Nov/Dec 2006

Online Social Networks — An Emerging Strategy for Reaching and Engaging Constituents

by Vinay Bhagat, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, Convio

Online social networks allow people to come together around shared interests or causes, such as making friends, dating, business networking, hobbies, interests and political discourse. The number of visitors to online social networks has grown exponentially in recent years. In June of 2006 alone, MySpace.com had an estimated 55 million visitors. While most social networks attract a very young demographic (the primary age group for MySpace.com is 14-34), there are several networks geared toward older individuals, such as Gather.com which appeals to audiences like public radio listeners.

Virtually every nonprofit organization seeks cost effective ways to reach new supporters, and many often are interested in attracting younger constituents. Will social networks represent an effective way to access and engage new supporters in the future?

Consider the following insight from two nonprofits long known for their progressive use of online marketing. Both organizations have begun exploring new ways to leverage online social networks.

The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy maintains an informal presence on 19 different social networking sites including Gather.com, Care2.com, and Wikipedia. The Conservancy's Senior Manager of Digital Marketing, Jonathon D. Colman, often represents the group on these social networks as an environmental enthusiast and an individual representative of the Conservancy versus an official voice of the organization. The Nature Conservancy believes that this approach resonates well across various audiences. Overall, the organization spends about three hours per week maintaining its presence on these social networking sites.

Since beginning its online social networking efforts, hundreds of individuals have joined as friends or connections of the Conservancy on the various networks and thousands more have visited its web site. Depending on the network, the conversion rates from friends to donors, members or e-newsletter subscribers is mixed. Although Jonathon makes an effort to provide links to the Conservancy's Web site when relevant, more people are interested in engaging in dialogue within the network versus visiting The Nature Conservancy's Web site, http://www.nature.org/.

The Conservancy's social network presence has, however, been very helpful in finding a few "super-enthusiasts" — individuals who join the organization's file and become very involved. One such person, who previously was not a Conservancy member, ran a 24-hour "blog-a-thon" to raise money for the organization. Another positive outcome has been enhancements in the Conservancy's search engine optimization. As more Nature Conservancy links appear on social network pages, the organization's Web site relevancy increases which helps the group's Web site appear higher on search result listings.

To date, The Nature Conservancy has concentrated its social network efforts on reaching new constituents. Its involvement with one network, StumbleUpon, has resulted in nearly 35,000 visitors to the Conservancy's Web site. The organization also has experimented with promoting its Gather.com presence to current constituents on the Conservancy's home page and via its email newsletter. This test yielded approximately 60 new members to The Nature Conservancy's Gather.com group. Gather.com is particularly interesting to the Conservancy because of the closely aligned public radio demographic, enabling increased brand-building and findability for a key audience.

One challenge The Nature Conservancy has encountered is that most social networking services do not provide good details for page visitation or other metrics. This makes it difficult to accurately gauge the success of these initiatives outside of actions constituents take on the Conservancy's Web site.

Defenders of Wildlife

Defenders of Wildlife (DOW) has leapt into the online social networking world by launching both an individual profile and a group on MySpace.com. DOW also is evaluating other networks like Gather.com and Eons.com, but the group is careful with its time investment until a true return on investment can be proven.

DOW's individual profile page, http://www.myspace.com/defendersofwildlife, has attracted more than 1200 "friends." At this time the organization purposely is not fundraising on MySpace.com, but instead has focused it efforts on advocacy. To create a viral effect, DOW offers a "site badge," or banner. This is a piece of HTML code that constituents can insert within their MySpace.com personal pages to help promote their campaigns and recruit activists (Fig. 1).

The early results of DOW's efforts are encouraging. DOW can directly attribute 116 actions to their growing network of MySpace.com friends. These numbers are very small compared with what the organization can generate through its online direct response efforts, but DOW considers the conversion rates to be promising.

Perhaps most exciting is the fact that a number of passionate individuals have taken it upon themselves to help advance the work of DOW by creating their own personal campaign pages. For example, the group http://groups.myspace.com/savethewolves has more than 1100 members and links to an advocacy campaign page on DOW's Web site.

So far, DOW has not actively encouraged existing email subscribers to participate in the organization's MySpace.com community. The group is, however, considering surveying members and then reaching out to any individuals who indicate that they have personal social network pages.

Social networking sites have proliferated in the last few years, and certain ones like MySpace.com have now begun attracting huge volumes of traffic and members. While current results for most organizations exploring an online social networking strategy have been modest, these sites represent an interesting and cost effective way for nonprofits to reach new and younger constituents. Since creating a simple social network presence and testing constituent recruitment strategies requires a minimal amount of time, nonprofit organizations should consider experimenting on these sites to help better understand the potential benefits of online social networking for their organizations.

See this article and other columns by Vinay Bhagat at http://www.fundraisingsuccessmag.com/.


Online Social Networks — An Emerging Strategy for Reaching and Engaging Constituents | Convio