Government agencies are perpetually trying to reach new audiences, especially in cost-effective ways. Social media provides one cost-effective outreach tool by offering agencies an easy and inexpensive communication channel to promote an agency’s focused efforts from ongoing awareness, such as an agency’s continuing conservation law effort, as well as special events, such as the Wear It, Boating Safety Week, or Operation Dry Water campaigns. However, as social media usage becomes commonplace, the need to measure effectiveness reigns.
Unfortunately, measuring effectiveness is like looking through a kaleidoscope.
Social media analytics provide metrics estimating how many viewers see information. Occasionally these data patterns indicate action, such as likes or favorites, but rarely can they accurately indicate action. For instance, the number of views of a Facebook post might reflect an increase in awareness; the number of clicks might reflect interest about a topic; similarly, companies might use the number of fans as a reflection of their interest in their products; and finally, online purchases capture the conversion of new customers. In public safety, mere awareness indicates success; causing behavior change is the goal, a total win.
The metrics are admittedly difficult to understand. It is easy to measure likes, shares, followers, favorites, or retweets. Unfortunately the terms are challenging to understand and each social media channel uses them in slightly different ways. Terms such as soft metrics (intangibles) and hard metrics (measurable outcomes) come to rise. Various analytical tools are available, including Facebook Insights and Twitter Analytics. Users may pay as much or as little as they want, receiving as complex or as simple analyses as they request.
The first step to measuring social media effectiveness would be to declare an objective (e.g., raising awareness, driving website traffic, or achieving statistical goals). The second step is to decide upon which social media would be used. A third would be to quantify what to measure.
Texas online outreach
Texas Game Wardens have been using social media since roughly the summer of 2013. The initial strategy has been to spread our message. This includes increasing general awareness of who game wardens are and what they do. We also promote specific campaigns, such as cadet recruiting, Operation Dry Water, Wear It, Boating Safety Week, and others. The group has specifically narrowed itself to Facebook and Twitter to focus its efforts, but it is continually monitoring other outlets for potential. The social media team is constantly involved in sharing, meeting, and learning from others. It also uses virtual ride-alongs (called Tweet-alongs) to increase traffic and awareness. The team partners with the agency website and other agency social media outlets (e.g., the Hunter Safety Education team) to cross-promote messages. It also participates in a Spanish-language Twitter feed.
But these are considered simple goals and measures. In sales, the measurable but complex goal is how many units are sold. In conservation enforcement, this is much more esoteric. The complex goal is measuring how many people take action (e.g., wear a life jacket). It is much more challenging to measure a campaign’s effectiveness in prompting followers to take action.
So when a social media professional comes forward and states you have some likes, some comments, some shares, some followers, and some favorites, that is ok. It could be considered reach. But the true goal is to determine whether your social media efforts are genuinely moving your organization closer to its goal. This is action – behavioral change, and it is difficult to achieve and to measure.
For Texas Game Wardens, a simple measure of effectiveness has been Twitter followers or Facebook likes. A slightly more advanced measure has been Twitter reach or Facebook engaged users. The ultimate measure has been receiving word that a Facebook story inspired a young person to become a game warden. Or that a tweet inspired a group of high school girls to consider this career field. Or that a relative of a drowning victim truly valued the game warden’s rescue attempts. Or that a lost person saw that her life would be saved as the game wardens finally located her, and discussed this on our Facebook on page.
So to view the kaleidoscope known as social media, the agency should consider declaring an objective, making a plan, measuring effectiveness, and monitoring it going forward. Then, like looking through the kaleidoscope, the loose objects seen may come together as a story.
What’s a Tweet-along?
To give the public a firsthand look at what happens on a typical patrol day, the Texas Game Wardens sometimes conduct virtual patrol ride-alongs via Twitter, called Tweet-alongs.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, the agency’s technology game warden and another commissioned officer join game wardens in Galveston County and continuously tweet what happens as wardens conduct boating safety checks and enforce fishing regulations among other duties.
“Our water safety enforcement role is crucial,” said Col. Craig Hunter, Texas Parks and Wildlife’s director of law enforcement. “Using this new social media technology allows us a way to show the public what our game wardens do.”