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Four Steps: The Evolution of Social Media in Government

Social media in government has experienced an evolution in the past three years, since the administration’s Open Government Directive forced it into the mainstream of every agency’s operations. Each step in this evolution can be summed up by one word and one driving question, and each has had countless articles devoted first to exploring the issue in detail, then lamenting that the issue is still being explored in detail.

  1. Adoption: What is Social Media?
  2. Imitation: Who’s doing it already?
  3. Customization: How can we adapt this to meet our specific needs?
  4. Evaluation: How can we tell if it’s having an impact?

Adoption: What is social media?

Presentations on the basics of social media (like this one I developed more than a year ago, and this one I developed only a few months ago) were de rigeur shortly after the administration released the Open Government Directive. Government leaders, many of whom started their careers in the Time before Email, looked askance at social media, wondered as to its relevance for their office, and/or saw it as a box to be checked in a never-ending list of requirements that may or may not help them achieve their mission. So they asked, What is social media, and how do we get started using it? The corollary to that question prompted the second stage in the evolution of social media in government.

Imitation: Who’s doing it already?

It’s natural in government to look at what other agencies, other offices, and other leaders are doing and replicate their efforts, when applicable. Some agencies acquired a reputation for innovation in social media, setting up blogs, establishing Twitter accounts, creating program- or office-specific Facebook pages. And as other agencies saw that these activities were not only “not distracting,” but actually beneficial, they began to engage in social media as well.

Case studies were bandied about in conferences, and agencies’ new media and social media staff quickly traded best practices among themselves, sharing success stories, as well as lessons from their efforts that were less-than-successful. Importantly, social media gained a level of respectability within government, and was much more likely to be seen as a worthwhile activity, encouraging leaders to ask the next question: how can I customize the mix of social media tools to fit my agency’s mission more precisely?

Customization: How can we adapt this to meet our specific needs?

This is where many agencies are now. They’re looking at the mix of tools at their disposal–wikis, Twitter, Facebook, idea-generating sites, blogs, etc–and asking “what are the needs of my mission that these tools can help us achieve? What are the best tools for us to use?” And they are starting to craft a holistic approach to social media, keeping in mind the constraints of staff time, the need for training, and the requirements that apply to all communications tools used by federal agencies.

After the efforts are truly underway, though, a final question becomes actionable, as it closes the feedback loop that will eventually lead back to planning for further activities. The question: how do I know if this is working?

Evaluation: How can we tell if social media is having an impact?

In the PR world, they talk about “impressions,” in the online world, they talk about “conversion,” and everywhere in the private sector, the talk is always “ROI.” But social media in government cannot always be measured in dollars and cents. I’ve developed a presentation aimed at helping offices determine some of their own most relevant metrics (my suggestion, in order of importance: Raw follower/friend count; influential/relevant follower/friend count; Retweets and mentions; discussion/engagement on Facebook; comments on blog posts; shared links; site traffic; inward information flow)

Switching metaphors

In their turns, each of these questions was (or still is) scary. As an emerging field, social media has no shortage of evangelists, many experienced hands, a few experts, but no recognized body of literature or long track record to lean on, the way other communications channels do. Each of these four questions are being answered, to some extent, on the fly and in real time. As the saying goes, government agencies are “building the bike while they’re riding it.” That’s actually a pretty good metaphor, as the questions are the same: What’s a bike? who else is riding one? what’s the best bike for me? and then: how can I tell if I’m getting better at using this bike?

That last question is of critical importance, because it will come to dominate how an agency plans for its use of a bike, or social media, after the first burst of enthusiasm wanes and the necessity to hew all activities much closer to the agency mission reasserts itself. In the bike metaphor, gathering metrics might mean installing a speedometer, or a watch that tracks heart-rate, or an odometer. It might mean watching the expenditures on the bike, or trying to calculate the benefits of being able to travel farther (even if total travel time is the same) but having access, perhaps, to cheaper or better markets.

To translate that to social media, one of the most important metrics is also one of the most intangible: inward information flow. How much information, in terms of relevant articles found, obscure-but-insightful voices discovered, and trends perceived, does an agency’s social media activities enable?

By my reckoning, this is where we are in our social media evolution. Do you think I’ve missed a step?
I think that the evaluation stage will lead back to customization, which will go back to evaluation in an endless loop. Do you think there’s a further stage that I’ve left out? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Kevin Lanahan

Great summary. We’re looking at the number of interactions we have on FB, and while we think it is a great way to reach non-traditional audiences, we’ve been told that it’s an “experiment” and could be removed. Finding meaningful metrics will be what saves us.

Marla K. Hartson

This is gold: (my suggestion, in order of importance: Raw follower/friend count; influential/relevant follower/friend count; Retweets and mentions; discussion/engagement on Facebook; comments on blog posts; shared links; site traffic; inward information flow)

I think it might be helpful to break down “influential/relevant follower/friend count” by various meaningful categories. For example, how many media followers do you have? How many agency peers follow you? How many elected officials follow you? This might make sense to track by governmental level. Another metric might be how many times content released via social media is picked up by mainstream media.

Can all of your metrics be captured automatically? Is there already a tool that can identify “influential/relevant” follower/friends based on rules?

Gov Girl

I think that social media is a communication channel, the same way that the web site or the telephone or the person at your front desk is a communication channel. I think metrics for social media should not be taken in isolation of your other channels. Your effectiveness is most likely best guaged when you triagulate against your other communication models AND your overall work goals. Ex: did the tweets bring more people to an event, or get more forms submitted and processed, or help more people find a service that you provide? Was there a correlation between your new messaging channel and increase/decrease in other metrics? Did the calls go down because they found all the info they need online. Or did the calls go up becuse they saw the tweet and wanted more info.

It all depends on the agency and the goals – but the metrics need to all be looked at together to get a more accurate picture.

Because great that all these people subscribe to your tweets, but if it does not impact the business goals at all, then so what. The ultimate goal is not to run a blog, but to service the public per your purpose or mandate. Have the metrics show how it does that.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Thanks, everyone, for the comments. Gov Girl, I’d argue that social media are more than communications channels, because (1) the content that you share through social media can then be shared with your recipients’ friends and (2) you can share more than information, but interactive content–summer camp enrollment forms, e.g.–and even actionable material–like a registration page through which people can receive government services.

I agree that social media metrics have to be viewed in relation to other metrics, but I’d recommend that they be placed in the context of mission, not communications, metrics.

Pat Fiorenza

Hey Gadi –

Really enjoyed your post. I think you bring up a lot of great insights. Loved the bike analogy, I think the challenge for agencies is that really they are trying to build several bikes at once. It’s also interesting to think how an agency might fix getting a flat tire.

I think the big lesson here that you pointed out is how critical it is to tie social media into an overall strategic plan within the agency during the customization phase. I’m not sure if this is a stage or not, but one step that I think is important is that social extends beyond the communications/PR department, and you have people invested across all departments. If an agency is able to reach out beyond their department, they are really capitalizing on how quick information is shared and can flow. Especially makes sense if an agency is using social media as a vehicle for improved customer service, the employees closest to the problem will have the answer – and the agency needs to know quickly who those people are regardless of department.

I think social media is a pretty good litmus test how an agency operates and window into the management/culture of an agency or organization. There is a lot of hidden value in the way social media is run and managed, and probably is an indication how the agency functions day-to-day.

Faye Newsham

You might also consider discussing Social Media Ghost Towns… or “Near Death Experience” and “Resurection”

When your agency has created the social media space, populated it, and it has slowly crawled to molasses pace… is it time to kill it or time to resurect it? If it is built into the strategic plan one would hope this won’t happen but there are sites out there today that have just cropped up. Maybe one is yours! Search and destroy…or bring it back from the darkside.


Great post. I feel like most folks are in #3 or #4 stage right now. The only thing I’d add is there’s also a feedback loop circle as new technologies arise (Google +, Quora, Foursquare, etc)

Mark Capaldini

I believe that any media channel’s value relates to “action taken” by the audience. As Pat Fiorenza and Gov Girl observe, social media must be part of an overall strategic plan AND should contribute to mission value / business goals. Unless we can point to action — downloading a document, subscribing to an alert, reposting/sharing a message, joining a community, visiting a specific landing page, scheduling a flu shot — social media is only an interesting offering, not yet a strategic communication channel. In order to fulfill social media’s enormous potential for engagement, more organizations must provide meaningful opportunities for 2-way communication and specific action.