Making Sense (not dollars and cents) From Using Social Media


Guest Post: Jenn Whinnem, Connecticut Health Foundation

Just over a year ago, I switched from the corporate to the nonprofit sector to take a job as a communications officer of the Connecticut Health Foundation (CT Health).  Because we don’t sell products and compare revenue from quarter to quarter or year to year, we had to come up with another set of measures for tracking the return on the foundation’s investment investment in social media.  In our case, we want to know how the foundation’s use of social media — as part of our overall communications strategy — helps us achieve our mission to improve the health status of people in Connecticut.

Our work focuses on ensuring access to affordable and quality health care and we target these four areas:

  • children’s mental health
  • health policy/advocacy
  • children’s oral health
  • and racial and ethnic health disparities.

In pursuing our mission to ensure that every citizen, no matter what their needs, can thrive and stay healthy, we use a combination of strategic grant-making, research and policy briefs and communications.

Social media allows us to increase our impact in each of our priority areas by strengthening relationships with our partners, heightening visibility for our work and giving us a mechanism for feedback on our work.

What We Measure
Right now we have a dashboard that answers three questions:

  • Are we gaining visibility for our work?
  • What is our audience reading?
  • Are we engaging with our audience?

I’d like to call out the second bullet specifically. We use Google Analytics to understand which blog content as well as website pages are the most popular with our audiences. Popular blog content has more than informed our social media content strategy – it’s also given us insight into what policy information people are looking for. At some point in the near future we’d love to have this inform our grant-making strategy as well.

Looking at traffic to other sections of the website lets us know if people are looking at promoted programs. For example, at the time of this writing, we were recruiting for our CT Health Leadership Fellows program. We wanted to see an increase to traffic at that part of our site (and we did). Thanks to the Visitors Flow (here’s the best article I’ve read on this to date) we’re able to see how people go through the pages to understand the program.

While we technically do not have competitors, we’re also interested in how we stack up compared to other foundations of our size. I use compete.com to get a ballpark figure on select foundations’ website views, and manually look at other foundations’ Facebook stats as well. So far, CT Health is doing well (not to brag).

What We’ve Learned
Here’s my laundry list:

  • Our most popular content on our blog falls into the broad buckets of: health policy, racial and ethnic health disparities, and how-to’s for our grantees.
  • Facebook is really hard, and getting harder, for engagement.
  • Participating in the monthly #hcsmct (that’s health care social media Connecticut) tweetchats and tweetups has definitely boosted engagement and visibility.

While we use social media differently than what I was used to in my for-profit job, one thing it shares with that world is a focus on results — not dollars and cents — but proof that our work as a foundation is helping people in Connecticut live healthy lives.  And to make it work for us, we need to know:

  • What we want to achieve
  • What we want to measure
  • Who our audiences are
  • How to get there.

This is how CT Health measures the success of its social media efforts. How about you?

Jenn Whinnem is a Communications Officer at the Connecticut Health Foundation where she blogs, shoots and edits video, tweets and wrestles social media technology. Find her at @jennwhinnem or @cthealth. This post is modified from a version that appeared earlier on Spin Sucks.


  1. Michael BermanMichael Berman05-07-2012

    Great post. Some great thinking coming out of the corporate approach to goal-setting. One thing I’d say is that while Facebook can be hard to grow organically, it’s a powerful tool if you have some budget to put behind it. You might want to experiment with Facebook ads to grow your audience and then use sponsored stories to all your “fans” to highlight key content you want to make sure they see. We’ve had great success with these two strategies for a number of clients. On Facebook, something like 3 of 4 of the overall organizational and corporate “likes” are driven by advertising.

    Similar tactics can now be applied on Twitter as well. A little budget can go a long way.

    • Jenn WhinnemJenn Whinnem05-07-2012

      Michael – thanks for your thoughts on organic v paid approaches to Facebook and Twitter. This is a great argument for making a small investment to have maximum impact, right at the heart of what we like to do in philanthropy. My one question is, how can you be sure that the likes/followers you’re getting are high value? For example, as a health foundation, we get quite a few nutrition/health coaches who follow us. That’s great, and we certainly don’t turn away followers, and yet they’re not necessarily who we’re looking to target. I know in Facebook you can really drill down in ads, but I’m less certain for Twitter.

      Thanks again.


      • Michael BermanMichael Berman05-07-2012

        First, let me say, I’m a big believer in the organic growth. If you’re not doing all the right things to keep your social media presence strong, then anything you invest in a paid approach will be wasted. Since you are doing such a good job on the “free” piece of this, I think some experimenting with paid would make sense.

        Facebook is really transparent about the targeting of ads, so depending on who you want to be in your facebook audience, you could target your advertising appropriately. You could target fans of Gov. Malloy or President Obama if you’re looking for active Democrats. Or, target fans of Jodi Rell or Sarah Palin to get Republicans. You could also target based on occupation or education depending on what your goal for audience is. Twitter is a bit more opaque. You give them keywords and they choose your target for you using their own algorithms which are based on a combination of information they know about users and the content of their tweets and who they follow. But, the same lessons apply.

        Our firm buys in to a philosophy of micro-failure. It’s good to have a bunch of failures so long as they’re small. So what if the Sarah Palin target bombs if you only spend a couple hundred dollars to figure that out. You learn and move on. The important thing is to learn and continually optimize to bring down cost and keep quality high.

        One other thing is that on Facebook, it’s important to keep the content and discussion on Facebook. You’ll lose a lot of people if you try to drive them to your site, so make sure your content is as facebook-friendly as possible.

        This is an interesting conversation (at least it is to me), and I think it raises some issues others would be curious about. I haven’t looked at all the materials closely, but if it fits in the agenda somewhere, do you think we should team up to pull together a session on measuring social media both free and paid for the CommNetwork conference? If you’re interested, email me at: mberman@strategygroup.com and we can work out the details.

        Michael Berman

        • Jenn WhinnemJenn Whinnem05-07-2012

          Thanks for this Michael! I’ll be in touch.

          • I agree with Michael. We found high impact for low cost with Facebook ads. However, for engagement and quality of followers, we had to really work closely with our grantee partners to build an engaged, active following of our actual constituency. I’d be happy to talk to you about that Jenn, if you’d like.

    • Michael,
      Thanks for the comments on Jenn’s post and your suggestion. It’s worth pointing out the post we ran about a year ago about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s experiences using paid online advertising to boost traffic to one of its sites.

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