Nonprofits Outpacing Business in Use of Social Media: An Interview with Eric Mattson

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"If you look at nonprofits, I think the successful ones have a passionate core that want to hear what's going on, that want to see what's going on with video, that want to get regular updates, that want to comment, engage, and participate. Social media very much facilitates that in an easy and, as I said, affordable way, so it's a natural fit for what nonprofits are looking for." --Eric Mattson

Before the holidays, I interviewed Eric Mattson, the co-author of the recent study, Blogging for the Hearts of Donors, about social media usage by the 200 largest charities in the United States. You can listen to the interview on the NetSquared Podcast, or read the edited transcript below.

Eric Mattson: Hello, my name is Eric Mattson. I am a Marketing Consultant and social media scholar based in Seattle, Washington. Over the last 12 to 18 months I've been doing a series of research projects with my partner, Prof. Nora Barnes of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth looking at social media adoption in various industries. For example, corporate adoption by looking at the Inc. 500, university adoption by looking at college admissions departments, and most recently, and part of the focus of this podcast, looking at adoption by some of the largest US charities and nonprofits to see: how familiar are they with social media, are they using social media, are they monitoring social media? Some of these fundamental, foundational questions that seems to still be out there, despite the fact that social media has become a fairly well known space with the advent of MySpace and Facebook and blogs and what not. That's a little bit about me and that's a little bit about the high level view of our research.

BB: Before you did the study, what did you expect to find, and then, what surprised you the most about what you did find?

EM: All of our research has been somewhat surprising in terms of the amount of adoption that has taken place. I think that certainly there have been some large mainstream articles, and some examples of consumers' taking up social media in massive numbers, whether it's Wikipedia's eight million articles, or MySpace's couple hundred million accounts, etc. But we were still stuck with the question "Are organizations using this?" From our very first study looking at the Inc. 500 to the charity study, we've been surprised by the number of people who said, "Yes, we're using this."

We're somewhat blown away because charities are the largest adopters of some of these technologies that we've run across, and that's very interesting to us. It speaks, I think, to the value of social media in that it certainly fits with a lot of the needs of nonprofits, as well as the ROI and the pocketbooks of nonprofits, that it can be done very affordably and in very accessible ways. We expected to find that they were certainly adopting it, we didn't expect to necessarily find that they were adopting a lot of the technologies faster than companies and faster than universities.

BB: For folks who haven't seen the study, can you do a little overview of some of the main findings?

EM: Our studies--and we've tried to do similar pieces with the three studies so that we can just try and compare apples to apples--generally dealt with the same things. We started with familiarity, "How familiar are you with blogs?" Then we moved into things like "Are you using it? Do you use wikis? Do you have a podcast?" Lastly, we ask some fundamental questions about, "Do you monitor the conversations? Do you listen to other bloggers, etc?"

We found that in general, charities and nonprofits are very familiar with social media. If memory serves, blogging was the technology they're most familiar with, and that certainly makes sense when you look at the growth and the popularity of social media. Social networking is very popular, but it's certainly skewed towards the younger generation, whereas blogs seem to have spread across all sorts of places, including major media outlets, really coming along as the one technology that people are most familiar with.

In terms of usage, we actually found some fairly interesting numbers. Most technologies were being used by a good portion of nonprofits, and to me that's very interesting from the perspective of, "Wow, gosh, if this many of them are using them today, where are we going to be in another year? How soon are these things such that it's not just a small portion using them, but everyone naturally has a website and a blog? When asking, 'What's your blog's URL?' is as common as asking 'What's your website's URL?'" There are definitely some interesting things going on in terms of adoption.

The one number that really stuck out to us actually dealt with social media monitoring which is, "Are you listening to other people?" There are so many outlets out there for people now; it's just as easy for an individual to have a blog as it is for an organization to have a blog. So when you compare the Inc. 500, or you compare college admissions departments to the Forbes 200 charities list, the charities are by far the most aware of what's going on in the social media realm about their brands and about their causes. If memory serves, almost two-thirds of them were actually listening to these outside conversations, and I think that really speaks to how aware and heads up and engaged the nonprofits are in this new technology realm.

BB: Do you have any theories or thoughts about why nonprofits are adopting social web tools at a faster rate?

EM: I spoke to it a little bit earlier. I think it fits their pocketbook piece of the equation. When you can go and get a free blog, and you don't need to spend $100,000 on it, well gosh, that really fits with the attention to the bottom-line and limited funding that a lot of these startups have. I also think that these are wonderful tools for engaging a passionate core. If you look at nonprofits, I think the successful ones have a passionate core that want to hear what's going on, that want to see what's going on with video, that want to get regular updates, that want to comment, engage, and participate. Social media very much facilitates that in an easy and, as I said, affordable way, so it's a natural fit for what nonprofits are looking for.

BB: I know you're going to be releasing this study more in full, and there were interviews that you did. In those interviews, did the organizations talk at all, specifically or anecdotally, about what some of the benefits were for them of using the tools?

EM: A little bit. And certainly, we'll be releasing more data about that. One of the challenges is always how much time can you get with these very busy people? For this series of research projects, our focus was very much on, "How familiar are you with it? Are you using it? Are you monitoring it?" Some of these foundational questions, which we felt hadn't been answered in a statistically significant way. That's one of the real challenges, and one of the things I'd share with your audience is, when they see these numbers on people's blogs, they really have to take them with a grain of salt, because most social media research to date has been the equivalent of you calling up five of your friends and asking them questions, and then you publish it on your blog and say, "Well, my five friends say...," and everyone takes that as definitive research.

What we were really trying to do here was say, "All right. That's not definitive research, but this is much closer to giving us a guideline of what's really going on out there in organizations, in corporations, in college admissions departments." We don't have as much detail about, "How are you exactly using it? What are the benefits you're seeing?"

I can tell you, from a big standpoint, all the organizations we talked to who were using it really say, "Yes, we believe it's successful. Yes, we intend to keep using it. Yes, we're excited about adopting new technologies." But there's really a struggle for, "Well, all right. You think it's successful. How are you measuring that success?"

Some of those questions--"How exactly are you using it?" "What exactly are the benefits you're seeing?" "How are you measuring success?" "What advice do you have?"--are things that we hope to cover in the next series of surveys in these spaces.

BB: I was curious, in the survey results you found that people were most familiar with blogs, but they were using online video the most. You felt that they were less familiar with it because they were using outside contractors to produce the video. Did you get any sense, when you were having these conversations, of why that was the tool, which is potentially the most expensive tool and the one that you would need the most outside knowledge for, that they used it the most?

EM: I think it's clear, when you compare the power of the written word to the power of video, that something that engages more senses than just reading. . . .Video is a very powerful medium. I think it's also sexy. And for those nonprofits and those charities that have budget, it's something that they go to. In fact, it may be an easier medium, because it doesn't involve day-to-day maintenance, possibly. They do some video and then they post it, and they encourage participation around it, but they don't have to blog on a daily basis. So there may be some reasons that they're embracing that.

From a smaller charity perspective, I would certainly say blogs are where I'd start. I think they're one of the most well-known, most well-understood social media mediums that are out there.

What I'd say is, I think that video is very powerful. I think there are possibly some reasons that big charities with budgets are using them more, but I think that blogs are a wonderful place to start, from a social media perspective.

BB: When will the full study be released, and how can listeners get a copy?

EM: The full study, we're not quite sure how we're going to do that yet. Probably some time in 2008. The best way to know when we release the additional data is to email either Nora or I, and we will add you to our distribution list. They can email me at We'll put you on our mailing list. We generally send less than four emails a year. And we'll certainly announce when we release the full data, in addition to any other results from our research projects that we've been doing.

That's the best way to get a hold of us. Obviously, if there are questions, if someone wants to discuss a specific issue, emailing myself or Nora would be great.

BB: You have your own personal podcast where you've been interviewing entrepreneurs and innovators about marketing and social media. Can you talk a little bit about that, and do you have plans to, or have you, interviewed anyone within the nonprofit sector about nonprofits using social media for marketing?

EM: My podcast is called Jenerous. It's part of a larger project on my part to not only participate in the podcast space, so that I understand it as a participant and as an observer, but also to do 1,000 podcast interviews with interesting people so that I can learn from them, and I can share those in-depth conversations with other interested people out there.

I have done a number of interviews with people whose worlds either border on the nonprofit space or are firmly in it. There's one which I did with Nora, who is my co-author on these various research studies, which I think is very interesting. Digging back farther, I did one with a woman named Nedra Weinreich, who specialized in social media and the nonprofit space. I'm sure there are others.

Irregardless of that, there are a large number of podcasts that deal with social media in all its forms--social networking, blogging, wikis, etc.--that I think would be valuable from a practitioner's standpoint for anyone who wants to learn more about the space and how they can implement it for their organizations.

BB: Is there anything else that you want listeners to know, either about the study or any other aspect of your work?

EM: I think one of the big things that Nora and I hit on a lot is: social media's great, it's a huge trend, but it doesn't mean it's necessarily right for your organization. So make sure it fits with your broader strategy when you implement it. But don't be afraid to try something. And when you do try something, it doesn't have to have all the bells and whistles, but it is going to take some time.

The three take-aways are: it's not a silver bullet, but it is really easy; however, make sure you budget enough time. Those would be my last three thoughts for your listeners.