Twitter: Is it Really Important in the Nonprofit PR World?

Image via Flickr (Katska)

Image via Flickr (Katska)

Do nonprofits benefit from using social media sites like Twitter? To find out, I read this academic study:

Smiko, K. (2005). Donor engagement through Twitter. Public Relations Review, 38(4), 633-635. doi: 10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.05.012

Researchers examined the Twitter accounts of two nonprofits and one for-profit. The study was designed to see if nonprofits could use Twitter to strengthen their relationships with donors. Several persuasive strategies and theories emerged from the data.


Researchers used discourse analysis to examine tweets from the nonprofits Care2 and United Way of Toronto, and one for-profit, Ford Motor Company. They observed tweets through a rhetorical framework that perceived the social linguistics and construction of each tweet.

Researchers examined tweets by all three organizations, as well as “@” responses. The sample of tweets was taken on Feb. 18, 2011, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Overall, 300 tweets were collected and examined.


By examining the tweets through the rhetorical framework, numerous strategies of persuasion were present.

  • Ethos (credibility of character)
  • Pathos (emotional appeal)
  • Logos (logical reasoning)
  • Eucharistia (thanking)
  • Communicatio (direct communication)
  • Repetition

More than 90 percent of tweets featured an element of a persuasive appeal. The most popular persuasive element was ethos, with logos being second. 60 percent of @care2’s tweets and 40 percent of @ford’s tweets used ethos as a persuasive element. In contrast, @unitedwayto rarely used persuasive appeal in tweets, with only logos being evident occasionally.

Along with the persuasive strategies, the researchers identified two theories as relevant to the research.

1) Social Network Theory

The social network theory involves the persuasive strategies of communicatio and eucharistia. Rather than by characteristics of individuals, this theory is based on the expectation that knowledge structures are developed by relationships among actions, events and people. Ford in particular exhibited signs of the social network theory through its users that were having numerous two-way conversations about actions, events and people.

The social network theory also suggests that relationships have nodes (a tweeter) and ties (relationships that stem from the tweeter’s use of “@” mentions). The social network theory suggests that relationships built within networks can lead to the increase of social capital, which is defined as trusted relationships within social networks. Twitter users create their own networks from following others, and this theory suggests they can build relationships of trust from these relationships.

2) Social-Judgment Theory

The social-judgment theory appeared within the strategy of persuasion. This theory examines the way individuals make decisions and judgments based on statements they hear or see. According to the social-judgment theory, when companies construct tweets they refer to their credibility of character (ethos), which could persuade wary Twitter users. This theory also suggests that individuals make judgments based on the specific topic of the message, which is seen through the decision to retweet certain things.


  • The study was limited to collecting data from only one day
  • Organizations differed in the number of Twitter accounts they had


It is easy to see from the results and theories that Twitter is a smart and effective resource for nonprofits to use. I know that if I go into nonprofit PR, Twitter will be one of the main platforms I will use to increase public knowledge, popularity and donations.