Discovering New Prospects Using a Social Media-Driven Approach

By Jacob Astley, senior director of prospect development at the Oklahoma State University Foundation

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Editor's Note: This article is featured in Best of Connections 2020. Read Apra Editorial Advisory Committee Chair Jessica Balsam's editor's message to learn more about the top articles of the year. 


It was October 2008. I was a month into my brand new job as a prospect researcher at a small foundation, and I was working on my third research profile. The first two had been straightforward enough, but this third research request had thrown me a curve ball: I had located the research subject’s Myspace page, and on it was a post in which he disclosed that he just had a significant life event. After taking a few moments to process what I was reading, I closed the page and walked down the hall to the office of the development officer who had requested the research and let her know what I had found. She had been unaware of this event and immediately stated that now was not the right time to approach him about a gift.

That moment illustrated to me the power of social media data. While I was certainly aware of Myspace, Twitter and Facebook — companies that were fairly new in 2008 — I did not truly understand until then the insights that you received from them. Traditional research sources like real estate, stock, income estimates — these all inform how much the prospect can potentially give. Social media, on the other hand, informs researchers about who a prospect is and where they are in their lives, sometimes in stark terms.


The Numbers

OSUF has 54 Facebook pages connected through the EverTrue platform. Out of 327,143 constituents: 

  • 25% have engaged on OSU Facebook posts
  • 32% of engagers have left a comment on OSU Facebook posts
  • 578 of engagers have left over 50 comments on OSU Facebook posts
  • 217 of engagers have left over 100 comments on OSU Facebook posts
  • 7,011 of engagers are rated at a major gift level (2,397 have left a comment)


In the 11 years since that day, the social media universe has changed and expanded in ways that make the 2008-era social media universe look absolutely quaint. At the same time, the prospect development industry’s understanding of what social media data is — and how it can and should be leveraged — has changed as well. For Oklahoma State University Foundation (OSUF), social media is a key tool that we utilize to support our mission of uniting donor passions with university priorities.

Who Is Raising Their Hand?

Facebook is the primary social media prospecting source at OSUF. There’s a big reason for that: 68% of all adults in the United States use the platform. Additionally, the nature of the product’s design lends itself to quickly and easily see who may be ‘’raising their hand’’ as a potential prospect. Twitter is excellent for immediate, tactical information and general sentiment analysis around current events (such as getting a sense of how a prospect who is a big Houston Astros fan feels about the World Series), and LinkedIn is an outstanding company and career-based prospecting source. But for robust social media prospecting, Facebook is the go-to platform. 

The post in the screenshot above is what we categorize as a focused post: a post that is specific to a single program or initiative. In this case, it’s a picture of a plane in OSU’s Flying Aggies program. The post received 373 reactions, 19 comments and 50 shares, which is anomalous. In evaluating the number of interactions on five other posts featuring aircraft, the average number was 48. In prospecting for OSU’s Aviation campaign, we leaned heavily on focused posts, analyzing comments (the interaction type that is prized above all others) that convey a passion for aviation, share memories around learning to fly at OSU or how OSU’s Aviation program helped them in their career. If someone is still following the program, even if it has been 40 years since they learned to fly at OSU, and are invested in it enough to leave a comment, it is worth taking a closer look to see if they are a viable major gift prospect. 

Another campaign that we are prospecting for is our “Brighter Orange, Brighter Future” scholarship campaign, and for this we are leaning heavily on what are called broad posts: posts that are about OSU in general, its history, its traditions, and what is occurring university-wide (high-profile athletic events fall into this category). Unlike the Aviation campaign, which is specific to a single area, the scholarship campaign touches every college and unit at OSU. Broad posts include: 

  • Students’ stories: OSU’s social media team ran a digital campaign called “Humans of OSU” (modeled after Humans of New York) that brought in positive reactions from across the spectrum of our alumni base. The students in the campaign shared how they arrived at OSU and what led them to their field of study. In turn, people commented with their own experiences, including sharing if they were the first person in their family to attend college or how their OSU education set them up for lifetime success. Students’ stories don’t always bring in a high volume of interactions, but the interactions that they do generate are often valuable.
  • Your history and what is unique about you: Every university has its own unique history and traditions, and social media content that highlights this is virtually guaranteed to draw valuable prospecting content. One of the most successful posts in this area was one containing a photograph of the campus library as it was under construction in the early 1950s. Commenters on this post shared how they remember studying in the library, and others discussed having relatives who helped with the library’s construction. The post received 130 reactions, seven comments, and 89 shares, which is right on par for historical pictures of campus. 

Looking for more articles that will help your organization optimize its campaigns? Check out “Rethinking Gift Tables” by Chris Brakenbury.


Another was a post about Hideaway Pizza, a restaurant next to campus that is a staple of OSU student life. The post even included a reference to Hideaway’s long-gone fleet of Volkswagen delivery bugs. So along with surfacing comments from people who went on dates at Hideaway (and others who have traveled great distances to eat at Hideaway again), there were also plenty of comments from former Volkswagen delivery bug drivers. The post received 628 reactions, 72 comments, and 51 shares; any post featuring an image of Hideaway’s location brings in 600 to 700 interactions. 

While these posts aren’t directly related to scholarships, the people commenting on them love OSU and are invested in its success. This passion and enthusiasm for the university makes them perfect prospects for the scholarship campaign.

Things to Keep in Mind With Social Media Prospecting

1. Be judicious about the information that you use (and how it is presented).

Yes, the information is publicly available, but it is important to be mindful of how the information is utilized and stored for future reference. In the example at the beginning of this article, I verbally informed the development officer of what I had found and a carefully worded note was added to the individual’s record in our database.

2. Work with the social media communications team.

Having an awareness of when posts around specific topics are going up — and the social media campaigns that are being planned for or that are underway — is incredibly helpful when developing a focused social media prospecting strategy. 

Encouraging the social media team to periodically produce posts that ask for interactions from the audience is also an excellent method for surfacing prospects. In the example below, the post asks, “What’s your favorite memory from Theta Pond?” Theta Pond is one of the best-known spots on OSU’s campus. This post brought out comments ranging from people who got engaged at Theta Pond, to those who remember falling into the pond — or getting tossed in. The post received 246 reactions, a whopping 183 comments, and 17 shares. Like Hideaway Pizza, images of Theta Pond reliably generate a high volume of interactions, especially comments. 

3. If someone leaves a substantive comment, it’s worth figuring out who they are.

This is doubly true if they have left multiple substantive comments.

4. Save the social media addresses of constituents in your CRM for quick access.

This is especially helpful for keeping track of updates on platforms that tend to update with high frequency, such as Twitter.

5. See if you can be added as an analyst to your organization’s Facebook pages.

OSUF utilizes the advancement automation platform EverTrue to help make the massive volume of data from Facebook more manageable, but a tool is not necessary to start digging into the information. Along with collaborating with your social media team and monitoring sites for content relevant to your prospecting priorities, getting yourself added as an analyst to your organization’s Facebook pages will enable you to receive alerts when a comment is left on a post. The alerts contain the text of the comment and are an efficient way to see which comments are worth digging into further and which ones can be dismissed. 

What’s Next?

Social media is a very young industry and where it goes next anyone’s guess. The prospect of regulation is very real, and in the case of Facebook, usage has declined dramatically in the wake of privacy scandals, such as the one involving Cambridge Analytica. Social media will still be here 11 years from now, but the difference in how it looks will likely be as large as the difference between Myspace in 2008 and Facebook in 2019. 

Jacob Astley is the senior director of prospect development at the Oklahoma State University Foundation (OSUF). In this role, Jacob oversees the prospect research and prospect management teams and partners with the foundation’s development team to ensure a continuous flow of promising prospects to fundraisers. Prior to joining OSUF, Jacob served for five years as prospect researcher and manager of advancement services at the University of Central Oklahoma Foundation. Jacob can be reached at and on LinkedIn.

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