Why influence, not RoI, matters for local government social media

On the whole, UK councils are doing a nice job of using social media – possibly we caught on early because we’re used to making the most of tools that don’t cost much. ‘Fair play ‘ as we say here in Wales, we’re doing getting better at engaging. But there’s loads of room to improve.

Many organisations are still in the ‘broadcast’ mindset and some still have to convince their public and their management that social media is more than people talking about their breakfast.

Over Easter I read Mark Schaefer’s book ‘Return On Influence: The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring, and Influence Marketing‘, a great book that looks at why tools like Klout will become more important as the world gets more social.

Thinking about Mark’s book I’m quickly becoming convinced that increasing digital influence is the aim that will be the standard for local government and the residents and the businesses it serves.

I’ve blogged before about my mistrust of the quest to prove Return on Investment (RoI) on public sector social media. It’s influence we should be striving for.

‘Influence’ is a bit of a scary term for council communications in that it might have connotations of control or manipulation but in this context it’s about being relevant enough for people to respond to want we say, and making content interesting enough to make people take notice and understand councils and their communities.

Image from Flickr by Sean MacEntee
Why RoI is out
So, before where I go onto influence, lets revisit the problem with RoI in local government social media.
Firstly, local government is there to serve people and so looking for ‘returns’ isn’t necessarily ideologically aligned with our work the same way it is in business.
Even if we argue that returns don’t need to be financial, it’s still difficult to pin down what we want the return to be: people being better informed, increased goodwill, engagement, being more approachable. These are all important but are effects that can’t be easily or truly measured with numbers and stats.
The term ‘investment’ is also tricky. One could argue that having officers engaging effectively with their communities is actually a return, am aim, as well as an investment.
Also, social media is often free to use but takes officer time and understanding. Financial costs are those of any added electricity or Internet usage. Since this is social, our audience talk back and take part long term conversations and build relationships if we do it well. So it takes an equal investment from those who talk to local government using social media. If our stakeholders invest the same amount of resource, we can see social media as just the tools we use to communicate now, like meetings, and phones. I’ve not heard of many organisations measuring RoI on their phone use, or meetings.
My last thought on this is may be a bit controversial but here’s my hunch: those people who insist on measuring ROI for council social media just don’t get social media. So they mistrust it and they mistrust their staff. We should be past the stage of justifying its use by now.
My guess is that CEOs and management who use social media well don’t ask staff to prove what the benefits are. And, back to the point about phones and meetings, they don’t ask for RoI reports on things they do use well like email or speech.
As far as terminology goes, ‘influence’ makes a bit more sense when you consider its synonym ‘authority’. We are local authorities and we want our communication to have ‘authority’ in that it has high credibility and currency.
Aiming for influence is far more important that measuring return on investment.
Although the book looks at websites like Peerindex and Klout for scoring people and organisations, it’s not the measurement and social scoring that I think is entirely relevant for councils – it’s the concept that everyone has an opportunity to be influencial.
Online influencers don’t need to be powerful or a celebrity in the offline world. This means there is a flattening of those traditional hierarchies in and around government that have been a barrier for access to many.
I’ve always considered social media as a place for engagement, sharing, networking, learning and entertaining and community and the book inspired me to see those qualities together as one notion of influence.
I’d argue we need to be working to make our councils more influential using social media. So the emphasis is on becoming good at being part of a conversation, and effort is spent on enhancing people’s experience and knowledge of the council – not being good in order to show a measure of how well we did.
The book points out that in order to gain a high score in the social media influence scoring website, we need to be influential not just by having lots of people liking and following us but by being able to create meaningful content that is credible and can be amplified by other influential people in our networks.
Instructions from Mark‘s book for gaining influence are a recipe for allowing people to understand government better. He teaches that information should be RITE: relevant, interesting, timely and entertaining.
If all content we produced was RITE, we wouldn’t need to justify what we do with measurement. The content, and reaction to that content would speak for itself.
I’m as guilty as the next council officer of letting stuff go out there that might be boring or irrelevant to many of those who read it. I need to work on getting that right before I find some elaborate system of RoI.
So why influence, not ROI?
Some argue you need to measure to evaluate to improve. On our council blog, we recently talked about not just doing things better but doing better things. I think the time to evaluate will be after we rethink what we do. The world is getting used to this new form of communicating and I believe that measuring, say, the number of clicks on links from an RSS feed from our website’s news area – that’s trying to do things better. Focussing on doing better things might be to use our network to ask what people want and then work on getting our content RITE so people actually care about what we say.
Social media conference in Wales
I bought Mark Schaefer’s book after I heard he was coming to Wales (in fact, to my hometown Newport!) to speak at the Online Influence social media conference planned for September and it sounds like a top event. You can read more details about it from Tony Dowling (@radiojaja) on his blog here.

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Really good points. To build upon it, I’d argue that most communication channels have a 2 prong approach 1) try to get both influence from a small group of influencers (could be local politicos, local top businessfolks, most active civic members,) and 2) pure reach – how do we reach the most amount of citizens possible with our message. When done right, I think social media can actually do both

Helen Reynolds

Thanks for great feedback. I agree, but I just think that there is too much emphasis on measuring returns in order to prove the value of using social media. I think it’s about time efforts to measure should aim to improve our work, not justify it 🙂

Emily Landsman

Great post. It’s really tempting for local governments to try to assign a dollar value to the “cost” or the “savings” that comes from using SM tools. My first post here on GovLoop was about measuring the success of your government’s social media activities. I really think influence and engagement are the variables to focus on, not the number of followers or “likes”. The government’s role is to connect with the citizenry, not to collect a giant online following with little to no influence.

Also, your point about using tools that don’t cost much is exactly why I think rural governments here in the US should be using SM more than they are now!

Jeff Brooke

I like your thesis. And I teach a graduate course in communication measurement! For governments, perhaps it makes sense to take your point a step further. While we do need to influence at times, isn’t “quality dialogue” the real goal most of time? If that’s the case, as you point out, isn’t is simply an obligation like answering the phone?

Kari Rippetoe

I think you make some excellent points that thereare different standards in government for measuring return on the use of social media; but you mention that “…CEOs and management who use social media well don’t ask staff to prove what the benefits are.” Coming from a corporate environment, you’d probably be surprised at how much we do indeed have to prove.

In the private sector, many marketers face challenges from the C-suite to prove the financial worth of social media. How many widgets did social media sell? How many registrations were tied to social media? There are still a great many marketers who have a tough time just convincing management to start using social media, let alone proving the ROI of those activities.

Return on influence or even “engagement” is still great for demonstrating how well people are interacting with a brand, but at the end of the day, those are all “fuzzy” metrics and C-levels want it all to be tied back to financial returns. Same thing with every other marketing activity – be it email, direct mail, events, etc. At least, that’s been my experience.

Bob MacKie

Of course measurement is necessary but please use the right measurement tool. ROI is not the right measurement for most social media efforts. It seems that ROI is trotted out as an all-purpose measurement tool for anything. It has become a buzzword because businesses use it to calculate a stream of financial returns on an investment. ROI uses $ and is simple to calculate. Commonly used in MBA school (by me) for figuring returns on capital investments such as factory additions; even an advertising campaign ($ spent vs $ Sales), is a bit dicey because it is difficult to isolate causes and effects in the real world.

Now try doing ROI on social media. $ may enjoy common use but it is not the right measurement of relationships. Maybe take a clue from the Social in Social Media and use a measurement from sociology rather than business. Consider Social Capital which is connections within and between social networks. Not as easy to measure as $ perhaps but has a lot more content validity.

Jay Johnson

Even though I’m a process improvement professional, I agree with the adage – “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” I also think too many use ROI as an excuse to do nothing instead.

@Helen – I’m going to start thinking about being RITE in my communications.