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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State Department’s IIP Bureau — Bureau Over Troubled Water, Oh Where to Start?

—By Domani Spero

According to state.gov, the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) is the State Department’s foreign-facing public diplomacy communications bureau. It provides and supports the places, content, and infrastructure needed for sustained conversations with foreign audiences to build America’s reputation abroad.

IIP is also one of three bureaus that falls under the authority of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The incumbent is Tara Sonenshine who assumed office on April 5, 2012 and is reported to be leaving her job on July 1, 2013.  According to the OIG, the IIP bureau has undergone extensive reorganization, including in 2006 and again in 2011.

The OIG inspection took place in Washington, DC, between January 7, 2013, and April 5, 2013. Ambassador Maura Harty (team leader), Mark Jacobs (deputy team leader), [REDACTED – (b)(6)] conducted the inspection.

A side note – kinda weird redaction so we inquired from the OIG and we’re told that the FOIA Exemption (b)(6) – “exempts from disclosure records or information which if disclosed would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” We’ll tackled that redaction topic in a separate post.

The IIP Bureau was headed by Dawn L. McCall who assumed post as Coordinator in July 2010.  The OIG report indicates that Ms. McCall announced her resignation during the inspection but officially resigned effective April 12, 2013. Maureen Cormack has been acting Coordinator since April 15, 2013.

Key Judgments

  • Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) leadership failed to convey its strategic vision to staff members, despite formalized communications. Leadership created an atmosphere of secrecy, suspicion, and uncertainty.
  • A 2011 reorganization of the bureau did not resolve structural problems and caused new organizational difficulties. Morale is low.
  • With effective use of technology, IIP has made a significant contribution to the Department of State’s (Department) digital diplomacy outreach effort, increased the reach of its publications, and expanded the use of video in public diplomacy (PD) work.
  • Regularizing support for American Spaces overseas has strengthened these platforms for engagement with foreign publics, a cornerstone of the Department’s 21st century PD effort.
  • There has been limited outreach by top leadership to counterparts in the Department or at sister foreign affairs agencies.
  • Responsibility for information technology (IT) operations is diffuse, leading to problems of governance and oversight.
  • The Executive Office does not provide effective service. Response times to requests are slow, and customer service is inadequate.
  • The bureau uses many contractors (43 percent of employees) but does not manage its contracts well. This deficiency constitutes a potential vulnerability for the Department.
  • IIP’s digital outreach should focus more on PD goals rather than raw numbers of social media fans.
  • The Office of Audience Research and Evaluation is producing little work and is not engaged with either the bureau or other elements of the Department.

There’s more, we’ll have a few separate posts to follow.

(._.)

State Dept’s Winning Hearts and Minds One Kindle at a Time Collapses …. Presently Dead

Back in July, we mentioned in passing in this blog the State Department’s contract to purchase lots of Kindles from Seattle’s Amazon.

You should hear the back story about that multimillion, excuse me, $16.5 million multi-year Kindle acquisition.  Secretary Clinton and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos were supposed to hold hands on the 7th floor, but it never happened.  I bet you want to know how come that’s indefinitely postponed. No, it’s not because she was traveling, silly!

Well, the indefinite postponement became permanent now. On August 15, fbo.gov published the cancellation of that no-bid contract:

Aug 15, 2012 4:00 pm
U.S. Department of State solicitation (Request for Proposals) SAQMMA12R0272 for Amazon e-Readers, Content Management, and Logistics is cancelled and the Justification and Approval (J&A) to award contract SAQMMA12D0131 on a sole-source basis is withdrawn. The Department of State intends to conduct additional market research and re-examine its requirements for this program.

The cancelled contract was for 2,500 e-readers at a cost of $16.5 million. This works out to what — $6,600 per Kindle, including content and support services? Wait – this is a one year plus four year option contract, so if our math is correct, approximately 12,500 Kindles at $1,320 each for five years. The most expensive Kindle to-date is a Kindle DX with free 3G at $379.

This contract was done on behalf of the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R). Yep, that would be under the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine who was appointed to “R” on April 5, 2012. But note that this is for overseas use, so this falls directly under the shop of Dawn L. McCall, the Coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs since July 2010.

Here is what the State Department says in its justification for a base year and four (4) one-year options con tract on a sole-source basis to Amazon:

The DoS has an ongoing, repetitive requirement for e-Readers and content meeting certain key specifications, including an immediate need for approximately 2,500 e-Readers and 50 titles of content. The DoS has identified the Amazon Kindle as the only e-Reader on the market that meets the Government’s needs, and Amazon as the only company possessing the essential capabilities required by the Government[…]

An identification of the statutory authority permitting other than full and open competition: 41 U.S.C. 253(c) (1) and FAR 6.302-1: only one responsible source and no other supplies or services will satisfy agency requirements.

A description of the market survey conducted and the results or a statement of the reasons a market survey was not conducted: See attached comparison matrix [Note – not attached in published document]. Other e-Readers such as the Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony Reader Daily and Kobe e-Reader cannot provide the text to speech requirement, the long-lasting battery life and the free Wi-Fi with a global network (which is a firm requirement since all devices are to be used overseas). Additionally, the portability and durability of the Kindle is unique, and is required by the government due to overseas shipment requirements and use in public facilities by students.

Although the Apple iPad offers features that meet many of the requirements of this project it falls under the tablet/computer segment versus a single function e-reader device. The additional features are not only unnecessary, but also present unacceptable security and usability risks for the government’s needs in this particular project. Critically, the Apple iPad falls short on two requirements: the centrally managed platform for registration and content delivery, and battery life.

Any other facts supporting the use of other than full and open competition: The Kindle has been identified as the only product that will meet the DoS’ requirements as part of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs’ (R’s) efforts to globally scale e-Reader use as a tool for the DoS’ English Access Microscholarship Program (ACCESS), and also placement in DoS’ many American Spaces housed in libraries, cultural centers, reading rooms and other partnership institutions such as Bi-National Centers. Recognizing the success of previous small scale Kindle pilot programs over other e-Reader purchases by Public Affairs Sections around the world, R would like to expand this success through a centralized mechanism to make it more cost effective for the DoS. Currently, the R family of bureaus coordinates information outreach and English language activities each year to more than 6 million young people in over 800 publicly accessible American spaces and local community centers overseas. Moreover, R was approved by the Under Secretary for Management to expand e-reader content and technology applications with Amazon and other private sector companies through public-private partnerships.

R sought approval for a public-private partnership because a coordinated public-private partnership to deploy e-reader devices with access to appropriate content in programs around the world would serve to underscore America’s image as a technology leader. Also, it would deliver USG and third party content efficiently and potentially more economically to global users. Ultimately, e-readers can provide timely access to U.S. news, literature, and information not possible under traditional “hard copy” procurement and distribution methods.

The Under Secretary for Management says it’s okay, and of course, it’s okay. Note that the justification did not indicate which other companies have been approved for expansion in this public-private partnerships.

We heard from somebody familiar with the dysfunctional going ons at “R” that this program was “not supported by project planning, only seat of the pants “this sounds good” thingee.

A seat of the pants operation at $16.5 million? Folks, that’s like 6 times more shocking than Peter Van Buren’s Chicken Shit in Iraq.

And with the cancellation of the contract, State now has to “conduct additional market research and re-examine its requirements”? But … but if the appropriate market research was conducted and requirements examined in the first place, why would anyone be conducting additional market research or re-examining the old ones just two months after the original contract was announced.

Because see — new e-readers and tablets are coming out fast and furious now, so it makes sense to do additional market research, right?  Maybe do one every quarter, you never know what kind of technology enhancements are available until you look, okay? (And a comparison matrix that’s actually attached to the Justification and Approval document, would be nice, too, right?)  Yeah, additional market research would make an excellent spin.

The Digital Reader inquired about this cancellation from the State Department and here is the response:

“The Department of State continues to pursue technology that enhances our ability to provide international audiences with relevant, real-time content on U.S. society, culture, and English language learning.  In order to conduct additional market research and further explore technological options for our public diplomacy programs, the Department of State opted on August 15 to end the Request for Proposals for the Amazon Kindle in favor of proceeding with a Request for Information (RFI) process. This action will open to all vendors the opportunity to respond to the Department’s requirements for a mobile learning program.”

But see — even with the cancellation of this contract, questions remain in our head and they’re giving us real tiny headaches.

U.S. Embassy trains Pakistani Librarians how to use e-readers as part of the Embassy’s continuing support of Pakistan’s libraries. In partnership with the Director of the National Library and Resource Center Mr. Zeeshan Khan U.S. Embassy officials trained local librarians on e-readers to use in their Lincoln reading rooms, which are supported, in part, by U.S. government funds.
(Photo via US Embassy Pakistan/Flickr)

We suspect that with the continuous push for “winning hearts and minds” in the frontline states, a good number of these e-readers will end up in Pakistan, for instance.  So for starters, what achievable goals are there for this program in Pakistan or wherever this is deployed? What kind of ROI is “R” looking at in an expensive program like this? What kind of impact will 12,500 Kindles or e-readers have in an information outreach to “more than 6 million young people in over 800 publicly accessible American spaces”? How effective will Kindle or e-reader outreach have in people to people diplomacy amidst the reality of drone undiplomacy in Pakistan’s border areas? The Pakistani youths will read American classics on an e-reader while their compatriots are being bombed, is that right?

And by the way, don’t you remember that the reason the US Embassy in Vietnam got itself some rather expensive mousepads was because it got iPads for use in the American Center where security reasons precluded the use of wireless Internet access? So no wi-fi in a country with no 4G service = really expensive iMousepad.

$16.5 effing million, pardon my French, is not pocket change. So, of course, somebody with a top pay grade in Foggy Bottom has looked at the project plan for this program and has already asked the hard questions. Right? Or they’re working on it or something …

Okay — so the next time the Secretary  is scheduled to hold hands with an e-reader CEO at the Seventh Floor to celebrate this public-private partnership, there will be no postponement so folks can write up talking points or conduct additional market research.

Oh look, there’s a new RFI on this e-reader initiative.  Response date required by September 21.  The new announcement includes 162 deployment locations, all overseas except for two.  E-reader deployment locations includes Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Eritrea where Amazon says “Unfortunately, we are currently unable to ship Kindles or offer Kindle content in …..” Remember that Kindle was originally selected for its wi-fi global network.  And it does not do some of these countries in the deployment location list. So who else can do it?  It also includes the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as another deployment location, where Amazon says, “You can download books to your computer and transfer them to your Kindle via USB. Kindle wireless is not currently available in your country.” Is the USG going to make additional “support” purchases like computers so folks with no access to computer can download the materials to their e-readers?

Here’s what we don’t get.  Does it make sense to send e-Readers to all four corners of the world, including the war zones and areas under civil strife, even when the information and telecom infrastructures are barely functioning? It does?

Damn, I’m getting an e-Headache.

Domani Spero