State Dept’s $630,000 Social Media “Buying Fans” Campaign, a Success — But Where’s the Love?

—By Domani Spero

 

The widely anticipated, much awaited OIG report on the State Department’s  Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) is finally here.  The 50-page report, which had a snippet of it leaked to WaPo and published previously by Al Kamen in In The Loop only contains one redaction, the names of the inspection team members.

Below is an excerpt from the OIG report reviewing the use of social media:

With the Department’s use of social media comes strategic questions of the role, purpose, and limitations of the medium. A consensus is emerging that developing numbers of Facebook followers and Twitter fans may not lead automatically to target audience engagement.

After the 2011 reorganization, the coordinator initiated a push to expand the bureau’s presence on social media and other digital platforms. IIP started or expanded English-language Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and blogs aimed directly at foreign audiences. The bureau also started or expanded online activities in six foreign languages.

The coordinator initiated two campaigns in 2011 and 2012, with the goal of building global outreach platforms for engagement with foreign audiences by increasing the number of fans on IIP’s four thematic Facebook properties, primarily through advertising as well as through some page improvements. The bureau spent about $630,000 on the two campaigns and succeeded in increasing the fans of the English Facebook pages from about 100,000 to more than 2 million for each page. Advertising also helped increase interest in the foreign language pages; by March 2013, they ranged from 68,000 to more than 450,000 fans.

Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaigns as “buying fans” who may have once clicked on an ad or “liked” a photo but have no real interest in the topic and have never engaged further. Defenders of advertising point to the difficulty of finding a page on Facebook with a general search and the need to use ads to increase visibility.

IIP’s four global thematic English-language Facebook pages had garnered more than 2.5 million fans each by mid-March 2013; the number actually engaging with each page was considerably smaller, with just over 2 percent “liking,” sharing, or commenting on any item within the previous week. Engagement on each posting varied, and most of that interaction was in the form of “likes.” Many postings had fewer than 100 comments or shares; the most popular ones had several hundred.

In September 2012, Facebook changed the way it displays items in its users’ news feeds. If a user does not interact with a site’s postings, after a time these postings will no longer appear in the user’s news feed unless the site buys sponsored story ads to ensure their appearance. This change sharply reduced the value of having large numbers of marginally interested fans and means that IIP must continually spend money on sponsored story ads or else its “reach” statistics will plummet. For example, a posting on cyber censorship in March 2013 reached 234,000 Facebook users on its first day; only about 20,000 would have received the item on their news feed without advertising. An item on “Women and the Web” reached the news feeds of 360,000 people; without advertising, 27,000 would have received it.

After the major advertising campaigns, the coordinator shifted the focus away from increasing total fan numbers and toward engagement, as measured by “likes,” shares, and comments. IIP has targeted the bulk of its sponsored story ads in a way most likely to boost engagement statistics. The bureau uses Facebook’s automated system to place the sponsored story ads into the 25 countries with the largest number of young users and the highest engagement rates, regardless of the item’s content, importance, and relevance to the countries in which the ad appears. However, engagement is a means, not an end. The bureau could reduce spending and increase strategic impact by focusing its advertising not on raising overall fan numbers or general engagement statistics but on accomplishing specific PD goals. This approach would entail tying any general page advertising to the promotion of special information content on high-priority issues as well as manually selecting key items as sponsored stories and advertising them only to relevant countries and audiences. This approach would also be in line with the November 2012 report of the Social Media Working Group, which endorsed “judicious and targeted use of paid advertising,” and telegram 13 State 06411, Social Media Guidance Cable #1: Social Media Advertising, which advocated a “selective use of social media advertising” in a “strategically planned, well-targeted” campaign with preset goals and evaluation. During the inspection, IIP paused its Facebook advertising to assess its sites and goals.

Recommendation 36: The Bureau of International Information Programs should direct its digital advertising to specific public diplomacy goals in keeping with Department of State guidance. (Action: IIP)

In recent months, IIP leadership instructed social media staff members to put more policy-oriented information on their sites. However, page managers were concerned that too much policy material, especially if it is not related closely to the primary interest of the page fans, would drive away their youthful audience and cause their fan numbers and engagement statistics to drop. They felt caught between conflicting directives. In March 2013, IIP was developing a social media policy strategy. This kind of document is essential to clarify the goals of IIP’s social media efforts, acknowledge the tradeoff between seeking high numbers of fans and engaging with foreign audiences, and find the right balance between youth and elite audience engagement.

Recommendation 37: The Bureau of International Information Programs should adopt a social media strategy that clarifies the primary goals and public diplomacy priorities of its social media sites. (Action: IIP)

Facebook analytic tools can measure engagement by counting the number of people who click on a link, “like” a posting, comment on it, or share it with their friends. However, these measures do not evaluate the usefulness of the engagement because many people post simple remarks, like “so nice pic,” or comments on unrelated topics. A sampling of IIP’s Facebook sites raises questions about how much real interaction is taking place. During the inspection, the bureau began to address the need to analyze the sites’ effectiveness with an eye to determining how much of the activity classed as engagement actually accomplishes PD goals.

Staff members working on the IIP social media sites send out their best items in a daily social media feed for U.S. embassies, a service that PD officers overseas praise as a valuable contribution to their own social media efforts. Some say the items would be more useful if they were available earlier in the day. Placing items on an embassy-accessible internal digital site as they are prepared would enable posts to use them earlier.

Informal Recommendation 3: The Bureau of International Information Programs should make its social media feed items accessible to embassies online before sending out the daily social media feeds.


(See  -05/31/13   Inspection of the Bureau of International Information Programs (ISP-I-13-28)  [912 Kb]  Posted on June 20, 2013)

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