Editor’s Note: This post comes from Darian Rodriguez Heyman, former Executive Director of Craigslist Foundation and the founder of the national Social Media for Nonprofits conference series.

Kevin Bacon effectMy diligent research has proven that I hear the word “viral” within 42 seconds of talking with any nonprofit interested in marketing their cause online. But what does that mean, anyway, and what’s the key to unleashing the immense word-of-mouth power that is the allure of social media?

As I’ve been traveling around the country with our Social Media for Nonprofits conference series (coming to SF 11/4, Atlanta 11/17 & NYC 1/30/12 – see below for discounts) promoting my new book, Nonprofit Management 101, I’ve enjoyed listening to industry leaders like Beth Kanter, Geoff Livingston, and Guy Kawasaki provide nonprofit execs with practical tips and tools—actionable insights nonprofits can use immediately to raise more money online, market their organizations, and affect policy.

So what’s the secret to unlocking the “Kevin Bacon effect” also known as viral marketing? How can you take your cause viral, whether it’s an exciting announcement, a newly released YouTube video, or the nonprofit you represent?

The answer is simple yet confounding: C+C+C = C.

  • Compelling: Never mind the what; the key is sharing the so what with your audience. If you can’t convey why they should care, and how what you’re talking about relates to their interests… it’s game over.
  • Concise: Einstein said it best, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” How can you expect folks to spread the good word if it’s too long and complicated to remember?
  • Credible: Great, so you’ve engaged me and done it quickly, but if you try and tell me that your magic beans are the cure to cancer tomorrow, I’m onto whatever else my fascinating network of do-gooders and colleagues is up to.

Put ‘em all together and you get the key to viral victory:

  • Contagious: The holy grail of social media marketing is attained when your engaging, short, and believable message takes fire and people start spreading it on your behalf; hopefully even remixing your message and broadening your appeal.

I hope this insight serves you well, as it has for me, and that it aids you in your efforts to build stronger communities. In fundraising, we say that the most powerful form of an ask is a peer ask, and what is social media if not a perfect medium to facilitate that?

But that said, never let anyone tell you they’re a social media expert; the field is moving too quickly for anyone to claim guru status in this newly forming world. Never forget that no matter how bright any given luminary may be, as Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg first noted in 1949, we have officially entered a world where everyone is smarter than anyone.

The waterfall age of the Encyclopedia Brittanica has given way to Wikipedia, and the bottom-up world is here to stay.  Embrace it and thrive, or resist and go the way of the technosaur.

But enough hypocrisy as I sit here and tell you that there are no experts and attempt to share my self professed nuggets and insights. What keys to the viral kingdom have you discovered while going about your work?



Social Media for Nonprofits Conference Discounts

Social Media for Nonprofits logoRegister now for upcoming conferences in San Francisco (11/4), Atlanta (11/17) and New York City (1/30/2012). Members of the Tides community can save an additional $20 just use promo code Tides when registering!

After five years of service, Darian recently stepped down as Executive Director of Craigslist Foundation.  While there, he helped launch Nonprofit Boot Camp, the Environmental Nonprofit Network, and the Next Generation Leadership Forum.  His new book, Nonprofit Management 101: A Complete and Practical Guide for Leaders and Professionals, includes practical tips and tools from 50 recognized experts across 35 topics, and he recently launched a nationwide Social Media for Nonprofits conference series and his Advancing Social Impact blog on Skoll Foundation’s Social Edge.  Heyman is now a public speaker that provides strategy, messaging, and fundraising consulting for nonprofits and green economy organizations. Follow Darian Rodriguez Heyman on Twitter.

Photo by Flickr user Matt LeClair, used under Creative Commons license.