The social media sphere is just another set of tools, though if you read the hype, you might think it’s either the savior of all nonprofit efforts or a demonic force causing poor reading scores and tooth decay. For nonprofits, the promise of social tools is rooted in the passion supporters have for mission-focused work combined with the nearly free implementation cost for many of these tools. Nonprofits love free (and are okay with nearly-free), and so perhaps the sector is, even more so than some others, prone to leaping before looking at how to make social work well.

Nonprofit Quarterly  has previously written about not chasing raw Twitter counts as well as the power of dark social for nonprofits. These topics all beg the question: what are nonprofits measuring in order to understand whether our social media engagement activities are getting us what we want and need to achieve our missions? The number of “likes” on Facebook has some value, but engagement in social circles is where we get the most reward. Luckily for frugal nonprofits, there are tools that make measuring this engagement easier.

Nonprofits can create links to improve their measurement capacity. For instance, a social message saying, “Hey, we’re great! Please tell other people!” is nice, but how about a message like this: “Hey, we’re great! Look at this report on how we’ve helped 200 new homebuyers this year!” Not only does the latter message offer some specific information (remember: content is king), but it also provides you with a link that you can measure. You could also link directly to a page on your own site and then use Google Analytics to measure the impact. However, providing a custom link in your social posts like the one above allows you to track the real flow of traffic from a Tweet or post to a specific page.

Still, the gulf between posting something to social media and actually having readers interact with it is huge. Facebook is screening most of your stuff away from readers. Twitter feeds go by in the blink of an eye. How do you know what is actually being read?

A great starting tool is a social media aggregator/publisher that can do some tracking for you.  Services like HootSuite or TweetDeck provide some basic reporting not just on how many followers you have on various networks, but also on how many links were clicked and from which service. Custom reporting is also available, but now we are leaving the land of our beloved “free stuff” and entering the terrain where we might have to start paying for the specifics. These reports provide a great window into what your readers/followers actually find interesting enough to click on. An important cautionary note, however: Facebook deprecates posts from aggregator sites, meaning your aggregator-driven measurement plan may come at a visibility cost on Facebook.

Even without social aggregator software, however, any nonprofit can still set some basic measures. Look for re-tweets on Twitter, shares on Facebook, and plus-ones on the Google sites. This will at least tell you whether someone read what you did and whether he or she thought it worthy of passing along. The trick is to set up specific goals and measures, and then to assign staff a deadline to report on them. Google Analytics and Facebook are good at making such reporting fairly easy, but Twitter is not so great at providing analytics data so using an outside source to track links may be better for that social media site.

Here’s a Twitter pro tip: if you’re interested in measuring a short burst of activity aimed at a specific purpose, hashtags can add a lot of value. If you’re going to engage in hashtag measurement, however, you must first make sure that your hashtag is unique (as your measurements won’t be accurate if some other nonprofit is also tweeting up #GivingIsNice at the same time that you are trying to track your social media push with this tag). So undertake a quick search to make sure the hashtag you want to measure is unique. Then, you may be able to take a closer look at which messages within that overarching hashtag have traction and which have merely floated by in the stream.

Just as your audiences may use different social networks, your strategy must be to measure different audiences. Facebook may have the most members, but Twitter tends to offer more engagement. Google Plus might connect you with niche audiences that avoid those other services, and Pinterest is great when you want to convey your goals visually. Wherever your nonprofit spends its social media time, be sure to include measurable goals for your engagement there. Without specific measures, there’s no way to tell if all those “likes” are real engagement with your organization or just courtesy.

Originally published at Nonprofit Quarterly.

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