3 min Read
September 16, 2010

Four Flavors of Online

My colleague Farra Trompeter has a term for static websites with little/no interactivity: brochureware.

I admit it: the first websites that Big Duck built for nonprofits in the 1990s were definitely brochureware. After all, Al Gore had just invented the internet, Jeff Bezos was busy figuring out interactivity at his fledging company Amazon, and nobody went near a computer with a credit card if they knew what was good for them… it was a different time with a different agenda.

‘Online’ is no longer synomymous with ‘your website’. Today’s internet comes in four complex flavors: earned, owned, paid and social media.

Earned: This is coverage your organization earns from others online. Back in the day, earned media was what a good publicist secured for you- and it generally meant getting on the radio, in the paper, or on TV. Earned media today may mean being featured in a blog, linked to, mentioned on a peer’s website, and more. Earned media is important online because it boosts your organization’s credibility to be recognized by a respectable third party (let’s hope they’re respectable!), and good links and references can dramatically improve your search engine rankings.

Owned: This is the stuff your organization builds- chiefly your website and any microsites, vanity sites or community sites you’ve developed. Most people turn to the web first when they need up-to-date, relevant information and expect your organization to be ready to deliver it when they visit you. (Yes, that means it’s bad to refer to last July’s gala as an ‘upcoming event’ on your homepage.)

Paid: This basically means advertising. Some organizations pay for ads online as part of social marketing campaigns (for instance, an ad encouraging drivers to wear seatbelts on a car sales website, or promoting condom use on a dating website). Many organizations are finding that social networks like Facebook allow you to target your ads to very specific types of people. Some are experimenting with Facebook and other social network ads as a way to recruit people into programs (‘become a teacher!’), take action (‘stop corporate polluters!’) and even solicit gifts. For most organizations, advertising online is a much easier way to target specific audiences cost-effectively, but is often still overlooked as a line-item in the communications budget.

Social: Some people are still questioning the value of social media (please let me know who they are so I can chat with them, ok?). Whether you value it or not, it’s hard to argue that social networks, blogs, Twitter, and other social platforms have transformed the way most people now communicate. For most nonprofits, using social media well means being clear how it will impact your organization’s relationships. Are you building the love with your donors, activists, peers or potential staff in that Facebook group or Twitter stream? What offline actions are you hoping will emerge from your efforts?
Whether you love or hate the highly interactive, fast-changing state of the web today, you’ve got to agree that the old approach is no longer likely to work. With that in mind, perhaps it’s time to reconsider how you budget and staff for it?

Take a look at the big organizations. They’ve got entire online departments with dedicated staff for social media channels, blog editors, and more. While that may be rare, it’s worth noting as a sign of the future. Perhaps it’s time your organization correlate its online communications with the staff who are responsible for all that great, important communicating?

Keep me posted here! I want to know what’s working, in particular, for smaller and mid-size organizations.