As with most novel things used by many but understood by few, social media has racked up a litany of misconceptions. Here are a few myths about social networking that simply must be exorcised from the consciousness of communications people everywhere. In the slightly modified words of one Adam Savage, of “I reject your social media strategy and substitute my own!”

1. Entering social media will lead to increased donations/funding: This is probably the most pervasive and dangerous myth floating out there about social media. For most nonprofits, everyone is accountable to a board or supervisor whose job is to steer all conversations toward ROI. They need to see evidence that an investment in social media results in real world assets (read: money). And firms vying for social media business are often inclined to promise whatever the client needs, which is why this myth is partly perpetuated by communications firms themselves.

The truth is, it’s more unlikely than not that social media is directly attributable to donations. Sure there are the Groupon and text message campaigns; but unless you have a well-funded campaign with a large pre-existing base, that is not the kind of social media you will be doing at first. And even if it was, there’s no guarantee for instant revenue boost, just look at the latest statistics from the Pepsi Refresh Project.

With social media, it is less about the direct appeal and more about the ability to foster a community of supporters. The point is to create affinity for your organization. Success is then measured across a spectrum of metrics (Fenton organizes ours in a simple See, Say, Feel, Do structure.) You must treat this community like donors until they actually become one. 

2. A large follower count means large influence: There are two reasons why a follower count can be misleading:

  • Many cheat-the-system tactics around follower-building involve following users randomly and then unfollowing them once you receive the occasional follow-back. Consequently, there are many handles out there with very large follower counts; but because those follows are gained through spam-like means, they are not a sign of influence. (The era of the courtesy follow-back should be over. Don’t feed the spammers.)
  • There are also handles out there that have huge followings, but follow an exorbitant amount of people back. For example, compare someone with 1,000 followers, but is following 10,000 verses someone who is following no one but has managed to net 400 followers. Who seems to be a more credible source?

All this is to say, never look at the follower count alone. A better gauge of influence is the follower-followee ratio. Furthermore, it’s not about how many people are listening, but who is listening and whether or not those are influential tweeters. For more interesting “Twettiquette” tips, check out this excellent Freakonomics podcast.

3. Everything needs to be “viral”: The Old Spice man has been heralded as the epitome of all that is amazing about social media and a funny viral campaign. But that’s just it; humor, cuteness, or awfully bad are generally what makes something online go viral. If you look at Buzzfeed, which tracks what is getting popular online, its content tags are limited to: LOL, OMG, Cute, Disapprove, WTF and Geeky.

The Internet, especially in the viral video world, subsists off the outlandish and can often be downright mean. Just compare the number of inspirational videos you are sent on a daily basis versus something as embarrassing as Rebecca Black. (“Where the Hell is Matt” took 3 years to get 35 million views, Rebecca Black’s single “Friday” only entered the Internet consciousness a few weeks ago and is now nearing 70 million views.)

Don’t get us wrong, viral as a concept is still good, it means one person passing it on to another. Nonprofits just shouldn’t measure their success against something like Rebecca Black. If you get 5,000 new viewers with a video, that’s 5,000 views that you didn’t have before. That’s still commendable success. 

4.   If You Hashtag, They Will Tweet: Hashtags cropped up as some sort of MiracleGro for Twitter accounts. But like most commercial pesticides, overuse has rendered this tool nearly useless. Just because something is hashtagged doesn’t mean people are using it. At the very least, hashtags are a good tool to pool a conversation (like Fenton’s own #csrchat).

A good rule of thumb is to only hashtag the things you anticipate to grow outside of your own network reach. In that case, it is imperative to consider how the typical tweeter might include that hashtag in a tweet and whether or not new/old audiences will understand what your abbreviations mean.

Oftentimes it is better to do some research into your target audience and use a hashtag they are already using. 

5.   Delete means deleted. The ultimate danger of the 60-second news cycle and screen captures: For both Facebook and Twitter, once you hit send, the news has been entered into the stream. Even if you delete the post, that only prevents subsequent visitors from seeing it, but the first blast has already gone out. Just look at Kenneth Cole. Even though they deleted their Cairo tweet within hours of the uproar, enough screen caps of the original were taken that the company already had a PR crisis on their hands within minutes of tweeting.

Need a social myth that needs busting? Tweet at @FentonProgress.