Road Kill Social Media

In just less than a month, the “Skinned Alive” campaign by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had garnered 98,000 fans, driven almost entirely through social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter. MySpace? Not so much.

Only a few years ago, MySpace was essentially neck and neck with Facebook in a battle for social networking supremacy. These days it seems to be falling into the niche category while Facebook boasts more than 400 million users worldwide and Twitter has seen fast-paced growth during the past year. Nonprofits, it seems, are following the same lead.

In the second annual survey of nonprofits’ use of social networks, MySpace saw a 45 percent dip in year-over-year usage. Only 14 percent of organizations surveyed, compared to 26 percent last year, reported a presence on MySpace, according to the Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report, which was compiled by Portland, Ore.-based NTEN, ThePort Network of Atlanta, Ga., and Common Knowledge in San Francisco, Calif.

Meanwhile, other social networks continued to see increased participation, such as 86 percent of nonprofits responding they were on Facebook, compared with 60 percent on Twitter, 48 percent on YouTube and 33 percent on LinkedIn.

In another survey of nearly 500 nonprofits by Portland, Maine-based Idealware, Facebook (73 percent), Twitter (56 percent) and video-sharing sites (49 percent) were the most widely used social media channels. MySpace was ranked lowest for outreach and enhancing existing relationships.

Different platform, same techniques

The basic fundamentals of fundraising remain regardless of the medium. “Just because email comes along doesn’t mean direct mail is going out the window,” said Paul Phillips, online fundraising manager for the PETA Foundation. “Everyone reinforces everything else,” he added.

“Our engagement in Twitter became much deeper and a much larger part of our overall social marketing scheme,” Phillips said of the “Skinned Alive” campaign. “We probably will look for folks who use Twitter to reinforce what we’re doing across other social channels more,” he said.

PETA’s strategy isn’t so much about shunning MySpace as it is about simply going to where constituents are, Phillips said. The nonprofit can still be found on MySpace, although the number of fans on the network is about 10 percent of the total on Facebook. “Chalk it up to constituents moving to a social media channel they’re most comfortable with,” he said. “If we have one-tenth the voice on MySpace that we do on Facebook, that’s entirely the driving factor of why Facebook is the central piece in this campaign. It’s much more a matter of where the audience is more active. We’re going to take PETA’s message to whatever channel constituents want us to,” he said.

“A lot of the tools we provide should work across social media platforms. Part of the nature of social media is letting the crowd take the message to their friends and family,” said Phillips. Even if something comes along that turns out to be “the next Facebook,” there usually are enough compatible elements and tools that will migrate to another network.

“Social networking is in large part about going to where our constituency is. At Oxfam America, we’re not focusing on MySpace as much because our constituents left it for Facebook and Twitter,” according to Megan Weintraub, new media manager at Oxfam America. The growth of Oxfam’s community in MySpace has slowed significantly during the past 12 to 18 months while its presence on Facebook and Twitter has exploded.

It’s almost inevitable that something will come along eventually to knock even Facebook off its perch. Five years ago, it was Facebook versus MySpace in a duel of rival social networks. Before that, there was Friendster and MeetUp, and other social networks that were the shiny, new toy at some point. Jeff Patrick is often asked which social networks nonprofits should join. “When a new wave of things happen, it usually happens in a certain way, and understanding that helps people get a handle on that,” said Patrick, the president and CEO of San Francisco, Calif.-based Common Knowledge. “Certain things tend to happen when new technology comes in; a bunch of players hit and some evolve as mainstream players,” he said.

When social networks started to take off about five years ago, there was MySpace and Facebook but also thousands of other networks. “As each one of those develops their solutions, their base of consumers, each tends to develop the company, the product and the customer base,” Patrick said. As each gets bigger, they get dominant players in each area. Years ago, the social networking space was still shaking out but today, there are strong indications of who will be dominant.

Precursors to MySpace and Facebook were Friendster and MeetUp, which were social networking focused in 2000. “They got outdated and usurped when Facebook and MySpace were incrementally more social. They were just better, more shiny,” Patrick said. “They failed to see the real potential in the social networking software,” he said, and the two still exist but are not considered state of the art.

LinkedIn might not be as popular as Facebook but it is solidifying its lead as the social networking platform for professionals, according to Patrick. And while it might still be too early to tell, FourSquare, a spin-off of Twitter, is making its case in the mobile social networking space.

When The Buzz Wears Off

A common misconception is that people assume since media coverage has slowed that something is no longer viable or even exists, according to Susan Tenby, online community director at San Francisco-based nonprofit TechSoup. A case in point is Second Life, a virtual world where you can control your avatar and buy virtual land.

“At the beginning, everybody thought they had to be there because it was the sexy, new technology; there was nothing else like it,” Tenby said. Those organizations that figured out a use for it are staying in Second Life. “They’re the ones who tested itÉand are staying,” she said.

Since 2008, 1,900 avatars have spent 15,000 hours at Second Life’s Nonprofit Commons, run by TechSoup. A campaign to raise money for Haiti generated $7,000 in virtual donations, and the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life raised $300,000 last year in Second Life. “It’s successful because it’s so well known. There’s huge muscle behind their following in real life,” Tenby said.

Some smaller nonprofits have stepped away from Second Life and other social networks, either because they’re taking a break from social media, loss of staff or moving to their own simulation. “It’s about meeting people where they’re at. Find out where your community is,” Tenby said. It’s not really about finding a new tool, it’s about going where people are, she said.

Patrick said nonprofits must determine how they want to use the social network, whether for fundraising or community building. “When you make the choice and invest in it, it has to be there tomorrow,” he said, so nonprofits have to prognosticate to some extent. “After four or five years, winners are beginning to evolve and will continue to advance in this space,” Patrick said.

Weintraub expects location-based social networking will play a greater role in organizing volunteers and events for the organization’s outreach work, but “the jury is still out on which product will take the lead and be used most widely by the constituents we are cultivating,” she said.

It took email several years to get to a point where Patrick was confident that it could raise money for nonprofits. “We’re getting to that place on Facebook; we’re not quite there; that likely will be solidified in the next few years,” he said.

Before dumping one technology or social network altogether, Patrick suggests checking that it’s really not valuable for your nonprofit. For instance, he said MySpace appears to have some people they can’t reach other ways. MySpace tends to still attract youth and minorities.

“Don’t just follow what the market trend is because it might not look as you originally imagined, you might have to adapt,” Patrick said. “If after doing that it’s clear that it’s going to be decreasingly less value for you here, falling away, cut your losses and do your best to migrate those folks to something else,” he said. “There’s no point in sticking around with something that’s not going to work.”

Rather than adopting one network, figure out what demographic you want to reach with this message and decide what network you’re going to use to do it. “When you do that, you’re customizing to a network and an audience,” Patrick said. Each social network will reach an intended market versus arbitrarily picking something that you think will be the network for the rest of your life, Patrick said. “It’s not going to be. Twitter and Facebook are going to go away, we just don’t know when and what’ll replace it,” he said.  “No one wants to do business on 10 different platforms. You’d rather have a few places that work really well; that are more cost effective. Industry focuses on several, then accentuates those. That’s what’s being called widely adopted,” Patrick said.

Tenby suggested nonprofits use content across a broad range of platforms. “Show them that it’s not one tool or the other,” she said, “a way to connect these tools so you have a constellation of social networks and consistent branding,” she said.  NPT