Five Things We Learned About Being a Digital Think Tank

Like pretty much everyone else who deals with words and ideas for a living, think tankers have spent the last few years grappling with what it means to move to digital. It’s meant different things to different organizations—some have focused on their web presence, others on building social media engagement, and still others on experimenting with new media like podcasts and video.

At the first DC Breakfast Club, we took a look at how to be a digital think tank. Our speakers were Ashley Wood-Schelling, Director of Digital Engagement at the Brookings Institution and Mike Connery, Senior Vice President for Digital Communications at Powell Tate and the author of “The Digital Think Tank”.

Our discussion was held under the Chatham House rule, so we won’t tell you who said what. But we can highlight some of the big takeaways.

1. Getting institutional buy-in for digital is key to success.

One common theme among participants: Researchers and scholars start out relatively skeptical about the whole digital thing. The shorter formats often favored by digital platforms—tweets, infographics, videos, blog posts—lack the nuance (and the hedging) of long, footnoted documents.

Metrics are useful in combatting this aversion. (Everyone likes to hear that several thousand people read your blog post!) But a bigger key is ensuring that researchers own the content. Comms teams can help researchers come up with ideas for digital content and help with logistics, but researchers should be responsible for the content. Then be sure to follow up with metrics to let the research team know what’s working—and be honest with them about what didn’t.

2. Think tanks should play to their strengths.

In your rush to embrace digital, don’t forget about the real strengths of research organizations. We’re very good at producing longform content. And longform writing is really great all on its own! Plus, longform content pretty much by definition has lots of meaty bits that can be pulled out into smaller components, all of which can be pulled apart and packaged into collateral material that helps support and reinforce messages.

Of course, longform works only if it’s presented in the right way. And that means modularizing some of the components that go into the longer piece, then providing that content through a pleasant and appropriate front-end experience (aka, not solely in PDFs), and making that entire process easy to repeat.

3. Almost everyone is still struggling with workflows.

Modularizing content and presenting it in better ways online is easier said than done—especially when the text of the report is still getting edited the night before its scheduled release. Getting beyond the PDF requires a whole new workflow, and a lot of teams are still trying to figure that out.

The main thing we learned on this point: a Breakfast Club on digital workflows would have a pretty big audience.

4. It’s time to think beyond the open web.

Research organizations are accustomed to thinking of reports as final products—as artifacts that go up on the web for people to find. But technology is quickly moving away from the open web. Nowhere is that more in evidence than in the proliferation of voice-enabled devices. Where journalism goes, think tanks often follow, so if “the future of news is humans talking to machines,” then WonkComms needs to start preparing its content for other platforms.

The decline of the open web also means that think tanks will need to be more proactive in reaching out to users, whether that’s through email, newsletters, or social media. Ad targeting tools on Facebook can provide tremendous insights about your own audience—insights that you can use to target new people for your mailing lists. For (relatively) little money, you can use your social platforms to bring new users into channels that you own.

Privacy restrictions make that kind of targeting difficult to do in the EU. The US is likely headed in that same direction, so grow your lists while you can!

5. Digital products work best when they’re solving real problems.

The American political landscape in 2017 has been a mess of recurring themes—the President threatens to nuke a country, the Congress tries to repeal Obamacare, the President says something racist on Twitter. Lather, rinse, repeat. Reporters write the same stories over and over. And those stories need comments from think tankers. Your researchers could keep having the same conversations over and over.

Or you could record a five-minute podcast in which your researcher lays out the basics on a recurring topic. Then you could point reporters to that podcast. The reporter gets a quote. The researcher gets to reclaim some time. Everybody wins!

The point? “You should do a podcast because podcasts are really hip right now” is a tough sell. “You should do a podcast so you don’t have to keep answering the same questions over and over” is an easy sell.


Joe Miller is the Director of the DC studio of Soapbox, a design and digital agency that focuses on creative communications for ideas that matter. He has led digital strategy projects at Eastern Research Group, The Century Foundation, and the Congressional Budget Office. Prior to his shift to content strategy, we was a senior staff writer at, a copywriter with the Mack/Crounse Group and an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina—Pembroke and the United States Military Academy. He received his PhD in political philosophy from the University of Virginia, his MA in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and his BA in philosophy from Hampden-Sydney College.

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