Social media offers an alternative broadcast and communication medium for nonprofit advocacy organizations. At the same time, social media ushers in a “noisy” information era that renders it more difficult for nonprofit organizations to make their voices heard. Chao Guo and Gregory Saxton’s new book, “The Quest for Attention: Nonprofit Advocacy in a Social Media Age” (2020) is a systematic attempt to develop an attention-based theory of nonprofit advocacy. The book looks at “attention” as a key, intermediate goal and important resource for advocacy organizations. Advocacy always starts with attention: when an organization speaks out on a cause, it must ensure that it has an audience and that its voice is heard by that audience; it must ensure that current and potential supporters are paying attention to what it has to say before expecting more tangible outcomes. Yet attention is not the endgame: in order to effectively promote their causes, not only must these organizations obtain and sustain public attention on social media, they also must be able to turn that attention into action and impact.

From attention to action

Chao Guo

Guo (at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice) and Saxton (at Carleton University’s Schulich School of Business) empirically examine a conceptual framework for understanding how advocacy organizations acquire attention on social media and how they transform this attention into tangible and strategic organizational outcomes. They first combine both organizational-level and message-level analyses to quantitatively demonstrate that the extent to which an organization is “being heard” (i.e., the attention it receives) depends on the size of the audience, how much and how it speaks, and what it says. Most significantly, in terms of textual content, they find that the inclusion of values-based language has a positive effect on garnering attention. This finding suggests that value framing is a useful strategy for organizations to generate public attention.

Gregory Saxton

The authors then consider whether and to what extent this social media attention can create a “real” impact for the organization. They identify three possible pathways by which organizations can turn attention into impact: accelerate attention through boundary spanning and coalition building; transform attention by generating social media capital; and leverage attention by creating online-offline synergy in their advocacy work. With a focus on the third pathway, they take a deeper dive into three established organizations. Their Twitter and interview data reveal how social media advocacy work is organized and managed in brick-and-mortar organizations, as well as the extent to which the use of social media transforms and adds value to organizations’ policy advocacy work.

A novel, machine-learning approach

Theoretical contributions aside, the book makes a significant methodological contribution. It is one of the first books to use a data-science approach to nonprofit scholarship. More specifically, it undertakes a novel, machine-learning-assisted approach that clusters social media variables into seven categories: (1) network characteristics; (2) targeting and connecting; (3) timing and pacing; (4) content; (5) tweet sophistication; (6) account sophistication; and (7) organizational characteristics. They use algorithms to find associations between the categories.

This approach differs from typical machine-learning-based models in its focus on understanding and explanation over prediction; it improves upon traditional, qualitative, inductive, theory-building approaches in facilitating a larger number of variables and cases; and it simultaneously examines a much broader range of variables than does the traditional, quantitative, deductive approach.

The book is available from Stanford University Press.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021 in , ,
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