Untapped potential: impressions from a communication research conference


Tobias Bürger

Tobias Bürger

Tobias Bürger

Catchwords like Big Data and Social Media really gained momentum at the conference of the International Communication Association (ICA), which took place in London from 17 to 21 June. The conference showed that too little scientific research is being conducted on the communications of non-profits and social media – and hardly anything on foundations specifically.

When about 3,000 communication researchers meet, I would expect at least some to present findings on the communications of non-profits. Indeed, there were some, but talks were rather difficult to find, as most of them were labelled ‘public relations’. In a way, this illustrates a gap in research, but it is odd, especially when taking into account the impact social media have on projects in the third sector.

In Germany, recent publications like the Betterplace Lab Trendreport try to collect and analyse those ongoing trends and emerging developments. They identify trends such as open innovation, digital campaigning, digital storytelling, direct feedback, competitions or real time, for example the UN Global Pulse-Project, which tracks global developments in real time. Reports like this one seem to be helpful for non-profits to identify untapped potential, invent new projects and avoid bigger pitfalls in social media.

However, it is also important to contribute to a message-level approach in research – for example, one that is able to explain relationships between a non-profit organization and the public. A study presented by Gregory Saxton and Richard Waters, which uses a sample of the Nonprofit Times 100 (US), showed that if you want to foster dialogue and discussion on your Facebook fanpage, you should use call-to-action or community-building messages instead of posting pure information, because these are more likely to receive comments and a ‘like’.

Nowadays, social networks like Facebook or Twitter seem to be the most influential services and are driving a growing amount of traffic to philanthropy websites. Additionally, they are helping non-profits and foundations increasingly to advocate for their causes and encourage dialogue. In this light, it seems strange that even at this conference so little research focused on the communications of foundations in particular.

Why is there so little research in this specific field?

Maybe this reflects doubts about the impact of social media as a driver of real change. A campaign by UNICEF Sweden turns the spotlight on this, stating: ‘Likes don’t save lives. Money does.’ This, in turn, points to some major misconceptions of the media environment. Julie Dixon tried to set this right when she wrote that people can learn about your cause from social media and want to take action. I hope that her viewpoint will spread and animate the discussion on how to use social media effectively in foundations in Germany, too. Because for them, it is not so much about raising money as about creating acceptance and awareness of their values and projects.

Additional research to develop a communication theory of non-profits and foundations would be helpful and could avoid misconceptions like the one mentioned above in the future. Gaining deeper knowledge about the permanently changing landscape of social media may also help, and enable us to ask the right questions. We are aware of the challenges for foundations that work globally. Facing these challenges, how can social media contribute in a sustainable way? Moreover, how can effects be measured and projects and communications be improved?

Approaches to addressing questions like these have cropped up throughout the past two years, but existing research focuses primarily on the use of social media and is therefore only one piece in the puzzle of the task to predict bigger transitions in the sector.

Even after this conference, there still is untapped potential in future research on the communications of non-profits and foundations that needs to be discovered.

Tobias Bürger is social media fellow at the Stiftung Mercator in Germany.

Tagged in: communication Social media

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