October 14, 2012

Go Beyond Counting Tweets to Find Success With Social Media

Jameson Zed/SIPA/Newscom

Unicef measured online results and found that the highest quality of involvement and discussion was produced by a social-media campaign with goodwill ambassador Mia Farrow.

Solving today’s problems is so complicated that nonprofits need to find ways to build networks of people, organizations, and institutions that can work together to make a difference. That’s why social media have been essential for nonprofits to master—they allow even the smallest group to build a potent force for changing the world.

But many nonprofit groups aren’t realizing their potential because they haven’t figured out how to measure results on social media or with other efforts. They need to build strong networks and turn the findings into data that offer insights on whether they’re moving people from simply tweeting about a social issue to making a financial donation to an organization working on that issue, or to e-mailing an elected official with the power to change things.

Successful organizations use data intelligently to improve their decision making and figure out what works. They:

  • Don’t just add up numbers; they measure what progress they have made toward achieving their mission and goals.
  • Use measures of performance to make decisions and improve the organization and its work every day,
  • Measure failure first and make sure they understand why an effort exceeded or missed expectations, so as not to confuse an accidental achievement with a strategy that works.
  • Understand how to set up and measure low-risk experiments to test their strategy and tactics and learn from them.
  • Use data to set priorities and juggle workloads.
  • Share their measurements with outsiders because they recognize that it’s better to advance the overall mission than help just one organization make progress.

Let’s look at the achievements of some groups have made use of measurements and data in these ways.

Unicef. The international children’s organization recognized when it created its new Social and Civic Media department that it didn’t matter how many people liked its Facebook page or retweeted its messages. After all, the charity already is one of the best-known organizations in America. Instead, it wanted to find ways to figure out what drove real, substantive discussion.

What Unicef most needed to know was which types of posts drove comments that reflected or generated a greater understanding of its mission, so it developed measures that helped assess the quality of conversation, not just the number of people who visited.

The results were surprising. The videos the charity produced were the most costly pieces of content on the site, yet they did not necessarily lead to the kind of action and activism the charity wanted.

On the other hand, anytime the organization mentioned its popular goodwill ambassadors (specifically David Beckham and Shakira and Serena Williams), it got lots of people pointing to that material on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.

But the highest quality of involvement and discussion was produced by goodwill ambassador Mia Farrow’s trip to Congo. While Ms. Farrow had many fewer followers, the people who kept track of her on social networks were older and more informed about Unicef’s work. Many of them spread the message about Unicef’s work themselves. Learning that information helped shape the department’s priorities.

MomsRising. The grassroots advocacy group also shuns measures of how many Facebook fans it has and instead assesses how well its social-media campaigns and other activities are pushing lawmakers and other policy makers to act in improving the lives of families.

So when MomsRising was asked to bring mothers to the White House to talk with policy makers about their experience with Medicaid, it counted that as an indicator of progress.

It also gathers all staff members for a weekly 30-minute meeting, called “Metrics Mondays,” to discuss the numbers and what they mean. That conversation provides more insights than any single person would come to alone.

DoSomething.org. This small nonprofit group, which spurs young people to become volunteers and activists, has two full-time data analysts on staff who routinely answer the question: “What do the data say?”

The group has enshrined a culture of celebrating failure as a way to learn from mistakes as it assesses its data and holds a “Fail Fest” at staff meetings. Each staff member presents a campaign or program failure based on data analysis and three things he or she has learned. To remove any sense of stigma, the group’s CEO, Nancy Lublin, places a pink boa around the shoulders of her colleagues as they talk about their failures.

The nonprofit works hard to share its insights with outsiders. It makes public a dashboard showing results of its weekly campaigns and sends the data to people who are working on similar causes.

David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The grant maker makes available online all the information it gleans as it evaluates its grants. It doesn’t just issue a final report. Instead, it releases preliminary findings online and asks outsiders for their analysis, in a sense using crowdsourcing to produce more insights.

At a time when nonprofits face tremendous financial pressures, it’s easy to worry about the costs in both money and time of adding a focus on measurement to the workload. But most organizations already have the data they need; they just don’t have a process for incorporating it into their work.

And what most groups don’t realize is that good measurement ends up being a time saver: It gives them the data to say no to an idea they know won’t work or to say, “Absolutely, that’s what leads to the social change we want to achieve.”

Beth Kanter and Katie Delahaye Paine are authors of “Measuring the Networked Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World,” which was just published by Jossey-Bass.