How do you measure return on investment – the “ROI” – for your social media program? This is one of the questions you hear most often from nonprofit executives when talking about their charity’s life online. Is it the number of Facebook “likes” or Twitter “followers”? Is it “mentions” or “impressions” or the numbers of “people talking about this”? Or, is it that most basic and popular of all indicators of success, the funds you raise through online donations?
The answer to this last question may be that it is the wrong question.
Beth Kanter, a highly regarded blogger on nonprofit social media issues, and other leading cyber thinkers suggest that the narrowly-defined, accounting-driven, mid-20th-Century concept of financial ROI simply doesn’t apply to the 21st-century, online and highly networked world of nonprofit communications. Instead, they offer a “theory of change” model that lays out all of the steps – the many and various actions and reactions – that must take place to bring about any long-term, positive, social change. Social media, they argue, is only one tool that nonprofits employ in their efforts to achieve positive social outcomes. And, therefore, it can only be assessed accurately for its effectiveness in accomplishing particular goals within the overall context of this larger social change strategy.
Here at United Way of New York City, we believe this approach makes sense. For one thing, it embeds social media into our organizational culture, rather than creating unrealistic pressure for social media to “pay for itself” via a torrent of online donations. Just as importantly, it offers a framework through which we can more effectively evaluate the metrics used to assess our social media performance. It puts the focus on those aspects of social media strategy which we believe to be truly important – engagement and stewardship.
Many organizations, nonprofit and otherwise, judge their social media performance based on the size of their audience. How many Facebook likes do they generate? How many followers do they have on Twitter?
While these certainly are valid metrics, they are not are ends in themselves. It’s a huge accomplishment to have 100,000 Facebook likes. However, the real question is how engaged are these individuals in the mission of your nonprofit and the work you do every day? How strongly connected is your online community?
One factor to look at is your audience retention. Are your Facebook Likes and Twitter followers just dropping in for a look; then dropping right back out again? How many Facebook fans or Twitter followers have you lost in the past year? We believe this a good indicator of the value of our relationship with those fans. One must also consider how easy it is for people to stay linked to your social media platforms, but ignore your message completely. Just because someone likes you or follows you does not mean they actually are paying attention. There is no way to measure how many people are just skimming past your content.
For that reason, we are more focused on assessing feedback. Are people actively engaged in your network? Are they commenting on your Facebook posts? Are they re-tweeting your Twitter messages?
Shares and re-tweets are essentially advocacy for your work. If someone is motivated enough or inspired enough to share your content, it not only means they thought it was great; it means they want to share it with their own network. Re-tweets are a measurable gold standard. In every online community, there are people who are key influencers, people who have large networks of people who are listening to them. If you can get them to re-tweet your message, those networks are now potentially listening to you as well.
Getting your audience engaged and keeping it engaged takes work. Most important, of course, is providing a stream of posts and messages that your audience will find interesting and useful. Consistency is important. You can’t put out messages every day for a week and then disappear for a month.
At the same time, however, you also need to listen. A conversation that takes place online is just like any other. If it only goes one way, it’s simply a monologue…and just as boring. It is important to take the time to engage with your audience on the issues they feel are important. Begin with those who are already providing feedback. Thank them for their re-tweets, mentions or Facebook comments… and offer comments of your own. Allocate time to direct message (DM) your Twitter followers – even if you message two people a day, over time this will further strengthen their connection to your agency and build a deeper relationship. It shows people that you really care that they’re part of your work. Make it a point to visit the Facebook pages or Twitter profiles of your fans and followers. There are several free tools out there to capture and analyze your audience. You want to know more about these individuals than which social network they use. Find out what they’re talking about and where their own passions lay. Are there other, like-minded networks to which they belong? How active are they? What types of issues and activities seem to arouse their passions and their online involvement? All of this information offers guidance in how to strengthen your own connections to them … and theirs to you.
Look for online partners with messages or material appropriate to your own mission and work. Content Curation – posting links to interesting online resources, including websites, blog posts, Facebook pages or Twitter feeds – is essential to broadening your own online community. It adds new voices and new life to the content you are providing for your audience. Simply messaging out to your network over and over again without leveraging partners is like turning on the “recycle air” button in your car. Sooner or later, the air gets stale.
Once you’ve found partners, be proactive in collaborating. Coordinate your messaging in advance for advocacy campaigns and other activities. It’s simply the basics for any advocacy or media campaign, online or otherwise. Here at UWNYC, we create a “content calendar” in advance for our events, news announcements, and special campaigns. We identify when we will be posting, which channels we will use, and the online partners we hope will help spread our message. While spontaneous messaging is essential, balancing this with an advance plan for structured postings provides a solid framework for building your content presentation.
Careful stewardship of donors is a classic fundraising and development strategy. Individuals who send a $25 check in response to an initial direct mail appeal are gradually encouraged to increase their commitment and the size of their donations. Someday, these individual donors may make a major gift or a final bequest.
The same models holds true for your social media community. Once engaged, you will want to encourage fans and followers to take active steps to increase their involvement with your agency, your mission and your work. Invite them to take part in online and off-line events. Ask them to share your message and participate in advocacy campaigns.
Immediate donations aren’t necessarily the goal. If you were going out to rally people on the street to your cause, you probably wouldn’t start by asking for a donation. You are going to ask them to engage with you, work with you. Social media’s job is to find people who share a passion for your mission and create an opportunity for them to partner with you. Social media is a way to get them in the door. Over time, if they believe in your work and they are able to give, they are going to do it.
“Conversion” can be applied in many more ways than we traditionally use it. Instead of asking, how can we convert Facebook likes into donations, we should be asking what is there about our work that appeals enough to constituents to get more involved? What do we offer to our community that they’re going to find inspiring and worthwhile? What opportunities to engage with our work are we creating for them? When we work on measuring against engagement goals, we see a more meaningful, long-term return on the time and other resources we put into executing our social media strategy.
Dara Emru is the Online Engagement Manager at United Way of New York City.