly, it’s a bookstore – Pasadena, California’s, legendary Vroman’s – whose Tweets communicate striking success in engaging its community. Its Twitter voice is personal rather than corporate: “How excited am I about Maile Meloy’s reading tonight? Very excited. You should come!” And although it promotes in-store events, it also carries on a dialogue with readers. Wrote one: “I love Gass. My favorite story in the collection is Icicles.” It’s full of tips for booklovers, like a link to the newly redesigned book site “The Millions.” And a recent Cupcake Bake-off drew a lot of back-and-forth on Twitter that makes the bookstore sound like a meeting place for a lot of fun people.

When Twitter is the province of the marketing staff at a performing arts organization, it’s usually used to try to sell tickets. When performers Tweet about their experiences they let fans see them as people rather than in their public role. In the first case Twitter is being used as an advertising medium, and in the second it’s as a blog. Neither use reflects a strategic use of a medium that can draw together an online community with shared interests.

The medium succeeds best when there’s a conscious strategy to build a community whose members – inside and outside the organization – want to interact with one another. For Jewish nonprofits the same lessons apply. Don’t Tweet just because everyone says you should; develop a strategy first. Don’t let self-interested advertising dominate your Tweets. Define your target audience and invite them into your community the same way you make new friends: by caring about their interests and needs, and helping like-minded people meet one another. Listen to them and talk personally to them. Otherwise Twitter is just 140-word spam.

Bob Goldfarb, a Harvard MBA, is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. A regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, Bob lives in Jerusalem.