While social media sites have certainly benefited for-profit companies, providing unprecedented visibility and the ability to target key demographics, non-profits have also been utilizing these sites to promote their causes and collect donations. Their goal is usually for a cause to “go viral” and spread within and across social networks in the form of likes and shares. The Kony 2012 campaign is a perfect example of this, which reached 120 million people in just five days and garnered $32 million in donations. But recent research finds that this level of online social contagion is rare and “likes” are not often likely to lead to donations.
Nicola Lacetera, Mario Macis, and Angelo Mele studied charitable donations on Facebook and Twitter over a two-year period to determine if and how online social contagion occurs. They collaborated with HelpAttack!, an application that allows users to donate to charities through social media sites. The HelpAttack! application lets users “broadcast” their initial pledge and subsequent donations to friends in their network, and the researchers analyzed how often users who broadcast a pledge to donate actually fulfill that pledge. While they found that broadcasting a pledge is related to actually making a donation, a large proportion of users “opportunistically broadcast a pledge and then delete it.” Further, they did not find evidence of a social contagion effect after pledges were broadcast. Although the campaigns in their experiment reached 6.4 million users and received numerous clicks and likes, only 30 donations were made.
This study shows that social media sites enable “costless” support in the form of likes and shares, which might raise awareness of a cause or organization, but that these likes rarely lead to support in the form of donations. What’s more, it appears that a lot of people use donation pledges to boost their social image but then quickly delete their pledge to avoid actually shelling out any cash for the cause. The researchers conclude that, despite initial optimism that the Internet and social media sites would make campaigning for causes easier and more effective, it seems that offline, face-to-face campaigns are still needed to turn costless likes into capital.