by John Borst, Director Communications, District 5550

District 5550 has 48 clubs; 14 still do not have a website. Without a website, those clubs have no way of sharing the local Rotary story among their friends, relatives, other Rotarians or the rest of the World. Similarly, many of those who do have a Club website but have not kept them current are in the same situation.

At the same time, Rotary in District 5550 has a membership crisis on its hands. Over the past five years we have had a net loss of over 100 members. Twice as many clubs have had net losses, as had net gains. Obviously this can’t go on forever or Rotary in Central Canada will cease to exist.

There is only one way to reverse this trend and that is for each one of us to put more effort into the recruitment of new members. The best way to do this is still to ask, and ask and ask again, community members in face to face conversations to join Rotary.

But communication in the 21st Century has tools to get the message out about Rotary which have never before existed. As Rotarians if we really care about the continuation of this organization and what it stands for, we simply can’t afford to ignore the new communication tools, provided by social media; not at the International level, not at the district level, not at the club level and especially not at the personal level.

Yes at the personal level. Let me try to explain why this is really the most important level.

The Internet has spawned a nomenclature based on numbers. First there was just The Web. But then a funny thing happened suddenly there appeared something called Web 2.0 programs.  So now we often hear about Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.

First, let’s review how Rotary clubs communicate both internally to its members and externally to the local community. Although I do not have specific numbers, it appears every club has an internal newsletter. Today these are written on word processing software. This is pre-Internet technology but many clubs use e-mail to distribute it so we might classify this activity as Web 0.5; since they are using the web to send the newsletter out.

Web 1.0 is where we are trying to get all clubs. A website is a Web 1.0 communications application. The club simply provides the content and people have to look for the website. In other words newsletters push information out to its members but websites have to pull readers to it. This means they have to be constantly updated, and have an attractive presentation layout. Their advantage is that anyone in the world can find them even if the club is located in some remote corner of Saskatchewan, Manitoba or Northwestern Ontario. Now even the most remote club can promote Rotary. As such every Club becomes a spokesperson for Rotary throughout the whole world.

The beauty of Web 2.0 however is that it combines aspects of push and pull. But most importantly it permits a two way exchange of information to occur.

The first major application to take off in the early years of the 21st Century was the “blog”. Blogs were and still are pre-programmed almost free websites formats which permit individuals or groups of individuals to write articles or post pictures.  They are interactive because a reader can leave a comment on the blog for the author and a conversation could follow. So Web 2.0 became a two way street. It also created a network. People who liked your blog would add it to their blog role. This way your number of visitors expanded. The more blog rolls your site appeared on the more readers you got and more importantly the higher was your placement on a new search engine called Google.

In addition to blogs, sites like Yahoo created discussion groups where people could register for a group. Everyone, for example, who read some obscure magazine, could now “talk” to one another about the article they had just read and share other articles from anywhere on other websites.

As the decade progressed these two systems merged into what we call social media. We know them as Facebook and Twitter. Facebook was conceived as a sort of electronic post-it board for university students while Twitter is known as a blog in 140 characters.

Linkedin is a spin-off from discussion groups aimed at business professionals where your profile becomes as important as the discussions you have.

Pinterest, Rotary’s latest venture into yet another social media format uses the sharing of pictures pined to a bulletin board to share your likes. Each of these interactive formats is also linked to the other.

In a sense each person who creates a post or links to another website creates the content of one or more social media sites.

Hopefully what you can see happening is that there is an ever widening stream of content being created. Think of it as a river. At the source is the content of the Club newsletter. This can and should become the foundational content of the Club’s website. That content can now become the content of an individual Rotarian’s Facebook page or Twitter post called a “tweet”. At each level it is likely that more and more people will be exposed to the work of your Rotary club especially if collectively, every member was to have his or her own social media site where he or she promotes Rotary.

Rotary has also been encouraging Clubs and districts to have their own Facebook and Twitter pages. The thinking is that more people will likely follow the Facebook page than the actual website or that it will lead others to the website. A more important reason for having a club or district Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest page is because it permits others to share the content links more easily with just one or two clicks. Again the best reason for having a club social media site is that it makes it easier for members to spread the Rotary message on personal social media pages.

What is also important to comprehend is that the underlying organizational structure of social media is the very antithesis of the traditional pyramidal top down – bottom up structure. Think of a page with hundreds of individual cells representing clubs, districts zones, and individual Rotarians all sending messages across the entire playing field without regard to position, rank, or years of service and you get some idea of the kind of networking which is taking place within Rotary using social media. I call it a distributive communications system.

But that same distributive system also permits us to get our story out to a much broader non-Rotarian audience. In short the goal is to get Rotary’s message out well beyond the playing field.

As I see it this is where club websites come in. A club website provides the content for the local stories that make up Rotary’s larger story.  Rotary International’s website provides the big story content, such as our efforts to eradicate Polio or exemplary literacy, water or medical initiatives.  Only by RI & Clubs working in tandem can individual Rotarians find the content to share on their personal Facebook, Twitter, and now Pinterest accounts.

We need to understand that it is really at the level of the individual Rotarian where the greatest distributive power lies. Think of it this way, each Rotarian is sharing with friends and acquaintances the work of Rotary when he posts a comment at his Facebook page about something his local club has done and then links it to more detail on the Club’s website.

Clubs cannot depend on a District website to get their message out. Few districts actually structure themselves as a news site sharing club achievements. When I did a comparison of the most recent 200 visitors to a District site vs. a Club site, I found to my surprise, that although the 200 visitors took a longer period of time to accumulate at the Club site, they were actually more dispersed throughout the world than the District visitors. District visitors were far more likely to be from within the District than outside it.

If Clubs wonder who their audience is and why they should have a website it is not good enough to think just about getting the message out to the local community. The reality is that “local” when it comes to Rotary is really the World, especially for a club.

So even if you are a Rotary club in a small village, in an area big city people might call “the middle of nowhere”, you too need to share your unique Rotary stories with the World.

And that’s why 14 District 5550 clubs need to create a website and many others need to get ‘cracken and get theirs current. And you never know we might just get some new Rotarians as a bonus.