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Measuring the Impact of Social Media


The following is a modified version of a post that appeared earlier on the James Irvine Foundation’s blog.

Guest Post: Kevin Rafter

As others have posted about on this blog, the meeting last week at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided an opportunity for a group of foundation staff, evaluation professionals and social media experts to talk about measurement and evaluation of social media. As someone who thinks about evaluating my foundation’s communications efforts and putting those evaluations in the context of our broader organizational goals, I found the meeting quite productive and helpful.

Also, because I’m an evaluator and not a communications professional, it’s rare that I get to offer my thoughts on communications outside of my own foundation. So I’m grateful for this opportunity to share some observations — both from an evaluator’s point of view and as someone who believes communications are important to effective philanthropy — with a pretty big and important audience of communicators who work in philanthropy.

Here’s what was interesting about the meeting to me.
Kevin_Rafter
First was the meeting’s primary goal to identify how best to measure social media indicators for a common set of outcomes identified by the participants. The common outcomes were:

  • The foundation is viewed as a valuable information source
  • The foundation is viewed as transparent
  • Lessons are disseminated, multiplying impact beyond the foundation’s reach
  • Public knowledge, advocacy, influence and action increases in strategic areas
  • Our networks strengthen and diversify

I expect this list looks very familiar to foundation communications staff because these outcomes are not unique to social media: They illustrate the strategic goals that many of our communications departments have worked toward for years now. What is important about the current moment is that social media is part of a relatively new set of digital tools that allow us to reach longstanding goals in new ways.

What’s also important about these digital tools is the opportunities they provide to improve our measurement against our communications goals in ways that help us improve our work in real time. These new measurement tools provide data much faster than old methods, more precisely (i.e. downloads and page views vs. circulation) and at lower cost. One clear takeaway from the meeting is that the new digital metrics can definitely improve our understanding of outputs and short-term outcomes, but we still need the tried and true evaluation methods such as surveys and focus groups to assess our broader goals and ultimately our impact.

As the meeting illustrated, social media also changes some of the organizational habits and departmental boundaries that many foundations have developed. Evaluators are interested in working with communications staff to measure programmatic outcomes. Communications staffs are awash in data and might value some help from evaluators to turn it into actionable information. And both groups rely on IT and web developers to set up the technical infrastructure necessary to gather and report this data.

At Irvine we have found that bringing these three functional areas together to collaborate on measuring and analyzing our communications work has been a productive path forward. As we try new digital approaches to sharing our work and insights such as infographics and blogs, we have used digital metrics to test their effectiveness, which leads to conversations about how to improve our work going forward. By using digital methods of communicating findings such as infographics, we are able to track the average amount of time a reader spends on various parts of the page, which helps us understand what information is most valuable to our audiences. Making this data easier to gather and analyze will give us insights into more effective communications tactics that we can use to refine and adapt our efforts in the future.

If you are involved in evaluating communications at your organization, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions for useful tools or ways you have effectively worked together across your communications, evaluation and IT teams.


Kevin Rafter is manager, Research and Evaluation, for the James Irvine Foundation.

 

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