4 min Read
November 1, 2009

Tweeting for dollars

Big Duck

Perhaps you’ve heard — Twitter is all the rage these days. The social messaging platform is growing by leaps and bounds, both in numbers and influence — Twitter recently penned deals withGoogle and Bing to make tweets searchable, and they just published their 5 billionth tweet.

Twitter is nonprofit-friendly, too. Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s co-founders, recently announced that they’ll be producing their own wine label and sharing the proceeds with Room to Read, a literacy nonprofit. They also agreed to let the owner of the username @Drew auction it off for charity (an exception to the usual rules), and Drew Carey of TV fame is willing to pay up to 1 million dollars to acquire it.

All well and good. But apart from wine and charity auctions, what are the biggest opportunities for nonprofits on Twitter? While Twitter is primarily about sharing and exchanging information, many organizations are using the microblogging service to support fundraising and advocacy campaigns. A recent successful campaign illustrates a lot of important points about what makes Twitter powerful in support of ideas and causes.

A few weeks ago, a group in Georgia kicked off a social media campaign with two goals: set a Guinness World Record for number of social media mentions in a 24-hour period, and raise money for cancer research. In a nonprofit context, the first goal relates to advocacy (raising awareness or inviting action); the second, obviously, to fundraising.

Organizers lined up corporate sponsors to donate a penny every time the phrase “#BeatCancer” was mentioned on Twitter, Facebook, or a blog during the 24-hour period, and identified four nonprofits as the beneficiaries of the donation.

The campaign was a big success. The campaign hashtag was mentioned over 200,000 times, leading to an estimated 100 million impressions. #BeatCancer was a trending topic on Twitter for much of the day. And the organizers raised $70,000 for cancer research.

What can nonprofits learn about running campaigns on Twitter from this successful effort?

  • Real time rules. From launch to completion, the whole #BeatCancer initiative was live for 24 hours. 24 hours! That’s awfully fast. Twitter reaches people wherever they are, and — importantly — whenever they are.
  • Make it sharable. Raise a penny for cancer, just by typing a word? Who could resist? That irresistibility is what sends an idea or a cause or a meme viral. The idea spread so quickly and so broadly because everyone who heard about the campaign wanted to share it with their friends.
  • Don’t be demanding. In some ways, this campaign was the epitome of slactivism: thousands of people helped set a world record and raise thousands of dollars…by typing a word into their web browser. The focus was definitely on quantity over quality. But it was a simple call-to-action, and it inspired hundreds of thousands of people to take part. The more complicated your ask, the harder it will be to gain high-profile exposure (i.e. become a “trending topic”) on Twitter.
  • Think outside the tweets. #BeatCancer launched at BlogWorld New Media Expo ’09, a huge conference widely attended by social media all-stars. Without that hub of influential Tweeters to kick-start the campaign, who knows whether they would have enjoyed the same level of success. If you set up a Twitter initiative, think about real-world events — like a gala or a conference — you can use to get the ball rolling.
  • Embrace reductiveness. On Twitter, you only have 140 characters to express yourself — short and sweet is the name of the game. You might argue that the message for #beatcancer was too simple: tweet this phrase. Not “Go here to learn more,” or “Make a donation.” Furthermore, although the money raised benefited a handful of specific organizations, the appeal was generic: “fight cancer,” not “support X organization.” For better or worse, Twitter forces you to keep it simple.
  • Fundraising is tricky. This campaign raised over $70,000 to fight cancer, but not by appealing to existing individual donors. So far, that’s proved pretty difficult on Twitter. Eventually, as micropayment software makes it easier and easier to make small donations, and donors get more and more comfortable with online giving, it might be a great place to make a fundraising ask. But in the meantime, if you’ve joined Twitter expecting to find a silver fundraising bullet, you’ll probably be disappointed.
  • It’s early yet. This campaign set the world record for social media mentions, which is an accomplishment. It also serves as a reminder of how far social media outlets like Twitter have to go before they become truly mainstream. 200,000 mentions — it’s a lot, but it’s also a drop in the bucket. For perspective, Facebook has about 250 million active users.

Twitter is an exciting tool that offers a lot of opportunities — and a lot of limitations. Before you look to Twitter to support your fundraising and advocacy efforts, think carefully about whether you can make them work in your favor. And don’t forget: managing a campaign like this requires a lot of time as you monitor its progress, respond to direct messages, retweet supporters, and cultivate its growth.

Campaigns aside, if your organization is using Twitter actively, you’ll also need to think about the day-to-day. For some thoughts on what to tweet, see one of our recent posts on the Duck Call blog: “I think I get it. Now what do I tweet?”