Your Library Does not Need a Social Media Plan By TTW Contributor Dr. Troy Swanson 8

Last month, someone contacted me about creating social media plans in libraries. From our email exchange, I think she was a bit surprised when I said that I think social media plans often get in the way and are a waste of resources. I told her that I could not send her a sample social media plan or a list of best practices for writing a social media plan. I told her that my suggested best practice was to not write a plan at all.

When I think about a “plan”, I mean a systematized set of steps that guide an organization through a process in order to achieve a goal. Plans are coordination tools. They layout steps, and they help people understand how they will work together. They are really useful in guaranteeing a course of action and preventing the group from deviating from that course. Plans work best when actions and goals are fairly well understood. Moving a library collection from an old facility to a new facility is a problem where a plan is absolutely vital. Having a technology plan for server upgrades or computer cascades is often important.

For a social media plan to be really useful, the planners would need to anticipate things they do not know as well as lessons they will learn along the way. They also need to anticipate new technologies that have not been invented. The plan will be in need of constant update.

We often overlook the fact that plans are not overly helpful when the goal is to learn, innovate, and adapt. As we know, social media are a set of technologies that are evolving constantly. They thrive in environments that are highly adaptive where organizational members can use technology to meet ever-changing needs. The decision about applying social media to needs should be located as closely to the ground as possible and not up at the top of the organizational chart.

This isn’t to say that effective use of social media relies on anarchy. Far from it. Organizations still need a structure around social media. Organizations can encourage social media by defining policies, workflows, guidelines, and best practices. These broad documents offer an outline where experimentation and play can exist around social media tool. The goal is to create a safe environment to play around with social media. Unfortunately, plans often fit our organizational DNA better than playfulness. Plans feel better than experiments, because plans require us to come up with outcomes in advance. Thus, we’ll spend six months developing a plan instead of spending that time developing an online services that advances our mission.

Many administrators like plans because they provide the illusion of making the unknown into something known. To me, this desire for a plan hearkens back to Michael Stephen’s warning from 2006, “Warning: failure to innovate while overthinking & underplanning library services may cause loss of library users & library staff.“. Social media plans too often fall into the category of failure to innovate due to “overthinking.”

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

8 thoughts on “Your Library Does not Need a Social Media Plan By TTW Contributor Dr. Troy Swanson

  • david lee king

    You said “Organizations can encourage social media by defining policies, workflows, guidelines, and best practices” … Sounds like a social media plan to me!

    I’ll disagree with you, and suggest these two things:

    1. Organizational Social media plans are necessary, if you want to use social media for more than random chatter. In your own post, you mentioned setting some goals. It’s generally pretty hard to meet goals without a plan (that’s been my experience, anyway).

    2. I completely agree with Michael’s warning from 2006 about failure to innovate … and I also think that you can innovate AND follow a social media plan (or any other plan, for that matter). That’s what my library does, anyway.

    Thanks for the post! Differing opinions are always a good thing. Makes me think!

  • Justin Hoenke

    I started up a discussion about this on Branch but I’ll briefly summarize what I said:

    Recently I started posting book meme photos to our library FB page. It was a gut reaction to seeing such boring stuff constantly going up. It worked. Loads of shares and interactions! And it didn’t require any kind of planning/thought/endless exchange of emails.

    Sometimes just trusting your gut is the best way.

  • Donna Feddern

    We don’t have a social media plan but we do monitor what works. Also, what works for Facebook is different than what works for other social networks. We have a general idea of what we want to convey and an understanding of what people like to interact with and share on Facebook. Our loose plan is to share things that make us look fun, introduce our staff, and show community members using the library.

    Our Digital Services Librarian just analyzed our stats to see what our most popular posts were this year. The results? Our most popular posts all included a photograph of a person – either a staff member, a volunteer, or a patron. Each photograph and it’s accompanying text told a little interesting story. It’s that simple. This will serve as a great general guide as we look for interesting content in the coming year.

  • troyswanson Post author

    I hold a great deal of respect for David, and greatly appreciate his thoughts on this topic. Like many things, a great deal of this hinges on the meaning of “plan” and the organizational context. My guess is that our thoughts are not as far away as this post and these comments may reveal. There are may situations with social media where a plan or a plan-like-thing would be useful.

    However, I think that the following quote is appropriate. It is of of my favorites.

    “Strategic plans are a lot like maps. They animate people and they orient people. Once people begin to act, they generate tangible outcomes in some context, and this helps them discover what is occurring, what needs to be explained, and what should be done next. Managers keep forgetting that it is what they do, not what they plan, that explains their success. They keep giving credit to the wrong thing–namely, the plan–and having made the error, they then spend more time planning and less time acting. They are astonished when more planning improves nothing.”

    Weick, K. (1987). Substitutes for corporate strategy. In Teece, D. (Ed.) The Competitive Challenge: Strategies for Industrial Innovation and Renewal. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Company. p. 222.

  • Phil Bradley

    I’ve read this post several times, and have finally decided to comment, and will respectfully chose to disagree with the basic premise. I spend a lot of my time teaching people – mainly librarians – how to use social media. There is a LOT of confusion, concern and worry about the process – people often think that they’re going to ‘do it wrong’ or cause terrible disasters. More importantly, that’s what their bosses think! The idea of having a plan will placate the worriers, and may provide some leeway for the staff attempting to use social media.

    Yes, a plan is a coordination tool, and I think it’s useful to coordinate what staff do. It’s not enough to say ‘we need to provide guiding resources’ it may well make sense to work out which one is going to be used, to ensure everyone is working together, rather than everyone rushing off and trying different things. Of course, before that can happen, it makes sense to explore resources and make a choice. That requires planning.

    I don’t agree that planners need to anticipate new things, because they can’t. We couldn’t anticipate Pinterest for example, or see how useful it would be. So I think it’s perfectly acceptable to say that a plan includes the option of staff looking at new tools on a regular basis as they come up, and matching the tools against what they’re currently doing, or want to do in the future. They may then decide to use the new tool, replace an old one, or ignore it entirely. Without a plan or set of criteria, I would be concerned that this will result in everyone going off and doing their own thing, which is not effective. Does this mean a plan will need to be constantly updated? Absolutely! And that is a GOOD thing, because we need to keep reminding ourselves that change is constant, that things will keep changing what and how we do things. Rather than a plan being a straight jacket, it’s a way of liberating staff, encouraging them to keep thinking about new ways of working and doing new things.

    Now, this is where we come into semantics, because yes – we do need to define policies, workflows, guidelines and best practices. I’d call that a plan based on the earlier definition given in the article. ‘They help people understand how they will work together’. Yet isn’t that exactly what defining policies, workflows etc is *also* doing?

    There’s nothing wrong with a plan, and it doesn’t need to be a straightjacket, and if you build into a plan a possible outcome that mistakes have been made, identified and examined – and that *this isn’t a bad thing* a plan can most certainly assist people in using social media with much more confidence than they would have done otherwise.

  • Alex Zealand

    My biggest concern with this post is your title – it’s too easy to conflate “Your Library Does not Need a Social Media Plan” to mean “Your Library Does not Need to Plan for Social Media.”

    Whether you follow a plan, your gut, or a combination of both, actually doing social media for a library takes a great deal of time, communication and planning. It’s not something that’s easy to sustain unless a library staff member, or team, can dedicate real time to it – and that also takes planning. And when a library embarks on a new social media venture, you often won’t get approval or enough support without at least a semblance of a plan.

    Maybe it would be more accurate to say “There is no one-size-fits-all plan for Library social media, so shape your own as you learn what works for your community.”

  • Rob D

    Plans are definitely too much, but a few rough guidelines might help. In fact, you could probably use George Orwell’s guidelines, as listed in his essay “Politics and the English Language”:

    1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

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