Our friends at the Agitator are having an excellent discussion here about the value of social media to fundraisers.  There is, unsurprisingly, a dearth of case studies of significant value from social media driving donations not involving buckets or ice or challenges (or advertising in highly targeted and relevant ads – we’re speaking here of “free” social media).

The more common experience is the one that Lacetera, Macis, and Mele found when they researched social media campaigns.  The campaign that reached 6.4 million users generated an incremental lift of 30 donations.

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a lift of point-many-zeroes-followed-by-a-five percent.

But wait, you may say, social media may not directly stimulate donations, but it can influence them.  Jono Smith of Make-A-Wish makes this point in the comments, saying that social influences about eight percent of online conversions.

This is consistent with what DonorVoice sees.  There’s a correlation between giving and social media presence.  This is most often explained by your most committed supporters seeking you out on social media, rather than social media creating your most committed supporters.  Look no further than Kevin’s post about what a Facebook like is worth: people who interact with you are Facebook or Twitter are disproportionately high commitment.  He concludes that social media is a good way to preserve the tribe, but not to acquire one.

But unbelievably I came here to praise one much-maligned aspect of social media acquisition – slacktivism – not to bury it.

Running online campaigns with advocacy components has some attractive benefits.  The names you acquire are less likely to be used by other organizations (as much of our direct marketing names come from other organizations or coops).  They are more likely to buy into organizational messaging, not support you because you have an address book or labels or check or what-have-you as a premium inducement.  And for the people who care about such things, they skew younger than the general population (however, the fact that you have 90-year-olds who do online advocacy and 40-something who donate through the mail is yet another reason to look to attributes, not demographics, as your North Star).

But how do you get supporters who will donate?  The knock on slacktivists has been that they take the minimum possible amount of action to make themselves look good.  Or as Seth Meyers put it:

“Look, if you make a Facebook page we will “like” it:
it’s the least we can do. But it’s also the most we can do.”

The science bears this out.  Researchers found that when people make public declarations of support, they tend not to follow through on them (or take them back).  One study of 3500 online pledges found that people who broadcast pledges on social media are more likely to delete and not fulfill their pledges.

This is because of what is called moral licensing or moral balancing.  If we feel like the world thinks of us as a good person, we have license to do bad things, especially if those things are covert.  Likewise, if we think the world thinks less of us, we are more likely to try to compensate positively.  Or as Michael Rosenwald put it in the Washington Post:

“We drink Diet Coke – with Quarter Pounders and fries at McDonald’s.
We go to the gym – and ride the elevator to the second floor.
We install tankless water heaters – then take longer showers.
We drive SUVs to see Al Gore’s speeches on global warming.”

This would seem to be the final nail in the coffin of running social media campaigns – people are likely to use them to make themselves look good to the world and not actually to do the most good for the world.

However, all the advantages of running online advocacy campaigns still apply.  The key is do private, not public, petitions.

My favorite study on this is from Kristofferson, White, and Peloza.  At one end of a hallway, the team randomized passersby into three groups: one who were given a poppy to wear in honor of veterans, one who were given that same poppy in an envelope so it would be for private support, and one who were given nothing.  At the end of the hallway, the groups were asked to donate.  Those who showed private support (poppy in the envelope) gave an average of $.86, public supporters gave $.34, and the control gave $.15.  They further refined this study and found that generally, people who gave private support were more likely to support in the future; people who gave public support were either no more likely or less likely to support the cause than those who did nothing.

So don’t shy away from online advocacy campaigns to acquire new people and engage your supporters.  I’ve seen advocacy campaigns with a soft ask post-petition beat actual hard ask email campaigns.

But as ever, it’s best to do it with the science at your back.  And if you are interested in seeing how much social media has an impact on the commitment of your supporters, we’d love to work with you on a commitment study.