Bright Idea: Make Friends and Influence People on the 'Social Web'

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logos for various social media programs like twitter, RSS, Myspace

Social networking—a term that encompasses websites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Friendster and LinkedIn—is all the rage, and youth-serving organizations have jumped on the bandwagon.

"Social networks are a free and simple way to connect to whatever audience you are trying to target," says Lashawnda Carter, outreach coordinator for the National Runaway Switchboard, or NRS, the FYSB-funded national hotline, in Chicago.

NRS reaches out to youth, youth-serving organizations and advocates of youth on MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter and is looking into using Friendster, Bebo, Blogger, and Think MTV.

Although social networks have been seen as youthful territory—making them a great medium for reaching teens and young adults—more and more people in their 30s, 40s and 50s are using the sites, particularly Facebook. That change in demographics has made social networking sites more attractive to nonprofits looking to raise money and boost awareness of their causes.

"Different social networks tend to have different audiences," Carter says. "However, some of the same audiences do overlap. We may have supporters on Facebook and MySpace who may not be on Twitter and vice versa."

Carter has the following tips for youth-serving agencies that want to use social networks:

Learn the rules. When you register for a site, find out what you can and can't do. For instance, Facebook doesn't allow users to create individual profiles to promote organizations or causes. "We found this out the hard way," Carter says. "We created a profile and reached more than 200 youth as friends, and Facebook administrators disabled it." Now, NRS has a fan profile, a cause page, and a group page. 

Be strategic about the sites you join."You don't have to tap into every network," Carter says. "Just pick one that fits the goal you are trying to accomplish."

Make a commitment."Be consistent and visible on each site," she says. "Make sure to keep an active account and to post bulletins, notes, and comments at least three times a week. Search for new people to 'friend' or 'tweet' with. This will help build up your presence on these sites."

Create internal policies for dealing with messages you get on the sites. NRS decided not to handle crisis requests via its social networking pages. When youth or their family members ask for help on Facebook or MySpace, NRS volunteers and staff tell them to call the 1-800-RUNAWAY hotline or visit the group's website.

The National Runaway Switchboard's social networking strategy:

www.myspace.com/1800RUNAWAY 
Primarily used to reach out to youth, as well as youth-serving organizations and those who advocate for youth.

www.facebook.com/home.php#/ pages/ Chicago-IL/1-800-RUNAWAY/ 9962751186 
Primarily used to enlist adult supporters, volunteers, and donors as well as to share news and raise money.

www.twitter.com/1800RUNAWAY 
Primarily used to raise awareness and share news.

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