I recently volunteered myself to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting’s Digital Volunteer Programme. According to the Ministry’s blog, the programme is aimed at creating volunteers to help spread the government’s schemes and programmes on their social networks.
While the intention is good, the programme runs a high risk of being perceived a free-publicity seeking programme and a state run network of people who will retweet anything and everything mindlessly in the name of volunteerism. In course of time, these volunteers’ tweets and updates will be seen with an amount of skepticism that is present when any brand manager, PR professional, an agency person, and a paid media outlet update or tweet about their brands or clients. In that process, the credibility of these people will be lost and the programme might end up into the bin. Finally, social media engagement will be seen as a failure and this will have its implications on the government’s overall adoption of the medium.
As a volunteer and a digital professional, I’m concerned about this. How do we ensure that this does not happen?
This is not the first time organisations are reaching out to active social media users, prosumers, efluencers, early adopters, bloggers or called them what you like. Microsoft created the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional programme to acknowledge experts who share their passion and expertise of a Microsoft product. The programme has awarded many influencers and bloggers worldwide and in India too. It is considered good to have an MVP badge adorning your blog. Intel initiated the Intel Insiders programme in 2008 through which the organisation recruited influencers to form their social media advisory board. These two organisations were clients in my previous organisations and I have been lucky to be able to look closely at these programmes.
There are three suggestions I would like to make to ensure that the programme is successful. I’m not suggesting that the team managing the programme is not doing any of these, but since the programme just started, now is the best time to give all the feedback.
- Respect the independence of volunteers: There is a certain line that comes out when I read about this programme in media stories i.e. volunteers will help assist in disseminating government initiatives and plans on the net. We need to remember that volunteers merely agreed to help spread word on matters of mass/national interest using their social networks. They may agree to the government’s initiatives or not. They may congratulate the government or even criticise it. They will add their opinions and make an interesting discussion. However, in no way, a sane volunteer will agree to become a Twitter bot to retweet whatever the @MIB_India tweets. The managers of the programme need to respect people’s independence and adhere to global guidelines such as the WOMMA code of ethics. Thankfully, the Ministry’s blog say ‘you can talk about government’s initiative’, so I presume that they know what I have just written on this matter.
- Give them good ammunition: The media love exclusives. Every time a news channel broadcasts a news story before other news channels can get their hands on the news, they put in the word ‘exclusive’ in big bold fonts on the screen. Bloggers too love getting exclusive information. You would hardly see any blogger getting really excited about receiving a news release from an organisation. However, if they can fiddle around a new product themselves and discover something interesting that others might not have noticed, that’s a big kick. Volunteers need to be given exclusive information. It is not exciting to have a press conference, a news release, the Ministry’s social media channels repeating that same announcement, and finally asking volunteers to help spread the word. While there cannot be exclusives all the time, occasionally you need to give your volunteers information that nobody else knows. That way, there is some value in becoming a volunteer. Smart organisations sometimes even reveal their announcements on Twitter and Facebook first and see the news spreading to the mainstream media from the social media channels. They even give their volunteers access to senior management, facilities, and provide exclusive experiences.
- Proactively build the community: Microsoft and Intel have organised a whole lot of events for their volunteers. A number of proactive activities are planned and taken throughout the year. That way, the community flame remains bright and the volunteers know that it is a live programme. There is nothing exciting about a dead community, whether online or offline. A dead community attracts spammers and makes members indifferent, but an active community encourage more advocacy and instil a feeling of belongingness and pride. Only people then will tweet for Bharat Nirman and be a proud voluntweeter.
My best wishes to the team. Let’s hope this works out for social good.