A North Carolina foundation has announced that its Facebook fan page cracked 1,000 fans. The Pretty in Pink Foundation in Raleigh, NC provides financial help to North Carolina women diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Pretty In Pink Foundation Reaches Social Media Milestone,” blares the headline. Says the executive director of the foundation: “Reaching this key social media milestone during Breast Cancer Awareness month demonstrates how much the community supports our efforts.”

Turnstile, Perranarworthal by Flickr user Tim Green aka atoach

"Turnstile, Perranarworthal" by Flickr user Tim Green aka atoach

On the one hand, this is an unremarkable event and the press release reads like the usual announcement from a PR firm touting anything and everything just to have something to say. That was my first reaction.

On the other hand, here I am talking about it. Why? I think there are lessons to be learned here for public leaders.

There’s a shift happening on what constitutes “support.”

In Facebook, “fanning” a page is a micro-action, taking just one click. So to announce 1,000 fans seems trivial indeed. To translate it into real world terms, it’s as if you set out an information table at the mall, and had a stack of fliers. A “fan” might be everyone who picked up a flier. By that logic, this announcement is akin to issuing a press release that you ran out of fliers.

But on Facebook, once you’ve picked up that flier, you’ve given permission to be contacted. While the act of giving permission, or fanning the page, is trivial – the effect goes beyond that.

Many leaders in the community benefit sector look skeptically at the hype and buzz surrounding social media, especially at numbers that purport to show “engagement” but that don’t bear a close relationship to the real world. Indeed, it’s easy to get sucked into Facebook-land and begin to think that a certain number of fans is the goal of any given initiative.

But if you can look past that, and see social media as an efficient way to get permission to contact people on an ongoing basis, the utility becomes much more apparent. Who doesn’t want 1,000 people who’ve agreed to get information from you?

But it goes beyond that. Facebook contains built-in mechanisms for interaction. Say I’ve fanned Pretty in Pink, so on my main Facebook home page, I see they’ve posted this reminder: “Remember, October is breast cancer awarness [sic] month. Share the gift of hope with someone you love. Spread the word that Pretty In Pink is here to help.”

I can then “like” the update, which lets my Facebook friends see that I support Pretty in Pink, and also gives feedback to PiP themselves. There is a series of self-reinforcing microactions PiP’s fans can take that, over time, can add up to more loyal fans. For instance, in addition to “liking” one of PiP’s updates, I can comment on it. Another PiP fan might comment on that. I’ll get a notification that someone has commented after me. Now we’ve got a little group going. (On my own page, these kinds of interactions happen regularly, with people exchanging views without my intervention.)

The trick, for community benefit organizations working in social media, is to turn these new kinds of “supporters” into real-world donors and volunteers. This is a hurdle that it’s both hard to get over, and easy to lose sight of. The most effective leaders will keep their eye on this prize, but they won’t dismiss the value of having a good social media footprint.

It’s a gateway. It not only gets people in the door, but lets them enter in such a way that they become more loyal friends.

(P.S. I fanned them.)