Nonprofits and Big Data: An inside look at how the Ad Council is leveraging data for social change

“Big data” has been a big buzzword for a while now. But how can nonprofits actually leverage their data (big or not so big)? The Ad Council plans to share our approach at this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference.

For anyone not familiar with the Ad Council, we are a nonprofit that works with other nonprofits and federal government agencies, as well as leading ad agencies, to deliver critical messages to the American public. Our multimedia communications programs include public service ads that are supported in donated media time and space, and address issues including preventive health, education, community well-being and strengthening families. We currently run around 50 different campaigns each year. All of our campaigns are promoted both through earned and donated digital media, and most have web and social components. This means we are sitting on some very big data.

While our digital team has been looking at website data for the past few years and making changes accordingly, we have just launched a formal organization-wide process where we are analyzing our digital and social data with the goal of optimizing our campaigns on an ongoing basis.

We’ve created a cultural shift in how we look at data – being able to answer internal questions like “Why exactly do we have to do this?” and “What are we supposed to do with this information?” We are only at the beginning and will have much more to share at the NTC, but here are a few insights we’ve learned so far:

Show your team that other people are doing this – with great results

We brought in a “data scientist” from almost a year ago to present on how they are using data during an organization-wide brown bag lunch. It was a great way to expose the uninitiated to the potential of using data with real examples from an organization that has been doing this for some time. It got everyone thinking about ways we could begin using our own data, and raised the importance of dedicating time and resources to the project.

Walk before you run – start small

Before we rolled out a process to the wider organization, we began looking at data on just the Ad Council’s own digital and social efforts within our corporate communications team. We first decided what we were going to review (our blog,, and our social media efforts on Facebook and Twitter), and then began checking in weekly on which posts did well and why visitors or engagement spiked or dipped to get a better overall understanding of what is working and what isn’t. For example, we realized we get consistently high engagement when we post images of our staff. People want to know who is behind the Ad Council. We also invested in tagging specific events in Google Analytics on in order to gather data ahead of our planned 2014 design refresh.

Start at the top – make sure key executives are on board

Since analyzing and acting on campaign data requires time and resources from different teams, we had to make sure our senior staff was on board first and communicate to team members who would be involved. This paved the way for scheduling Google Analytics training sessions and securing an internal commitment to attend monthly meetings where we review data together.

Bust silos – involve people from across the organization

In order for us to really understand what’s driving our data, we needed to include not only our campaign managers who manage the day-to-day on campaigns, but representatives from our research, PR/social and media teams. This has given us a more holistic view of our referral sources and traffic spikes and provided insight into additional goals that should be set and benchmarks that are needed for comparisons across campaigns.

We just wrapped up our first monthly digital data review meetings. We came up with actionable next steps for each campaign website as a result of our data – from adding additional tracking codes to analyzing the habits of return visitors. The payoff is in the results – based on (often small) tweaks, we hope to get even more engagement and have greater social impact.

Don’t miss session 1137, Small Nonprofits, Big Data: Leveraging Data to Optimize Your Digital, Media, and Communications Activiites, at this year’s NTC!

For more social good content, visit our blog, where our staff and industry leaders share their insights and best practices with social marketers about how communications can inspire change and improve lives. 

Anastasia Goodstein
Vice President, Digital
The Ad Council