In what amounts to a same-day companion piece to Tom’ post, Are You Under or Over-Invested in Online Fundraising, Nick Ellinger over at the DonorVoice Blog posted a thoughtful companion piece, How the Facebook algorithm works outside of social media.

It’s well worth reading by those who think most email communications are too light and frothy and also by those who favor more substance but feel too much substance doesn’t work well in the online channel.

Building on data released yesterday by the DMA in the UK, Nick uses the basics of the Facebook algorithm to draw some analogies for evaluating the relevance and effectiveness of both online and offline messaging.

What the DMA study revealed is that 91% of all marketers surveyed don’t think their emails are relevant to their audience all the time and 42% say that, at best, only some of their emails are relevant.

I suggest you read all of Nick’s post, but here are his key points:

Facebook’s original algorithm — Edegerank™ — is built on three factors.

  • Affinity: How close the person creating the content is to the person receiving it.
  • Weight: How much the post has been interacted with it, with deeper interactions counting more.
  • Time decay: How long it has been since it has been posted.

These interactions are then multiplied together and summed, to put it as simply as possible.

Affinity. “A key measure of affinity is what percentage of posts a person interacts with. If someone likes 1% of your posts, for example, they are far less likely to see a post from you than someone who interacts with 40% of your posts.”

Nick notes: “The trick is that light, easy-to-interact-with posts garner the most interactions. A post that has a picture of a kitten with a note that says “like this post if you like kittens” is going to get far more interactions than most posts about the impact of global warming on poverty rates in Madagascar.”

BUT … the substance-lite has its drawbacks. What Nick calls “two warring impulses”. The first is to deliver things your audience wants to interact with. The second is to deliver content you need your audience to interact with.

Here’s how Nick illustrates the warring impulses:


Consequently, in figuring out how to deal with all this, Nick recommends “thinking of this like a piggy bank of support where you put coins in when you have a popular post and take them out to invest in things you need.”

For example, “What if you thought of your non-social-media communications the same way: that you are building goodwill with relevant messages and losing it with irrelevant ones (even with the best of intentions).”

Some recommendations. Here are some of the implications of this approach that occurred to Nick:

“Target. To get engaging and important posts the smart social media manager makes sure all the posts about the Austin 5K are geolocated to just the greater Austin area so the interaction scores on an “ask” post are still high.

Likewise, a smart emailer makes sure that their advocacy email goes out to only people who have an interest in advocacy and/or the issue area. In an ideal world, the person would have even opted in to advocacy or to the issue and that would be something you play back to them in the communication. This is related to the next point…

“You can’t volume your way into being interesting. There are some who would argue that the way to find someone’s interests is to cast a wider, broader net. That is, if you send more emails or more mail pieces, you will be more likely to find something of relevance to each type of donor.”

But Nick warns: “This algorithm and way of thinking would say the opposite – that every time you send an ill-timed or ill-considered communication, it draws from your bank of goodwill.”

This latter view is backed up by the research. Donors get irritated with the frequency of appeals. So most revenues from a new communication (in a mature program) are cannibalized from existing communications.

In short, volume isn’t the solution; relevance is.

What guidelines do you use for your online — and offline — communications?


P.S. Again, I recommend Nick’s post in its entirety. There’s more detailed information on the Facebook algorithm and interesting info on how social media can help — or harm — your overall fundraising.