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Nonprofit Organizations Outpace Businesses in Use of Social Media

Butcher, Lola

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000364236.23415.2c

Although oncologists and other physicians have been slow to embrace social media, the nonprofit organizations that support their work—cancer centers, advocacy groups, and research organizations—are among the leaders in the new ways of communicating.

“For the first time, not-for-profits can compete in the media, and they have never had that opportunity before,” says Nora Ganim Barnes, PhD, Director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

Dr. Barnes and her colleagues, who study the adoption of social media over time, found that fully 89% of the nation's 200 largest nonprofits used some form of social media last year, outpacing both the business world and academia, and the percentage is likely much higher now.

While 57% of charitable nonprofits were blogging in 2008, only 16% of Fortune 500 companies had corporate blogs, she said in an interview about the study. Meanwhile, 39% of the companies on the Inc. 500 list had blogs and 41% of colleges and universities were blogging.

Search on the word “cancer” on Twitter, and more than 200 accounts show up, the vast majority of which are for nonprofit organizations. The most popular: Stand Up to Cancer (@SU2C), the year-old research-fundraising initiative that has 17,000 Twitter followers, and Know Cancer (@know_cancer 14,500 followers), a social network that provides education and support to people affected by cancer.

Lee Aase, Manager of Social Media and Syndication at the Mayo Clinic, describes social media as “word-of-mouth for the 21st century.” That is why Mayo jumped onto social media early on, she said, and ranks as one of the most aggressive—and successful—users of social media in the health care industry. Mayo has always avoided paying for print or broadcast advertisements, relying instead on its patients to spread the word.

“For more than 100 years, the most important factor in consumer-patient preferences has been word-of-mouth—satisfied patients going home and telling their family and friends about their experience,” Aase said. “What we love about social media is that it combines the power of worldwide reach of traditional media with the power of the personal recommendation.”

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Finding New People to Connect with

The American Cancer Society is also a leader in the use of social media. Even back as far as 2005, the Society raised nearly $5,000 in its first Relay for Life in Second Life, a 3D virtual world in which users, called residents, interact with one another through avatars.

“We've generated increasingly more money each year in contributions from virtual avatars that we can turn into real money, to the tune of over a quarter of a million dollars every year from that community,” said Scott Bennett, ACS's National Vice President for Marketing.

At one level, Second Life is truly about playing games. But ACS's use of the virtual world technology is part of a sophisticated strategy to reach new audiences. While the average ACS donor or volunteer is middle-aged or older, the Society wants to engage a broader range of people.

“We know that up to half of all cancers are very preventable. So, how do we start resonating with those folks?,” Bennett said.

The answer, in part, is to connect with people online in the course of their normal activities. For example, the Society has expanded its role in Second Life by creating an ACS Island, a virtual space that includes cancer information resources and peer support groups and a hub for ACS-related event planning in the Second Life world.

Dr. Barnes's research, she said, has found that, like ACS, most nonprofits do not use social media primarily as a fundraising tool. Survey respondents said they valued social media because it allowed them to communicate with a wide audience.

“They felt strongly that they could use social media to let people know what their mission and their causes were all about. The primary motivation is to get the story out.”

Indeed, ACS has relied heavily on social media to reposition its image in the public eye. While the Society has extremely high awareness among the public, its reputation for funding cancer research overshadowed other elements of its mission.

“We're in the business of saving lives from cancer and we do it by helping people stay well, helping people get well, by finding cures, and by fighting back,” Bennett said. “Now it becomes our job to articulate that to as many people as we possibly can. Once people understand that we do all four of those things, most people say, ‘I want to help,’ or ‘I want to contribute more,’ or ‘they become educated on steps they can take to reduce their risk of cancer.’”

Thus was born, a microsite that anoints the ACS as “the official sponsor of birthdays.” In the last few months, some 50,000 people have signed up to have their birthday sponsored by ACS, and Bennett wants to see that number go to at least 2 million within the next couple of years. The Society's goal is not specifically to raise money so much as to connect with younger people, who often do not think about cancer, let alone working to prevent or eradicate it, he said.

“We provide a Facebook application so when your friends come to your Facebook page, they can get that birthday app, and we're working on iPhone applications for mobile social media. We have blogging (, and we allow people to create their own birthday pages for stories they'd like to tell how their family is winning the war on cancer or how someone in their family courageously fought but didn't make it.”

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Finding People Who Need You

The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center's Office of Physician Relations is using social media to create a community of referring physicians and M. D. Anderson specialists. Earlier this year, a new Web site replaced a printed guidebook for referring physicians, but it goes far beyond what any document could do.

The Website—— allows physicians to refer patients online, monitor their patients’ care by accessing their electronic medical records, and find clinical trials. Moreover, the site integrates the office's Twitter account (@PhysRelations), Facebook page (myMD Anderson for Physicians), Flickr account, and YouTube account.

John W. Little, Program Manager in the Office of Physician Relations, says he and his colleagues do not use new media to promote M. D. Anderson at every turn, but rather to build relationships with physicians who need to be current on cancer topics. That's why the content of his Twitter posts are as likely to be about physician education or research findings as about M. D. Anderson itself.

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Adding Voices to the Conversation

Meanwhile, at Mayo, social media are used for a broad range of purposes. The Sharing Mayo Clinic blog ( tells patient stories with headlines such as “Mayo Clinic has given me back my life.” The Mayo Clinic YouTube Channel has more than 500 videos, ranging from researchers describing molecular breast imaging to a patient's husband giving a five-minute testimonial about the glories of Mayo Clinic.

Mayo's podcast blog ( features interviews with physicians discussing medical conditions and treatments. The news blog ( is targeted to journalists, but patients and the public have access to the video and audio interviews with Mayo physicians and scientists. And its physician update blog ( provides video interviews with researchers discussing their scientific studies.

Mayo encourages its employees to jump in to social media with blog entries, video posts, Facebook comments, or any other way they wish to communicate. Aase's online “Tweetcamps” to train people to microblog sometimes attract more than 150 participants, with on-site Mayo employees more than matched by people taking part remotely in the “Twitterverse.”

Aase says the Clinic's 50,000 employees represent the face of Mayo every day in their work, so representing the medical enterprise online is an extension of that.

“We trust them with sharp instruments, in some instances, so giving them access to social media tools is part of that continued trust,” he said. “They speak for themselves and not officially for Mayo [when using social media], but they are in some sense our ambassadors.”

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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