Social Media Career Crawl

This past Thursday I had the opportunity to attend a “Social Media Career Crawl,” put on by the wonderful people at the University of Michigan Career Center.  The event, which allowed small groups of students to interact with multiple social media professionals in a “speed networking event,” included Hillary Frazier, Social Media Director for the University of Michigan, Jordan Maleh, the Digital Marketing Director for the University of Michigan Athletic Department, Mike Brownfield, Social Media Director for Governor Rick Snyder, and Graham Davis, New Media Director, Truscott Rossman (and formerly Social Media Director for Jennifer Granholm).

Selfishly, I was very happy to see and receive the advice from so many social media and communications experts working directly in politics. Given the fact that not only am I a political junky, but also hoping to follow a similar career path, the ability to talk to guys like Graham Davis and Mike Brownfield was an invaluable experience.

To summarize, here a few points I took away from my conversations:

Education: A lot of students, when asking about the background required for a career in social media, were very curious about the possibility or necessity of pursuing a graduate degree or program. The resounding response from the experts? No. Every single one stated that direct work experiences,or a portfolio of previous digital communications, trumped a graduate degree every time. However, while this is certainly true, it actually came up that the University of Michigan is falling behind in teaching courses (save for this one) and providing an undergraduate concentration in digital media. Michigan State University already has a degree in new and social media, and most professionals praised that as a good move.

Email isn’t dead: Jordan Maleh spoke a lot about how Facebook and Twitter are only a small portion of his job. Given that his focus is to use digital media to sell tickets, he said he focuses his time on email. I asked him if he thought email was dead, or losing its efficacy. Given my absolutely nerdy obsession with email marketing, I was ecstatic to hear that he thought email was alive and well. He talked about how you can ignore a facebook status or a tweet, or even worse not even be aware of them at all, but with email you are at least forced to check and skim the message. He also talked about how once you are on an email list most subscribers will not bother unsubscribing, making it a great medium to direct your organizations message.

Future of social media professionals: The other point most echoed by all the professionals was that above all else, those trying to make their way in social media career need to be able to write and write well. They need to be language and communications experts. A lot of students, including myself, asked whether we were falling behind not knowing how to code or use computer design programs. While they all agreed those are incredibly marketable skills, they reaffirmed that the biggest job of a social media director is to craft language that is both engaging and effective.

I was also glad to see that many of their points were the exact same we are learning in class. Overall, it was a fantastic experience that I am so happy I was able to attend.

Michigan Talent Agenda Website Launch

Incredibly exciting news here. After weeks of work, this past Friday, it was decided that the Michigan Talent Agenda website was finally ready for launch. Over the next few months, there will still definitely be edits and changes to make, as well as consistent updates, but I am so happy to see this project become a concrete reality. In a slightly embarrassing, but honest, confession, I have occasionally just been searching the URL on Google and then clicking on the site just to confirm that its real.

So what have I learned after this entire process? What very insightful words of wisdom do I have to offer now that I have contributed to the dynamic landscape of cyberspace? In the end, probably not a lot that hasn’t already been whispered, said, or yelled by web designers, but either way here it is. My list of lessons learned after publishing my first website:

1: Design for users

Throughout the semester, I feel like there is one, unbreakable, cardinal rule of web communications I have learned: design for your users. This is a corollary to the other very important rule of “know your audience.” Before reaching the final product, everyone involved in the project each had their vision and ideas for how the website should be structured. However, after going through different drafts, we had to keep on revising and editing, much like a paper, to make the site more easily readable for our audience. We thought a lot about what their behavior would be interacting with the site? Where would they want to go first? How can we direct them towards the information we want them to see most?

2: Copy is just as an important as pixels

A great quote I found while looking for web design help: “It’s time we designers stop thinking of ourselves as merely pixel people, and start thinking of ourselves as the creators of experiences. And when it comes to experience on the web, there’s no better way to create it than to write, and write well.” Derek Powazek. This quote is incredibly accurate. Every slideshow, drop-down menu, or nav-bar isn’t worth anything if the written words on the site aren’t engaging.

3. Simplicity

My last and final lesson in designing the site is: when in doubt keep it simple. Not only does simplicity make information more easily accessed for the user, but especially for a novice web designer like myself, it is important not try to do too much. It is always better to keep things simple, than risk any user finding the site confusing. This is especially true when considering “donate now” campaigns, or “get involved” pages. If any of these tasks prove to be too difficult for a user to preform, then the site is actively turning away supporters.

Make sure to check out www.mitalentagenda.com and let me know what you think!

The DoGooder Video Awards

Last night, in the midst of procrastinating on Facebook, I happened to  stumble upon “The DoGooder Awards,” a video competition for non-profits of all shapes and sizes that gives recognition to some of the best video storytelling in the non-profit industry. The winners from each category not only get featured on the Youtube’s highly viewed spotlight channel, but also receive $3,500 in prizes from Cisco, and free registration to the 2014 Non-Profit Technology Conference.

First off, before getting into any of the videos, I wanted to say how awesome it was just to see quality, artistic, and moving video storytelling in non-profits not only being encouraged, but actually rewarded with prizes in the “DoGooder Awards.”

I wanted to spotlight two of my favorite videos. First is “African Men, Hollywood Stereotypes.”

This video does an amazing job of not only addressing the problem the non-profit, Mama Hope, works for, but also humanizing and creating an emotional connection with the protagonists. The dialogue between the men is simple, but through their genuine sincerity, personable demeanor, and humor, you actively listen and engage to their message.

The second video, which I think does an absolutely spectacular job, is “Follow the Frog,” from the Rainforest Alliance.

The video, much like the one from MamaHope, not only uses humor as a way of calling attention to a serious issue, but what is most impressive is how they make it seem so solvable and tangible. By playing on the idea of becoming overly involved in a cause, or possibly desensitized to non-profit content, Rainforest Alliance shows use how we can continue on with our daily lives and still work to fight against the destruction of the rainforest.

So make sure to check out the links and let me know what you think! Also take a look at the finalist for other awards as well.

Can Data Become A Story? A Blogging Review.

It’s easy to tell the story, when the story is easy to tell. When its funny, dramatic, or exotic.

But what if, by all accounts, your story isn’t that interesting? What if its filled with data and numbers?

You see the sector that my non-profit is in isn’t usually considered that exciting. Economic development and growth, the knowledge-based economy, and state investment in higher education are all “jargony” phrases and terms that tend to push more people away than draw in.

Thats why when looking at “The World’s best Non-Profit Blogs,” I got a little jealous. You see, to sounds completely vindictive here, I think blogs like “With My Own Eyes“actually have an easier story to tell. When your cause naturally lends itself to emotional appeal, or trips abroad to poverty stricken or war torn areas, or the general ease of great human suffering, your blog will naturally attract interest (this might be a bit of an oversimplification).

But again, what if your story isn’t that? If its filled with economic data or a considerably less heated political agenda? How can we make data the story?

Here I wanted to look at two different blogs, both from non-profits in the Michigan economic development sectors, and review their successes and failures from a communicative standpoint.

First, Michigan Future Inc.

Michigan Future Inc is a non-partisan think tank based out of Ann Arbor and led by prominent Michigan economic scholar Lou Glazer. More than anyone else in the past two decades, Glazer has been the person writing and pushing for Michigan to transition to a knowledge-based economy. When it comes to this issue area and expertise, Glazer is the preeminent star.

His blog is filled with some of the best data and research on how Michigan can attract and retain talent, grow businesses, and return to prosperity. However, you wouldn’t exactly know it by looking at it.

Glazer does follow some of the rules talked about by Mansfield (mostly by using current news to create content), but his blog lacks aesthetic appeal or efficient organization. The blog is incredibly text heavy, with almost no pictures to be found and the text is often formatted different ways and not in a consistent manner. Given how long some of the blog entries are, it would also be beneficial to give a teaser paragraph and then link with a “continue reading” button. It might also be beneficial to have a navigation bar that would allow users to filter blog entries by topic or interest. One thing that he does well however, is post often, which despite its lack of aesthetic and web appeal, drives users to the site.

However, all hope is not lost. Just because the non-profit works in economic policy doesn’t mean it’s blog has to visually or organizationally unappealing. Take for instance, the New Economy Initiative, a major non-profit dedicated to economic growth in SE Michigan.

Everything that was suggested for Glazer’s blog is done in NEI’s blog. They tease each blog entry with a link for further reading. There are nice, high quality pictures of the author for each blog entry. They have also, on the right sidebar, archived all their blog entries by topic so that a user seeking specific information can find it more directly.

While NEI’s blog wouldn’t make the list of the world’s best non-profit blogs, nor does it manage to make economic development as exciting as adventures in foreign countries, its visual appeals and efficient organization does make it a blog to model after.

Website Review: Michigan Community Resources

For the past week or so I have been working on designing and building a website for Inspire Michigan, the non-profit I am working with this semester. The experience has, without a doubt, been incredibly humbling.

I generally consider myself a pretty savvy aficionado and consumer of social media and communication, but when it came time to actually construct and build a working website for my organization, the task proved to be pretty difficult. My biggest frustration is that despite an overarching vision for how I would like the website to look and feel like, migrating through the myriad of technical difficulties and having my ideas actually manifest themselves on the web is very challenging.

Believe me, after this experience, I have incredible respect for those people actually in the trenches designing website. However, to give myself a little reprieve, I am going to do something a little bit easier for this blog entry and instead just a critique a website.

I have decided to critique something close to home, the website for my brother’s non-profit, Michigan Community Resources.

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Michigan Community Resources started as a non-profit called Community Legal Resources that gave free legal resources and consulting to other non-profits and low-income residents. It since has expanded to provide numerous services related to community engagement, urban planning, and community organizing.

Despite the good work they do, their website needs some work.

First thing’s first, the organization needs to address the URL issue. The URL right now is clronline.org, which is reflective of the old name. Not only have they not updated to show the new name, but for those visitors who are unaware of the organization’s background and history, the URL makes little sense.

After finding your way to the landing page, there is a nice link to a video that explains the name change, but as you scroll down, the page is loaded with confusing PDF attachments that do not relate or pertain to a passing by visitor. The page has a lot of text, with only one image, and it seems exhausting and stressful to mine for the information that I need, even something as simple as what Michigan Community Resources does.

As you continue exploring through the website, the navigation proves to be incredibly difficult with far too many options on any given page. There may or many not be a purpose to these links, pages, and PDF’s, but even if there is there should be a filtering or layering effect to allow users to find exactly what they need.

The site also has problems with text overlapping onto images. Obviously, depending if an organization is using a CMS or is coding from scratch this can be more or less difficult, but it is still something that needs to be fixed.

Perhaps my biggest critique of the website is its lack of a comprehensive “Donate Now” campaign. Not only is there not a donate button that is easily found on every page of the site, but the “make a contribution” page is incredibly complicated and requires downloading a form. This, along with the lack of a succinct about page and mission statement, turns away many potential donors. I would guess that they receive little to no donations from the web.

Inspire Michigan

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This semester I will be working with a non-profit called Inspire Michigan, an organization founded by Ned Staebler, an Ann Arbor resident and the current Vice President of Economic Development for Wayne State University. Inspire Michigan “is a political group created in response to the struggles we face in Michigan,” and works to seek, support, and train candidates that endorse a platform of investment in the state’s natural and economic resources. Inspire Michigan started so that political will could be attached to the goal of preparing Michigan to be a competitive force in the new global economy.

Inspire Michigan certainly has noble and lofty goals and communicating that message concisely and clearly over the web will be very difficult, but its a challenge I am incredibly excited to tackle. While I believe greatly in Inspire Michigan’s mission and message, there are a few obstacles ahead to improving its web presence and development.

My first and foremost objective is the website. Currently, Inspire Michigan is attached to Mr. Staebler’s personal website, and does not have an organizational website for itself. However, addressing this issue is not as easy as it sounds, as the URL  “InspireMichigan.com” is already taken. Once the URL issue is taken care of, my largest goal for the semester is to completely remake the Inspire Michigan webpage, developing a comprehensive site with an emphasis on aesthetic simplicity, easy navigation, and a strong development strategy.

Aesthetically, Inspire Michigan already has a logo (pictured above), but I want to expand on that and integrate it into every medium of communication. As Mansfield discusses, the logo and “look” of a non-profit should be consistent and continuous on every page on the web in order to act as a “brand.” As far as navigation, currently a few of the tabs do not lead to any information, sub-page, or even outside links. There is currently not a great venue or forum for updating on new events and updates, and a very limited connection to Inspire Michigan’s social media. These are the navigational issues I hope to improve. Given that Inspire Michigan, while a political group, is a non-profit, a well thought out and planned “Donate Now” campaign is also essential to its web development.

While these objectives are incredibly specific, per Drucker, I certainly haven’t left out my long-term planning and vision. My goals are to find who exactly is Inspire Michigan’s main audience and demographic, prepare Inspire Michigan’s communications for the 2014 campaigns, and make it a prominent and influential group for all future election cycles. Certainly these are most likely overly ambitious goals for a semester long internship, but I’ve never been afraid of hard work and there is nothing wrong with aiming high.

Communicating Community

I have to admit, I was pretty pleased with myself after reading the first chapter of Heather Mansfield’s book, “Social Media For Social Good: A How-To Guide for Non-Profits.” You see, last year, without any knowledge of the work it would take or the skills required, I started an e-newsletter for my fraternity. We had never had one before, and in an effort to reconnect with alumni and increase fundraising efforts, I volunteered to take on the endeavor. It seems that with only blind luck, my fraternity has been able hit most of the marks. Our layout is simple, yet appealing, we send out about one a month, and we have links to our social media. We use a reputable e-mail marketing service, MailChimp, and have an above-average open rate of 33%-35%.

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Of course, our e-newsletter still needs a lot of work and improvement, namely in relying less on text and more on image and video and increasing list size and diversity. In fact, one of the things I appreciated most about Mansfield’s book is the practical and straightforward way it addresses the issues of developing web presence. Instead of esoteric and philosophical ruminations on web-based development strategies for non-profits, she offers a step by step guide with concrete examples and advice.

However, despite this, neither Mansfield’s advice, nor the work of the most experienced social media director, can fix or make up for the structural organizational issues that both Drucker and McLaughin discuss.

Drucker teaches us that non-profits of every size and shape require a core message and mission, a long-term goal to be achieved. Every strategic decision, including those about communications and branding, must refer back to and be implemented with the core service and mission of the non-profit. Without this, non-profits will wander from goal to goal, without any notion of long-term building and success.Even the best communications strategy can overcome this. Communications requires content and substance to be communicated about, and this is best utilized when it is integrated with the larger, more long-term goal itself.

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Furthermore, as McLaughlin discusses, while well designed “donate now” buttons and well constructed appeals are necessary for development, relationships and networks are the most fundamental factors in fundraising. Donors give because they are part of a community, and social media professionals must work to build and grow that community.