Social media, like any communications channel, can quickly shift from being a means to being an end. We can start to take on an attitude that a particular form of media is a task for us to conquer, versus using it as a means to reach our broader social justice goals. Our communications are for building relationships, helping people understand a particular issue or community, and shifting power. We can get caught up “doing” social media: churning out content and then measuring success by the numbers that are most visible.

To make this more plain, I’ll share a lesson I learned as a teenager from my aunt, who I visited every summer of my childhood.

My aunt, uncle and cousins lived in a Houston suburb in a big house with wall-to-wall carpeting. It was a tidy house, and my aunt assigned chores to keep it that way. My aunt, in spite of a full-time job as a schoolteacher, always had energy to make sure the house was clean enough and that it wasn’t just her doing it.

One week, my chore was to vacuum the carpet of a large room with quite a bit of open space in it. As a teen, I had bursts of earnestness (not hard to imagine if you know me now), so I got excited and ran the vacuum over the cream colored carpeting in careful lines. When my aunt got home from work, I couldn’t wait to lead her in to see what a great job I had done.

My aunt started shaking her head almost as soon as she entered the room. With barely a pause, she strode in and picked up a piece of string that was laying smack in the middle of all my neat vacuum lines. “What do you mean, you ‘vacuumed’?” she demanded. I pointed out the vacuum cleaner marks everywhere: evidence I had completed the task. She saw the vacuum marks but was annoyed that there was a piece of debris that was impossible to miss if you actually looked at the floor. Both of us managed to be frustrated.

Kathleen_Aunt_Raquel_2013It took at least a decade for me to understand the core of our disagreement: my assignment wasn’t to vacuum as much as it was to clean the floor using the vacuum. The goal was a clean carpet without dirt or things on it. The vacuum was the tool I was going to use to reach that goal. The lines in the carpet looked nice, but they weren’t what it was all about.

In much the same way, it’s easy to get caught up in the “doing” of social media. We focus on generating content and gaining “likes.” This can happen in any communications channel, but it’s especially noticeable in the context of social media because the most strategic use of those communications channels is engagement: meeting new people who will be excited about your organization, staying in touch with people who are already excited about your organization. Answering questions people have, giving them information they can share about an issue they care about. Giving constituents ways to take action.

The objectives we use to measure success in social media channels need to be measurable, and they also need to be focused on the overarching goal, not just on numbers you can collect. For great guidance on how to think about this, I (like so many other nonprofit communicators) turn to Beth Kanter. Try her if you haven’t yet.

For every social media channel you’re in, make sure that you keep your focus on the overall goals of your communications, not just the activities. Make sure your metrics are not only about what you can easily measure, but progress towards your organizing goals.

And make sure that you’re not leaving stuff on what’s supposed to be a clean floor.

Image: my aunt and I together in 2012.