Measuring the Effectiveness of Your Online Communications

by Laura S. Quinn

Are your online communications working? How can you tell? In this article, we talk through four types of measures – Views, Followers, Engagement, and Conversion – that help you track your efforts to see if they’re worthwhile.

Chances are, your organization has a website. Perhaps you also send out broadcast emails, or maintain a blog, Twitter or Facebook account. Is the effort you’re putting into online communications working? How can you tell?

Determining the effectiveness of online communications is not a trivial process. Like any kind of marketing, results can sometimes be difficult to quantify directly. But there are four types of things you can measure, however.

How many people are actually looking at the information you’re putting out there? How many people choose to passively follow your information? How interested are people – do they click through on links, or write comments? And most importantly, how many people take a real action to help your organization by donating, volunteering or attending your event?

Let’s look at these four measurements one at a time.

Views: How Many People are You Reaching?

For most online communication channels, there’s a way to see how many people actually saw your information – the number of “Views” received – including:

  • Website Page Views. Through a website analytics tool, like Google Analytics, you can see how many people looked at your website, a particular page or a blog post over a given period of time.
  • Video Views. YouTube and other online video sites provide a count of how many people watch your videos.
  • Facebook Views. Facebook provides metrics as to how many people looked at your organization’s Fan Page, if you have one.
  • Email Opens. A broadcast email tool can tell you roughly how many people opened an email that you sent.

Views provide a general understanding of how many people you’re reaching. Such metrics can be useful if your primary goal is to spread a straightforward message – for instance, which people should get a flu shot.

If you want to increase the number of people viewing your information, you’ll probably need more promotion. Are you telling people, both online and offline, that the information exists? Does your information show up early in relevant search engine results? Would it make sense to advertise?

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that organizations often hope to inspire people not just to read their information, but to get involved and help out. If this is true for you, don’t get caught up in Views as your primary metric of success. Expanding your audience is great, but if none of these people chooses to follow your information, engage with you or act to help your organization, then increasing your reach may not be useful to the organization as whole.

Followers: How Big is Your Online Base?

For most organizations, it’s desirable to encourage people to somehow sign up so you can communicate with them in an ongoing way. This is also straightforward to track. For example, you could look at:

  • Email Newsletters Subscribers. How many people are on your list to receive email?
  • Direct Mail Subscribers. Based on your online communications, how many people ask you to add them to your mailing list?
  • Twitter Followers. If you’re using Twitter, it’s easy to see how many people are following you.
  • Facebook Fans. Similarly, Facebook makes it easy to see how many people “Like” your Fan page.
  • RSS subscribers. If you provide a way for people to subscribe to your website or blog through RSS, a tool like Feedburner can give you a subscriber count.

These types of metrics tell you how many people have opted to listen to what you have to say, showing the size of your supporter base. It’s also the number of people you’re able to reliably get in touch with in order to spread a message or ask for help.

If you want to increase your number of Followers, it almost certainly makes sense to start by ensuring the information you’re providing is compelling. What can you offer people that they’ll be excited to get? Once that’s in place, reach out to those viewing your content to encourage them to subscribe or follow you. Consider a specific online campaign (for instance, to increase recycling in your town, or to provide canned food to their local food pantry) that will catch people’s attention and encourage them to follow you to find out how it turns out.

Just as with Views, it’s useful to understand how well you’re expanding your base of supporters. But it’s all too easy to look at your number of followers as an end in and of itself rather than a means to reach your goals. If you have a million Facebook fans, and none of them ever does anything to help you, it’s probably not a good idea to focus simply on getting even more fans. Instead, focus on the metrics outlined below – Engagement and Conversion.

Engagement: Are You Getting People Interested?

It’s often useful to get people involved – not just reading and following, but actually commenting, writing or submitting thoughts of their own. This can make your supporters feel more connected to your work, and can foster a true feeling of community around your cause. For example, you could track:

  • Number of comments. You can count how many people have posted a comment to your blog, or posted to your wall in Facebook.
  • Number of “re-tweets.” Using a Twitter application like TweetDeck or HootSuite, you can monitor and count up “retweets” of your information – or, someone passing your information on.
  • Number of times someone forwarded to someone else. Advanced email broadcast tools and plug-ins for website page forwarding, like “AddThis,” will often provide metrics on how many times your information was passed on.
  • Online mentions. If people (other than staff members) post information about you or your cause online, it shows community engagement. It’s hard to get exact figures for this, but you could subscribe to be notified when someone mentions your organization with a tool like Google Alerts or BlogPulse, and then count the mentions over time.
  • Number of submissions for a contest or “share your story” program. If you’re asking for submissions, count the number of entries you receive as a measure of how successful that campaign is in getting people involved.

These types of metrics can help confirm that you’re saying the types of things people want to hear from you, and giving them the types of information that encourages them to be more involved. Increasing your supporters’ level of engagement is challenging, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. However, make sure the information you’re providing is compelling to your followers. Try asking questions. Provide people with information or fun resources likely to interest their friends, and ask people to pass on the word – and give them a reason that might inspire them to actually do it. Keep an eye on what works.

As with Views and Followers, it’s important to keep Engagement metrics in perspective with your overall goals. If engagement itself is a core goal – for example, to get youth talking about sexual health, or to give homebound people a creative outlet – then these metrics provide a great way to track your progress. But if you’re focused on other actions that directly help your organization, like volunteers, event attendees or donations, then the Engagement metrics only show one piece of the overall picture, and the Conversion metrics outlined below will provide the core information to know if you’re succeeding.

Conversion: Are People Acting to Help Your Organization?

Conversion is a fundamental thing to measure to understand the actual effectiveness of your communications. This is where the rubber meets the road. Do your online communications help create real world results? In this area, you measure actual, tangible outcomes for your organization, like the following:

  • Donations. Do your communications inspire people to give?
  • Volunteers. Do they agree to volunteer?
  • Activists. Do people call their congressperson, turn out for rallies or sign petitions?
  • Event Participants. Do they show up for your events?
  • Item Purchases. Do they buy the book, kit or T-shirts you’re selling?
  • Registrations. Do they register for your programs?

It’s sometimes possible to measure Conversion directly. For instance, if you email your list to ask for volunteers, and enlist six volunteers as a result, that’s an easy metric to track. However, many organizations communicate through a number of channels at once, making it hard to directly tie conversion to any one of them.

There are a couple of methods that can help track the source. The most obvious is to ask people where they heard about the opportunity. For instance, if someone calls to register for your conference, ask them where they heard about it. You could also try to attach source codes to the web address used to sign up or donate so you can tell who came from what channel – so, for instance, provide a different registration web address on Twitter than you do through email, and a third on your website.

Marketers often need to fall back onto a method called “lift,” however, to try to indirectly measure conversion. If you leave a gap between communications, you can roughly tie the results you see to the communication you just put out. For instance, if you communicate about your event for a week only on Twitter, then any increase in registration can be loosely tied to that Twitter communication.

How do you increase Conversion? Most fundamentally, make sure you’re telling a compelling story about why people should act. Ask for their support with the most specific cause you can, tied as closely to human outcomes as possible. Then, make it easy to act. Make sure you’re not putting unnecessary barriers (like confusing web forms or a long series of steps) between people and the actions you want them to take.

What Does it All Mean For Me?

There’s a lot you can track about online communications. That’s good news for those carefully looking at results to improve their communications over time, but can be overwhelming if you’re just trying to figure out what’s likely to work best with your limited time.

As with most things, it makes sense to start with your goals. What are you trying to achieve with your online communications? If you have a really high-level goal like “increasing awareness,” you can simply track a few View metrics to see whether you’re reaching more people, but it’s important to realize it will be very difficult to track any kind of Return On Investment for your time.

For most organizations it will make sense to define concrete goals tied to their mission. It might be critical to raise money, for example, or attract young volunteers, or register people for a conference. It will be much easier to track the effectiveness of these kinds of specific goals – and, not coincidentally, it will be much easier to define what kinds of communications are likely to be useful as well! Defining a timeframe will also provide structure for the tracking efforts – for example, you might set a goal to get 1,000 activists to call Congress by the end of next week.

With a goal defined, map out an online strategy to achieve your goal. The ultimate measure of success is likely to be one or more Conversion metrics, but it can be helpful to track other things along the way. If your goal is to encourage people to sign a petition, the first step is going to be to try to attract attention to the fact that the petition exists – you can track the success of this effort through Views metrics. Try various outreach techniques, see whether they work, and steer your efforts accordingly by looking at the number of people who have, for example, looked at the page summarizing your cause. It’s then likely to be useful to get people talking about it, so you can track some Engagement measures to follow how you’re doing there. If it’s an ongoing campaign over time, you’ll want to try to gather Followers, so choose some measure from that category as well.

Don’t feel you need to track every possible metric for every possible campaign. Tracking is only useful if you’re going to actually be able to take action to improve communications based on what you learn. Pick a few measures you’re able to comfortably track with the tools you have, and start there. As you’re able to comfortably monitor those metrics, and adjust your communications strategy according to that data, you might find that tracking a few more metrics will fill in gaps in your knowledge.

Fundamentally, online communications provide you with a lot of data to help you tell whether they’re working or not. By focusing on the right metrics, you can adjust your communications so you’re not spending time on ineffective strategies, and can instead do more of what works.

As Idealware’s Founder and Executive Director, Laura S. Quinn directs Idealware’s research and writing to provide candid reports and articles about nonprofit software. Prior to Idealware, Laura provided website strategy, navigation, and online knowledge management consulting for nonprofits. Laura is a frequent speaker and writer on nonprofit technology topics.

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