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What Is the Real Value of Social Media for Nonprofits?


Thanks to marketing evangelists like Seth Godin, the nonprofit sector is fully on board with social media. And why not? Tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can help your organization reach and engage an entire audience with no upfront costs.

However, the real cost of social media comes in many other forms: time spent creating compelling content and having people on staff who can maintain your many social media accounts. Needless to say, it is necessary to keep in mind the time and opportunity costs of gathering all those Tweets and Likes.

Of course, you do have other options. You could hire more staff or recruit outside help (there are plenty of social media consultants that will gladly handle this for you). But depending on your goals, this could easily cost you anywhere from $30,000 to $90,000 per year.

So before you post any job descriptions, it’s first important to understand what social media campaigns are actually achieving for your organization. In other words, ask yourself: what is my return on investment (ROI) for social media?

It’s Difficult to Measure Social Media ROI

Having a new fan on Facebook is not necessarily the same as having a new donor or volunteer. True engagement with your nonprofit is about activating your social media network to take the next steps: engage, volunteer, give. For example, there are literally hundreds of Facebook pages, many with thousands of Likes—focused on the troubled Darfur region of Sudan. But how many of these people can articulate the problems in Darfur? Connecting on social media is often just a first step. The key to success is moving those fans to action.

Unfortunately, tracing social media connections to determine your organization’s ROI is a bit tricky. You can draw correlations, but it is hard to connect the dots between an increased social media presence and improved donations.

Consider this analysis of last year’s Old Spice campaign by Jacquie McCarnan. She concludes that increases in followers and visitors to Old Spice’s Twitter, YouTube and Facebook pages explain increased sales, but she neglects to consider the impact that television and print ads had on this revenue stream. (I bought Old Spice body wash too after seeing these commercials, but never once went to any of the company’s social media pages. I just thought the commercials were funny.)

According to Mark Ritson in Marketing Week, analyses like the one by McCarnan distract from proven effective methods of marketing. He argues that “too many marketers have forgotten that if you cannot demonstrate ROI you should not be committing your organization’s money to it.”

For many organizations, this appears to be the case. In a recent survey by Econsultancy, 47 percent of the companies surveyed in the report indicated that “they are unable to measure results from their social media activity.” If for-profit companies with ample financial resources cannot measure social media ROI, it is likely that many nonprofits face a similar quandary.

Social Media Should Be Kept in Context

When running a social media campaign, size, audience type, primary funding sources and organizational purpose all have an influence on the efficacy of your investment. For instance, with a large organization like the Lance Armstrong Foundation, their core social media focus is generating greater brand awareness. And with 1.5 million Facebook fans and 120,000 Twitter followers, this is plausible.

In fact Brooke McMillian, the Lance Armstrong Foundation's online community manager, says they don’t use social media to make “hard asks” for donations at all. She describes their social media presence this way:

“We feel that if you build a safe and supportive environment people will want to engage further. At the very least they know they can contact us for support.”

According to web analytics firm Lunametrics, cultivating brand awareness and audience engagement is one of the definite benefits of social media. Nonetheless, this benefit might not fit with every nonprofit’s marketing strategy. Without a definitive guarantee of producing ROI in the form of donations and volunteers from social media campaigns, it might be too risky for smaller grassroots nonprofits to make sizable investments in staff hires or consultants.

Leveraging Software to Leverage Social Media

While it is still somewhat challenging to completely or accurately measure social media ROI, nonprofits can still ensure they are making the most out Facebook and Twitter with the right software applications.

One way is by integrating constituent relationship management (CRM) software that can help manage your social media accounts along with the traditional aspects of you marketing arm. Most major CRM vendors, such as Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics CRM, are adding social media tools to their products.

There are also programs offered by vendors such as BuzzLogic or Nielsen that can monitor conversations on social media sites. These solutions can help you track what is being said about your organization online. Social analytics applications are another option and, as we have noted in the past, are often used in conjunction with social monitoring software. These applications can report on trends and provide organizations the type of insight they need to develop more effective marketing strategies.

Finally, there are programs being developed to incorporate your fundraising efforts directly into your social media presence. Nonprofit software vendors, such as Convio, are rolling out solutions to support social media fundraising that will integrate your online fundraising capabilities across platforms. Meanwhile, companies like Orange Leap are infiltrating the world of mobile apps with relationship management software that can be accessed via smartphone.

So while the industry seeks to answer the question about how to best measure social media ROI, there are still resources available to help evaluate your presence. Be sure to tell us what you think. What social media strategies are you incorporating and how are you measuring them?

Thumbnail image courtesy of Fabian Medina.

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About the Author

David joined the Software Advice team to research and report on three industries: accounting, nonprofit, and professional service automation software. Away from the ERP software blogosphere, David enjoys playing tennis, traveling, and cooling off from the hot Texas summers in the pool.

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