The most valuable thing about last week’s event was a rare moment to look beyond the end of your Ipad and ask what the relentless march of digital means for think tanks. It’s only by doing that we can move from tweaking the edges of our communications to radically re-thinking them – or as my colleague Nick Scott puts it ‘move from digital by design to digital by default’.
It usually only takes a few minutes listening to another think tank talk about their work before you are reminding yourself that although there are hundreds of organisations the world over that claim the think tank title, you’re highly unlikely to find two that are the same. We may have plenty in common but we are all trying to reach different people, in different circumstances, for different reasons.
One of the more unusual aspects of last week was that there wasn’t much discussion of the much fabled ‘policymakers’ that tend to dominate wonky get-togethers. Before we get accused of wondering off into digital dreamland I would like to strike a note of caution to remind us that a) a lot of senior civil servants probably still get their emails printed off for them and b) actual physical interaction with politicians remains the most proven way of changing their minds. I think too that we should be careful bandying about shrinking newspaper circulations as evidence of a decline in the importance of media. My friend Jim Rosenberg at the World Bank noted in an interview a few weeks back that newspaper coverage is still the best way to secure a great day on social media.
With those caveats out of the way allow me to share my (at this stage still quite embryonic) thinking:
John Prideaux of The Economist mentioned that audio output is increasingly valuable to The Economist’s audience and also showed how versatile and user friendly data could have unexpected but valuable consequences. This is something we have found at ODI over the last twelve months. We’ve interviewed wonk-household names such as Stiglitz and Sachs and our most digitally successful content of the last year was an infographic created from a major database of climate money.
But what might it mean for future communications?
As Richard Darlington made clear there has been a clear shift in what constitutes effective communications for a think tank. It’s not enough anymore to be able to publish papers and get them in the newspapers. Thanks to social media there is now a much larger audience which is plugged straight into the organisation without mediation. For the ODI this audience probably totals around 50,000 people across all of our communications channels. It is because of this that we now need to think about how to maintain a relationship with a growing captive audience as well as constantly reaching out to a broader one.
The challenge for think tank communicators then becomes as much about clever content creation as it is broader dissemination.
Some proper social media guidelines are vital to doing this effectively. I’ve written on think tanks and social media before so I won’t go over old ground but suffice to say that a think tank with a strong digital personality is unlikely to rely on its communications team alone to shoulder the burden.
The way that users of digital channels choose to consume information is changing. There will always be a place for the long report (even if that place is a Kindle) but as we increasingly demand more and more information in exchange for less and less of our time the rise of alternative forms of digital communication will be hard to stem. This includes videos, cartoon animations, infographics, data tools and even good old audio – all of which are likely to be accessed through our own Twitter, Facebook and You Tube channels.
The idea that content requires repackaging to engage different audiences is nothing new but the range of options available at comparatively low cost is greater than ever before. In shorter supply are people with the ability to grapple with the intellectual output of think tank reports and turn them into effective graphics or audio quickly and on a budget. In house production skills will be worth their weight in gold by 2015.
Who knows we might even find ourselves regularly pitching audio and video produced in-house to established media houses – it’s only a small step away from the sort of work done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation with The Guardian or the many development organisations who provide photos for major news sites like the BBC.
But how much of this sort of change is the responsibility of the researcher and how much is communications? We shouldn’t go in for them vs us discussions but we still do and we tend to do it for a reason. Researchers and communicators are different types of people with different types of brain they have different emotional incentives for doing what they do.
Could we see a future think tank in which the core research outputs are digital? Where the research process has been designed from day one to produce digital content? Proper collaboration between research and communications staff from day one? A world where a finished project is not just a pdf but tailor-made data tools or video content? I hope so but it won’t happen overnight.
One way to speed things up is to make sure your monitoring is fit for purpose. You can find a great guide to what to monitor and how by taking a look at Nick’s previous blogs. As he put it last week ‘monitoring helped us to make the case for what we already knew, and it also helped me increase me budget’. I’m sure all of us at Wonkcomms can say a hearty ‘Amen’ to that.