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SXSW: What Social Media Analytics and Data Can't Tell You

I’m just back from the SXSW Interactive Festival where I was on a panel called “What Social Media Analytics Can’t Tell You” moderated by Alexandra Samuel of Vision Critical, Jeremiah Owyang, Crowd Companies, and Colby Flint, Discovery Channel. We discussed how social media analytics can provide some great information on your existing social media followers, but at the same time, there are gaps that need to be filled through other techniques.


The room was packed. Jeremiah kicked off our session with a call to retweet a photo of the audience, our hash tag, #SMdata, trended on Twitter and there was a robust back channel discussion of interested people. Alexandra gave an overview of the methodology offered by her company, Vision Critical, and some insights they have learned from combining a survey data from large sample with appending actual social media usage.   Next each of the panelists presented a research study based that combined large sample survey data on our issue area and appended actual social media activity usage.   Jeremiah presented an overview of his study about the collaborative economy and you find Jeremiah’s report and infographic here.  Colby shared results from a study on social TV study for the Discovery Channel that they conducted that looked at various patterns between social media users and their TV viewing habits.

I presented on a study that I did with Vision Critical’s data and large insight communities  in both the US and Canada that compared the social media activity levels of donors.  In the nonprofit sector, we are also lucky to have excellent financial and benchmarking data from Blackbaud and Chronicle of Philanthropy. But many nonprofits rely on social media analytics alone to give them data about social media and online fundraising campaigns, looking at conversion rates of landing pages.  If they incorporate survey data it is often based on self-reported use of social media.  So, the ability to implement a survey with a sample size of 30,000 plus and then append actual social media usage data was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Good research starts with hypothesis generation. I queried colleagues Henry Timms Giving Tuesday and Steve MacLaughlin BlackBlaud and others who work at  nonprofits with large scale online fundraising campaigns that have a robust social media component.  (See this write up of Henry Timms recent SXSW panel about Giving Tuesday)  I asked them what would be most useful to find out? Lots of theories came up about donation triggers and transaction platforms as well as slacktivism.

The overall hypothesis was: Does more social media activities equal more donations?

Active social media users have been labeled by nonprofits as “Charity Slackvists.”  It refers to someone who does something for a charity online that requires minimal personal effort such as changing your Facebook status update.    It is a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it take satisfaction from the feeling they have contributed.  The underlying assumption being promoted by the term is that these low cost efforts substitute for more substantive actions – like making a donation.

Last year, UNICEF Sweden launched an advertisement criticizing Facebook slacktivism and calling for greater monetary support.    UNICEF Sweden’s critique of charity slacktivism was an extreme case, but was their criticism warranted?

If the slacktivist theory was correct, we’d expect to see a dramatic inverse relationship between social media activity and charitable donations: the more actively someone uses social, the less likely they’ll donate.   That’s not what we found.  It is more of an on-ramp to donations.   We found very little variation of donors based on their social media habits and activity levels.  59% of the survey sample reported making a donation to a charity in the last year, consistent with the 58% of the total population from the benchmarking study that Vision Critical did.  Facebook users who like fewer pages on Facebook may be slightly more likely than the average to donate (72%),  but once you factor in age,  social media users are no more or less likely to be donors.  (Our sample was combined US and Canada populations)

But does that onramp of active social media users who do donate lead to a pot gold at the end of the rainbow?  The survey data said, not really.    The total average amount of charitable giving for donors (per year) is very comparable between social media users and the general population, and doesn’t vary by usage – no matter how active or inactive someone is on social, they tend to give the same amount over the course of the year.

So, that does that mean nonprofits should give up on active social media users as a fundraising target?

No.    When we looked at who is moved to donate after encountering a charity via a social media channel, there is a positive relationship between the level of social media use and propensity to go from social to donation.   Active social media users are donating.   The chart shows that the more someone uses FB, the more likely they are to have made a social-inspired donation, especially those who frequently update FB status or like a lot of pages, less so with those who have a large number of friends.

This finding is the gold in the study.   These more active social media users are NEW donors to the charity.  This data look at whether the donor was new to the charity or a repeat donor and their social media activity on Facebook – and you can see that people with who have a lot of friends, update frequently, and like a lot of pages tend to be new donors to the charity.   I don’t know about you, but I don’t hear nonprofits complaining about having too many new donors.   But social media continues to be an undervalued cultivation channel for new donors.

On the survey, we asked people if they shared an appeal for donations to a charity.   Not surprisingly, the more often people post to FB, the more likely they are to post something about the charity they supported with that donation.  But what’s really important is that the more active they are on FB, the more likely it is that whatever they’ve posted is going to be a specific appeal for donations.   It is a virtuous circle.  If you get them to donate, they will share and solicit people in their network.

There are some preliminary findings from this study.   Stay tuned for a fuller release of the data, along with an infographic.

These findings have the following implications, which aren’t obvious when you rely on conventional social media analytics, where those less-active social media users disappear.  There are significant differences between these different groups, which nonprofits need to recognize:

  • Most crucially: let go of the “slacktivism” theory. Your most active social audience is valuable to you — not just for their posts, but for their dollars.
  • Social media is a channel to acquire new donors, but be sure to use social to engage and connect with them and capture contact information through all channels.
  • If you aren’t urging your donors to post about you when they donate, you’re missing a huge opportunity. While the majority of more active social media users (those who post at least once every other day) will go ahead and post anyhow, only a third of less-active users promote the charities they support…even if they’ve made a social-media inspired donation.

What you think? If you could append survey data to actual social media usage, what would you like to know?

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