Social media for development – lessons learnt at IDS

18 May 2015

It surprised many development agencies that an academic research institute like IDS experienced some of the most rapid growth in its social media channels seen in the development research and policy sectors. Four hundred Facebook likes to one hundred and forty thousand in less than five years. More fans than DFID, the University of Sussex and comparators like ODI.

One in ten visits to the IDS website are now Facebook or Twitter referrals. But to be perfectly honest the smugness is wearing a bit thin. We are beginning to get past the: ‘How did you do it?’ stage and we are entering the inevitable: ‘So what – where’s the impact?’ stage. I recently attempted to address both these questions at a lecture to BBC Media Action staff so will try and summarise here what I told them as I think we have some valuable lessons to share.

Top tips for growing your social media following

Since 2010 IDS has attempted to present a coherent picture of our work on Facebook and Twitter (and Linkedin to a lesser extent) making full use of these channels’ features. We have targeted specific groups, such as our students and alumni, with posts tailored to their interests and values. We have diversified our digital outputs to ensure we have really engaging and interactive content to share. We have never restricted ourselves to corporate news and IDS led research activities and regularly promote the news and content of others, drawing in particular upon the research centres, consortiums and hundreds of global partnerships to which we belong.

So the IDS top tips for success on social media are as follows:

  1. Systematically and promptly broadcast across all your channels using devices such as BufferApp
  2. Share partner content as well as your own
  3. Identify those with shared interests and follow them
  4. Reply to messages from your followers and fans promptly
  5. Target specific communities within your fan base
  6. Implement a social media policy that protects you and your staff from social media meltdowns

The real secret of our success

There is no doubt that tactics like these have done a lot to help grow the IDS social media accounts into highly credible channels of corporate and research communication. I also happily admit that another key driver of our success is that we are a teaching institution. IDS, along with the University of Sussex, has just been ranked number one in the world for development studies. Our students and alumni do so much to grow our social media following, hence why we are careful to target them with posts about their successes and experiences. Tellingly our typical Facebook fan is female and aged between 25-34. This doesn’t really reflect academic or policy communities terribly well which are sadly still dominated by older males.

However, it does paint a picture of social science post graduates and young development professionals. They are likely to reside in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan, the three countries that can claim to have driven our Facebook growth more than any others. In fact, the growth of IDS social media channels over the last few years largely reflects the tremendous growth in social media users in these countries. So you will not be surprised to learn that the proportion of IDS Facebook fans located in developing countries has grown from 38% in 2013 to 67% this year. Our social media strategy has been pretty effective and we should be proud of our achievements, but we have also ridden a wave. Claiming all the credit is rather like organisations that point at gradual increases to visits to their websites ignoring the fact the more people are getting connected all of the time driving up everyone’s numbers.

Size isn’t everything

It is probably also worth admitting that size is not everything. Engagement is what really matters. Success should be measured in terms of the proportion of followers and fans liking our content, sharing it and commenting on it. However, there is a potential challenge we all face here. The wider trend in social media seems to be towards larger institutional accounts (companies, famous people and institutions like ours) suffering some user fatigue. IDS is certainly experiencing some slow-down in growth of the community, although a 2% Facebook increase per month is not to be sniffed at, it is much less than we were experiencing a couple of years ago. This is about more than just flagging Facebook usage in the global north and the rise of alternative networks. Interactivity is also suffering as many users appear to be giving up on their replies or likes being noticed. The vast majority interact with these large institutional accounts as recipients of news feeds and not as members of a community. I would go so far as to suggest the very concept of the online community is vastly over stated.

Online community or targeted news feed?

So do your institutional social media accounts more closely resemble targeted news feeds than virtual communities? Just consider the difference between the old fashioned online forum (remember them?) where users regularly posted questions and were almost guaranteed a long thread of responses to how we interact with institutional social media accounts. 0.8% of IDS’ forty thousand Twitter followers engage with a tweet.

This is completely normal. Is a community where 99 out of 100 members just like to watch (if they are watching at all) really a community at all? I am not suggesting that engagement does not matter. Quite the opposite is true. The more engaging and inspiring our content the more awareness we can leverage with our social media channels. I am just warning against exaggerating the community characteristics of these channels. This matters when you start to see programmes designed around the assumption that social media will behave like a true online community. For example if we start using social media as a participatory research tool how inclusive will it really be?

Kiss goodbye to social media referrals to your corporate websites

If like IDS you are currently developing a new digital strategy, or you are about to do so, you might also want to consider whether referrals back to your own website from social media is the only show in town. There is no doubt that this indicator has been really useful in demonstrating that our social media strategies are working. It’s neat because it is easy to measure and we need nice straightforward metrics like this to demonstrate to funders, partners and staff that social media is worthwhile. However, there is also talk of the demise of the institutional website (although I think this gets exaggerated). The whole point of social media is that users are receiving a feed that interests them how they want it when they want it. An increasing proportion of interactions with our content are happening off site.

Our open access publications and data are accessed via repositories following promotion on Facebook or a Google search, videos are watched on YouTube and blogs by our experts are published on third party websites and discussed on Twitter. If increasing the accessibility and availability of knowledge with digital technology is what really matters to us (which it should) then we might have to come to terms with more and more traffic never reaching our websites. This creates a real monitoring headache but if we are going to embrace an open knowledge agenda which breaks down barriers to positive social and economic change then we better get used to it.

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