Social Media for Nonprofit – Re-thinking the Rules of Engagement

February 7, 2010

This blog post came out of an impromptu phone conversation with marketing consultant, Rob Olic. The content was too good not to share. If you like it, let me know and I’ll get him to contribute again!

Pam: Did you read my latest blog entry on engagement?
Rob: Yes.
Pam: What did you think?
Rob: ((silence))
Pam: You didn’t like it.
Rob: No, I really did like it. I found Aerin’s writing to be truly engaging and I think that’s what’s bothering me.
Pam: Explain.
Rob: Well, I was completely involved in reading her post…you might even say ‘engrossed’ and yet when I finished, it was over. I was done and moved on to something else.  So, what was her return on my engagement?

If it was anything other than getting me engaged, the answer is – Zero.

Engagement for engagement’s sake is a dead end street.

Am I saying it is unimportant? Quite the contrary, I think it is vital…once we are clear about our INTENT and the CONTEXT.  You see, engagement can be about getting attention and involvement but towards what end (why, what purpose) and under which context (think ‘conditions’ – Who, When, Where)?

So, let me give you some examples:

My mom is watching TV and a commercial for a “Save Abandoned Pets” (with images of abused animals of all shapes and sizes) comes on…she gets sucked in, she cries, blows her nose and that’s it. She was engaged to the point of being moved to tears but sent no money.

I’m sure they appreciate the sentiment but would have preferred cash.

A few minutes later, a commercial comes on demonstrating how dangerous answering a phone can be if you are covered in a blanket while sitting on a couch (who knew?) and how the only solution is a “Snuggie” (essentially a fleece bathrobe in reverse without a belt). It airs for 30 seconds but that’s enough for mom to ask me to bring her the phone so she can call and order one.

I think it is safe to assume both of these commercials had the same intent – to get viewers to send money. I can tell also you the “Save Abandoned Pets” one was much more engaging and clearly came across as important (while the Snuggie seemed almost ridiculous).

So, how do we make sense of this? Well, part of the problem is the definition of “engagement”

Is it getting attention? Is it intrigue? Is it motivation? Is it game-changing? Crying? Giving money?

The answer is Yes…and No.  There is no universal definition for engagement that every organization needs to follow so you better define it for yourself…especially if you plan to measure it and generate a “Return on Engagement.”

And it can be a different definition depending on the context – can mean “not boring” when I talking about writing a newsletter but “compelled to give” when I write an annual appeal.

Pretty difficult to measure a variable that is undefined, no?

As I write this, the Red Cross is getting donations by just flashing something along the lines of “Donate to help the people of Haiti at” on some cable channels. Not sure I would classify that as engaging but it is definitely generating an ROI.

This informs me that there are opportunities where I need not be engaging in order to create value from people that are already engaged.

Okay, an example that isn’t about money –
The Obama campaign was clearly a success. Putting donations aside, we can point to the high level of engagement (in terms of sheer number of volunteers who rallied around the cause) as a key component of his victory. Now, not all of them hit the pavement to knock on doors – some wore pins, some emailed friends, some spoke with strangers, some drove people to the polls, etc.

And yet, the whole thing would have been for nothing if not enough people voted for him.

Seems like we have two different metrics for engagement going on – the one as it relates to the volunteers has a spectrum (I’ll wear a pin but I won’t knock on doors to I’ll do anything that is needed of me) while the one for voters is a threshold or on/off switch (we engaged them enough to get the vote or we didn’t).

While all voters are equal and count for just one vote, are all volunteers equal?

I’m sure the Obama campaign was grateful for everyone’s support but do you really believe the person who only put a bumper sticker on his car was worth the same to them as the woman who knocked on doors every night for three weeks? In terms of being engaged? In terms of engaging others?

If you were managing these volunteers, would you give equal time and attention to the bumper sticker crowd as to your door knockers? Is that a Return on Engagement decision? Feels more like a Return on Investment for Engagement, doesn’t it?

And we haven’t even begun to discuss the role of Engagement in keeping people involved in a dialog with you for an extended period of time (think retention) or how people become more valuable when their level of engagement increases (there is a high correlation to contribution and identification as a member of a particular group).

I guess that’s the problem with talking about ENGAGEMENT in a vacuum…it is meaningless. It needs to be defined and specified who, what, when, where, how.

Btw, a few weeks ago you mentioned how some organizations were questioning the value of social media. Well, I think you have your answer. Tweeting because everyone is tweeting is just dumb and pretty hard to defend BUT being part (better yet a pillar) of your online community and enabling your community to connect/communicate with you in a way they want to now (may change in the future)…that’s an engagement that definitely has an ROI!

Love this story? Hate it? Let me know – and, please retweet!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Scanlon February 7, 2010 at 3:34 pm

I agree on what you put above, engagement is the key. The key for any organization is connecting the engagement to the investment of time and money. What this means for the organization and how to track this success.

Tyler Richard February 8, 2010 at 8:01 am

Great post!

A group I’m working with has consistently good click-through rates, yet not getting the actual action being looked for. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around why these emotional stories aren’t getting very far. The word “you” is liberally applied, but I’ve been feeling like its a window dressing or wallpaper, rather than the house itself.

This reframe was exactly what was needed!

Bonnie Koenig February 17, 2010 at 10:49 am

This discussion highlights so well that the problem isn’t with the words themselves, but how we use them. It doesn’t matter to me what words an organization uses as much as that the key players have thought through how they’re going to use the words, and the meaning behind them. The same is true of broader communities – words are only as useful as their ability to communicate (two way: send a message/message received) what we intend by using them within a given community (i.e. 3rd sector, etc..). Otherwise we’ll just continue to talk past each other and waste a lot of engagement and /or investment for no good social benefit or outcome.

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