Research and Data: How NGOs Win with Facebook

Capulet spends a lot of time working with non-profit organizations and how they can better engage their online audience with meaningful content. It means we spend a lot of time thinking about social media and why some organizations receive more likes, comments and shares on Facebook than others. It was time to put our experience and long-held assumptions to the test and back them up with actual data.
We decided to embark on a research project in order to answer this question: what kinds of content gets liked, commented upon and shared on NGO Facebook pages?

What Did We Do?

We first identified 20 Facebook pages run by large and well-known environmental non-profit organizations across North America. On average, each organization had about 160,000 fans. We searched for organizations with a fan base in and around that number to keep the playing field relatively equal. While we only researched environmental NGOs, we’re confident the our results could apply to any charity or not-for profit organization. For-profit companies might be interested in the results, too.

Next, we evaluated the 50 most recent Facebook posts by each organization which gave us 1,000 posts to work with. After that, it was time to do a data dive. We’ve compiled the results into five critical lessons on how NGO’s can win with Facebook.

Darren and I first presented our findings at NetSquared Camp back in May, 2012. In July, 2012, Greenpeace published our findings on their Mobilization Lab website.

Lesson One: Link Generously

Organizations that apply an open, networked approach to social media channels will engage their audience more successfully than those who only talk about themselves.

In our study, the NGOs that performed poorly published lots of links to their own site, and few to anybody else’s. 37% of all posts we looked at linked back to home pages and website pages while the top performing organizations regularly linked to other sites – mostly mainstream news articles about their causes – as often as they linked to their own website.

Lesson Two: Don’t Overwhelm Your Audience

You may think you post the perfect content for your online community but if you post too often, you risk alienating your supporters. Something that surprised us in our research was how little the top tier organizations posted, online. In fact, they only needed to post once a day (including weekends). We also noticed that Thursdays had the highest average engagement, followed by Saturday and Sunday so if you haven’t been thinking about content on the weekend, it’s time you should start.

Lesson Three: You’re Probably Not Sharing Enough Photos and Videos

Of all the types of content we looked at — photos, videos, photo galleries, status updates and links — fans were likeliest to like, share or comment on a photo. Based on all we know about Facebook and Edgerank (Facebook’s algorithm that determines what content makes it into your newsfeed), this didn’t surprise us.

We were surprised, however, to discover 18 of the top 20 most engaging Facebook posts were photos. In particular, our study showed climate change campaigners performed well, sharing well produced and thoughtful photos, infographics and videos. Videos also tended to perform well but still only accounted for 11% of all the posts we looked at while photos accounted for 26%.

Lesson Four: Emulate the Superstars

The two organizations that stood out at producing engaging content were Earthjustice and the Surfrider Foundation. We highly recommend taking a look at these two organizations and paying close attention to their Facebook posts and social media channels, in general. We also know that these two organizations do excellent work offline, as well. It’s great to see that their real-world success extends to their digital channels, too.

Lesson Five: Overlay Powerful Text on Evocative Photos

Of the one thousand posts we looked at, the top ten were all photos with some characteristics in common (check out the slideshow, below, to see all ten photos):

  • All of the photos featured emotional or provocative subject matter.
  • Most included a simple powerful message in overlying text.
  • Most seemed to be taken, or touched up, by professionals.
  • Only one of the photos’ captions included an ‘ask’ that users like or share the photo.
  • There was only one infographic among these popular images, and it was very simple.

Jodi Stark, Healthy Oceans campaigner for the David Suzuki Foundation, attended Netsquared Camp back in May, 2012, when we first presented our findings. She took our research to heart and produced an image of oily seawater, and overlaid it with a powerful message about oil spills. Jodi writes:

“We posted this on Saturday [David Suzuki’s page had roughly 200,000 likes at the time] and in short order, we got 1,000 shares, 180 comments and 342 likes. The page was also liked by 1,000 more people this weekend. We can’t attribute this to the image, but we do know that with 1,000 shares, we got huge exposure to lots of new Facebook friends. We also got 3050 visits to the blog from Facebook (out of 4500 total visits) and 560 people who followed up and signed our action. In Facebook Insights, the post is currently second (out of 158) post for ‘engaged users’ and ‘most talked about’ for 2012.”

You can find the slides from our NetSquared Camp presentation here, along with a few insights that didn’t make it into this post.

With more than 1,000 posts to work with, there’s a lot we can do with the results and the kinds of comparisons we can make. If you’re interested in hearing more and if you happen to be in the Vancouver area on Tuesday, September 11th, 2012, Darren and I will be presenting our findings and answering questions at Net Tuesday. Visit here for more details.

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