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Beacon blog: The non-secret to social media

A crazy thing happened last week. A friend of mine, chief executive of Nurses for Newborns Foundation, posted a Facebook status noting that their diaper reserves had been reduced to zero. For those who are not familiar with Facebook, the "Status" is a line of text at the top of your profile that some update more than others and people use to convey everything from the weather to how they are feeling to true confessions. When you log in to Facebook, the home page displays status updates and other postings from your circle of friends in chronological order.

Early intervention, specifically programs that help babies, being a pet cause of mine, I put out the call to my network. A few people immediately responded that they would be dropping off diapers. It seems like a small thing, but a newborn can go through 75 diapers in a week and many of the families NFNF serves have to decide between diapers and food, diapers and bus fare to get to work, etc. A crying baby is something that can cause a level of stress and strain only understood if you've experienced it. Among its many services, NFNF provides diapers to families to help with that most basic need - to keep a baby clean and comfortable.

I felt that if I explained the above, I could get some of my friends to help out who wouldn't otherwise think about how far something so simple can go. So I took about five minutes and set up a Facebook event for a "Virtual Diaper Drive," and invited all my friends from the region to take part. Soon a few of them messaged or posted to say they were setting up drives of their own and a few reposted to their group of friends. NFNF posted the event to its Facebook page, and people who were connected to them started to repost.

By the end of the first day (Tuesday, Aug. 31) Hartford Coffee Co. stepped up as a drop off point (with a $1 off incentive even!) and shared the drive with its network. After only 24 hours, NFNF counted 5,000 diapers through their office doors. Thursday afternoon the count hit 10,000. By Friday afternoon, 15,300. KMOX 1120 aired a story Sunday morning, and Sunday night, Fox 2 and KPLR 11 aired a story on every news broadcast. Final count as of last night 22,734 diapers.

When people start talking social media strategy, I am quick to remind that social networking did not start with the advent of MySpace, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. A chain letter is social media. Quilt circles. Amish friendship bread. It all comes down to very basic offline behavior: We choose our network, we listen to our network, we rely on our network, we trust our network - and even then, if the message isn't relevant, useful or impactful in some way (even if it's a good laugh or the gnashing of teeth) it's not going to resonate with the network, no matter how strong the ties.

Last week happened partially because of a perfect storm (I saw my colleagues post, I had time to post an event, the right number of people saw it and shared it, it was a slow news weekend, all of the people and organizations involved have established networks, etc.), but mostly because I knew someone I trusted, that person had a selfless and important need, the need was digestible and tangible and we communicated it well, and it resonated with enough people in all our networks to catch fire.

Everyone's clamoring to use social media because it's cheap, fast and easy. But when you really look at what you're trying to accomplish, you may find that it's none of the above. You may find that it's completely inappropriate for your message; but if you look harder, you may see that it can support your message in other ways.

So the secret to social media, in my opinion, is to go back to basics. Forget all the technical bells and whistles and apps and ask the basic questions: Does this matter? To whom does it matter and why? What is the best way to get the information to the people who want/need it?

The phase of development we're entering at the Beacon is centered around building those questions into the fabric of the way we do business. Internally and verbally, we ask those questions daily, but having the infrastructure to support them and incorporate the answers in a truly meaningful was is another proposition. There's a place between automated technology (word clouds) and technology supported editorial; and it's our goal, with your help, to find it.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.