How the USO Used Social Media to Greatly Increase Donations
by Katie Delahaye Paine
So many people want to know what the ROI of social media is. Last time I checked there were 27 million references to it on Google. Oliver Blanchard has even written a book about it: “Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization.”
But sometimes the best way to understand the ROI of social media is to look at case studies. Here's the story of how the USO used social media to greatly enhance their fundraising. I call it “The ROI of Emily.”
The USO is a nonprofit non-governmental organization that provides services and support to actively serving members of the military and their families. When you say “USO” many people think of Bob Hope (that's him to the right) and the USO tours, but the tours are just a small piece of what they really do.
One of the problems that the USO faces is that the Bob Hope generation is dying off, which means fewer volunteers and donors. The other problem is that most of the people the USO serves weren’t born when Bob Hope was doing his tours. So, like many other nonprofit organizations facing an aging donor base, the USO turned to social media to reach out to a new generation of supporters.
Emily Hall Joins the USO
In March of 2009, they hired Emily Hall, known as “Em” as well as @emilyhaha, to manage their social media outreach. At the time, my company was measuring the USO’s media coverage in both traditional and social media. One of the things we tracked was the nature of the conversations. We would look at every mention and decide whether it was expressing support or merely making an observation (for a full explanation of our 27 different types of conversations, read: “5 Reasons to Love 27 Types of Conversation and 19 Types of Videos.”)
After Em arrived, the first thing we noticed was a distinct shift in the nature of the conversations. For months they had been mostly observational, for instance, “I’m near the USO room at the airport,” or, “Just noticed that XYZ was at the USO last night.” But shortly after Em began her social media efforts, the majority of conversations were expressions of support for the USO, mostly related to her outreach on Facebook and a “Support USO Friday” campaign. See the following chart:
While it was great that people were expressing more support, So what?
But as I always say, in order for measurement to be meaningful you have to ask “So what?” three times. While it was great that people were expressing more support, So what? Did that translate into meaningful benefits to the organization?
The answer took a bit more digging. One of the key metrics for any nonprofit organization is online donations, so when we matched compared donations to the overall visibility of the organization, there was clearly a correlation between exposure and donations. See the following chart, which plots donations and opportunities to see in the spring of 2009:
But once again, So what? What else could we learn from the data?
Let’s take the various spikes one at a time. The red line indicates overall media exposure, the blue line indicates dollars. The first major spike was driven by a White House event where the newly elected POTUS, Barack Obama, wrapped care packages for the USO on the White House lawn. It was a great visual event, and was widely covered by broadcast news outlets, including all the morning talk shows. At the time, it spurred the greatest increase in online donations in the history of the organization, generating some $65,000 an hour and actually crashing the USO server!
Then, a month later, the USO made another broadcast media splash by taking a crew and one of their mobile Internet vans to Afghanistan to show exactly how they support the troops by providing them with the ability to communicate with home from remote locations. While the overall exposure level was about the same as with the Obama event, the online revenue wasn’t nearly as high.
Then in June, the USO took the entire cast and crew of The Colbert Report to Baghdad and did a week-long series of broadcasts. Each broadcast included messages of “Donate to the USO” with very specific instructions. The news of these broadcasts were picked up widely on other media outlets and once again, donations spiked.
But, so what?
The lesson is that it’s a lot cheaper to get President Obama out onto the White House lawn than it is to support The Colbert Report in Baghdad. So on a cost-per-donor basis, the White House event was much more efficient.
But again, so what?
We needed to understand why the White House event was so much more effective at fundraising than was the Afghanistan event that generated equal amount of exposure. What was the difference?
The difference was Em
Here’s where Emily comes in again. As it turns out, Em, through her Facebook outreach, had tapped into the enormous network of Obama supporters that was still in place after the election. Her posts emphasized that if people couldn’t come out and support the effort at the White House in person, they could still support the troops. And, her posts included a “Donate Here” button, which clearly had the desired effect.
Now, I call this “The ROI of Emily” because it addresses the revenue/cost benefit situation. Astute readers of The Measurement Standard and my Measurement Blog will notice that I am not adhering here to my usual strict definition of what ROI is: Percent return on money invested. I don’t know what Emily was paid, so we can't calculate proper ROI. I’m sure it’s a significant amount, though, since the donations she pulled in far exceeded whatever she was paid.
So that’s the ROI of Emily.
Katie Delahaye Paine is CEO of KDPaine & Partners, a company that delivers custom research to measure brand image, public relationships, and engagement. Katie Paine is a dynamic and experienced speaker on public relations and social media measurement. Click here for the schedule of Katie’s upcoming speaking engagements.