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flow chart

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Nonprofit Social Media Data Dilemma

marketing and sales cartoon

Everyone seems to be all about the world of “big data” right now. And – as a data nerd who gets her professional kicks in that same space – I’m not (even a little bit) complaining. I’ve found in my work with IMPACTS that nonprofits are placing an incredibly strong emphasis on data collection and analysis. Ostensibly, organizations paying careful attention to their social media data may seem an encouraging trend, but in our age of information overload many organizations are misplacing emphasis on the wrong metrics – or misinterpreting the meaning of these metrics. In essence, social media metrics are becoming nonprofit (and even business) fool’s gold. 

Social media data is critical to understanding how your organization best engages with the market – and this knowledge is critical to achieving your goals. However, social media data are diagnostic metrics and NOT key performance indicators (KPIs). They inform how your organization is doing on social media…NOT the overall health of your organization. (They are related…but not the same.) Confusing the meaning and rightful application of this data can put organizations on a very arduous, frustrating path. Is a healthy organization active and engaging on social media? You bet. But high engagement numbers on social media mean absolutely nothing if your organization isn’t getting more people in the door, increasing membership renewal rates, facilitating donor-related conversations, or achieving any number of the goals that indicate the solvency and relevance of an organization.

Am I getting too jargon-y with all of this “KPI” talk? Here are some clarifications:

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): KPIs are used to evaluate the ongoing success of an organization or a particular initiative. Success is often defined in terms of making progress toward achieving the strategic objectives that optimize the solvency of an organization. In other words, KPIs have a direct correlation to desired outputs (fundraising, visitation, etc.). For instance, for our nonprofit visitor-serving partners at IMPACTS, we measure items related to market sentiment that include metrics such as reputation (e.g. top-of-mind metrics), educational value, satisfaction, value-for-price perceptions – and other items that correlate directly to the “health” of an organization and its ability to achieve its bottom line objectives.

Diagnostic metrics: Diagnostic metrics are data points that contribute to KPI performance and aid organizations in pinpointing specific opportunities. In the online space, these metrics allow organizations to observe how effectively they are engaging audiences. However, these metrics cannot “stand-in” for KPIs because they are a sub-measurement of assessment criteria (i.e KPIs) that lead to desired behaviors. For instance, on the surface, certain social media diagnostic metrics may look positive, but if they aren’t elevating your reputation (a key driver of visitation), then…well, a “like” is just a “like.” Diagnostic metrics are also helpful for “listening” to audiences, and informing organizations of opportunities for improvement.

Here’s how they work together (flow chart style):

IMPACTS - KPIs and Diagnostic metrics

And here are three, critical points to consider concerning social media metrics:

1) Social media metrics do not directly measure your bottom line (so keep them in perspective)

A measurement indicating online reach, for instance, only measures online reach. Just because your organization reached a large number of people with a social media status doesn’t mean that anyone paid attention to it, that it was the right message, or that it strengthened any individual’s connection to your organization. Is does mean that the message had the opportunity to build a bit of affinity among a certain number of people. This is not your bottom line. More meaningful metrics include donor giving, membership acquisitions and renewals, and attendance.

2) Even when social media metrics are high, they can still be at-odds with KPIs (making it HARDER for your organization to achieve its goals)

This is a big one. If you are evaluating the efficacy of your digital strategists and social media community managers strictly by Facebook Insights numbers – knock it off (please). These metrics can be purposefully and even accidentally inflated to the detriment of organizations.  “Gaming” this system is child’s play for even the most neophyte of social media professionals.

To cut to the chase: If you’re measuring social media efficacy strictly by social media numbers and rewarding staff based on these metrics, you’re actively setting up your organization to fail. Your team may feel pressure to offer discounts or post superfluous updates that will artificially increase engagement rates (i.e. good for them in terms of their performance evaluation), but these practices will ultimately increase visitor dissatisfaction, devalue your brand, marginalize your mission, and demean your perceived reputation as “expert.”  Have you asked yourself this question: If we’re so popular online,  how come nobody is coming in person?  Chances are that you’ve created ineffective, misleading evaluation criteria based on social media metrics and not true KPIs.

3) You do not control the platforms providing key social media metrics. (They actually control YOU)

TANSTAAFL (pronounced: “TAN – staf –ful”) was a common “word” on campus at my alma mater. It stands for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (though it came from science fiction writer Rober A. Heinlein, the term was popularized by Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago professor – hence, the popularity on campus).  Sometimes organizations get so caught up with the ability to report numbers that they forget to think critically about social media metrics. Specifically, they forget about the concept of TANSTAAFL as it applies to social media.

Facebook and You - Product being sold

Over 15 million businesses, companies, and organizations have Facebook pages and sometimes Facebook metrics have bugs. Actually…a lot of the time Facebook metrics have bugs. At IMPACTS, we attempt to correct for bugs by gathering insight information from several organizations and normalizing it, comparatively…but if you’re a single organization, you likely don’t have this opportunity and you are, well, a wee-bit stuck with whatever information or misinformation Facebook shows you. Organizations that run more than one Facebook page likely know first-hand how common system-wide bugs are for individual pages. If you notice a bug in your Facebook Insights, the best that you can do is contact Facebook and hope – over the course of several months – that they will fix the bug. Here’s a thing to remember: Your organization is using Facebook for free or at a low cost (if you aren’t constantly buying ads, or promoting or sponsoring posts) and there isn’t a direct incentive to fix your Insights bug (that you may or may not know that you have). In short, these metrics should not be the MOST important metrics or the ONLY metrics for your organization.

There’s no doubt that social media measurement is absolutely and increasingly critical to effectively engage audiences and remain relevant with the market. These metrics are NOT unimportant. But with social media metrics being relatively accessible to non-expert evaluators, and absent the considered interpretation and analysis of their “true” meaning, organizations risk confusing isolated data points with KPIs.

Bottom line: Social media is a tool for achieving your organization’s goals. Social media metrics help organizations assess how well they are using these tools.  However, these metrics are not the end-all-be-all assessment tool in your organization’s toolbox…and organizations that misunderstand how to evaluate these metrics in terms of larger organizational goals risk confusion, frustration, and may jeopardize their long-term success. 

 

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Posted on by colleendilen in Big ideas, Branding, Community Engagement, Leadership, Management, Marketing, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Public Management, Social Media, Technology, Words of Wisdom 2 Comments

A Theory for Breaking Through Nonprofit Sector Constraints

It seems that, without even knowing it, we’re all working together to limit nonprofit innovation.

In the nonprofit sector, risk (an important element in innovation) is stifled due to nonprofits’ need for multiple stakeholder acceptance in order to survive. This makes large-scale change difficult, if not impossible, and the only way that we will solve this is if we put our minds together to think about it.

Let’s take the hot topic of increasing salaries for nonprofit leaders (though we could pick any topic that challenges perceived sector constraints). A nonprofit might seriously consider higher salaries in order to attract high-quality leaders, establish itself professionally, or ensure that competition for the position allows the organization to choose– or continue to motivate– the best candidate for the job.  This could be a great idea. It could work wonders. But questioning sector constraints at all is often much like trying to give a big hug to a hand grenade. Here’s why:

  1. The board and staff will need to approve this risk. In the case of increasing employee salaries, they will consider that every extra dollar given to a staff member is a dollar that could be spent on programming. These immediate stakeholders must believe in the potential of the idea.
  2. Then the nonprofit will have to face the multiple foundations that may no longer award the nonprofit otherwise-much-deserved grants because their administrative costs exceed (or come close to) a percentage set by the foundation in advance.
  3. You have to face the people who don’t understand why you made this change (regardless of its nobility), and the media may tear you apart. Even worse, other nonprofit leaders at The Chronicle of Philanthropy may even give you bad press for trying to take a risk to aid in sector evolution.
  4. Your amount of in-kind donations over the year may suffer because of the bad press– which defeats your whole attempt at innovation because you can no longer afford to pay a higher-than-before salary to your employees… so you are back where you started– but with fewer funds, a lot of bad press, alienated foundation connections, and unhappy employees.

In the private sector, innovation breeds new business practices and monetary success. The system is quite simple: a firm must gather capital to take a risk, take that risk, and if the company makes a profit, they are onto something. Other companies catch onto the company’s new tactic and next thing we know, every company has to be doing that innovative thing in order to continue to stay in the game. The same is true for nonprofit organizations except, in the nonprofit sector, raising capital may mean raising social capital.

 

Please click on the image to enlarge

So what can be done to alter sector constraints in order to allow nonprofit professionals to be innovative in organizational management?

First, double loop learning must take place. Double loop learning occurs when leaders question their own basic assumptions about the world. Single loop learning, by comparison, is the tried-and-tested routine that we fall into when we do everyday things like write grants and conduct meetings– but we also use single loop learning when we devise wages (continuing with the case of nonprofit salaries as our example). We have an idea of what works and we stick to it. Double loop learning, on the other hand, makes us ask ourselves, “Why do we do X? Maybe I should be doing Y.” When we ask this question, possibilities are born.

Second, the nonprofit must be transparent about their new idea and share it among networks. The nonprofit could ask for input via social media networks, get dialogues going with staff members; make everyone (stakeholders especially) aware of the possible benefit of taking this risk. This includes spreading word about the importance of innovation among stakeholders, the public, and other nonprofit groups. Technology is a great mechanism for information-share, and getting brain juices flowing. Who knows? A few other nonprofits may consider the idea and try it out alongside you.

Through this, social capital is created. Spreading the message creates connections. Asking people for their input (even if it’s negative) creates connections. Connections build social capital. Social capital increases overall support of the new practice because friends and community partners can share your idea with their own networks, and become part of idea formation and collaboration.

Then intellectual capital is built as stakeholders become educated on the issue. The more people hear about the issue, the more educated they will become on the need for innovation, or rather, the more accepting they will be when you actually follow through in challenging sector constraints. Lets go back to the example of a nonprofit taking on higher administration costs to motivate employees. If we learn that there’s a nonprofit leadership deficit on the way, then we may be more likely to outwardly encourage and support (or at least understand) nonprofits that are raising employee salaries.

And finally, the innovation is accepted. This does not mean that people will agree with your new (hopefully) innovative practice– but, because of your transparency, they will fully understand why you have challenged sector constraints, and also that you have the best interests of the community you serve at heart. And whether they agree with the idea or not, folks may be more inclined to respect the idea. Foundations may still award grants to the organization, and donors may stick around for at least another year. Who knows? Maybe your active desire to contribute to the sector and your fresh views of management will earn you a few more donors.

This theory is just that: a theory. I do not know how to encourage nonprofits to take responsible risks and challenge constraints that hold them back in serving their mission. I do know that, if the sector means to evolve, nonprofit leaders must begin to think about blazing new trails— and we should think about ways to allow them to do so.

Posted on by colleendilen in Leadership, Management, Nonprofits, Public Management, Public Service Motivation, Social Change, The Future 6 Comments