Prospecting Using Social Media: Getting Started

Marianne Pelletier, CFRE, the director of research and data support for Cornell University and author of the recent Academic Impressions monograph Prospecting Using Social Media, has embarked on some extensive experimentation with integrating social media into prospecting and prospect research. We interviewed her this week to ask why prospect researchers need to be moving on this quickly, and to ask what myths about social media and prospecting might stand in need of debunking.

There are advancement shops that have made some early strides in this, and a few that have been using social media in prospecting for a while. This article is for those shops that are at the earliest stage or are considering it.

This Academic Impressions monograph by Marianne Pelletier, CFRE, will walk you through more than 30 separate exercises in using social media for prospecting and for prospect research, and will provide you with introductory information on the following:

  • The possibilities and limits of using social media in prospecting
  • Tactics for mining social media to locate wealthy prospects, with walkthroughs of specific steps and examples
  • How social media activity can reveal assets among your prospect pool
  • Using social media to identify level of involvement, affinity, and philanthropic engagement

Here is what Pelletier shared with us.

Why You Need to Move Forward

“As more of our prospects use social media for their relationships, we have a responsibility to get online and be present,” Pelletier advises. “And research needs to assist gift officers in joining the conversation.”

Pelletier notes that reviewing social media profiles offer researchers several key advantages, when used in tandem with more traditional sources:

  • A prospect who establishes an online presence expects to be visible. “She expects that her visible achievements are known by those who are cultivating her engagement,” Pelletier explains. “We cannot leave these indicators of inclination and affinity off of our radar screen.”
  • A social media profile or channel allows researchers to “hear the prospect’s voice,” getting us much closer to the person “than any database that researchers traditionally use.”

Because many prospects are using social media to actively promote, broadcast, or share their interests and their successes, a savvy researcher can mine social media to locate wealthy prospects, review social media activity to reveal assets among the prospect pool, and review social profiles to identify a prospect’s level of involvement, affinity, and philanthropic engagement.

"The return on this research is increased prospect identification with less time and less money. For example, in addition to paying screening services to show us our best prospects, we can turn to social media tools that point out prospects who have been recently promoted."
Marianne Pelletier, CFRE

3 Social Media Myths

“Fears” may actually be a better term than “myths.” Pelletier highlights three:

  • That it will be very difficult to prospect using social media ethically.
  • That searching for data through social media is inherently more complex than other search tools.
  • That prospects who write their own profiles – particularly their own LinkedIn pages – are likely to exaggerate.

Managed thoughtfully, prospecting using social media can be done ethically.

Pelletier offers two examples of approaching this the right way:

  • Establish a policy up front that specifies how gift officers and researchers will use social media to communicate with and seek information from prospects. For example, it may be most appropriate for a researcher to review the prospect’s LinkedIn page, which is much like an online resume, while the gift officer may ask to connect with a prospect via  Facebook, which is a more personal and relational channel.
  • Agree early on how backline staff will use privacy settings. Will they make themselves visible when searching social media sites (especially LinkedIn) or will they be invisible to the prospect?

Searching through social media is not more complex than using any other search tool.

Social media tools are not complex, Pelletier notes; rather, they are simply new to some, and very useful once mastered. “You may have to step into the big pond of online prospecting one toe at a time,” she suggests. “Start with what you are already familiar with. For instance, if you Tweet every day, experiment with Twitter for finding prospects, local businesses, or specific prospect Tweets. I suggest using one social media tool for all of your research needs in order to become familiar with it; then add another tool to your repertoire. That way, you are building your skill set completely one tool at a time. Like learning to play the piano without looking down, you will develop your searching fingers and will start to work each site with maximum efficiency.


Marianne Pelletier's primer offers 30 separate exercises for using social media tools in prospecting and prospect research, and also gives a brief but insightful review of ethical considerations.

Prospects who write their own LinkedIn pages are not exaggerating as much as we think.

“We often assume,” Pelletier cautions, “that someone who is advertising herself is stretching the truth, but actually people see LinkedIn as a public resume. They will use very positive language to describe their accomplishments, but they are not any more likely to make things up than they are on their professional resumes.”

As a venue where prospects list their achievements and professional interests, LinkedIn especially can be a key source of valuable information.