Case Study: YouthNet

As part of my work on the report Making the Connection: The use of social technologies in civil society, written for the Carnegie UK Trust’s Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland, I put together a couple of case studies. The final report carries shorter versions, so I though it would be useful for me to post the full versions to provide extra detail and context. Here is the second, focused on YouthNet.

  • YouthNet focuses on understanding which social technologies their target audience use and then adopts those tools.
  • Their use of social media is part of a broader strategy which embraces offline as well as online activities.
  • Understanding and keeping up-to-date with social technology is the responsibility of everyone at YouthNet and everyone has the opportunity to engage with the tools if they wish.

YouthNet is a charity that provides online services and information to young people in the 16-25 demographic. Originally conceived as a book, YouthNet moved its service directory to the net in 1997 two years after it was founded.

YouthNet currently runs two websites:, a community of 30,000 members which provides advice on life issues and receives 500,000 unique users each month; and which helps people find opportunities to volunteer, and receives 80,000 – 100,000 unique users each month.

The organisation uses social media tools to both connect with their community and to communicate and collaborate internally. Externally, they maintain a presence in a variety of third party tools such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Twitter, Flickr, Ning, YouTube and Delicious. They also run a number of blogs — written by both YouthNet staff and volunteers — and provide RSS feeds of content.

Natasha Judd, YouthNet’s Marketing Manager, says that social media allows YouthNet to “have individual conversations with individual users in the spaces which are relevant to them”.

Their social media usage is, however, part of a broader strategy which also embraces traditional communications such as e-newsletters and print materials as well as offline events and outreach. The difference between online and offline is blurring, explains Judd:

“It’s quite difficult to say, ‘This is the online part of my identity,’ now. So it’s about having online and offline services which work together as a coherent whole for the young people who need them, or who may only ever encounter the offline or may only encounter the online.”

Internally, and with its charity partners, YouthNet uses Basecamp (a hosted service that combines wikis, a calendar and messaging), Yammer (a Twitter-like tool that creates a closed network based on email addresses) and Delicious to collaborate. There is a very open culture where employees are encouraged to use whichever tool they feel will work for them. They mix social tools with traditional working methods rather than trying to replace them.

Judd explains how the use of social media is ‘baked in’ to the organisation’s culture: “A lot of us use [social media] in our personal lives and know what tools are out there, what is big, what people are talking about.” Indeed, anyone within the organisation can write on the external blogs, or talk about their work on their Twitter account.

“It’s not an official YouthNet voice,” she says, “it’s our voice. Anybody at YouthNet can blog about anything that is relevant to our work. All of us can use social media. A lot of us are on Twitter. We will talk about who we’re meeting, what we’re working on, when we need case studies for, or when we’ve got new surveys up or want people to sign a pledge. It’s about sharing what we are and what we’re doing, and having the trust that everyone is a fantastic representative for YouthNet.”

YouthNet is a very flat organisation, open to ideas from any employee, so keeping an eye on tech is a part of everyone’s job. The Communities Team especially tracks popular tools and when they spot something that’s creating a bit of a buzz they will test it out and update the rest of the staff if they find it interesting.

Equally, if any member of staff stumbles across a tool they feel might be useful, or has an idea for how to use social tools, then there is a lightweight decision process which allows them to test and roll out small projects. Larger projects receive more attention and are planned accordingly but this agility allows YouthNet to quickly test and adopt or drop tools and services as they come along without a large technical or administrative overhead.

The nature of social tools makes it easy to be nimble — many tools, such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, WordPress, and Delicious are free, with the cost of any paid tools very low, in the region of tens of pounds rather than hundreds. When budget is required it comes from individual team or project budgets, whether that’s the communities team, marketing, or another team. Each team or project group invests in what they need, but the main cost remains the time it takes to investigate and experiment.

“When the communities team was starting up the Lifetracks consultation on Ning it required a lot of investment of time to get something working,” says Judd, “but they’d experimented with it previously and they knew it was the tool they needed for a consultation. We could always do more. We could always have more conversations. We could always use the tools better. But it is a trade-off.”

YouthNet do look outside of the third sector for knowledge as many businesses and independent consultants have relevant expertise to share about their use of the social media.

“That’s something that we need to do more of in the future,” says Judd. “Going along to MeasurementCamp, for example, was not just about the third sector, it was about what agencies are doing in terms of measuring social media.”

When it comes to measuring success, YouthNet look beyond the obvious statistics and try to consider their reasons for using a particular tool for a particular project to shape their aims and expectations. For example, they’re not just looking at how many visitors they get to a particular site or page but also at how engaged people become and what the quality of interaction is.

“It’s not just about numbers,” says Judd. “It’s about creating loyalties with youth and about having conversations with young people, or having a certain number of people involved in a focus group.”

Social media also provides valuable information about their user base:

“It has given us a huge insight into who our user base is, how they talk to us, how they talk to each other. On Facebook, for example, I can get demographic [information on] the fans of”

Watching how their community uses social tools provides YouthNet with an insight into they type of tools YouthNet could use and how their audience might react. This insight which can then feed into project planning. Judd believes that it is important to understand which services their audience already use and then to adopt those so that YouthNet can have a conversation with their users where they, the users, feel comfortable. This allows them to raise awareness of their services amongst a variety of different groups.

“For example, our members had created a Facebook group themselves,” she says, “which was fantastic, so we looked at doing Facebook groups for other brands.”

YouthNet are aware that social networks such as Facebook act as ‘walled gardens’ so ensure that all of the information provided in such networks is also available on their website. Judd describes their presence in sites like Facebook as “a way of providing personalised help, for example, on how to browse for volunteer opportunities in a particular area”.

Organisations do need to be aware that their community and, indeed, their staff also have an online life of their own. They can take the conversations off onto other tools where the organisation has no presence. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it extends reach. It is, however, something to monitor because if the conversation shifts to another tool then that might be an indication that the new platform is worth investigation.

The issue of privacy is an important one to YouthNet’s users. Jim Valentine, Communities Manager, explains that because the discussion on sometimes addresses “taboo, secret and distressing issues, users are more likely to join using pseudonyms and tend to avoiding inviting friends”.
“This creates unique issues around privacy and confidentiality,” Valentine says. “One of the biggest issues we address is concern about friends of users finding out about their activity on After discussions with users this can lead to the deletion of their account in order to protect their privacy and confidence in the service.”

The issue of abusive behaviour is dealt with “holistically”, explains Valentine. “Although individual behaviour may need to be addressed, more effort is spent on creating a supportive environment that reinforces positive behaviour. This isn’t just a role of moderators, but the community as a whole — who are the first to address abusive behaviour and encourage new users to be supportive of other members. Moderators monitor the discussion boards and respond to reported posts, which ensures problematic or abusive behaviour gets a fair and balanced response.”

Spam is unavoidable but when it is reported it is dealt with promptly and a CAPTCHA image and question on the registration page helps reduce the amount of automated spam.

The vast choice of social media tools, platforms and services can be daunting but it’s not necessary to have an active presence on every one (although it is a good idea to register your brand names in the most popular services, just in case you want to use them in the future). When deciding which tools to use, take the lead from your community, Judd advises, and don’t feel that you have to be everywhere.

Judd sums up her attitude to social media: “It’s not about the tools, it’s about communicating with people, engaging them and inspiring them to trust your services and get involved in your organisation.”