Social media channels have not historically been the place where money changes hands.  In other words, Facebook is less the open air marketplace (think eBay) and more the Tuesday night book club and Saturday morning soccer gathering.  For proof, look no further than Facebook desperately, and unsuccessfully at the moment, trying to monetize 1 billion people.  It simply isn’t a fulfillment channel and non-profits should not evaluate it on this basis.

So, how should it be evaluated? How about user (read customer or donor) value derived?  It doesn’t take much perusing of Facebook stats to safely draw the conclusion that enormous user value is being derived – Americans spend a combined 100,000 years of time on Facebook per month.

That is not a typo.  If your charitable cause can’t compete with and carve out a meaningful slice of nearly countless millennium passing by every month in social media among your constituents then perhaps it is time to reconsider your place in the world.

Now let’s bring this closer to home and a meaningful valuation.  We are in the business of measuring the strength of donor relationships and can prove this attitudinally derived measure links to and predicts future (and historical) giving.  We know that donors with whom you have a strong relationship (we call it High Commitment) are worth 131% more (over a 3 year window) than Low Commitment donors.

We also know that the people who interact with your cause on Facebook or Twitter are disproportionately High Commitment.  For one recent client we discovered that roughly 8 out of 10 Facebook likes and Twitter follows are High Commitment donors.  A relationship unattended eventually withers and dies.  Social media can help assure this does not happen.  It is a relatively low cost (maybe one FTE and some opportunity cost) and highly scalable way to engage those who you have strong relationships with already.  To borrow Seth Godin’s term – your tribe can be found among your social media audience.  Not all your tribe, in fact, not even most of it.  But, it is a very findable, reachable, meaningful slice of your constituency who is waiting to be engaged.

To recap, your social media audience contains your most loyal donors.  They are historically your best donors and as long as the relationship is maintained, will be your best prospective donors.  Social media is a care and feeding opportunity to not only preserve their 131% lifetime value delta but also, to increase it.  That’s right, the social media channel can be used to target your High Commitment donors and derive greater share of wallet.  This money won’t show up in this channel and frankly, who cares.

So what about social media to BUILD (versus preserve and grow existing, strong relationships) relationships?  This is the chicken and egg question.  Did the social media channel build the strong relationship that started out weak OR is the strong relationship a necessary prerequisite for someone to care enough to follow you on Facebook?  Our data has only been cross-sectional to date, meaning we don’t have a “clean” longitudinal data set to draw firm conclusions.   Said another way, the only way to definitively account for cause and effect is with data over time – if something causes something else it had to occur first and studies can be designed to capture this temporal element.

That said, our point in time studies show a social media population with much less variance in our strength of relationship measures then one would expect if, at any point in time, there were weaker relationship folks engaging in social media with a cause.

In other words, the fact that we don’t find many Low Commitment donors in our point in time studies suggests it is mostly a “preserve and grow the tribe” channel, not an “acquire and build” one.   That said, there are very few, if any, incremental costs to catching Low Commitment donors in the metaphorical social media fishing nets.  So, while the main value is to treat social media as a place to fish where the High Commitment fish are, a few Low Commitment fish caught up in the nets would seem just fine.