Attitudinal barriers to social media success

I was on a panel at a Social Media for Social Good event recently and a question posted was: what are mistakes people make with social media? I didn't have any spectacular "misses" to relate, as Ashoka is relatively new to Social Media and progressing carefully, not trying anything too radical that would constitute a "miss". But thinking about the question I realized that the main misses from social media are not from trying things that go spectacularly wrong but from not trying things at all. The miss is missed opportunity, a squandering of the chance social media provides to speak with your supporters, partners and friends in new ways, collaborate with and involve them to an extent previously impossible.

This echos what was discussed towards the end of the last #4change chat, that most non-profits are not there yet when it comes to social media, a number of barriers from the attitudional to capacity to connectivity standing in the way. I've been thinking more about these issues and want to outline further some of the attitudional barriers that were mentioned. I think it's these attitudinal, or cultural, barriers which are the most interesting. Resource scarcity and skills shortages are always a challenge for non-profits but, ultimately, are simply a matter of prioritization. Connectivity is obviously essential and very unevenly provided across the globe and, once these other elements are in place a coherent strategy is fundamental to your success. But even with everything else lined up unless your organization has a culture which supports social media it will much less effective at it than hoped for.

Several of these attitudinal barriers were mentioned during the #4Change chat: Fear, passivity and a desire for control.


of the unknown, of not doing it right, of missing the mark. Non-profits spend a lot of time worrying about their public perception, and often caring deeply about a wealthier and, often, more conservative cohort (those able to donate substantively to charity and social change) than the population at large. A fear with offending this group can cramp an organization's style online. You must obviously but mindful of public perception, and be deeply attuned to your brand and values, but social media does requires strategic fearlessness. You'll make mistakes, you'll misspell and misspeak occasionally, but learn from these mistakes and get better at social media through practice, it's the only way.


Passivity is never a recipe for success. While it is possible to automate much of your social media, updating your Twitter feed and Facebook page via RSS when a press release or blog post is uploaded, people can tell when you're not really present on these platforms and will be much less likely to engage with you. If you're going to make social media a meaningful part of your outreach strategy you need to give it the time and human resources to succeed. You see this repeatedly in Facebook - seemingly every organization in the Western world has a Facebook group but most are clearly never checked, with questions and offers of help unanswered on their wall, projecting the opposite of what you'd want: disinterest. There's nothing magic about having a Facebook group, the not-so-secret sauce is in actually using it as a space to share information and engage with people. In other words: being proactive. This is equally true for Twitter, MySpace and other social media platforms.

A desire for control:

Social Media allows your supports and staff to be more effective advocates for you, and nothing is more effective than people talking in their own words about something they care passionately about. But allowing people to talk in their own words risks your marketing becoming diluted, your finely-crafted messaging forgotten. This can't be helped but can be mitigated by actively engaging with your supporters and providing them with the tools to better promote you. But if you aren't comfortable with misspelt words and colloquialisms you're going to find social media, and the real, human, non-pr language that comes with it, very difficult. If you're running every draft tweet past senior executives for approval you're not going to get anywhere.

You can see an example of this with copyright. Does your organization use Creative Commons licenses for your online media? If not, how can you expect people to help you share your content and your message?

As Clay Shirky said in his recent TED talk (which I was lucky enough to be present for): social media is about convening your supporters, not controlling them.

Attitudinal factors are only one of the barriers between non-profits and social media success, but they're an often-overlooked one I believe, less obvious than resourcing issues or inadequate internal processes. I'd love to hear of any others you might have encountered. Being cognizant of these barriers allows us to more effectively lead our organizations through them, creating not only successful social media outreach strategies but more transparent, responsive and adaptive organizations in the process.