When the Humane Society of the United States hit 1 million Facebook "likes" in early November, the animal protection organization's response wasn't a joke or a goofy picture—though it did post a picture of a dog in a party hat on its blog. It was a call to action.
"There are a million of you, and that means there are a million stories of love and companionship, too," President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said in a video. "We want to hear them. Send them our way."
Since launching its Facebook page in May 2007, the Humane Society has tinkered with the tone of its Facebook page and the frequency of its posts. One thing the organization has discovered: When it comes to caring for animals, people prefer something a little more serious than the tongue-in-cheek fare found on many Facebook pages.
Path to 1 million
After reaching the seven-figure mark on Nov. 2, the Humane Society posted an infographic about just who their fans are and launched the "A Million Reasons" tab, where people can tell stories about their pets.
Those were all added to Facebook after the Humane society reached 1 million likes, says Carie Lewis, director of emerging media for the Humane Society. Prior to hitting 1 million, the method was rather organic, she says. "There really wasn't a huge technique to push us over that limit."
The Humane Society has what Lewis calls "a small, steady budget" for advertising to people who talk about animals on Facebook, and just before hitting 1 million there was an extra push to get people to like the page. When someone liked the Humane Society's page, an image with the phrase, "This person is against animal cruelty" appeared on his or her profile.
"We got thousands of shares on that," she says.
What really caused the Humane Society's dramatic growth—the organization's number of likes has at least doubled every year—is being attentive, Lewis says. "Every person who comes to our page and asks a question or voices a concern, that gets an answer. That has been the biggest technique for us."
Whether the comment is about an injured animal on the side of the road—usually the response is to tell the person to contact local animal control—or a complaint, the Humane Society replies. "Our response time on Facebook is under two hours," Lewis says.
That takes some effort. The Humane Society has two full-time employees dedicated to monitoring the Facebook page, she says. Another employee manages the Twitter feed but also helps with responses on Facebook. Lewis manages the overall social strategy.
One thing the Humane Society doesn't often do is what's known as "like-gating." That is, promising a deal or a coupon in exchange for a like. The holidays are the only time of year the organization does offer deals in exchange for likes, Lewis says. "We don't recommend doing this technique unless you've got something really good behind it."
A serious tone
In surveys using Facebook's polling feature, the Humane Society's fans tend to say that they want to see ways they can make a difference. "We have spent a lot of time analyzing what our fans respond to best," Lewis says.
A little more than a year ago, the Humane Society had what Lewis calls a "campier" tone on its Facebook page, with far more frequent updates. "People were unsubscribing to us faster than they were subscribing," she says. Now, the goal is to be conversational without being silly.
Many of the posts on the Humane Society's Facebook page are about how fans can get involved with helping animals. For instance, a Tuesday post included a link to the Shelter Pet Project. "We're an advocacy organization," says Lewis. "That's one of the reasons we're on Facebook."
Tuesdays on the Humane Society Facebook page are known as "Take Action Tuesdays," one of the memes the organization has created. There's also Fun Friday and Meatless Monday. "When we don't do these memes, people complain about it," she says. There's also a Take Action tab, through which people can sign online petitions.
The Facebook memes often work in conjunction with the Humane Society's 1.2 million member email list, which is still the organization's No. 1 online communications channel, Lewis says.
"When you hit all those different channels, you see a kind of synergy," she says. "We very rarely do something that's just on Facebook."
The Take Action tab has really taken off since the Humane Society has inserted the petition forms right into Facebook, Lewis says. It wasn't as popular when people had to click links to other sites. "People really want to stay on Facebook," she says.
The Twitter difference
The Humane Society's key demographic is women 55 and up, Lewis says. The Facebook audience is considerably younger than that, but the organization hopes that those fans will eventually become donors and activists. Twitter is a little different.
"People who take action on behalf of us are not on Twitter," Lewis says. "The tone is not as serious on Twitter, because we're not exactly catering to our constituency."
However, people talk about the Humane Society often on Twitter, saying their commercials are too sad or asking about mailing labels. So the organization is there to listen and respond.
Plus, the organization has some memes for that social network as well. Feline Friday and Mutt Monday give Twitter followers the opportunity to post cute pet pictures, as if anyone on the Web needed an inducement to do such a thing.