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Social Media, So What? RWJF Tackles How to Answer the Social Media, So What Question
April 17, 2013

Debra Joy Perez (@djoyperez) is currently serving as Interim Vice President of Research and Evaluation at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Perez-100Last year, after Steve Downs shared an overview of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) social media strategy, we hosted a series of interviews with RWJF staff members about how social media, and more broadly, the transparency and participation they offer, are adding new and critical dimensions to their work. The first case study on social networking as a learning tool is available here. The second on experimenting with different social mediums to serve as a catalyst for collaboration is available here. The third on leveraging social media to expand networks is available here.

The latest post offers perspective on how the use of these tools—which have become essential to our communication efforts—can be measured to reflect the impact of our work and rooted in a context of achieving social change goals.

Q: Let’s start with a glimpse into a day in the life of your work at the Foundation in light of all these new technologies. Why are metrics important to RWJF?
A: RWJF has a 40 year history of developing evidence-based programming. We are known for our research and evaluation work nationally and internationally. Yet, as new ways to advance our goals in health and health care become more reliant on technology, we struggle with measuring success and accountability.

Since 2009, RWJF has been incorporating Web 2.0 technology in our everyday work. That is what people who visit our website  can see since our September redesign, as we have more social sharing facilitation tools across the site. We also invite conversation about how to advance health and health care on Twitter, Facebook, and produce content that can serve the needs of various online communities.

We can clearly see and have made projections about the future value of social media. Social media can help us create social change and build movements around the causes that we care deeply about. We have learned many key lessons from initiating this work guided by our principles of openness, participation, and decentralization. Specific lessons include:

  • Personal outreach matters;
  • Responsiveness to requests for engagement is important;
  • Criticism can lead to healthy dialogue;
  • Make engagement easy and simple; and
  • Engagement takes work and dedicated resources.

These take homes suggest that each of these principles requires concerted efforts and conversations about policies and processes for achieving the intended goals. With each social media campaign, we must be explicit about expectations. Social media metrics is an essential part of our efforts at RWJF. We need measurement to help us achieve those expectations. Measurement also helps us continually improve our use of social media to achieve our broader social change goals.

Social media is another tool to achieve larger goals. While it can be a very powerful tool, it should not be mistaken for an end in itself.

Q: What does an effective and efficient social media campaign look like?
A: So where do you start: well, you might start first with acknowledging what you are already doing in social media and celebrating that. Do you have a Facebook page, an organizational presence on Twitter, operations on Tumblr? Conduct an inventory of what you are doing as an organization, as well as the engagement by individuals. Do staff leverage social media for their job, how have they been able to extend their reach, do we regularly appear on relevant blogs?

As you do this, you might start to recognize how much you don’t know. BUT don’t let the “not-knowing” stop you.

  • Have an explicit dialogue about your goals, what are you trying to accomplish with your social media efforts, e.g. what is the purpose of tweeting something, what is the action you want an individual to take? Although click-through is not itself an outcome, in my view, it is a process measure. 
  • Identify your networks. You probably already have more of a network than you recognize (see The Networked Nonprofit  by Kanter).
  • Schedule a formal discussion about value proposition in-house. Talk to who does it now and who doesn’t. Don’t expect everyone to Tweet. Some are better long-form writers and therefore might be better suited for blogging.
  • Establish data points for measuring impact of what you do.
  • Provide unique URLs for product releases and then test URL placements against each other (AB testing) to see which one is more effective.

Ultimately, discuss to what end are you using social media. Social media is another tool to achieve larger goals. While it can be a very powerful tool, it should not be mistaken for an end in itself.

Q: What is the expected ROI for social media?
A: We believe social media can have a profound effect on expanding our reach, as more people are building trusted networks of individuals and organizations and engaging online. Appropriate use of social media channels help us provide the right information and the right tools into the hands of our health and health care advocates (also known as message evangelists). You then start to see how making data accessible in new ways, such as interactives, data visualizations, and infographics, enables us to illustrate key points for case-making and building awareness.  

Because social media is a vehicle through which ideas can be generated, tested, built upon, and spread, we believe that this is worth measuring. However, while there is a plethora of ready to use analytical tools crowding the market, the challenge will be to avoid the “low-hanging fruit” trap of measuring activity over action. If we do our job correctly, we will be able to say what works and what doesn’t using social media metrics, as well as distinguishing online from offline impact.

Q: What is the current state of the field for measuring social media? Where do we go from here?
A: The potential power of social is undeniable and we are looking for ways to continue to test our assumptions about what we are producing. For example, by watching others comment on Twitter about our work we not only have a better sense of how we are being understood, it also serves as a kind of content analysis of the impact we are having. By monitoring a recurring Twitter chat, we can hear whether our meaning and intention is influencing the discussion in the way we desire it to.

As the unit responsible for measuring the impact of our work, we regularly ask ourselves: What are we using social media for? Who are our target audiences (segmented, as well as aggregated)? (The ability to diversify our networks is a huge value to RWJF; developing metrics that includes demographics of our audiences is an important part of the measurement effort.) What is the expected action/behavior we wish to see? How do we measure behavior change? How can we best go beyond measuring online activity (page views, unique visitors, tweets, and re-tweets) to measuring offline action and policy change? This is the key challenge for philanthropy today: assessing an effective and efficient social media campaign. As a foundation, accountable to our Board and the public, we must have standards for our investments in social media just as we do for our programmatic investments. We ought to be able to answer the so-what question for investing staff time and talent in social media campaigning. As a sector, we are becoming much more sophisticated in our use of communications to advance our work. Looking at ways to measure social media should fit within the framework of measuring communications broadly. Even as the task of identifying communications indicators is challenging, social media lends itself well to being more precise and thus measurable.

In order to engage the field in a dialogue on social media measurement, RWJF is hosting a national convening of experts in three domains: evaluation, communications, and social media. The April convening will produce a set of indicators on five Foundation-focused outcomes:

1. Our foundation is viewed as a valuable information source.

2. Our foundation is viewed as transparent.

3. Lessons are disseminated, multiplying impact beyond our foundation’s reach.

4. Public knowledge, advocacy, influence, and action is increased in strategic areas

5. Our networks strengthen and diversify.

We invite you to help us advance the field of social media measurement. Please follow hashtag #SM_RE on Twitter for conversations stemming from the social media measurement meeting this month, including a live Twitter chat on April 18, 3 p.m. EDT, as we continue to move the field forward in using data to evaluate and assess impact of our work.

-- Debra Joy Perez

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