Data and Donors: Media Analytics in the Nonprofit Sector
Updated: Apr 14
This was written for CAS 839: Media Analytics Communications in the Michigan State University Strategic Communications MA program.
In 2020, there were more than 1.5 million active nonprofits (NP) in the United States during 2020 (National Center for Charitable Statistics, 2020). For NPs, media analytics (MA) can help leadership measure the impact, efficacy, and efficiency of marketing as it pertains to donors and to fundraising. Ragones (2020) cites a strong correlation between “high digital maturity” and NP goal-exceeded performance (p. 5). An innovative MA strategy can make the difference between nominal results and healthy outcomes. Often, NP digital planning creates the “shortest path between insight and action” (LePage & Newberry, 2019; Bonderud, 2020, p. 1). Savvy MA communications (COMMS) professionals know how to communicate and translate metrics to leadership and to a board of directors in order to explain performance and to justify funding. To that end, the purpose of this paper is to analyze NP analytics by stressing objectives, discussing audiences, and listing appropriate social media (SM) and digital metrics to consider.
The primary objectives for NPs are fundraising, awareness, and engagement (Decker, 2021). These areas may compare to the for-profit (FP) world—where goals often center around marketing a product or service, achieving differentiation, and maintaining competitive advantage. FP marketing leadership sell the idea that their company can satisfy a need or solve a problem (Mueller, n.d.). But in a NP, they translate into raising funds, attracting donors, increasing membership, encouraging reoccurring donations, recruiting volunteers, increasing reach, promoting programs and services, sharing community stories, and generating community goodwill (Decker, 2021; Digital Marketing Institute, 2019; Anderson, 2018).
Nonprofit marketing advocate Cause Inspired suggests that prospects (potential donors), engagers (interested parties), supporters (donors), sustainers (reoccurring donors), and ambassadors (digital cheerleaders) create the “nonprofit marketing funnel” (Cause Inspired, n.d.). Ward (2019) offers a different NP funnel—one that concerns the marketing journey: awareness; interest; involvement; investment; and sharing.
Regardless of the objectives or the approach, NP leadership must align overall objectives with audience experiences—while building relationships and instilling trust (Decker, 2021; Ward, 2019; Feng, Du, & Ling, 2017). Overlap between NPs and FP companies may occur through philanthropy. Partnerships between businesses and NPs combine marketing mindsets and can increase awareness, engagement, donations/revenue for all organizations involved (often in a public relations complexion).
Source: Cause Inspired Source: Ward, 2019
Once leadership establishes and communicated objective, they must identify the audience. Marketing into a void will not net results; thus, a careful consideration of the audience can maximize messaging. The NP audience includes a different type of constituency. Rather than consumers of a product or a service, NP audiences often include people in need, individuals or groups who are disenfranchised, community activists, board members, nonpaid volunteers, government workers, and corporate actors. Depending on the NP, the audience will be different. Sources should include demographics (gender, age, income), geography (state, city, or ZIP), and psychographics (lifestyle statements, behaviors, and attitudes).
By creating a specific snapshot of the audience, NP leadership can segment and target audience audiences. This helps NPs to identify the people they are actually reaching, versus the audience they are perceiving—resulting in bespoke, rather than general, messaging (Litt & Hargittai, 2016). Highly personalized data enables NPs to create brand ambassadors who protect, reinforce, share, and promote the NP’s content (Jung & Rader, 2016). NP staffers can ascertain their audience from SM (native insight dashboards and metrics), the organization’s website (through Google Analytics), and from aggregate analytics tools (Hootsuite, Sprout Social, and a host of others).
With an audience formulated (including segments and marketing personas), NPs can benefit from universally monitored metrics. Unlike FPs, NPs analyze metrics and data through a donor-generating lens, not strictly through revenue and profits. As such, the NP ROI looks different—overhead-to-program costs, reinvestment, and mission impact (Urban, 2018). In short, one measures ROI as gains from investment minus the cost of investment (Urban, 2018). Stombaugh (2019) suggests measuring social return on investment (SROI) in the NP world to translate social value into financial values. SROI answers the question: what would happen if the NP didn’t exist (Stombaugh, 2019). But before hitting the data, NP COMMS teams should ponder the picture of prosperity: what does success look like in the digital world and what metrics will they measure to gauge success and cost-effectiveness for paid, sponsored, and programmatic content? Delegating the MA monitoring is important; for example, will the same staffer monitor regular SM and website performance and special events performance (donor events, support programs, cross-promoted/cosponsored events, and email blasts). Each SM platform possesses native insights and analytical tools, and it is crucial on the initial run to benchmark, record, and analyze insights not only for future comparison—both for SM metrics and for digital metrics (website, email marketing, and mobile devices).
The following are a short list of metrics to consider; however, these are only a sample. Before monitoring metrics, NP comms teams should conduct a social media audit of the organization’s (and the competitors’) social channels. A SWOT (internal) and a PESTEL (external) audit could prove useful also.
Social media metrics
• Donations: shows how much money is raised from posts with a “Donate” button
• Engagement: shows how many people see content (and interact)—measured by adding a post’s total likes/comments/shares, dividing by total number of followers, and multiplying by 100 (Anderson, 2018; Shleyner, 2020)
• Awareness: shows total attention and buzz—measured through mentions, comments, shares, likes, and impressions (Shleyner, 2020).
• Post reach: shows how many people were exposed to a post—measured by dividing reach by the total number of followers and multiplying by 100 (Beaty, 2021; Shleyner, 2020)
• SM share of voice: shows the volume of organizational mentions versus other NPs in the same market—measured by adding an organizations’ mentions, competitors’ mentions, dividing by total mentions, and multiplying by 100 (Kononova, 2020; Shleyner, 2020).
Digital metrics (aka website search engine optimization)
• Bounce rate: the percentage of people who visit a website and leave quickly without taking action—measured through the Google Analytics “Acquisition” tab (Shleyner, 2020)
• Click-through rate: number of people who clicked a call-to-action link from a post—measured by dividing total clicks by total impressions and multiplying by 100 (Shleyner, 2020)
• Conversion rate: number of people click a link or an ad and take action—measured by dividing total comments by total followers and multiplying by 100 (Beaty, 2021; Shleyner, 2020)
• Cost-per-click: the amount paid per individual click on sponsored content—measured by dividing total measured clicks by total ad spend and multiplying by 100 (Shleyner, 2020).
Digital metrics (email and mobile)
• Email marketing: Common email metrics include open rate; click-through-rate; conversion rate; bounce rate; unsubscribe count; growth rate; spam complains; and ROI. Mailchimp (n.d.) suggests the following benchmarks for NP email campaigns: open rate (25.17%, click rate (2.79%), bounce rate (0.33%), unsubscribe rate (0.20%)
• Mobile devices: Using Google Analytics, NP COMMS teams can isolate mobile device usage. Studying mobile device usage enables one to determine what content is resonating on mobile platforms—and to either reinforce this strong performance or fill in gaps with low-performing content. On popular platforms like WordPress and Wix, digital teams can optimize sites, posts, and pages visually and textually (for search engine optimization).
• Influencer marketing: One can track influencer marketing through a myriad metrics: domain authority, SM authority, platforms engaged, followers, retweet ratio, reply ration, and average retweets. Tools like BuzzSumo, Klear, and Upfluence help measure an influencer marketer’s ability (through dashboard metrics) to share “meaningful stories” and to mirror congruent attitudes, beliefs—thus shaping intended behaviors (Alkon, 2018; Alhabash, 2020c; Influencer Marketing Hub, 2020).
Although many MA strategies are universal to NPs and FPs, they are tied to different motivations and outcomes. Typically, NP executive directors answer to a board of directors (versus shareholders, investors, or venture capitalists). NPs may work with smaller, more finite budgets. Due to the often-low pay scale, NPs rely heavily on empathy and compassion among stakeholders and human capital. If NPs live off donations, then every cent counts. MA are an effective way for NP leadership to monitor SM and digital performance and to ensure ad spends, sponsored content, and payroll are being maximized. For NPs aligned with an illness or disease, there is a level of myth debunking associated with the mission—and MAs can help determine the efficacy of these efforts. Additionally, MA can help justify the organization’s effectiveness and attractiveness to potential cross-promotional partners or co-sponsors.
With up-to-date insights, NP leadership can provide fresh metrics and performance snapshots—data that can prove convincing to potential cross-promotional partners, co-sponsors, and even the board (when it comes time to justify overall and line-item budget appeals). Local new organizations often look for subject matter experts, and a NP with a proven digital track record would make a logical candidate; thus, MA also can help NPs position themselves as thought leaders in local markets. Overall, NP leadership can highlight strengths and reveal weaknesses—both strong drivers for SM and digital planning—by studying MA on a regular schedule.
Digital marketing often involves leveraging mission, vision, values, and experiences to create a collective identity through narratives, storytelling, symbols (logos and graphics), and rituals (Polletta & Japer, 2001). For NPs, this process is used not to generate sales or revenue, but to connect the dots between data and donors.
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