Thursday 8 March 2012

Update on social media and public advocacy

About a year ago, I blogged a case study detailing how social media were impacting public advocacy in international affairs. Following a few conversations I’ve had in recent weeks and a few more deep-water dives into the sea of data, it’s time for a brief update and a few additional notes.

To start with, the trend noted in April 2011 continues: people are increasingly finding the International Crisis Group’s online reports and other materials via Facebook and Twitter, and more importantly, they are coming from the very government institutions and international agencies we aim to reach as an advocacy organisation.

Moreover, this is not an isolated phenomenon. I hear from other NGOs and advocacy groups that they see the exact same development: a greater percentage of their target audiences are also accessing their material via social media as opposed to email or media outlets. Disintermediation is very real, yet no sane person would suggest ditching their mass email lists, ignoring Google News or forgetting fundamental media relations.

There are some extra observations, however.

First, how people are coming to our reports is in part a factor of timing. Social media and mass emailing are hugely important for bringing in readers in the first couple days after publication, but the overall proportion of search engine traffic gradually increases over time. That’s what you’d expect, I suppose, but it’s still nice to have the numbers to back it up.

Second, the proportion of those using social media to find our reports varies by region. With our recent Syria briefing, in the first 48 hours after publication, about 30% of our readers were coming to us via social media. But in the region itself, the numbers were much higher, with Facebook being by far the most important channel for people to find our report: 70% in Qatar, 62% in the UAE, 60% in Syria, 52% in Jordan and 43% in Saudi Arabia.

Third, no matter the timing or the region, Google+ is not (yet) making any significant impact on the numbers. Very few people are coming to our material using the online giant’s social media tool. While Facebook and Twitter are our number one and two referrers, Google+ is way down in 200-somethingth place.

The joke going around about Google+ -- that it’s like the gym membership everyone signs up for on New Years Day but then never uses the rest of the year -- has some truth behind it. The formal number of users is impressive, but the actual interaction on Google+ pales in comparison to anything on Facebook, let alone Twitter. The reason why boils down to habit, of course, and changing habits is even more complex because of user types.

On Facebook, there are users who check in once a day or so, and then there are those who are on more or less constantly. The former group keep coming back to see what’s new, and they get their updates in particular from the latter group. Those more active users are engaged to a point where they are getting frequent feedback (likes and comments), and they expect to see it nearly every time they look. Call it psychological reinforcement: type something in, receive a quantum of public acknowledgement... push button, get reward, button, reward...

If this is the case, consider the dilemma Google+ faces. When the more passive users go over to check out Google+, they don’t see much happening, because the more active group isn’t there. And the latter group, hooked on the constant public feedback of nano-celebrity, isn’t there any more than a seven-espresso-a-day junkie will be found waiting in a queue for decaf.

How Google is going to get around this, or even if they ever will, is beyond me, but what it means for those of us in the public advocacy business is clear enough for now.

Finally, in talking with foreign policy experts and NGO activists in various places in recent months, I find that social media platforms are not in competition with each other for the attention of the policy/advocacy community so much as the entire concept of social media is in competition with simple email listservs. This more traditional way groups of experts have shared information on their niche subjects is proving harder to budge than one might think. It may seem clunky and “so 1990s” to some, but it’s familiar and functional enough for a fair few living in policy wonk-ville.

Of course, many of us who are of the wonkoid persuasion have moved to Twitter and/or Facebook for our online research and advocacy, but many have not. Some now feel they have to follow both social media and various key listservs so they don’t miss anything in their area of expertise. Diversification of information streams is happening even in the nichest of niches.

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