Monday, November 21, 2011
The evolution of social media in government has been spurred by four questions, leading to these stages: adoption, imitation, customization, evaluation.
The evolution of social media in government has been spurred by four questions, leading to these stages: adoption, imitation, customization, evaluation.

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!