Reach, Trust & Amplification: The Importance of Social Media in Nonprofit Marketing (STUDY)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to share recent IMPACTS data (collected in real-time through the end of last month) regarding the comparative importance of different marketing channels. The key finding? Data indicates that social media is the fastest growing and most influential marketing channel.

A few weeks ago, I shared data indicating that websites and mobile platforms – followed by word of mouth, social media, and peer review sites – play a disproportionate role in encouraging visitation decisions to visitor-serving organizations compared to more traditional marketing mediums such as radio and print media. With the help of coworkers at IMPACTS, I’ve drilled deeper into available data in order to answer the question of how these platforms play a role in the current marketing world. To do this, we looked at these mediums through three parameters: reach, trust, and amplification. Then, we calculated the weighted influence of these parameters to assess the overall value of each channel.

We measured the following information channels/marketing mediums:

  • Web – an organization’s website or an online news site, for instance
  • Social media – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and other social networking sites
  • Word of mouth (WOM) – Person-to-person sharing of information
  • Email – Good ol’ email.
  •  Mobile web – web accessed via mobile device or mobile platform
  • Peer review web – TripAdvisor, Yelp, and other online review sites
  • Television – both commercial and public broadcasts, news programming, information acquired through television
  • Radio – both satellite and terrestrial programming
  • Newspaper (print)– Any newspaper source in print (content accessed online are included in the “web” category. In other words, the print edition of The New York Times falls within the “newspaper” category, whereas content accessed via would be considered a “web” resource.)
  • Periodicals and magazines (print) – Magazines and periodicals in hardcopy (again, online versions are included in the “web” category)
  • Direct mail – That stuff that physically arrives to your home/office and clutters your countertop
  • Other print – Brochures, flyers, other informational, printed material
  • Other – billboards, bus signs, posters, etc.
Take a look at our findings below and consider how your organization values these channels. Do your organizational priorities match the public perception and actual use of these marketing channels? Click on the graphs below to pull up larger images.


1. Reach

This parameter quantifies the relative efficacy of each channel in terms of that channel’s ability to expose an individual or household to a message within any defined duration. In other words, we’re trying to understand how effective any medium is at “reaching” an overall population (or, for that matter, a targeted audience such as women aged 35-54, etc.)

As you can see above, in terms of “reach,” websites are the primary channels used by the market to acquire information. An interesting item of note here is the growth in the importance of web/mobile platforms (web, mobile web, peer review web, and social media) compared to the June 2011 baseline data. In fact, every defined marketing channel that was NOT web or mobile-based (except word of mouth, which is the only channel based on person-to-person interaction) experienced a decline within the past year in terms of its reach.


2. Trust

This parameter quantifies how credible these channels are perceived to be as information sources. In this metric, we still see traditional, printed materials leading the way. We sometimes refer to this as the “Publication Effect” – there has been an observed tendency for the market to “believe” information obtained via mediums with higher barriers to publication (e.g. newspapers and magazines) than those with relatively easy publication thresholds (e.g. online forums). And, this perception may be reality. Not only do more traditional publishers employ “credibility protectors” such as fact-checkers, researchers and editors, the physical nature of the medium tends to imply a certain level of gravitas that a more ephemeral medium simply cannot achieve.

Still, the web and mobile platforms have generally displayed the most positive change in terms of being identified as trustworthy sources of information, and I expect for this trend to continue as more traditional publishers develop increasingly robust online presences.

Self-published content such as direct mail are among the least trusted sources of information. (Interesting finding: Upon reviewing data from previous years, we know that the trust value of direct mail tends to further plummet during election seasons when mailboxes are littered with campaign propaganda – and we may reasonably expect this in the upcoming seasons.) Other printed materials (e.g. brochures) are also considered to be comparatively untrustworthy sources of information.

This data should be of considerable note to nonprofit organizations (or any company) spending a significant portion of their budget on printed materials while largely ignoring its online reputation – especially if the organization could alternatively invest an equivalent amount to hire a resource to manage its online engagement and social media platforms.

This data is particularly intriguing to me because it illustrates a very unique moment in terms of the evolution of marketing and information-share. Perhaps the way that we think of printed materials such as direct mail will someday soon join payphones, Polaroid pictures, Blockbuster video stores, road maps and telephone books in the pantheon of obsolescence.


3. Amplification

Amplification quantifies the re-distribution potential of the respective information channel. Marketers should care about amplification because this measure potentially indicates the amount of “marketing bang” that an organization will get for its buck – a particularly relevant item for cash-strapped nonprofits. This parameter measures how likely folks are to share these marketing channels with others. In my line of work, we sometimes refer to an information channel’s amplification value as its “sneeze factor” – how many other people can we infect with this message? (Quick apology to health-related nonprofiteers reading this post!)

As you can see, web and mobile-based sites generally have higher amplification rates and are easier to share than more traditional marketing channels. This seems sensible. It is, of course, easier to forward an email than it is to share a radio spot with a friend… but some interesting habits of the general population and how they use/relate to these channels emerge in these numbers. For instance, when compared to other printed information sources such as newspapers and direct mail, we generally find a higher amplification rate for magazines because they often have much higher production values (i.e. look and feel “nicer”). Because of this, magazines are more likely than other printed channels to occupy a spot on the coffee table until the next month’s issue arrives. During that time, friends coming over may see these magazines, flip through their pages, and presto! The magazine as an information channel has achieved amplification.

Unfortunately for many museums and nonprofits spending large amounts of money on printed materials, less substantial brochures do not have the same fate and are tucked away in private spaces or ultimately land in the trash before they can be amplified.

Though high in credibility value, word of mouth has a low amplification rate because it is difficult to reproduce and scale an in-person interaction.


4. Overall Value

The overall value represents the weighted, relative values of these information channels after collectively considering the reach, trust and amplification metrics. The results here may be stunning in their comparative value – especially for marketing traditionalists or web and social media “nonbelievers.” All of the web and mobile-based information sources experienced growth from June 2011 to March 2012 (i.e. web, social media, mobile web, and peer review web). No other media channels experienced growth. Email also experienced a decline, and though this is indeed a medium that is dependent upon the web, it does not represent a “living” platform with rotating, changeable content and thus functions differently than social media, peer review web, etc.

Social media is an enormously important component of your overall marketing and communication strategy. In fact, data suggests that it is the most important channel to engage your users and constituents. The overall value of social media increased 49.2% from June 2011 to March 2012. This is (quite obviously) the most significant change observed across the quantified information channels.

This data serves as yet another reminder of the recent, rapid evolution in the ways that people communicate, spread information, and find value in marketing messages. This is more than just anecdotal word on the street; it is compelling evidence of the way that our society behaves. CEOs and managers slow to “believe” in the power of online platforms and social media may need to lower the printed brochure in their hands, put away the flyers, and move their communications into the present.

Findings such as these present the contemporary nonprofit organization with a handful of basic choices: Relevant or obsolete? Solvent or destitute? Growth or regression? More or less? And, perhaps most importantly over time: Life or death?

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 9 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

9 Responses to Reach, Trust & Amplification: The Importance of Social Media in Nonprofit Marketing (STUDY)

  1. Tim

    Interesting stuff! Do you mean to say that the overall value index scores show how strongly the categories motivated visits to museums? Or that how important their role is in the marketing universe in general?


    • colleendilen

      Hi Tim. Thank you for asking for this clarification. This data shows the reach, trust and amplification of each marketing outlet as valued by the U.S. composite population (the U.S. composite is representative of the attitudes, opinions and perceptions of the entire US adult population). This data displays how the U.S. population consumes information and, in turn, may be motivated to visit a museum (or generally motivated to do anything else). It is not just representative of high propensity visitors (HPVs- those persons possessing the demographic, psychographic and behavioral attributes that tend to indicate an increased likelihood of visiting a museum) but HPVs are included in the composite.

      In the vernacular of your question, the answer is that the values indicate “how important their role is in the marketing universe in general.” However, “the marketing universe” includes HVPs as well as new demographics from which museums may seek visitation. I hope this answers your question. If not, please let me know!

      • Tim

        When you write “May be motivated to visit” I read this to mean you have not collected data about how they were actually motivated to visit a museum. We collect an enormous amount of this kind of data at the Getty, and we don’t see this kind of influence from social media. Are you talking about potential influence on visits, or actual measured influence on visits?

      • colleendilen

        I confess: My wording was unintentionally confusing! By “may be motivated” I was trying to qualify that it is often very challenging to ascribe motivations to any one element – it is often a combination of factors. Specifically applied to the reach, amplification, etc. data, to the degree that someone is seeking testimonials when considering a visit, then credible endorsements would serve a beneficial purpose. However, I would hesitate to state that the availability of this information – in and of itself – is necessarily catalytic and/or motivational. There are too many complex factors at play to boil it down to an “information=motivation” proposition.

        We do have empirical data concerning visitors’ self-described motivations. The challenge that we have “on the back-end” is similar to trying to parse influence in advance of the visit – a complex, multi-faceted number of influential elements collectively motivate a behavior. We find that visitors tend to over-report certain factors (e.g. advertising) and under-report others (e.g. social media). Part of the reporting noise is one of lexicon – whereas we may draw a narrow parameter around social media as an influencer, increasingly we find that the public considers this as a form of WOM. This noise also shows up in exit surveys that attempt to ascribe visitor motivation. For example, many organizations ask visitors if they saw their advertising and, if so, did it contribute to their decision to visit? If a visitor responds in the affirmative, then they are often asked what form of advertising they saw (e.g. TV, radio, online, print, outdoor, etc.) We regularly see visitors reporting the influence of a TV ad…when, in fact, the organization never ran a TV campaign (or a print campaign, etc.).

  2. Ron Sellers

    I’d like to know more about how the questions were actually asked. Comparing direct mail and social media, for instance, is not a relevant comparison. By its nature, anything received by “direct mail” is known to be promotional in nature; most posts on social media are friend-to-friend, rather than promotions. If the questions simply compared DM to SM, it’s not relevant. If the questions asked about DM versus SM advertising or communication efforts from companies, then we’d have a realistic comparison. If it’s just DM vs. SM, of course SM is seen as more credible, because most of what I’m getting on SM (or e-mails or other sources like that) is not promotional – it’s comments and input from people I know, which obviously is more credible to me than advertising. Same thing with magazines and newspapers – did the study just compare the channel or advertising in the channel? Most of the content of those media is news, which will be seen as far more credible than promotion.

    • colleendilen

      Thanks for your feedback! A quick overview of the study: The study wasn’t conducted in a “relative” or otherwise comparative context. Instead, the values represent a quantification by individual channel based on the market’s feedback. Much of the assessment criteria involve latent (i.e. unobservable) conditions such as trust – thus, the application of structural equation models were instrumental to lend quantitative parameters to these factors. Thus, for example, the overall “value” of direct mail has been quantified in an absolute sense. Similarly, the value of social media is an absolute number. So quantified, these absolutes are then suitable for direct comparison (apples-to-apples)! Clearly, the market does have perceptions informed by their experiences with the respective channels/mediums…and, for this reason, it is important NOT to “frame” or otherwise facilitate a comparative context that would potentially bias the finding.

      In terms of relevance, our approach is that the market is the ultimate arbiter of such concerns. While internal experts may broadly differentiate between direct mail and social media, we don’t find significant extant data indicating that the market separately considers “paid SM” as a unique channel separately differentiated from “non-paid SM” and, thus, a more accurate comparator to a paid medium such as direct mail. To the contrary, we observe enormous convergence that tends to further blur these perceptual barriers. Likewise, when it comes to print media, it is untrue that “most of the content of those media is news.” The most recent data available from Hall’s Reports – an entity that provides print media content analysis – suggests that 50.3% of popular trade magazine content is, in fact, advertising. In terms of daily newspapers, if you exclude “free” papers with no subscription basis (which tend to be very ad heavy), 38.7% of their content is advertising…but this number has been in steep decline in near accordance with subscription rates.

      I also don’t think that the data supports an assertion that “news…is far more credible than promotion.” The market does not evidence this perception. To the contrary, we observe a marked decline in the credibility of ostensible “news” channels commensurate with the perceived “partisan-ization” of media (i.e. MSNBC panders to the “left” whereas FOX is the propoganda arm of the “right”). In other words, the data suggests that people “opt-in” to “news sources” that conform to their beliefs, and distrust alternative (arguably, equally “credible”) sources. I think that we observe the increasing perceived efficacy of promotion as a source of credible information when compared to traditional news content most in the election cycle – campaigns invest significantly more resources in paid messaging than they do earned media.

      Based on our work with several national campaigns, the data compelling indicate the efficacy of paid messaging as a means to both shape opinion and inform potential constituencies. In any event, the data completely agrees with you that NO channel is nearly as valuable/credible as comments from people whom you know and trust! In the end, this is perhaps the greatest benefit working in the favor of social media – it is the most scalable method of promulgation and endorsement!

      • Ron Sellers

        Is there some way I can get a copy of the full study, or at least the methodology section? There are still substantial unanswered questions about how you went about quantifying these measures. In addition, although you refute my comment that most magazine content is non-marketing-related by noting a statistic claiming advertising is 50.3% (okay, technically 49.7% is not “most”), the fact still remains that there is far more non-marketing content in magazines, newspapers, or television than in DM, which by its very definition is 100% marketing. I still am having a problem with the fact that the study seems to have attempted to compare all content in print, SM, etc. with only the marketing content from DM. That’s a little like comparing all media content regarding the Obama campaign with only paid marketing from the Romney campaign. Unless, of course, I’m not understanding the methodology because I don’t have all the information…so can you correct that potential problem?

      • colleendilen

        Hi Ron, I checked with the study’s sponsor and, at this moment in time, they are declining to put their entire study in the public domain. They previously had granted me permission to publish the excerpts that served as the basis for the post. I understand that you have your own set of opinions, and I hope that the information and data that the sponsor did agree to share will prove helpful to you. As a note, the sponsor continues to track related findings against the baseline measurement, and the outcomes are highly repeatable. As such, I’m confident that you would be able to design and deploy a similar study that achieved a similar finding if you would find such additional supporting documentation valuable to your work. Should the sponsor determine at a future date that additional information from the study becomes less proprietary and allows its distribution, I will be certain to pass any such additional information on to you. Again, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments and opinions!

  3. Tim

    Ron, I’m likewise unpersuaded.


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