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Nonprofits

Can a “Like” Save a Life?

A Georgetown University and Waggener Edstrom study sheds new light on the debate surrounding the effectiveness of online influence.

UNICEF Sweden issued a bold call to its social media supporters two months ago: Don’t “Like” us; give us your money.

Though it likely caused more uproar among those of us in the “social media for social good” community than among the organization’s own supporters, it certainly raised some important questions about the potential trade-off of encouraging online support at the expense of offline support, and of the growing value of influence relative to other contributions and individual can make.

We explored many of these same questions in a study that Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication conducted last summer in partnership with Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. We wanted to gain insights into the “engagement life cycle” (from learning about a cause, to deciding if and how to support it, to perceptions of personal impact) among the highly desirable group of individuals who are both active participants in social media and active supporters of charitable organizations and campaigns. The “Digital Persuasion” survey, fielded among 2,000 American adults, yielded a wealth of nuanced data and further illuminates some important trends.

Here are three takeaways for nonprofits that may be considering the best approach to engaging their supporters online:

People learn about causes from social media—whether they support them online or off. There are distinct categories of supporters that emerged in our research, including people who continue to support causes online only and people who support offline only. However, there was a universal way that these individuals first hear about the causes and charities they support: social media. For both groups, social media trumped all other sources of information—online news sites, friends or family in person or via email, and traditional media.

Like it or not, the Facebook newsfeed has become a vital piece of real estate, and organizations must think about ways to ensure that their information will appear where their supporters are looking. A “Like” does allow an organization to claim a piece of that newsfeed (however fleeting), as do a number of other online actions, including commenting on, sharing, or posting content. Discouraging these types of actions among your current supporters only limits your exposure in the very places where people are most readily exchanging information today; it’s akin to asking a reporter not to write about you or letting your website domain expire.

Most people who can take further action will take further action. Campaigns such as UNICEF’s paint a bleak picture of online supporters. They are alternately categorized as lazy, bored, or selfish. In reality, a majority of our survey respondents (55 percent) reported that they were inspired to take further actions to support a cause after supporting it through social media. Among the actions they were compelled to take, donating money (68 percent); volunteering (53 percent); and donating clothing, food, or personal items (52 percent) occurred most frequently. Interestingly, for those who did not take further action, it wasn’t because (as is often reported in criticism of so-called slacktivists) they felt they had done enough or that “Liking” was a substitute for other kinds of support. It was, quite simply, that they didn’t have the money (59 percent) or the time (45 percent) to support the organization in other ways.

When an organization such as UNICEF tells its supporters that it’s either money or nothing, it’s missing out on valuable opportunities to cultivate a captive audience—those who may not have the funds or time to give now but who would give in the future.

We also were able to pinpoint the types of content that triggered people to make that leap from online support to offline. Respondents reported that stories (56 percent), videos (41 percent), and photos (40 percent) were important in motivating offline action, as well as seeing family and friends in their networks also taking action (39 percent). As organizations continue to think through their content strategies across the various social media platforms, it’s important to consider what types of content will compel the actions you want your supporters to take.

It’s all about influence. Perhaps the worst misconception about individuals who support causes through social media propagated by these types of campaigns is that they don’t understand the difference between a virtual “Like” and a real dollar. Our study shows that they do, in fact, know the difference; they also inherently understand something that many organizations are beginning to acknowledge and embrace: the value of influence.

More than three quarters of our respondents (76 percent) reported a desire to influence others to care about the causes they care about. They deemed it more important than being seen as knowledgeable about charities and causes (55 percent), or being seen as charitable (51 percent). And this desire to influence others extends to the types of actions they are willing to take online in support of causes. More than half of respondents (54 percent) “Liked” a cause on Facebook so that they could influence friends and family to also “Like” the cause. The number one reason that people reported sharing information about causes with their social networks was to influence others to support the causes.

Given what we know about how people are accessing information about causes today and how they make decisions about supporting those causes, organizations should be encouraging this kind of social sharing—not writing it off as secondary to a financial donation. Provide online supporters with the tools and inspiration to share your organization’s story, and recognize—rather than reprimand—them for their efforts.

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