I had an interesting discussion yesterday with some colleagues about the relative merits of Facebook groups as a component of a campaign. We'd all worked for clients who expected to Group to be generated for their campaign, yet I suspect each of our clients would have struggled to articulate why this was a good thing.
As strategists it is always worth asking ourselves the question "What is the worth of this?" when considering any activity. A clear strategic goal should sit at the core of all your activity, and all roads should lead there. If it is determined at the outset that a Facebook (or any other type of social networking) serves that goal it should be pursued with full vigour. However, if it is being done in order to use a shiny new tool for no reason other than the joy of doing it, then it should not be done.
I've worked repeatedly with local activists who maintain Facebook groups and have seen some fantastic activity generated by them. I've also been asked to create them myself and generate activity though them. As a political professional I think there needs to be a clear dividing line, one that shouldnt be crossed. My role, in my own eyes, is to help motivated local activists do things better, not replace activists in the equation. A group with my name as the founder is no way near as useful as with John Smith's name.
Really, what I'm addressing hereis a wider failure to understand the importance on a strategic underpinning to all activity. Its a human failing, one I'm occasionally guity of, that we get distracted by the new and interesting above and beyond what is effective.
It's also easy to assume that because something worked well in one scenario it'll work in all similar scenario's. Again Facebook groups provide us with a good point of reference to this. Groups work well in many grassroots campaigns, so they are often used, but small differences can utterly wreck their utility. What if the people who you want to influence arent regular internet users? What if the person running the group isnt motivated or credible?
I'm a huge advocate of social media, but I will strongly urge any client to consider why they want to use it. The effort to create a large group will increase enormously if there is not a useful constituency in existance. I often scout around online and see if there are groups already either for or against the particular cause I'm interested in. Even if there's only a group working against you, it indicates that there is a debate, which implies a constituency of supporters.
At its heart social media is no more or less useful then a 1950's style leaflet through the door, its simply a new medium of communication. A faster and more interactive one to be sure, but not fundamentally better.
The power is in the way it is used, if used correctly social media can affect substantial change. It can form a hub around which all other activity can be arranged.
Or it can be a few hundred people who join up and never look at the issue again.
Be strategic, don't assume the internet is better, learn when it is better and use it to its full potential.