April 24, 2015

How to Understand and Use Digital Channels

Gadi Ben-Yehuda • Guest Blogger

Whatever language appears on a business card, whatever alphabet it used – from Mandarin, to Hebrew, to Amharic or Cyrillic – one character will stand out as identifiable across linguistic barriers.  The “@” sign in the middle of an email address or at the beginning of a Twitter handle.

This is the power of digital communications: they span the globe, they allow not only for one-to-many outbound communications, but many-to-one inbound communications.  They enhance the workings of every aspect of an organization: business development, communications, project management, product research, human resources, and more.

But too often, organizations over-rely on the few digital channels that they know best, or that they have worked with for the longest.   Using email, for example, when an internal microblog or bulletin board might be more effective.  Or turning to social media sites that are geared toward text—like Facebook and Twitter—when a more visual or audio/visual site like Instagram, Pinterest, or YouTube might engage their audience more directly.

In a way, “digital” in the 2010s is like television in 1980s: new channels are coming online all the time and people are switching from one channel to another with an ease unparalleled in the history of the medium.  In the parlance of television, the Big Three—ABC, CBS, NBC—lost their primacy in the 1980s, though they are still relevant, even today.  For digital, the Big Three channels were websites, emails, and blogs, and though they are still important, they are joined by upstarts like microblogs, social networks, and mobile apps.  Though people might go to an organization’s website to learn about it or to see a staff roster, they may also visit Wikipedia, look at its Twitter feed, and see what conversations it has started on Facebook.

For organizations that are looking to diversify their mix of digital channels, determining the right blend requires balancing competing priorities and carefully assessing how much time and money an organization wants to devote to any specific channel.  Social media, for example, is often thought of as free.  But PR people often joke that social media “is free like puppies, not free like beer.”  The meaning is clear: yes, the Facebook page itself might be free (like a puppy), but it still requires a lot of attention, and perhaps even some cash, if it is to grow and eventually benefit its owner.

Over the next few weeks, this blog series will take an in-depth look at the digital channels organizations have at their disposal, the tasks for which they are particularly well-suited, the resources organizations will need to devote to them if they are to flourish, and how they work in tandem with other channels.

A few of the digital channels we will investigate are:

Websites: These are often the best single-points of contact that organizations can use to communicate to the broadest possible audience.  Organizations can control all of the content that appears on their own sites, making them exemplary platforms for branding.  At the same time, people have come to see websites as incomplete – they tell only the organization’s side of the story, and while they may look to websites for specific information – staff listings, email or physical addresses, policy papers or other documents—many people expect to learn about and interact with an organization through other channels as well.

Email/Listservs: Email is hardly new, and fairly often, some media expert is foretelling of its imminent demise.  Listservs, or group emails, have also been around for more than two decades, but in many ways the “email newsletter” is the best means by which organizations can stay in touch with their members and advocates.

Blogs: Frequently incorporated into an organization’s website, a blog often acts as a “first draft” for content.  Requiring less polish and offering users an opportunity to add their own voices to a discussion, blogs can be an excellent channel through which to start conversations and inform readers in a low-stakes environment.

Facebook: The numbers on Facebook deny easy comprehension: more than a billion active users engaging in conversations across the globe from nearly every country.  There is scarcely any organization that does not have a presence on Facebook, and for good reason: whatever your audience, they are probably using this site.

Twitter: Though not as large as Facebook (not even close), Twitter is as indispensable for most organizations.  Taste-makers and influencers on every topic share their ideas, and amplify the voices of others, through this medium.

Instagram/Pinterest: These sites are not as mass-market as Twitter or Facebook, but for organizations that use pictures to tell their stories, or for those who want to get in front of the audiences that these sites attract (married women for Pinterest, younger people, skewing female for Instagram), Pinterest and Instagram are irreplaceable.

YouTube: There are a lot of sites that can host videos, but no other has the reach or the user-base of YouTube.  Further, the site can be used for more than simply hosting an organization’ s videos.   Owned by Google, the site offers ad placements tailored to organization’s criteria with robust analytics and audiences.

Reddit / Community Boards: Bulletin boards, like email, are not new.  In analog formats, they date back centuries.  They still have a place in organization’s communications plans.  They allow for a free-flow of ideas, encouraging engaged and knowledgeable readers to join in conversations.  Excellent tools for listening to directed conversations.

Mobile Apps: Not every organization needs a mobile app, but they can be irreplaceable platforms when implemented correctly.  Through an app, organizations can solicit donations, provide immersive experiences, collect user data, and more.

Combining these digital channels, organizations can achieve greater meaningful engagement with their audiences, whether internal to the organization or external, and enhancing many areas of operation. In our next post, we’ll begin a series of deep-dives by looking at websites.

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