How to Start a Local Support System Using Social Media

The Real World Change 2.0 series with Leslie Poston is an ongoing look at how people are using social media tools and their personal and professional social media networks to bridge the chasm from the Internet and social media bubble to the real world and do a variety of things to effect true change.

The biggest hurdle in the quest for real world change using social media is finding ways to take the challenge into the real world. Many of us know how to connect on Twitter, Ning, Plurk, Yahoo and Google groups, forums and any of the other social media tools. It’s bridging the gap that becomes the challenge.

The first step to making real change happen in the real world using social media is a small one. To build a national real world network, you must first start by building a local one. To do this you need to tap into the power of your online network and use it to branch out. It only takes a few simple steps to make an active real world connection that starts online.

1) Nurture Your Online Network

If you only log in to Twitter once a month and use TwitterFeed or to send links and impersonal comments to it the rest of the time, you are not building a true online network, and you will never be able to bridge the gap. This is because you are not being listened to, and not listening. Be an active part of online interaction on Twitter and sites like it. Connect with people. Be willing to help out whenever possible and you will find that people are in turn willing to help you when you ask.

2) Choose a Local Cause

You can have more than one cause that benefits from your connections eventually, but first start with one. Find a cause that is local to you and easily accessible physically. This will enable you to choose how you help the cause as you build your offline network, either through money or actual time spent volunteering. Some national charities do have local branches, but it is often the smaller local charities and organizations that need more help, as they don’t get the same level of attention to the cause you find with the nationals.

3) Connect Part of Your Online Network Offline With a Meet Up

The first step to bridging the online and offline gap is making your online connections more personal by meeting them face to face. Using social media, arrange a fun, informal meet and greet of online people from your social network that you know live in your area. I often use Twitter for this, but use whatever social tool you prefer. I recently did this by starting a wine tasting group that meets once a month at my home. This is a fun way to turn online friends into real ones without having to attend one of the many business networking events that are out there. The informality breeds discussion.

4) Spread the Connection

At the meet up you arrange, make sure to encourage your online friends to bring both spouses and friends. Stress that this is not a technology work event and non-techies are encouraged to come. It may take a couple of fun meetings for this to catch on, but it is the non-techie connections that will make this local drive for social change work, so you want them involved. When you do start getting spouses, significant others and offline friends attending, do not scare them away by talking exclusively about tech! People are intimidated by words like blog, Twitter, microblogging and other lingo. This is your chance to discuss your favorite movies, what books you read, or even politics. This is where the ABT - anything but Twitter - conversational rule applies. This will help you connect more solidly, and eventually you may also get them onto your favorite social network as a bonus.

5) Introduce the Cause

After a couple of meetings you will start to see a healthy balance between your online friends and their offline network. Their offline network has now become part of your offline network - see how it builds over time? This is when you should start introducing your cause. Talk to the local network you are building about your cause, and more importantly, find out about theirs. To get help for yours, you should also offer to help theirs - this inter-connectivity is how it works. Let them know what you need, ask how you can help. Actively seek out even more offline connections by tapping into the their extended offline networks of friends and business associates for ideas and help.

6) Reciprocate

I just said this above, but I feel it needs to be mentioned twice: reciprocate. Just like social media, if there is no back and forth, if there is only take take take, your drive to help your real world cause starting with social media will fail. The “give to receive” rule definitely applies here. Everyone you will be asking to help has a cause of their own - finding out what it is, and helping them with it, will ensure your success. It doesn’t have to be time or money, either. Sometimes the biggest help you can give is the right connection. If you know of someone or something that can help them, connect them.

7) Keep It Going

Once you have started to use your connections on Twitter or other social media to create a larger offline group of people both on and off the social media grid, you have to keep feeding it. Social media is full of people who naturally have a short attention span and a need to be constantly stimulated. Plan to keep the conversation going online and constantly seek out more connections on and offline. Keep plenty of activities going and talk about them often. Publicly acknowledge the help you receive early and often. Ask for ideas, and listen to the answers. If you don’t keep your cause active, people may just wander away to the next shiny object.

The biggest thing to remember is that most people are good people at their core. They want to give back to the world, they just need a way to do it and a support network to unite them around a common goal. Social media users want to give back, non-techies want to give back and there is no reason we can’t take that first step toward melding our on and offline worlds to make that happen and benefit our actual neighborhood as well as our virtual neighborhood. All it costs you to try it out in your area is time. I think that’s worth the investment, don’t you?

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