It is not what you do, it is how you do it: exploring the techniques UK hospices use on Facebook to create online engagement

Author: Lydia Todd
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Facebook has become an essential tool for hospices in their engagement with their communities online, and during the COVID-19 pandemic it became a lifeline to many hospices as a way to continue communicating with supporters. Yet, there is a severe lack of academic research into how hospices can use the tool to successfully generate engagement. This piece of research aims to fill this gap and create practical recommendations by comparing Facebook posts curated by hospices of different sizes who use the same technique with different levels of interaction. This highlights that the focus of research needs to move away from what content charities are creating and look at how they are creating it.

Abstract

Facebook has become an essential tool for hospices in their engagement with their communities online, and during the COVID-19 pandemic it became a lifeline to many hospices as a way to continue communicating with supporters. Yet, there is a severe lack of academic research into how hospices can use the tool to successfully generate engagement. This piece of research aims to fill this gap and create practical recommendations by comparing Facebook posts curated by hospices of different sizes who use the same technique with different levels of interaction. This highlights that the focus of research needs to move away from what content charities are creating and look at how they are creating it.

Introduction

In the United Kingdom (UK), there are an estimated 40 million Facebook users, making it the prominent social media platform (Avocado Social, 2019). It is therefore no surprise that charities are utilising the platform to engage with supporters (Lovejoy et al, 2012). Facebook is an ever-growing hub of online activity and has become an essential tool in modern fundraising (Shattuck and Sargeant, 2017), and the need for it was increased when the UK went into a formal lockdown in March 2020 (GOV.UK, 2020). As the nation was told to stay at home, charities quickly pivoted a high percentage of communication to Facebook. As a fundraiser for a hospice, I saw this transition first-hand.

This sudden pivot highlighted to me the importance of ‘good’ Facebook usage for hospices going forward. Facebook enables charities to communicate with unlimited numbers of supporters in real time (McCorkindale et al, 2013; Clement, 2019) and this became paramount during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is also becoming essential in the long-term context as communication and media move predominantly online.

Facebook enables charities to share their services, events and stories with a mass audience. This allows hospices to share how support is impacting the care and services they provide, by telling beneficiary stories, being financially transparent and promoting ways to continue supporting them. With a minimum of 68% of hospice funding coming directly from their community (Hospice UK, 2020), a space for transparency, news and interaction is key. The content that a hospice creates plays a significant role in influencing whether an individual will engage with their page (McCorkindale et al, 2013). Thus, it is essential that hospices listen to their supporters and recognise what they engage with, enabling them to understand the content they interact with to generate ongoing engagement.

The concept of charities listening to their supporters is not new. For decades, fundraising materials have been tracked, analysed and measured to find the most beneficial techniques to generate donations (Sargeant et al, 2006; Diamond and Lyer, 2007; Goering et al, 2011). This primary focus on raising funds from content is called ‘transactional fundraising’ (Curry et al, 2012), whereas content focused on creating and developing a bond between the charity and supporter is a donor-led approach, which Burnett (2002) calls ‘relationship fundraising’.

Advisory literature has begun exploring the science of Facebook for charities, recommending when to post, using visual content, creating shareable content, length of content, using hashtags and more (Jenkins, 2019; Barker, 2020; Social Good, 2020). Literature on what to do on Facebook is growing, but a gap in research for how to do it successfully still exists. The art of Facebook, however, the human touch and creativity behind this scientific structure, is just as important, as it is how a charity produces engaging and emotive content for its followers to react to, enabling a relationship to develop. This piece of work aims to address this gap in evidence-based research for the techniques used by UK hospices to build engagement on Facebook to create long-term relationships with their online supporters.

This paper presents background material on the use of social media in the charity sector, showing the need for this current piece of research. It then describes the methodology, before examining the techniques found through content analysis of hospices’ Facebook posts. The paper concludes with a summary of the findings, implications and suggestions for next steps in the research.

Literature review

The way supporters communicate with charities is changing (Blackbaud, 2019); they want real-time conversations and to build a deep relationship (Clement, 2019; Gilbert, 2019). The Status of UK Fundraising 2019: Benchmark Report (Blackbaud, 2019) found that social media is the prominent tool used to engage with supporters, with Facebook being the leader due to its ability to build ‘vibrant communities’ (Hether, 2014: 858) and for offering a space for two-way dialogue between supporter and charity (Hether, 2014; Carboni and Maxwell, 2015; Shattuck and Sargeant, 2017). Two-way dialogue can only occur, however, if the charity is creating content that followers engage with (Agozzino and Fleck, 2016) through reacting to, commenting on and sharing the content (Gilbert, 2019).

Sargeant and Jay (2014) recognised that many charities do not take advantage of the many possibilities of social media. Tiller (2011) found this when carrying out a study into how hospices in the United States use Facebook, finding that although the seven hospices under study were active on Facebook, they did not create engaging content. The research recommended that hospices use the platform to ask questions, create conversation and engage the audience, rather than talking at them, but recognised that hospices can only do this if they are offered practical guidance on using Facebook. A high proportion of smaller charities feel that their ability to use Facebook effectively is restricted by budget, knowledge and confidence (Skills Platform, 2019; Bhati and McDonnell, 2020). Charities are repeatedly told that the higher their following, the higher their levels of engagement will be (Skills Platform, 2019; Bhati and McDonnell, 2020). It is essential, however, to instil in charities that their content is critical and it can allow Facebook pages of all sizes to achieve similar results (Nah and Saxton, 2013; McCorkindale et al, 2013; Bhati and McDonnell, 2020).

Charities commonly misuse Facebook by using it to reiterate information from their websites, instead of creating a space for two-way dialogue (Carboni and Maxwell, 2015; Agozzino and Fleck, 2016). Lovejoy and Saxton (2012), however, recognised that charities are doing more than relaying text, finding evidence of the use of photos, videos, external links and hashtags, all of which encourage engagement (Carboni and Maxwell, 2015). Waters et al (2009) also found that charities push out information rather than creating engaging content. Stanger (2016: 411) writes: ‘To be effective on … social media, you have to remember the word social’, a reminder that social media is a space to create conversation.

Online giving is changing the pace of fundraising (Blackbaud, 2019), and although Facebook can and does provide income, this is not its main focus (Phethean et al, 2013). Instead, Facebook is centralised around creating relationships through dialogue, building a trustworthy and transparent reputation, sharing news, raising awareness, thanking supporters and volunteers and more (Sargeant and Jay, 2014), all of which can make a supporter feel nurtured (Waters, 2010). By focusing on building relationships, charities are following Burnett’s (2002: 37) theory of relationship fundraising, described as ‘fundraising where people matter most’. Burnett’s donor-based approach is conventionally applied to direct mail. However, it can be transferred to social media due to the crossover of communication techniques used to engage supporters (Shattuck and Sargeant, 2017), such as storytelling, arousing emotion, being personal, sharing the impact of donations, using imagery and creating engagement (Burnett, 2002; Sargeant et al, 2006; Goering et al, 2011). With social media now playing a significant role in relationship fundraising, the research into the field needs to grow.

Although literature is not yet showing a clear example to charities of how to use Facebook, there are pieces of research, which if amalgamated, can help guide charities to create successful content. Burnett (2002) notes that supporters relate to charities that use similar language to them, due to unconsciously being more engaged with those they view to be similar to themselves (Tidwell et al, 2013). This is echoed in work by Karr (2011), who recommends that dialogue on social media should be significantly less formal than other communications put out by charities. Charities should also be referring to supporters directly using the word ‘you’ (Goering et al, 2011) instead of being focused on themselves by using ‘we’ (Sargeant, 2017). Highlighting supporters through appreciative content is another effective way to practise relationship fundraising (Burnett, 2002; Shattuck and Sargeant, 2017), as it gives the supporter a feeling of achievement, which will lead them to have an emotional attachment to the charity (Eastwick and Finkel, 2008). Similarly, when a charity publicly thanks a supporter on social media, they are showing them in a favourable light, and humans are naturally attracted to those who enhance their views of themselves, inevitably strengthening the relationship between support and charity (Katz and Beach, 2000; Waters, 2010).

Appealing to a supporter’s emotions through storytelling is a popular technique (Burnett, 2002; 2014); this includes stories evoking positive and negative emotions (Bendapudi et al, 1996; Burt and Strongman, 2004). Das et al, (2008) found that supporters react positively when charities share evidence-based stories that include facts and testimonials, and that storytelling about beneficiaries and supporters evokes stronger emotions compared with statistical information (Green and Brock, 2000; Green et al, 2004; Green, 2006). Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools a charity can use to bond with supporters (Burnett, 2014). By understanding what evokes a supporter’s emotions, charities can create arousing content.

The literature shows that while charities are being told what to do on Facebook (Clement, 2019; Jenkins, 2019; Barker, 2020), we are yet to see a clear and practical guide for how charities can implement these tips successfully. This research aims to give UK hospices a practical guide on how to use Facebook to engage their followers and build a strong online community.

Methodology

The hospices in the study were obtained through the Hospice UK website. To ensure the hospices were of equal stature, only hospices with an active 24-hour patient unit were included, leaving 221 hospices. Facebook accounts were identified through the hospices’ websites and the Facebook search bar and the number of active followers for each hospice was recorded. Using the number of followers, hospices were ranked in descending order from most successful to least. Marie Curie ranked first but was classed as an outlier due to its distinctive size and was therefore removed to avoid skewing the data. A restriction of a minimum of 1,000 followers was also enforced as hospices below this figure had minimal Facebook activity.

To allow for an in-depth content analysis of Facebook posts, I focused on the nine hospices with the highest number of followers and the nine with the lowest number, allowing for a comparison to be drawn between the content created.

A decision to name the hospices was made to allow charities to refer to their Facebook profiles for future recommendations, guidance and inspiration. Ethics were considered in this decision and it was concluded that due to the profiles being public, and no human subject being involved, the ethics were incredibly low risk (Moreno et al, 2013; Parsons, 2013).

All Facebook posts of the 18 hospices were recorded for a month-long period between 1 and 31 October 2019; this period was chosen to ensure the findings were continuously relevant to charities in the long term and were not impacted by Christmas or the COVID-19 pandemic. Every post was exported, including the text, visual content, number of reactions, comments and shares. The dataset was then manipulated into descending order to gauge the content that received the most and least engagement. Subsequently, these data were inductively analysed, with no preconceived hypothesis in mind, allowing for the techniques to emerge organically.

Findings and discussion

Out of this process, 16 themes emerged, and five will be focused on in the findings: does not make a financial ask; encourages followers to engage; includes calls to action; shares the impact of fundraising; and includes storytelling. These five techniques were chosen as they repeatedly appear as the most-used techniques in the posts that have the highest rate of engagement for reactions, comments and shares.

Does not make a financial ask

It was found that 55% of highly engaged with posts for reactions did not make a financial ask of their audience, whether it be to donate, pay for an event or leave a gift in their will. Whereas, 95% of posts with low rates of engagement did include a financial ask. Claire House Children’s Hospice received almost 545 reactions to a post focusing on parents who fundraised enough to ‘Pay for A Day’ of nursing, in memory of their daughter. Although the post was discussing the impact of fundraising, it was not asking for other followers to donate, but instead aimed to inspire.

The results continued to show that the technique of not making a financial ask led to higher levels of engagement from the audience, as 60% of highly engaged with posts for comments and shares did not make a financial ask. A post by Acorns Children’s Hospice was the most engaged with for comments, receiving 90, when it shared a video of a beneficiary, Imogen, singing. Instead of including a financial ask, the video showed the impact that donations can have, and gave a glimpse of the beneficiary’s experience of Acorns Children’s Hospice.

Learning that Facebook posts that do not include a financial ask are impactful with hospices’ followers is not surprising. This is because Facebook is a space to build relationships with supporters (McAllister, 2012; Phethean et al, 2013; O’Neil, 2014) compared with directly raising funds. By showing the impact of funds, compared to an ask for funds, hospices will see an increase in engagement from their supporters.

Encourages the audience to engage

Measuring the impact of this technique is best done through the number of comments and shares received on a post as this is measurable engagement. It was found that 35% of highly engaged with posts include content that encourages the audience to interact with the post. However, 20% of posts with low rates of engagement also used the technique. This highlights the importance of understanding how to use a technique, compared to just knowing that it needs to be included. A number of hospices are encouraging their audience to engage, but not all are receiving the desired results.

Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice has created a photo album on Facebook called ‘Our incredible supporters’, where it add supporters’ photos on a weekly basis, with a post reading: ‘Here’s just a few of our incredible supporters. Keep an eye out as we’ll be adding more each week! Have you been featured? Please tag and share with your friends and family!’ The post has accumulated 1,000 reactions, 48 comments and 240 shares. The content is simple but encouraging to the audience, thus increasing the level of engagement.

The use of this technique ranged significantly between posts that were and were not engaged with. When promoting its comedy night, City Hospice asked: ‘Are you a fan of stand-up comedy?’ in its post. It received two reactions, no comments and one share. It could be thought that its attempt to engage the audience was a marketing tool to recruit, and supporters may have viewed the post as transactional compared with relationship building, leading to a lack of engagement.

Although posts with low levels of engagement show followers to be unresponsive to recruitment posts, average posts by the top nine hospices have seen interaction on recruitment content. Rainbows Hospice for Children and Young People’s post advertising its Santa Fun Run received 333 reactions, 17 comments and 56 shares. Its post was fun and engaging whilst also being informative about the Santa Fun Run event, by including key information that we would assume supporters would want to know about the upcoming event. This plays into the theory of relationship fundraising.

Facebook is a space for creating ‘vibrant communities’ (Hether, 2014: 858) and an ideal opportunity for recruiting fundraisers but, hospices must recognise the language and content supporters engage with by tracking the success of posts. Supporters want to engage with the charity but may recognise inauthentic encouragement.

A call to action

Including a call to action was used most often in posts focused on events, recruitment, advocacy and soliciting donations. The technique was found in 40% of posts that received high levels of share engagement.

Posts with low levels of engagement, however, use this technique at a much higher rate but create less impact with their content. As with previous techniques, it could be suggested that this is because of how they use it.

A reoccurring trend appeared which showed that highly engaged with posts using the call to action technique also adopted the storytelling technique by incorporating a supporter story. This discord was highlighted in posts by hospices focused on recruiting for London Marathon.

St John’s Hospice asked people to sign up to be a ‘Hospice Hero’, and received three reactions, no comments and no shares. Claire’s House Children’s Hospice, however, received 1,400 reactions, 28 comments and 77 shares by asking its community to make their place in London Marathon count, just like Paul who raised £8,000 previously. Both posts used the technique, but Claire’s House Children’s Hospice inspired the audience’s passion for the cause.

Large engagement is not only for large hospices, however. John Eastwood Hospice Trust, which ranked 17th of 18, put a call out for ‘cake bakers’; it received 20 reactions, 43 comments and 168 shares. It is important to highlight that its language imitated that of an everyday conversation, rather than a corporate ask.

Incorporating the call to action technique is beneficial as it instructs followers what to do and how to help, and it is most beneficial when combined with storytelling and relatable language.

The impact of money raised

This technique created higher levels of engagement for reactions to the post (45%) compared to the post being shared (35%) or commented on (20%). As seen with previous techniques, the execution is key for the audience to engage with it, with it being found that posts with low levels of comments (40%) and shares (25%) engagement also used this technique in their post.

Ashgate Hospicecare publicly thanked a corporate donor for gifting wheelchairs and cushions for its patients with an in-depth post about the impact of the donation; it received 232 reactions, 10 comments and 33 shares. This post demonstrates the difference donations can make.

When the technique was used in a broad manner, rather than with specifics, its impact was lowered. Les Bourgs Hospice and St Raphael’s did this by simply stating that an event was raising funds for the hospice. However, hospices in the top nine were also using the technique and received low levels of engagement, such as Chestnut Tree Hospice, which only used statistics to give impact.

Including this technique through real-life examples gives supporters an understanding of the care the hospice provides and offers transparency for the use of donated funds. This insight creates engagement as it evokes emotion in supporters.

Storytelling

The technique of storytelling was used in 50% of Facebook posts by hospices that were highly engaged with through reactions and comments. It was not however found in any of the posts that were not engaged with, where they received zero reactions, comments or shares. These findings suggest that not all hospices are transferring the storytelling technique from traditional offline marketing tools to Facebook.

For Ashgate Hospicecare, storytelling was an integral part of its content, using it to evoke emotion in its supporters. In one post, which received 246 reactions, 27 comments and 10 shares, it shared a detailed, and personal, story of a supporter whose mother was cared for by them in 2019. When analysing Ashgate Hospicecare’s content, it became clear that it regularly uses this technique as its followers engage well with it.

Storytelling can also be implemented by creating a narrative on a newsfeed. Children Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS) used this technique when celebrating its CHAS Alphabet. Over the course of a week, it posted three updates on the campaign, designs and thanking supporters. Each post received more engagement than the last, increasing from 124 reactions to 171. This suggests that supporters followed the story and became invested, which created engagement.

Including storytelling in posts gives supporters an opportunity to invest in another supporter’s experience of hospice care, emphasise, sympathise and create an emotional connection to the supporter and hospice, leading to engagement.

Conclusion

This research has shown that hospices’ engagement is impacted by using certain techniques on Facebook. It highlighted how the same techniques are used in posts with high and low rates of engagement, and by hospices with large and small followings. However, they were used significantly differently, leading to interaction differing greatly. The main difference recognised was that the content of hospices with larger followings focused on supporters, beneficiaries and the impact of fundraising, following the trend of relationship fundraising, whereas smaller hospices were still following the trend of transactional fundraising through their content.

The aim of this research was to offer practical recommendations to hospices in the UK for increasing their Facebook engagement. By highlighting the techniques found in hospices’ content, and the reactions they received when using them, I am hoping hospices will use this information to create content that their supporters engage with, giving them a louder voice in a busy online world that is only going to get busier.

It is important to highlight that the research will not be free of limitations due to focusing solely on hospices, but although a number of contextual differences may arise, I believe the key messages identified can be generalised across a range of charities. It is also recognised that posts created outside of the set timeframe of this research could expand on the techniques identified. It would be interesting to build on the findings by replicating the research within other charity groups, and across a mixture of groups, to explore whether the same techniques are in fact used across the field, or whether charity groups (such as homeless, cancer or environmental groups) have individual techniques to their field. Alongside looking at just the statistical engagement on posts, future research could carry out a qualitative analysis on the comments left by engaged supporters to understand the verbal reactions that posts initiate.

Conflict of interest statement

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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