How to Talk About the Right Data in the Right Way Within Your Org

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[Editor’s note: The following is an article in the September 2012 issue of NTEN:Change, NTEN’s quarterly journal for nonprofit leaders. Read the complete issue on “Data-Driven” when you subscribe to the journal for free!]

By Carie Lewis, Humane Society of the United States

The Humane Society of the United States has a well-established and successful online communications program. But here’s one thing we’re not so great at: the world of data. And we know it. But we decided to turn that around this year, and so far it’s been successful for us.

Our online team is 30 staffers strong, broken up by channel: email, website, social, mobile, and online advertising. There is no specific role for reporting; we all are pretty much on our own to evaluate our work. We’re always winning campaigns and creating real change for animals, but what if we could do that in a way that was – smarter?

So we made a commitment to move towards a more data-driven culture. We wanted to know: how can we use statistical data to work smarter and make better decisions about how to be more effective in our work?

Not having any existing structure, we made the mistake of getting in too deep to start. Each channel manager came to a meeting where we’d fill out this huge excel spreadsheet full of numbers, as well as a word document filled with explanations and screenshots. It seemed brilliant – every data point we could possibly get in one place!

Until we had to do it again.

It was such a huge task (not to mention exhausting) that we just gave up on it. We couldn’t even make meaning of the data anyway because there was too much of it. So we stopped meeting. And tracking. And we failed.

Then, we realized our problem. We were trying to do too much. We decided we had to narrow down the stats to what meant the most to us (which for us is usually advocacy and fundraising-focused). We then had to determine what really mattered for the whole process — why were we doing these reports? For us, it was to evaluate what we did, what worked (and what didn’t), and determine how we could do things differently next time. And from that was born our new reporting system which has worked very well for us so far in 2012.

The New Reporting Process:

Each time an online campaign is over, the channel managers meet to discuss how the campaign performed. We all have our own metrics and data, depending on what’s important to our channel, and have only 10 minutes to share with the rest of the group. (We’re all about reducing meeting time here at HSUS as well.) The discussion is usually very productive and eye-opening. We’ve found that metrics change from campaign to campaign, so it’s helpful NOT to have a standard template with every metric available.

But the most important metric to focus on across all campaigns is conversions – in the end, did people do what you wanted them to do?

After the initial meeting, each channel manager sends the campaign’s project manager a summary of the most relevant information, and the project manager compiles it into a one-pager. It’s easy for everyone (including executives!) to digest, and breaks the campaign down into what we did, what we learned, and what we recommend for next time. In the end, that’s exactly what we want the data to tell us.

The Lessons We Learned:

  • Data matters. Do track – even if it’s exhausting.
  • Educate others on the importance of tracking and how to do it consistently.
  • Don’t try to do too much – it’s better to track a few key metrics consistently than to track a lot of data inconsistently or to the point that you give up.
  • Narrow down the stats that matter most to your bottom line.
  • Present data in a way that is easily digestible by anyone at your organization.

As I mentioned, our biggest “ah-ha” moment was when we realized we were trying to do too much, and we lost focus and interest and just gave up. Figure out what really matters and how you can get that data.

It was essential that we educate others about the importance of using trackable links and come up with a naming convention for those links so that when we pulled the data, we’d know where conversions were coming from. There’s a huge cross-organization education task here. We had to teach colleagues that don’t work in Online Communications why a page view wasn’t an acceptable success metric (it’s about conversions!)

So, how is it going?

I’ll let you know next year when we pull out the one-pager during the campaign planning process! The goal is for these one-pagers to help us make informed campaign planning decisions. Each one-pager represents the key take-aways from this year’s campaigns so we can see what worked and what didn’t. We can replicate the tactics that worked and improve or eliminate the tactics that failed.

I can tell you that since we instituted this new tracking system we’ve garnered over 100,000 action takers from social media so far this year, which is double our goal for the year! That’s really great information as I work to prove the impact that social media has on our bottom line here at HSUS. And that’s really what it’s all about – meeting your goals and working smarter.

button_subscribe.pngRead more articles like this in the September 2012 issue of NTEN:Change.

Does your organization have a good process for sharing information about your data analysis across the organization? Please share your tips and stories below.

Carie Lewis Carlson
Director of Emerging Media
Humane Society of the United States
Carie is the founder of CLC Consulting, LLC which provides nonprofit organizations and small businesses with strategic business and digital marketing consulting services. Her passion and expertise lies in social media strategy and leadership coaching for progressive causes and the hospitality industry. Prior to branching out on her own, Carie spent 11 years as a senior digital strategist at The Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s most effective animal protection organization. In 2006, she launched the social media program and developed it into a $1MM per year fundraising channel. She spent 9 years growing the organization’s award-winning social media program. In her last 2 years at the organization as Senior Director, Digital Marketing, she served as department head and oversaw all aspects of digital marketing including social media, email marketing, mobile, web development and editorial, peer to peer fundraising, and online advertising/paid acquisition. Under Carie’s leadership, the HSUS social media team was recognized as “Best Social Media Strategy” by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Best Social Media Effort by a Big Brand” by Fast Company, “Best Use of Facebook Tools” by Mashable, and “Top 20 Nonprofits on Twitter” by The Huffington Post. She also took home the inaugural “Trailblazer Award” at the 2012 Nonprofit Technology Conference for her groundbreaking work in nonprofit social media. Carie is a frequent speaker and book contributor on the subjects of social media strategy and employee engagement. When not working, she enjoys spending time outdoors with her daughter and gaggle of rescued pit bulls. She is also an Airbnb Superhost, RVing enthusiast, and is obsessed with hip hop music and reality tv. Find her on Twitter at @cariegrls.