FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo, a sign with Facebook's "Like" logo is posted at Facebook headquarters near the office for the company's User Operations Safety Team in Menlo Park, Calif.
FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo, a sign with Facebook's "Like" logo is posted at Facebook headquarters near the office for the company's User Operations Safety Team in Menlo Park, Calif.

WASHINGTON - Social networking sites can be an effective tool for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They offer an ever-expanding audience, resources and data, all just waiting to be utilized. But it requires an understanding that social media is not something NGO employees do in free time when the “real work” is done.

One NGO that has embraced the power of social media is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). For them, Facebook is the number one way to reach people with PETA’s message.

“Word spreads quickly, word spreads free and we are able to use word of mouth rather than paying for advertisements,” said PETA Vice President for Marketing Joel Bartlett. 

But the question is: How to get all those benefits?  William Rand, director of the Center for Complexity in Business at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, said that many NGOs treat social media as an extended branch of their traditional marketing efforts and that is a grave mistake.

“They simply broadcast content that they have already developed, but social networks actually are about engaging with users, and having conversations with them about their interests,” said Rand.

According to Michelle Shumate of Northwestern University’s School of Communication, many nonprofits still use social media primarily to send information out.

A screenshot of a post on the People for the Ethic
A screenshot of a post on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Facebook page.

But is it really free?

Embracing social media can be difficult for NGOs. But most experts agree that this is a logical and necessary step.

“Many NGOs are attracted to social media because of the perception that it is free. It’s not. A good strategy requires a significant investment of time and often financial resources to pay for attention on social media,” said Shumate.

She noted that due to Facebook algorithm changes few years ago, most successful non-profits now pay social media platforms to promote their brands on newsfeeds.

PETA, for example, has dedicated significant resources to social networking. Bartlett said that currently the activist group has about a dozen full-time staff members working exclusively with social networking sites and developing strategies and guidelines.

“Nothing that gets out there is by accident.  Everything is thought out and deliberate,” he said.

But the resources allocated to social media varies, depending on an NGOs size, staffing and financing. At the humanitarian organization International Association for Human Values (IAHV) all social media accounts are managed by volunteers, because it is a volunteer-driven organization, explained Feliz Odabas-Geldiay, Executive Director at IAHV.

Turning “clicktivism” into real actions

Even though we may “like” posts on Facebook, there is a big difference between clicking on a post and actually doing something to support the organization’s cause. Experts describe this phenomenon as “clicktivism,” noting that “liking” is not the same as showing up at a rally or donating money. And they warn that clicktivism can contribute to a “my work is done” feeling among audiences and distract from an organization’s goals.

IAHV has learned to use public interest in international and local issues to promote its vision and raise awareness of peace mediations and initiatives against crime. For them, every click counts.

The University of Maryland’s Rand noted that clicktivism can be a good thing.

“Though it may on the margins result in some individuals who are less likely to act than before, the mere fact that it reaches a much wider audience will result in more overall mobilization,” he said.

Shumate pointed out that latest studies suggest that clicktivism does not suppress mobilization. Instead, people who click “like” in Facebook, for example, are more prone to engage in a cause offline.

Instead of fighting clicktivism, why not embrace it, argues Bartlett. For him it is just another reality that NGOs need to accept in thinking about ways to make contribution and action for social network users easier.

“We have to embrace and appreciate how information is changing. We are being pulled to so many different directions on daily basis,” he said. Bartlett also argued that people can do just a much good online, for example writing protest letters to companies abusing animals.

“Fraction of a second” to get through to someone

Excessive messaging on Facebook can be bothersome to users. So another challenge for NGOs is finding ways to get attention on social media and not overburden the public.

“Social media is a very crowded place. People browse through their news feeds very quickly. We maybe have only a fraction of second to get someone to decide whether or not to engage with our content,” said Bartlett.

At PETA much of the organization’s public communications involves distributing short and attention-caching messages.

“We are trying to distil our campaigns into simple trigger of information, that can easily be consumed and get people’s attention, and when that happens we try to get them to engage with us and take action,” explained Bartlett.

The unsteady future of social networking

Social networking is a constantly changing environment, so no matter how good an NGOs strategy might be, it requires nonstop evolution.

“NGOs need to have a strategy, but then be ready to adapt when the rules of the game on the platform change,” said Shumate.

What people want to see on social networks is ever-changing. PETA, for example, uses engagement with people on social media to find out what motivates people to act.

“By looking at numbers of “shares” and “likes” and then reading the comments very carefully, talking and responding to people one-on-one, I think we are able to get a really good sense of our audience on social media,”  said Bartlett.

Activity on social networking sites might seem like random data, but in the right hands it can be a tremendous analytical tool.

Rand suggested that social networks can be used in several ways that NGOs often do not consider. One is using interest on social media to gauge interest in a topic area, and then use that data to time communications about an organizations efforts when public interest is at its peak.

Another good use of social media data is to seek out and identify individuals who are very active and influential on particular topics. According Rand, that information should be “stored for later” and used at the right time to address individuals who are active on particular issue.

Experts have yet to discover the “best practices formula” for dealing with social media. Every organization requires its own strategy and there are no 100 percent guarantees when dealing with such a constantly changing entity.  What works in one case, may not work the next time. Most experts agree, that NGOs need to constantly analyze their social media strategies – just like traditional marketing.