For-profit businesses clearly are tuned into the social media-sentiment analysis trend, to stay abreast of how their brand, services or products are perceived. But are non-profits equally as concerned? The answer seems to be yes, and not just when it comes to social media but across all paths of constituent engagement.

At this week’s Sentiment Analysis symposium in New York City, Banafsheh Ghassemi, the American Red Cross vice president of marketing, e-CRM, and customer experience, pointed out some reasons why. “It’s a brave new world for those of us in the non-profit world,” she said. While charitable organizations don’t like to use the word competition, because they’re all working for the greater good, the number of non-profits angling for contributors’ dollars, time, or other resources, has grown by 60 percent in recent times. And there are even for-profit organizations doing some of the same things the Red Cross itself does, such as blood collection. “We still have to attract your attention for your dollar, time, and even the physical part of you that is blood,” she says.

And, given both the cost of TV outreach, especially for a charity like the American Red Cross, where every ninety cents goes to the mission, and the fact that people anyway are more likely to be motivated by what their friend says in social media about making a donation, it’s important to keep in touch with that commentary and the sentiment it expresses. “Executive visibility to systemic issues is very important, too,” she said, “so this lets us look at where the noise is highest and where we want to focus.”

That said, other channels where customers express sentiment shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, social media sentiment can provide the leading indicator factor that can drive further exploration of potential trends that may be expressed in even greater detail through those other channels, such as constituent surveys. “There is still email, there are still calls in call centers, there are still surveys,” she says. “Social media gives you the leading indicators but not much opportunity to go real deep with 140 characters on why someone said what,” she says. “Surveys let you be more structured around specific topics and go deeper. The same with email and call centers. So it’s richer and more context with regards to the voice of the customer.”

Also, each channel tends to reflect sentiment in a different way, she said. Social media sentiment around the American Red Cross tends to be positive, for instance. But for many organizations, when people write emails or letters it’s more likely that there is a negative component, or at least a desire to further express an opinion or idea. She advises others to “learn each channel and its typical bias, and when you look at the voice of the customer coming through, look at all these channels in aggregate.”

Another word of caution is to thoroughly vet your potential tools. She noted that around the Hurricane Irene event, the organization tried a tool where only 26 percent of all positive comments actually were coded as positive, and 53 percent of negative comments were correctly coded. “Most of the Red Cross postings on social media is positive, but this tool would have you thinking the opposite,” she said.

See additional coverage of the Sentiment Analysis Symposium here.