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Do nonprofits have the upper hand with social media?

The answer is inconclusive in this McKinsey Quarterly white paper.

I can't tell you how many times, in the last dozen years or so, I've heard "nonprofits should be more like businesses." That phrase has always irritated me, because I've never heard anyone explain how our sector should work more like businesses, or what that would gain us. Mostly, it's irritated me because the nonprofits I know are extremely efficient and the staff are usually at least passingly passionate about the mission - two things I never did experience in my previous life in the for-profit sector.

You can imagine, then, how excited I was last week when I saw an e-mail in my inbox from the McKinsey Quarterly with the subject line, "What nonprofits can teach the private sector about social media."

This McKinsey Quarterly (Feb. 2011) white paper consists of a case study excerpted from The Dragonfly Effect (Jossey-Bass, 2010), a book by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith which provides a framework for inspiring stakeholder action through an examination of social media examples.

Social media - dominated in the U.S. by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube - are the newest marketing tools for delivering our messages to our stakeholders. Where traditional marketing consists of one-way messages from an organization to a stakeholder - with the hope for some form of resulting action - social media tools engage stakeholders in two-way conversations. As a result, the stakeholder has both the opportunity to take action and to shape the conversation around the proposed action.

While the full title of this McKinsey article (The power of storytelling: What nonprofits can teach the private sector about social media) suggests that nonprofits have the upper hand using social media, the article fails to make it clear why or how. I did a quick search to see how our sector fares in terms of fans on Facebook, to see if we were on top in terms of popularity. While some better-known nonprofits have significant numbers of followers (Susan G. Komen Foundation has 447,087, American Red Cross has 236,875, Nature Conservancy has 227,366), many fell short (Habitat for Humanity has 74,200, Girl Scouts of America has 10,965, and my own organization, Scholarship America, has 5,400) - especially when compared with Best Buy (2.5 million) and Target (3.8 million)!

The authors do suggest that numbers of fans or followers is not the best metric for social media success, but rather stakeholder engagement is what matters most. Indeed, that has always been the truth for our sector. Stakeholder engagement results in donations, in volunteers, and in the public good will that allows us to continue our work for the common good.

Smith and Aaker also offer some valuable advice regarding the use of social media in this article: first, know your goals, so you know what to measure, and second,"nurture your community and build your followers, build your fan base, build the things that matter, and then activate them."

In other words, fans do matter - but knowing what to share with them and how to engage them matters more.

The true power of social technology lies in the people using it. Are you telling your stories, and connecting and engaging with your stakeholders, through social media?

Comments

@Badge and @Gail: As it turns out, for my organization, the number of fans and followers DEFINITELY holds weight with our cause-marketing partners! However, we are very careful only to partner with organizations that have a relevant message to share with our fans -- we don't want to turn off our real stakeholders, in pursuit of funding.

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