What are Social Networking Sites?
SNSs are online communities that give you opportunities to connect with, or provide resources to, clients, colleagues, family and friends who share common interests. When you join an SNS, you usually start by creating a profile that describes you or your organization, and then invite people to join you as "friends" in your network. Most SNSs are free, and they range from general networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, to ones that are tailored for a specific demographic or interest area.With over 66 million monthly users, MySpace is the most popular social networking site in the U.S. Like many SNSs, it allows you to upload videos, photos, create a blog, post events, join groups, and send messages to other MySpace users.
SNS and HIV/AIDS
Many HIV/AIDS organizations are already using social networking sites as a tool (or assessing if they should). Our HIV.gov team uses MySpace and Facebook to help us connect to our users, and soon we will be adding Daily Strength.
To learn how HIV/AIDS organizations are using SNS, we contacted several organizations that are successfully using MySpace to reach their clients. We spoke with Mark Clark and Joey Torres from New Mexico AIDS Services (NMAS), John Saderlund from Northern Nevada Hopes (NNH), and Vivian Berryhill from the National Coalition of Pastors' Spouses (NCPS).
Several themes emerged from our conversations:
MySpace is a way to reach young (and not-so-young) audiences. After finding many old friends with his personal MySpace account, John decided to start one for the NNH community. "Our MySpace page is one more way we reach people with HIV testing information. Since MySpace users tend to be younger, it enables us to reach specific and key target audiences," John said.
Joey from NMAS also uses MySpace to reach their younger demographic. "For young people, MySpace is today's e-mail; it's relevant and popular." He estimates that their MySpace page reaches over 200 people a month. Joey also told us, "For this generation, social networking is so common…it's something that we would do anyway."
"For young people, MySpace is today's e-mail."
While MySpace is an effective way to reach young people, 36 percent of MySpace users are between the ages of 35 and 54, so it can be an effective tool to reach older audiences as well.
MySpace is fast and can be cost-effective. Mark from NMAS told us, "MySpace saves time. It's a free service and we avoid having to incur additional IT costs." Because SNS is where their target population spends its free time, the local health department gave NMAS permission to incorporate social networking into its regular outreach activities.
At NMAS, outreach coordinators use MySpace to create a social support network that is vibrant and active 24/7, allowing them to interface continuously with their clients and to promote HIV testing and care services. The coordinators realized that, by the simple and cost-effective posting of photos from their events, and by responding to online requests, NMAS keeps clients in an ongoing dialogue.
NMAS also uses MySpace to regularly connect with 20 to 30 young people who, in addition to communicating online, also get together for regular educational and social events. These events provide social support and opportunities to disseminate information about key issues. This has increased outreach program effectiveness and reduced labor hours.
Should Your Organization be on MySpace?
While there are many benefits to MySpace, it isn't for everyone. Even though the service is free, it takes time and resources to keep it current and to monitor friend requests. John remarked, "I don't always have the time to update our MySpace page as much as I should. However, for NNH, our clients still find MySpace helpful."
As with all new media tools, it is important to have a strategy. NCPS just launched their MySpace page in January 2008, after several young people requested they create a MySpace page to share important HIV/AIDS information. Vivian explained, "We want young people to understand fully that our MySpace page is not just about collecting friends and sharing photos, but to really share HIV/AIDS information." The NCPS effort is still in its trial phase. They have developed standards and will evaluate the program's success after 90 days.
For NNH, MySpace is more than a tool for reaching their current clients; it is also an opportunity for professional networking. (That's how HIV.gov found NNH!) They have also found that MySpace users use the site for referrals when a friend or client is moving to the northern Nevada region. When asked if HIV/AIDS service organizations should be on MySpace, John replied, "Definitely! It's one more tool to reach people with important HIV information."
If you decide that MySpace could work for your organization, TechSoup has an article titled How to Use MySpace to Raise Awareness that provides suggestions to increase your chances of using the SNS successfully.A Word of Caution
While social networking sites like MySpace can be an effective way to communicate with your audiences, keep in mind that the information posted on MySpace is public. Think twice before posting personal data. For more information for socializing safely online, refer to the Federal Trade Commission's safety tips for tweens and teens.
It is very important, noted Vivian, that their MySpace page "reflects the integrity and moral level of any pastor's spouse." People need to seek approval from their pastor to become a friend of NCPS. As an alternative, people can contribute to the blog to share their stories. They currently have 79 friends, and according to Vivian, "we could have more, but we're very picky."
Are you on MySpace? If so, we'd love to hear how it has helped you and/or your organization!
Stay tuned next week when we discuss Facebook.