At one of my former media gigs, a guest speaker who advised us not to think about our web site as the end-all be-all "destination" but instead as one planet in a solar system of different sites. He said that our social media presence and making our content portable was just as important -- if not more -- than the experience people would have on our own website. I can't think of better advice for non-profit organizations hoping to reach young people: "You don't have to come to us, we'll come to you!"
Most at-risk youth don't voluntarily seek out help or find after-school programs "in real life." Concerned adults, such as teachers or youth workers, will notice these students and suggest a resource where they are -- either at school or just hanging out in parking lots, parks, or wherever young people physically gather. Similarly, it makes sense for those of us interested in reaching youth online to figure out where these digital hangouts are and reach out to them there.
In addition to the usual suspects (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), youth are engaging in all kinds of communities online -- from massive multiplayer online games and virtual worlds to other lesser-known youth-focused social networking sites. In my current role as director of digital programs for ReachOut.com, it's my personal mission to try to be where teens are vs. forcing them to find our resource.
So far we have begun working with two very large youth social networking sites to do just this. Beginning Christmas Day, myYearbook.com, which has over 25 million members worldwide, has committed to giving ReachOut.com a homepage takeover every couple of months to promote different mental health issues. The homepage promotion takes users to our myYearbook fan page, where we plan to create a safe space full of resources and inspiring real stories from young people who have overcome tough times. This is huge. Advertisers pay thousands of dollars for this type of promotion. Check out Anne Collier's insightful post on this initiative.
On a smaller scale, we have begun working with WeeWorld, another social network that is also a virtual world by partnering with their safety officer to answer user questions about mental health issues with links to our fact sheets.
By partnering with sites where young people are hanging out and often discussing many of the same issues we deal with on ReachOut.com, we are able to meet youth where they are and let them know we're here for them if they need us. Some of the places where youth hang out online might feel like the "Wild West" or MySpace when it was tops with teens, but that's all the more reason organizations like ours need to be there.