In 1995, when I was working for a fledging web design provider, a colleague named Peter Lees was frustrated. Clients often asked for solutions they’d seen work for others rather than describing their problems clearly. He came up with a metaphor that has stuck with me ever since: “They keep describing the shovel,” he said, “and what they really need to do is tell me what hole they want me to dig.”

Social media is no different. Clients think they need Facebook or Twitter for every project because that’s the “cool” thing to do right now.

In fact, sometimes you not only need a different social network. Sometimes you need to be approaching the issue in a different way entirely.

My favourite example of this is the capital city council that was conducting a large scale environmental project aimed at changing the behaviour of key companies that owned the majority of the buildings in the city. “We need a web site, and Facebook and Twitter!” they said.

Research showed the men running those businesses didn’t get their information from the Internet. Half of them didn’t use email in a serious way, even though it was 2010. The investment in creating and resourcing those social media services would have been wasteful.

To really engage your audience, you need to approach the task with more deliberation.

Know your audience

If you start with research, you’ll discover what your audience wants from you, who they are, how they use the Internet and the social spaces they move in and more importantly, whether they want to engage with you there.

You may find that although the majority of your users are indeed on Facebook and expect to see you there, they may find your posting frequency intrusive and that they’d prefer to talk to you via a live chat function on your site. Or you may find that a much larger group than you expected are using Pinterest and want to know why you’re not there yet.

There’s a large amount of existing research available from organisations like the ABS and AIMIA about the general usage of the Internet in the Australian population. To dig deeper, you’ll need to conduct surveys or focus groups with targeted audience members.

In addition to polling existing members/followers, you should also reach out to potential users who aren’t yet involved with you. In other words, people who match the demographic you are targeting but for some reason haven’t taken that extra step. Ask them what is stopping them being a member/follower: is it that they didn’t know about you? Don’t care about the problem your organisation solves? Are already a member/customer with a competitor?

These sound like obvious questions when dealing with a purchase decision but the same applies to social media involvement, which is in effect part of the pre-purchase/pre-donation decision making process. 54% of people are more likely or much more likely to buy a brand when they already like the brand on Facebook.

Stakeholder analysis

The next step is to take the information you have gathered through your research and structure it. One way to do this is a stakeholder analysis. My favourite version of this is to take a shape like a bullseye target and pin different stakeholders at different points on the board. At the centre is the project team, followed by internal stakeholders, external stakeholders and finally society at large.

Into each ring, draw or pin the different stakeholder groups. Who is closest to the project? Which groups in general society are affected? Who is most influential? Who is most passionate? Are they the same people?

You can make this very visual by using different coloured pens. For stakeholders who will be affected negatively by the project, draw a jagged angry shape in red. If it’s a big group, make the shape bigger. For a small group of stakeholders who will be onside, draw a small smiley green shape.

Engage, captain!

What do you want these people to do? It’s all very well to say that you want them to follow you on social media, but why?

Common actions you might want from your audience include:

  • Discussion
  • Participation
  • Contribution
  • Sharing
  • Understanding
  • Approval
  • Donation
  • Submission
  • Signature
  • Vote
  • Action
  • Purchase
  • Labour on your behalf

A framework for understanding how these engagement levels operate is the IAP2 spectrum.

The IAP2 is an international organisation for public participation. The spectrum ranges from very low public engagement to very high, in five stages:

  • inform
  • consult
  • involve
  • collaborate
  • empower

Each level has a promise to your public about how you will treat them and who will make the decisions in the end. Each level also has recommended tools that go with it. The resource used by the IAP2 generally talks about offline models of engagement, with a tip of the hat to “web sites” as a way to inform.

For our purposes, let’s ignore the suggested tools and consider the process: once you know that you are talking with 14- 25 year-old girls and that you want to collaborate with them, you know that a Facebook page, which is essentially informing and consulting, is not the way to go. You’ll still need Facebook to TELL this audience about your awesome collaborative project and it might even be that the collaboration is an app that you embed in an iframe right there on Facebook itself.

Chances are though, you’re now talking about Instagram or a shared Pinterest board if you want to build a photo collage or UserVoice if you want to create a space to brainstorm or a Wiki if you want to create a place for collectively edited storytelling.

I’ll be adding a resource soon that maps out the tools I know of and which part of the spectrum I believe they fit in, as a handy reference for matching tools to projects.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: what tools have you used to collaborate with and empower your audience? What was your experience?