Since the launch of the social networking website Facebook.com in 2004, the user base has grown exponentially to 800 million users as of July 2011. This was followed by the launch of Twitter.com in 2006, which has grown to over 300 million users as of July 2011. Both these websites represent a major shift in the way people connect with each other and how they spend their spare time. It has also created arguably the world’s largest database of potential online customers, and businesses rapidly became a part of the action, trying to find unique ways to interact with the multitude of users. Nonprofit organizations have been a bit slower on the uptake, but are finally coming around to establishing social network presences, as they also see the potential for connecting with huge amounts of people to communicate their mission and projects to.
Businesses have found it slow-going in this infancy stage of social media and there are not yet firm reports on return on investment for advertising projects that try to engage users. All that they really can state for sure at this stage is that they need to be on Facebook and Twitter just due to the sheer volume of users, and they will stay the course until clearer marketing strategies unfold. For nonprofits the future is not as clear, as questions arise as to whether fundraising can function effectively on these platforms, even though they are successful tools to grow an organization’s member base.
Although usage rates on these websites have exploded over the last two years, there is a great deal of uncertainty that goes along with the purpose, efficiency and effectiveness of these tools.
It’s obvious that, with a little work, an organization can grow a substantial base of users on Facebook and Twitter. But what do these users actually add up to? Are they donors? Are they new supporters? These questions have led to new terminology coined in the nonprofit world, creating a distinction between “friend raising” and “fundraising.”
Besides the standard creation of a Facebook profile and fan page, the most direct tool available to nonprofit organizations is Facebook Causes, a separate platform which reaches all Facebook users, but is limited to 501(c)(3) organizations as members. The platform was created in May 2007 and has since raised $21 million for 390,000 causes through the efforts of over 100 million active users. It has seen a ten-fold increase from $3000 to $30,000 in monthly donations between 2007 and 2009. Causes’ stated mission is “Causes strives to empower people have a positive impact on the world.”
The second important type of social networking is micro-blogging, and the primary location to do this is Twitter. Millions of users check each other’s statuses, follow who they’re interested in, and send each other short pointed messages to communicate. Again, we see a huge potential for reaching multitudes of online users and finding new supporters and potential donors, although strategies remain unclear.
A large portion of Twitter’s mission is assisting organizations in the “open exchange of information that can have a positive global impact.
Other social media websites includes LinkedIn, a website for professionals to make important connection and share information, and Myspace which is reserved mainly for teenagers and youth to enjoy music and video sharing. Both websites contain large amounts of users but do not represent an optimum platform for businesses and nonprofits to engage effectively.
Facebook and Twitter remain the two main communities that have ideal settings to broadcast nonprofit ideas, and actually profess to support this type of engagement. However, the overall impact of social media websites like Facebook and Twitter has only begun to be analyzed by researchers in marketing, corporate advertising and academia.