ROI of social media in public service

Nov 20, 2011

I’ve noticed a bit of Twitter debate on what the return on investment (ROI) is for social media in the public sector. Unfortunately this isn’t a post with tips on measurement, I’m still learning good ways to evaluate and improve our work in social media and I’d love to hear what other organisations do. Here are a few of my thoughts on the principles of measuring ROI relating to social media.


Where I work in Monmouthshire Council we’ve given all staff access to social media since January this year.  I can confirm that the county didn’t come to a halt while officers and councillors updated their Facebook statuses with what they were having for breakfast.

Quite the opposite in fact. Gradually, staff are coming to see the potential for networking with professionals and citizens across the world.  I’ve noticed since January about 50-60 new people join Linkedin.  There they are sharing ideas, picking up knowledge from groups and re-establishing contact with colleagues from previous jobs.  Linkedin is an easy one – people see it as a place to do business and the fear around ‘what people get up to’ is not as strong with this network.

Yammer is picking up pace, more staff are looking at making information easier to consume by making short films for Youtube and we’ve got councillors and staff showing the world what they’re all about.  A number of Facebook pages and Twitter conversations have been established run by people skilled in their area and able to engage with their audience in an easy way – they’re talking to people who they might never have had the chance to before. Yes we’ve made some mistakes and not everything we do will be ideal but it’s all been happening with good intentions and no cash cost.

We know communication is no longer just ‘us’ broadcasting messages to ‘them’. Our organisation’s culture is rapidly transforming and we are getting better at being open and part of a new world where ‘the people’ don’t just have a voice but are they ‘one of us’. Social media has been a small but important part of that.

by russelldavies

[Photo by russelldavies]

Before I get onto ROI…

What about why we use social media? The motivation: it’s the right thing to do. To open up channels of communication to let people talk to us and to listen and respond – as public servants we don’t leave our personalities and values at home and if it feels like a good thing to do it’s a good start. Personally I want to be a valuable part of my communities and I think the people I serve would be also empowered by this.

ROI = (Gains – Cost)/Cost

We can’t look at the ROI of using social media (as we wouldn’t with email or face-to-face contact) but we could measure ROI of what we communicate using social media.

What would we consider to be a gain?

A council does so much – the visible things like bins, and schools and the harder to see services like protecting vulnerable people and economic development.  The gains we’d want to see from say leisure centres – increased membership of gyms, more active living – are worlds apart from the returns we’d want from a community set up for foster carers – strengthened relationships, more confident and informed care.

We’re like a thousand businesses in one and we’ve got a tonne of different communities of interest and of geography. I’d argue we’d need to measure according to the objectives of the person who initiates their use of social media.

In the public sector the real investment for us is trust of staff and of the people. The main questions I’m asked about social media are about staff time-wasting or abusive posts from residents. In terms of giving access to social media, it seems we’re a rarity in local government for treating staff as responsible professionals who want to do a great job.

Is engagement an investment? I’d say it’s a duty.  But more than that, being approachable, simplifying information and gauging how people feel takes time and skills investment from council officers. But all those things are also returns. Who doesn’t want a reputation for being approachable, for their information to be good and to have a connection to the people they serve?


The problem is that ROI measurements can be easily manipulated to suit the user’s interests and even with good intentions they give subjective results.

In PR we used to use Advertising Value Equivalants (AVEs) for when our messages were published in the media. They were rubbish. We used this system which is looking at how much editorial would have cost if it had been a paid-for advert.  Then that cost is multiplied to account for the fact it has more credibility to the reader than something that has obviously been paid-for.

Basing measurement on the cost of an advert not on the value of the information to the citizen is odd:

  • A newspaper ad nobody relevant noticed that cost £1k really has a value of nowt. A press release that gets used as a story in a newspaper in this case would be 4.5  (if that’s the multiple you’re using) times the value/cost of the ad. So either £4.5k or nowt.

For social media, let’s not apply a similar mindset to how we deal with this social and human contact.

Why measure?

What is the reason to measure? What will we do with that data? If it’s to improve how stakeholders engage or to improve services fair enough.  If it’s to convince people of the value of what we’re doing I’d argue we need to more closely look at the culture of openness and convince people to buy in to the notion of a networked society. It’s like trying to measure the efficiency of our use of email or phonecalls (but that’s another story).

Just because we can’t measure it doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

There are some things I’ve noticed while talking to people on social media in Monmouthshire Council. Here are just some examples of of our ‘immeasurables’ – our ‘known unknowns‘ if you like.

  • Expats: some people who no longer live in the county occasionally chat to us.  Nice but in some cases they are not our target audience if we’re talking about things relevant only to residents. However, one of our Twitter followers (a clever, active social media user who lives abroad) happened to mention that he chats to his mum on the phone and passes information to her.  She lives in Monmouth.
  • Lurkers: those people who just like to watch from afar and say nothing are still engaging on one level if they take that information into their lives and face-to-face conversations.  Often I can’t remember where I heard something, it could have been a paper, a tweet, a chat.  But it’s in there somewhere and it informs my choices.
  • Widgets: so much content from social media gets aggregated or pulled into apps and widgets.  If you don’t use social media but you check the front page of our website you can pick up bits of information by looking at the twitter widget embedded there.

If we commissioned extensive research or just did a survey about people’s engagement with council communication channels it might not account for the way that chats and details pass around off and on the Internet.

I’ll finish this off by saying that these are my instincts on the topic and I am very happy to be persuaded that there are ways to measure ROI that have great value or if there are assumptions I’ve made here that are way off!


Photo by Charlie Llewellin


  1. corphandyman

    Very thought provoking piece Helen…For context, I own a Sussex SME and have been attending the Wealden LSP for almost a year – my first exposure to local government.My early judgement from this exposure is that local government is missing a big trick (I know I only see one, but I’m going to guess they’re pretty representative) in terms of efficiency and communication. I’ve been trying to get them to LinkedIn so they can connect with the local business community – it’s been very slow because they seem to be frightened of it and want to talk about it rather than just doing it. I get the sense that there’s a real risk adversity that is going to be the biggest hurdle to overcome. Twitter probably has bigger opportunities than LinkedIn.I’ve been banging on that they can do a lot more for a lot less. I think they may be getting it, but it’s taking an awful long time. I should say here that there are some proper brains and honest intentions, but inertia is stifling progress.If this were my business, I’d not start with ROI, but just try to assess the needs of the local community, how to connect with them to understand what’s going on, and the resources and structures in place to meet those needs. Social networking and the openness and transparency it implies should be a real catalyst for cultural change. This is deep strategic stuff, but there’s an opportunity that business is grasping with both hands and, local government is missing – although I saw a refreshing outlook from East Sussex CC last week (I suspect they may be the exception rather than the rule – I hope I’m wrong).Sorry to bang on, but your piece deserves some attention. You are raising some fundamental stuff. It’s very refreshing.

  2. Helen Reynolds

    Hey, thanks for your kind and interesting comments! To be fair to councils – I think they’re catching on that this is happening and people are picking it up at different paces. I think once it gets past being seen as a PR function is when it starts to kick off. I’ve noticed the main issue for lack of take-up is ‘how on earth do I fit that all in on top of my overloaded work programme?’ It takes some explaining how using these networks can enhance our work, link us to new interesting experts (like you!) and save us time before it seems worth giving a go I guess.I like your approach to this if it were your business and what’s really interesting is that there are new places and groups forming every day that we need to keep up with to give people access to government where they already go.I’d be really interested to hear about the East Sussex outlook, sounds good. Thanks again for your feedback 🙂

  3. Martin Cantor

    Great stuff Helen. My instincts and logic both are bang in line with this. Really appreciate real life experiences which might help some of our hesitants to see that the world won’t end if we open out this way. do keep telling us how it goes

  4. Helen Reynolds

    Thanks Martin! Lovely to have this kind of feedback. I think I’ve found you on Twitter so I’ll start following you now…

  5. Alissa Vagelatos
  6. Esko Reinikainen
  7. Robin Houghton
  8. progigyrag1984

    I believe everyone must look at this. rimobel


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Hel Reynolds

Hel Reynolds

Author of this post

Hel is social media trainer and boss of Comms Creatives. She has been working in comms since 2005, and has been brushing up her expertise in social media for brands since the good old days of MySpace. She also draws the Comms Cartoons, and is usually attached to a mug of coffee.

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