Online Communities

March 15, 2008       Mark Hrywna      

The Internet has evolved into a vastly different place since the days Al Gore claims to have invented it. Just in the past decade, email has gone from being hip and cool to something only for parents or grandparents. Today, it’s all about social networks like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and assorted other, even more oddly named, Web sites.

The top three causes on Facebook had at least one million members as of Feb. 1 and several have raised tens of thousands of dollars. YouTube now has a channel dedicated to nonprofits, where organizations can post videos to promote their message and activities to constituents. There are any number of ways nonprofits can energize and inform their supporters through these online communities.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) launched an online video campaign this past September that featured a nude Alicia Silverstone (the girl from the Ô90s Aerosmith videos and later the movies “Clueless” and arguably the worst “Batman” ever) extolling the virtues of becoming a vegan as she exits a pool, her arms strategically placed enough for at least a PG-13 rating.

Viewed more than 800,000 times on www.peta.org, the video was uploaded to YouTube 255 times and had more than three million views on the video-sharing site.

The 30-second PSA was picked up by media and bloggers, who embedded the video directly onto their sites, driving traffic to PETA.org and GoVeg.com. Weekly orders for the Vegetarian Starter Kit more than tripled, collecting data about constituents in the process, and more than 200 different blogs linked directly to the video.

There were two direct donation pages on the Silverstone site, but its main purpose wasn’t as much about donations as it was to direct visitors to www.GoVeg.com, said Paul Phillips, online fundraising manager for PETA Foundation.

Donations spiked around the time the video was launched, compared to the prior September. Phillips reported a 30-percent overall spike in visits to donation transaction pages during the week the ad went viral, and 41 percent of online donations in September came in the seven days after the launch. Compared to the same month a year earlier, PETA doubled the amount donated online along with a 145-percent increase in the number of Web donations. New online inception donors also more than doubled from the same period a year earlier.

While it’s easy to calculate the direct effect the Silverstone video had on Web traffic, it’s much more difficult to determine its impact on actual donations, especially since PETA had other efforts going on at the same time.

The International Federation of Animal Welfare (IFAW) was among the early adopters of the video-sharing Web site, YouTube, with its channel among the top ranked nonprofits for subscriptions and all-time viewership. In January, it announced that the 89 videos on its YouTube channel reached more than 300,000 viewers since the profile was created. Data gathered from TubeMogul.com for December 2007 shows traffic to all of IFAW’s video uploads increased 480 percent with more than 37,000 views in the four-week period.

IFAW created a microsite, www.stopthesealhunt.com, as part of its campaign to mobilize the public to call for an end to Canada’s annual harp seal slaughter. Among its goals were recruiting thousands of new users to IFAW’s online community, boosting fundraising by 25 percent over the previous year, and providing engaging and meaningful activities for new and old users.

IFAW launched an e-communications stream to its house list in January 2007 and began building in Second Life and a microsite with blog that were launched in the spring, said Cassandra Koenen, director of online campaigns and marketing.

The number of IFAW friends on MySpace doubled and seal hunt videos on YouTube were viewed more than 60,000 times. The total impressions were more than 33 million, with total clicks from the ad campaign nearly 30,000 and a click-through rate of 0.9, according to Koenen. There was also a 5-percent increase in IFAW’s subscriber list. In addition, the nonprofit reported a 56-percent increase in donations compared to the previous year. For the campaign, staff resources included content coordinators, a Web writer, online community coordinator and part-time blogger/MySpacer, while consultants were used for the Flash/microsite creative, blog management and Second Life designer, bringing total costs to about $60,000.

IFAW, with international headquarters in Yarmouth Port, Mass., also has begun to dabble in Facebook, creating an IFAW cause, as well as another for Stop Whaling.

But can it make money? A nonprofit’s efforts to create online communities don’t always mean turning clicks into direct cash. “Every emerging or user-driven technology can help drive constituents into a proven online activation/conversation process,” PETA’s Phillips said. Much of the donor acquisition success of the campaign, he said, likely came from having a tested and up-to-date conversion email plan in place for newly acquired constituents before its launch.

Phillips said the process is pretty much standard fundraising practice, only taking advantage of new tools as lead generation. “That’s been a large part of the way that we’ve promoted materials online from day one. Almost everything that we do goes back into promoting the brand,” he said, getting people back into advocacy and fundraising channels, once they’re part of the community of the site.

Each new email address in PETA’s records gets three conversion emails in the two weeks after they opt in.

Said Phillips: “There are going to be plenty of folks who are going to talk about all the great things that are going to happen with Facebook and things like that, but from everything that I’ve heard from other organizations, and my own experience, no one’s really making all that much money off of all of those efforts.”

PETA has almost 30,000 friends on MySpace. “Having friends is terrific,” Phillips said, “but it’s more kind of driving people back into traditional online fundraising channels, and having an integrated campaign.”

Return on investment in the short-term is “brutal,” said Phillips, but the Internet is more about the long view of reaching the masses quickly when there’s a moment in the news. When news happens, it’s too late to build an audience, he said. “You need to have that ready.”

Facebook’s Causes charges a 4.5-percent transaction fee. Three percent of that fee is used by its nonprofit partner, JustGive, to cover credit card processing fees, approximately 1 percent, depending on donation size and volume, covers the costs of distributing checks to non-profits, and the remaining 0.5 percent goes to Causes to cover costs related to running the application.

Nothing is raising much money for IFAW in the social networks at the moment, Koenen said, but they will begin focusing efforts to create a way to get “microdonations” of $1 or $2 from Facebook supporters.

This demographic is very active and mobile but they’re not going to give a $25 donation, Koenen said. “You can spend a lot of energy with little return.” The Internet is a tool to brand your organization with a new, younger audience, she said, and to just know who you are and then donate later, instead of the lightning tool imagined a few years ago.

“It’s a great tool for disaster relief fundraising and event based,” Koenen said, “but on the whole more and more are looking at the Web as a cultivation tool, rather than seeing our traditional mail donors moving to the Web to make their gifts.”  – NPT