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On the whole, UK councils are doing a nice job of using social media – possibly we caught on early because we’re used to making the most of tools that don’t cost much.  ‘Fair play ‘ as we say here in Wales, we’re doing getting better at engaging. But there’s loads of room to improve.

Many organisations are still in the ‘broadcast’ mindset and some still have to convince their public and their management that social media is more than people talking about their breakfast.

Over Easter I read Mark Schaefer’s book ‘Return On Influence: The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring, and Influence Marketing‘, a great book that looks at why tools like Klout will become more important as the world gets more social.

Thinking about Mark’s book I’m quickly becoming convinced that increasing digital influence is the aim that will be the standard for local government and the residents and the businesses it serves.

I’ve blogged before about my mistrust of the quest to prove Return on Investment (RoI) on public sector social media. It’s influence we should be striving for.

‘Influence’ is a bit of a scary term for council communications in that it might have connotations of control or manipulation but in this context it’s about being relevant enough for people to respond to want we say, and making content interesting enough to make people take notice and understand councils and their communities.

 by Ribbit Voice

[Photo by Ribbit Voice]

Why RoI is out
So, before where I go onto influence, lets revisit the problem with RoI in local government social media.
Firstly, local government is there to serve people and so looking for ‘returns’ isn’t necessarily ideologically aligned with our work the same way it is in business.
Even if we argue that returns don’t need to be financial, it’s still difficult to pin down what we want the return to be: people being better informed, increased goodwill, engagement, being more approachable.  These are all important but are effects that can’t be easily or truly measured with numbers and stats.
The term ‘investment’ is also tricky. One could argue that having officers engaging effectively with their communities is actually a return, am aim, as well as an investment.
Also, social media is often free to use but takes officer time and understanding. Financial costs are those of any added electricity or Internet usage. Since this is social, our audience talk back and take part long term conversations and build relationships if we do it well. So it takes an equal investment from those who talk to local government using social media. If our stakeholders invest the same amount of resource, we can see social media as just the tools we use to communicate now, like meetings, and phones. I’ve not heard of many organisations measuring RoI on their phone use, or meetings.
My last thought on this is may be a bit controversial but here’s my hunch: those people who insist on measuring ROI for council social media just don’t get social media. So they mistrust it and they mistrust their staff. We should be past the stage of justifying its use by now.
My guess is that CEOs and management who use social media well don’t ask staff to prove what the benefits are. And, back to the point about phones and meetings, they don’t ask for RoI reports on things they do use well like email or speech.
As far as terminology goes, ‘influence’ makes a bit more sense when you consider its synonym ‘authority’. We are local authorities and we want our communication to have ‘authority’ in that it has high credibility and currency.
Aiming for influence is far more important that measuring return on investment.
Although the book looks at websites like Peerindex and Klout for scoring people and organisations, it’s not the measurement and social scoring that I think is entirely relevant for councils – it’s the concept that everyone has an opportunity to be influencial.
Online influencers don’t need to be powerful or a celebrity in the offline world. This means there is a flattening of those traditional hierarchies in and around government that have been a barrier for access to many.
I’ve always considered social media as a place for engagement, sharing, networking, learning and entertaining and community and the book inspired me to see those qualities together as one notion of influence.
I’d argue we need to be working to make our councils more influential using social media. So the emphasis is on becoming good at being part of a conversation, and effort is spent on enhancing people’s experience and knowledge of the council – not being good in order to show a measure of how well we did.
The book points out that in order to gain a high score in the social media influence scoring website, we need to be influential not just by having lots of people liking and following us but by being able to create meaningful content that is credible and can be amplified by other influential people in our networks.
Instructions from Mark‘s book for gaining influence are a recipe for allowing people to understand government better. He teaches that information should be RITE: relevant, interesting, timely and entertaining.
If all content we produced was RITE, we wouldn’t need to justify what we do with measurement. The content, and reaction to that content would speak for itself.
I’m as guilty as the next council officer of letting stuff go out there that might be boring or irrelevant to many of those who read it. I need to work on getting that right before I find some elaborate system of RoI.
So why influence, not ROI?
Some argue you need to measure to evaluate to improve. On our council blog, we recently talked about not just doing things better but doing better things. I think the time to evaluate will be after we rethink what we do. The world is getting used to this new form of communicating and I believe that measuring, say, the number of clicks on links from an RSS feed from our website’s news area – that’s trying to do things better. Focussing on doing better things might be to use our network to ask what people want and then work on getting our content RITE so people actually care about what we say.
So there are my thoughts – I’d love to hear what you think, let me know in the comments or on Twitter and cheers for reading.
Social media conference in Wales 
I bought Mark Schaefer’s book after I heard he was coming to Wales (in fact, to my hometown Newport!) to speak at the Online Influence social media conference planned for September and it sounds like a top event. You can read more details about it from Tony Dowling (@radiojaja) on his blog here.