Return on Investment is a big big deal at the moment, not only in the private sector, where you'd expect it to be at the top of everyone's list, but also in the public sector, especially in the current climate. It is not enough, any more, to justify your existence in your job by saying you improve 'engagement' or your help citizens understand your services better, or that you make sure everyone has an equal opportunity of knowing an event is happening in their area which might be of personal or professional development for them. No. Money, revenue and profit are king.
Perhaps that's the way it always should have been. Perhaps not. A debate for someone else to hold, for I don't have the stomach for it today.
Instead I'd like to examine some difficult concepts. Ones which don't neatly fit a monetary model. Things which don't immediately achieve a quantifiable aim, despite the fact that they may do in the long run. Points I alluded to two paragraphs above.
Social networking allows you to do something no other current form of communication allows you to do. Speak with one voice or many voices, to many people. It grates to refer to audiences, but I am going to, for the moment. Because until you engage with a group of people, they are merely that. An audience sitting and waiting for someone to come to them and talk to them. Our residents, across large parts of the United Kingdom are simply that. They are on Facebook, less on Twitter, more on YouTube and on Flickr. They are communicating with each other using those channels. But we are not communicating with them.
Broadcast, by definition, means a one way push of information, outwards. But if there is no broadcast, then there will never be engagement, because there is nothing to respond to. A void. Not venturing into the social networking space means an assumption will be made, increasingly, that you do not think it is worth talking to people where they are already holding the conversations. So to broadcast is to open up a channel of communication, to step tentatively into the space, to say 'we are here, we are aware you are there, and we are testing the waters a little to see what you do'.
The next step from that is usually in the form of comments based on the broadcast. A tentative response back, to find out how you will respond to questions and queries, to find out if the response time will be something useful, to find out if the people monitoring the communication channel are actually monitoring it properly and going to be of some use. At this point, the line wavers - a response will turn this social networking venture into an engagement - ignoring it into broadcast.
That moment is pivotal. It's the point where an audience turns into a community, a broadcast into a conversation. It is the point where an organisations reputation can almost live or die - on one response. Because the response is not just seen by the one requesting it - it is seen by the many who received the original broadcast.
What is there to be gained from turning a broadcast into a conversation?
- Reputation increase - you are responding in public & demonstrating your customer service in public
- This should have a knock on effect onto any customer satisfaction surveys you run online
- Getting straight to an issue before it becomes escalated
- Putting a public face on a Council often takes the heat out of peoples attacks born of frustration - it is harder to attack a person than it is a faceless entity
- Access to easy to reach opinions for your Citizens Panels from already demonstrably engaged citizens
- Ability to connect with the 'harder to reach' sectors of society
- Ready made pool of people who can potentially be turned into advocates and champions in their community for areas such as digital skills/community clean ups or looking after neighbours during adverse weather
- A way of seeing who is viewing information on an event and who is signing up
- Targeted information to the people you're talking to about events etc - because you can ask them what they're interested in and then make sure they're told about the relevant information
- News from on the ground in real time about problems but also successes in the community
- News from on the ground about environmental issues which you will no longer have the staff to send out to check for
- News on the ground about missing or damaged assets which you will no longer have the staff to send out to survey
None of those things are quantifiable. None of those things are measurable. You will be able to see how many people are reading your words. But you wont be able to measure the time and money saved on surveying assets for issues, for example. You wont be able to actually see a monetary return in your satisfaction scores going up - only that they're going up. You wont know immediately that people feel more comfortable talking to you this way in what feels a more unofficial and therefore less intimidating capacity for a while. You might never know unless you ask. You wont perhaps notice the increased attendance at events as you start to get the message out in the right places and at the right times for people to pay attention.
Numbers are measurable. Increases in attitude, satisfaction and attendance are measurable. But how does that link to monetary ROI? It doesn't. These are not savings, these are not investments, these people don't affect funding or even National Indicators any more.
Yet using social networking improves the perception of the Council, the connected nature of a community, allows conversations to happen which never would have before, breeds community spirit, a sense of belonging and empowerment and citizenship and best of all, makes running events as a Council more efficient as more people turn up.
There's no monetary value in it, but does that mean there is no value in it? How are we now measuring ourselves as Councils in this current climate, and is there room for engagement?