Does ‘Liking’ Convert Into Dollars?

As Facebook users surged past the one-billion mark and the Twitter logo has become omnipresent, a heavy percentage of nonprofits have established online Facebook pages, embraced Twitter messaging … and have experienced mixed results from experimentation with these new media.

It’s not surprising that results are best described as “mixed.” The two ancient and simple litmus tests, “Acquisition cost versus donor returns” and “Cost of ongoing communications versus repeat-donor returns,” might on analysis reveal a potential imbalance.

What can happen is the result of the difference between social media and conventional media: Social media are interactive, and that might involve considerably more handling, supervision, and one-to-one communication than the more traditional media require.

Here’s an even more explosive potential. Prospects and donors who feel an imagined slight can mount damaging messages of their own, and controlling such possibilities adds to cost without adding to the bottom line.

As always seems to be the case when a new outlet surfaces, critics point out potential holes in the donor-acquisition fabric. “Liking,” they point out — Facebook’s key word — isn’t parallel to “responding.” Follow (on Twitter)… or ignore … at your own risk.

New social media seem to be appearing every week. Who, two years ago, knew what Pinterest might be, other than a typo? Who, one year ago, would predict the decline and fall of Groupon or the spurting of Google Wildfire or Yelp? Who, six months ago, would even have heard of a social site named Rocket 21?

If you accept the recognizable notion of what professional fundraising is supposed to be, you also accept the definition of direct response. The purpose of a direct response message is to convince the recipient of the message to perform a predetermined positive act as the direct result of exposure to that message.

And therein lies the interpretive problem, the gap separating “predetermined positive act” from non-active results such as “noted” and “clickthrough” and “like.”

The difference is profound in a crowded media ambience. A fan or a follower might like you and even admire you, but without generating a transaction, your offer hasn’t generated a predetermined positive act.

Old-timers still puzzle over corruption of the once-mild word “Like.”

The word “Like” has skyrocketed to both positive and negative prominence since Facebook’s adoption of the word became an automatic closing click for a billion Facebook users.

“Like” is a danger-word for nonprofits. Here’s why that is so. It’s a commitment, not for an internally generated action but for the quick and dispassionate anticipation of a reward, whether the result is an action or not.

Put the blame on commercial Facebook exploiters who constantly offer a discount or a freebie in exchange for a “Like,” which positions the word where Facebook cynically wants it — a bribe.

We now have court cases, some of which are tied to nonprofit “Like” decisions. Example: Two firefighters and a police officer were hit with 30-day suspensions because they clicked “Like” on a controversial Facebook option. A Virginia police official was fired because he “liked” a page sponsored by a political rival of the sheriff. Both are suing, and certainly other court cases will follow, because one basis for an appeal is whether a Facebook “Like” merits Constitutional protection under the First Amendment.

Except for political super-PACS, the typical donor has a finite amount of money to distribute to all causes. Will all or most go to the college, the symphony orchestra, the church, or the unaffiliated local club?

This is where any medium, whether direct mail, email, telemarketing, or skywriting, either competes or fails. Sudden popularity is a dangerous indicator, because the popularity might be unrelated to capability of generating response.

Right now, in the brutally competitive 2013-2014 fundraising milieu, both safety and wisdom lie in reliance not on “the medium on which I personally devote the most time” but on the unassailable professional credo: The purpose of a direct response message is to convince the recipient of the message to perform a predetermined positive act as the direct result of exposure to that message.

Will that change, in favor of an existing or a yet-to-be-pop-hero-of-the-day social medium? Check the nonprofit marketplace again in five years. Well, make that two months.