‘A Real-Time Megaphone’

The 2012 Nonprofit Social Networking Benchmark Report offers valuable insights into how meeting professionals can manage social media, maximizing the impact of live events.

This year, nonprofit professionals from all over North America answered an online survey about how their organizations use social media. They represented a wide range of groups, from small volunteer-led arts organizations to large multinational trade associations. The results were compiled by NTEN, Common Knowledge, and Blackbaud – organizations dedicated to helping nonprofit growth through technology – and recently presented in the 4th Annual Nonprofit Social Networking Benchmark Report, showcasing insights about social networking for nonprofits and businesses serving the nonprofit sector.

The report shows the vast and high-impact ways in which companies and associations can navigate – and turn a profit in – the new social-networking frontier. It confirms that social networking continues to grow in importance, and that the leading social sites are extending their dominance.

But what does that mean specifically for meeting professionals? We spoke with the people who compiled and analyzed the results, allowing them to extrapolate on how the evolution of social networking factors into face-to-face meetings and events:

  • Holly Ross Events director at NTEN, a membership organization of nonprofit professionals, helping them use technology to aid their cause and extend their message.
  • Jeff Patrick President and founder of Common Knowledge, a consultant agency helping nonprofits establish and enhance their online marketing and fundraising strategies.

What were some surprising results of the study?

Holly Ross We were surprised, but happy, to see that smaller-sized organizations, specifically those with budget sizes less than $5 million, were not only using social media at similar adoption rates as larger organizations, but also investing staff resources towards deploying and monitoring these tools. While everyone has long touted the level-playing-field theory about social media for smaller organizations, we were pleased to see the data show that it’s happening.

Jeff Patrick I was a bit surprised to see the average cost of a Facebook Like ($3.50) and Twitter follower ($2.05). Anecdotally from our own clients, we know that getting new Likes and followers can be quite cost-effective. I was surprised and happy to see that nonprofits were confirming this idea. About 10 percent of the total 3,200 survey respondents answered this question. So, obviously not all organizations are in this range, but among those who are doing it (and measuring it), we have the basis for some initial discussion

What evolution did you see in social-networking site usage relating to live events?

We saw a huge increase in Twitter community size among survey respondents – about an 80-percent increase in average followers compared to our 2011 findings. Facebook is still growing, too, about a 30-percent increase in fans and Likes compared to 2011, but we were struck by the large increase in the size of Twitter communities.

We think this has special implications for organizations using Twitter as part of their event-engagement toolset. Twitter is a great tool for events, allowing attendees to keep up with key announcements from the organization about what’s happening, to keep up with each other when using event hashtags, and to share information with audiences outside of the event. This is great for general community engagement and driving buzz around your events. The growth here suggests that organizations can, and perhaps should, leverage this social-network platform around events, if they’re not already, because there is both an existing audience and a growing audience there.

JP Twitter is increasingly gaining a foothold as a real-time megaphone and background conversation for live events – think [of] recent efforts with NASCAR, the Arab Spring, President Obama’s use of Twitter for live events. Twitter and hashtags are tailor-made to create and grow the conversation that is happening live, on the Internet, thereby increasing the value for everyone involved (more voices, more ideas, more opinions, more insight) and the reach of the conversation.

What are the overall implications of the benchmark report for meeting and convention planners?

JP Face-to-face events are part of the relationship-building process for organizations and their key audiences. Social networks are another part of that relationship-building process that takes place in small bits over a long period of time. The key is to combine the two to maximize the value. Using social networks around your events helps to round out the engagement and community building before and after the event, to augment the great networking that happens at the event.

Second, the biggest users of LinkedIn are associations – i.e., the nonprofit vertical sector that uses meetings and conferences as part of their basic mission and service provision. Think about where you are convening and engaging your supporters – they are assembling on LinkedIn with their “professional  persona,” as opposed to Facebook with their “personal persona.” Think about how socializing happens within the professional networking scope at your events and on LinkedIn.

What correlation do you see between an organization’s budget and its ability to reach an audience via social networking?

Smaller is, well, smaller. Though small nonprofits are investing in social media like the big guys, the numbers do look different when it comes to audience sizes. The average number of Facebook fans from survey respondents at large organizations was roughly 2.5 times higher than the average for smaller nonprofits. That doesn’t mean that smaller nonprofits aren’t succeeding. Respondents to the survey indicated that the top two methods for promoting social-media channels are “Placement on Our Website” (82 percent) and “Emailing Our List” (65 percent). Smaller nonprofits tend to have less web traffic and smaller email lists, leading to smaller social networks.

Do you think a live event will be hindered without the use of social-networking sites?

I think the greatest lost opportunity when you don’t use social as part of an event is missing the chance to extend the reach and footprint of the event beyond the physical space. Second, as is true of social for any organization – electronic word of mouth is efficient for marketing your event.

On the House
According to Common Knowledge’s Jeff Patrick, about 13 percent of nonprofits are building their own private social networks, known as “house” networks. They differ from public, commercial social networks like Twitter and Facebook because they generally require membership or subscription fees. “The professional associations are most likely to deploy and grow a house network,” Patrick said, because “the owning association wants to facilitate professional networking among its members, but often there is a need for a password-protected or private-community feature.”

House networks ensure that an organization is able to control who has access to its content and services. But commercial sites have their advantages, too. “The value of using public social networks is that you aren’t just limited to your in-house list,” said NTEN’s Holly Ross. “Each tweet or Facebook post has the potential of reaching exponentially more contacts when your followers and fans share the information with their networks.”

More Resources
To access the 2012 Nonprofit Social Networking Benchmark Report, visit

Sarah Beauchamp

Sarah Beauchamp was formerly assistant editor of Convene.