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A Good Time to Ask Questions

Are we finally getting serious and asking important questions about the role social media (or media in any form) can play in helping foundations achieve their goals?  Signs seem to be pointing that way.

For instance, last week, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) held a day-long conference focused on how foundations can determine if social media is moving their work forward.  Over the course of large group and small group discussions and presentations, the questions that kept communications professionals and evaluators engaged were “what do we measure and what will success look like from using social media?”

The impetus for the gathering, as stated on the foundation’s website, was concern that the:

…state of social media measurement is still relatively nascent. Throughout the corporate and nonprofit worlds, individuals are talking about the wide array of metrics available to track page views, fans, followers…While current metrics provide critical insight into what draws audiences and engages them online, questions remain regarding what that means for changing knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors offline.

Among the purposes of the RWJF conference was to find ways to look beyond data that’s easy to capture–such as page views, likes, Tweets and downloads–and determine if all that activity leads people to do things differently or if it contributes to some kind of meaningful change.  As Alison Byrne Fields, founder and president of Aggregate, a creative strategy group that works with foundations and nonprofits, posted to Facebook ahead of the event:

For me, it’s about measuring outcomes: did you achieve the objective you set out to achieve? Yes? No? Pretty simple. Don’t be scared and don’t make excuses. Just understand why or why not. And — to be clear — an “outcome” is not “Did we get comments on our blog post? An outcome is “Did the program we funded achieve what it was meant to achieve.”

While last week’s meeting might have been just one step, it was an important one. And it’s likely to lead to serious work that participants who were at the meeting have pledged to continue in tandem with each other as well as their own colleagues. (For related posts, go here and here.)

Then yesterday, along came an announcement that the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism is launching what it describes a “an ambitious new project aimed at measuring the social impact of media.” Funded with $3.25 million in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the project is intended to:

Help media organizations, journalists, and social change-makers build on the power of storytelling through data and impact measurement. Despite advances in big data, surprisingly primitive metrics are still commonly used to assess audience engagement with content and its effects on individual perceptions and behaviors. Page views, TV ratings, “likes” and retweets alone don’t reveal how media influences people’s awareness or actions. This is a challenge for organizations that hope to connect audiences with important social issues and support long-term change.

It’s ironic that these conversations and call for more research efforts are taking place at the very moment the free and unfettered flow of information on the Internet and via social media channels is being singled out by some as not such a good thing.  From reading recent headlines, you might suddenly believe that overnight the Internet has turned into a force for no good.  Most of that concern is resulting from a spate of news stories and commentaries on how various hate websites are believed to have contributed to the radicalization of the two brothers accused of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this month.  Other commentators have also been extremely critical of how the story played out on social media channels.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman minced no words in his April 28 Sunday column in which he wrote:

As for the role that Web sites apparently played in the “self-radicalization” of the two Chechen brothers, it is yet another reminder that the Internet is a digital river that carries incredible sources of wisdom and hate along the same current. It’s all there together. And our kids and citizens usually interact with this flow nakedly, with no supervision.

Friedman’s comments about how the disintermediated flow of information may sometimes do a disservice followed those of another Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, who a few days earlier had written:

Everybody is continuously connected to everybody else on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram, on Reddit, e-mailing, texting, faster and faster, with the flood of information jeopardizing meaning. Everybody’s talking at once in a hypnotic, hyper din: the cocktail party from hell.

So, here we are.  On one hand we are having an overdue and much-welcomed conversation in the foundation community about the role of social media in helping advance social change as well as a foundation-supported effort that looks at all forms of media and how much they can serve as a force for good. On the other hand, we’re hearing some full-throated commentary about the power of the Internet and social media to do bad things.

I personally think there’s no better time than now to be asking the kind of questions being raised on both sides.  I’m hopeful that whatever we learn, we’ll get valuable information we can apply to creating meaningful communications strategies that have impact. The more open we are to to measuring our communication activities and learning what works (something the Communications Network has been encouraging for years), the greater good we can do.

I like that. How about you?

Bruce S. Trachtenberg is the executive director of the Communications Network


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