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How RWJF Tackles the 'Social Media, So What?' Question

April 26, 2013

(Debra Joy Perez [@djoyperez] currently is serving as interim vice president of research and evaluation at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest healthcare philanthropy in the country. The following Q&A was conducted by our colleagues in the Foundation Center's San Francisco office and originally appeared on Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog.)

Headshot_debra-PerezLast year, after Steve Downs, chief technology and information office at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, shared a post on Transparency Talk detailing the foundation's social media strategy, we conducted a series of interviews (here, here, and here) with RWJF staff members that explored how social media and, more broadly, the transparency and participation they offer was adding a new, critical dimension to their work.

The latest Q&A in the series, featuring Debra Joy Perez, the foundation's interim vice president of research and evaluation, explores how RWJF's use of social media, which has become essential to its communication efforts, can be measured to reflect the impact of that work in the context of achieving the foundation's larger social change goals.

TT: Give us a quick overview of your work at the foundation in light of these new technologies. Why are social media metrics important to RWJF?

DJP: RWJF has a forty-year history of developing evidence-based programming. We're known for our research and evaluation work nationally and internationally. But as efforts to advance our goals in health and health care have become more reliant on technology, we've struggled with measuring success and accountability.

Since 2009, RWJF has been incorporating Web 2.0 technology into our everyday work, and with the September launch of our redesigned Web site, we now have more social sharing facilitation tools on the site. We're also doing more on on Twitter and Facebook to invite conversation about how to advance health and health care and are producing content to serve the needs of various online communities.

All that activity allows us to clearly see the present and future value of social media, which we believe can help us create social change and build movements around the causes we care deeply about. And, guided by the principles of openness, participation, and decentralization, we have learned a number of important lessons from that work. They include:

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

These takeaways underscore the importance of ongoing conversation about the policies and processes needed to achieve our goals. For instance, with each social media campaign, we have to be explicit about our expectations. Metrics are an essential part of that effort. Measurement allows us to see how we're doing against those expectations and to improve our use of social media to achieve our broader goals.

TT: What does an effective social media campaign look like?

DJP: Where to start? Well, you might start by acknowledging what you are already doing with social media and celebrating that. Do you have a Facebook page, an organizational presence on Twitter, a Tumblr? Conduct an inventory of what you are doing as an organization, as well as the level of engagement with your intended audiences. Are staff using social media to leverage their activities? Have they been able to extend the organization's reach? Do they regularly appear on relevant blogs?

As you conduct your inventory, you're likely to begin to realize how much you don't know. That's okay. It's important not to let the "not-knowing" paralyze you. Here are a few tips for doing that:

  • Have an explicit dialogue with staff about your organizational goals, what you are trying to accomplish with your social media efforts, the purpose of tweeting something, the specific action or actions you want audience members to take, and so on. And remember, although click-throughs are not themselves an outcome, they are a process measure.
  • Identify your networks. You probably already have more of a network than you realize. If you haven't already, read Measuring the Networked Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and KD Paine.
  • Schedule a more formal discussion with staff about value proposition. Find out who on staff is adding value and who isn't. Don't expect everyone to tweet. Some people are natural long-form writers and might be better suited for blogging.
  • Establish data points for measuring the impact of your efforts.
  • Create unique URLs for product releases and then use AB testing to test them against each other to see which is more effective.

Most importantly, remember that social media is a tool, a tool to achieve larger goals. While it can be a very powerful tool, it shouldn't be mistaken for the end in itself.

TT: Do you have an expected ROI for social media?

DJP: As more and more people build trusted networks of individuals and organizations and engage with each other online, we believe social media can really help us extend our reach. It also makes it easier for us to provide our health and health care advocates -- also known as message evangelists -- with the information they need, when they need it. And by making data more accessible through interactives, data visualizations and infographics, we're able to illustrate and promote key messages in compelling ways and do a better job of building awareness.

All of that is worth measuring. But while there are a plethora of ready-to-use analytical tools on the market, the challenge is to avoid the "low-hanging fruit" trap of measuring activity instead of impact. If we do our job correctly, eventually we expect to be able to say what works and what doesn't, and to be able to distinguish our impact online from off.

TT: What's the state of play in terms of social media measurement? And where do you go from here?

DJP: The potential of social is undeniable, and we continue to look for ways to test our assumptions about what we are doing in the space. As the unit responsible for measuring the impact of our work, we regularly ask ourselves questions such as: What are we using social for? Who are our target audiences? (By the way, developing metrics that include audience demographics is an important part of that measurement effort.) What is the action/behavior we want to see? How do we measure behavior change? How can we go beyond measuring online activity -- page views, unique visitors, tweets, retweets -- to measure the impact of that activity on off-line action and policy change?

That is one of the key challenges for philanthropy today. As a foundation accountable to our board and the public, we have to establish goals and benchmarks for our investment in social media just as we do for our programmatic investments. We have to be able to answer the "so-what" question in terms of the investment of staff time and talent in social media. As a sector, we are becoming much more sophisticated in our use of strategic communications to advance our work. Figuring out how to measure social media activity should fit within that broader framework. Fortunately, social media, because it is digital and quantifiable, lends itself to measurement.

As I said, we really believe in this stuff and are working to produce a set of social media indicators in five foundation-focused areas:

  • that we are viewed as a valuable information source;
  • that we are viewed as transparent;
  • that the lessons we learn are disseminated effectively, multiplying our impact beyond our traditional reach;
  • that our social media efforts help to increase knowledge, advocacy, and action in key strategic areas; and
  • that our social media efforts serve to strengthen and diversify our networks.

There are already some foundations doing great work in this space, and we hope others will join them and us in advancing the field of social media measurement. It's an exciting time.

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