Conversions and conversations: the goals of think tank social media

Think tanks are getting better at social media. Analytics now lie at the heart of the way we do things. Most of you will be preparing summaries of statistics, from impressions to engagements, to share with people across your organisation.

But we are now moving to the next part of the conversation. Think tankers are asking, quite rightly, what the value of racking up large numbers really are. A furious argument about Brexit in the comments section can make the engagement numbers rise, but they don’t help achieve a more informed debate for anybody.

Taking a leaf out of commerce’s book, the definition of success is moving from metrics to conversions. You’ll be familiar with conversion if you’ve ever had a product follow you around online. You look at say, a bag, and then it pops up across every site you are on for a week. Conversion is all about what is going to make you get that bag into your cart and finish the sale. That’s what defines success for businesses when they write social media posts.

The ‘conversion funnel’ is central to this way of thinking. Applied to think tanks, it’s bought a new focus on driving towards wider business and strategic goals. I think it’s great that we are going deeper into the numbers. And not just because I like making graphs, but because impact is the right conversation for us to be having. But I would also argue that we must be careful while doing this because ultimately, our goals are not as much commercial as they are communicative.

The Conversation Test

The obvious parallel for think tanks to business is to think of the report, publication, or event as our ‘product’, and judge our social media on how well it ‘sells’ a download or ticket registration. However, the role of think tanks in society is to inform, not increase pdf downloads. Our aim is to come up with new ideas or insights and make them part of the public debate, not sell event tickets. Let’s not confuse the how and the why. Is clicking the link the only definition of success?

I’d propose that alongside traditional conversions, we keep a second goal in mind that reflects the wider purpose and role of think tanks. I call it the conversation test. When somebody reads your post on social media, or your e-mail newsletter or blog, will they have enough information to go away and have a conversation about it? Could they meet a friend and say, “I saw this really interesting post today” and then answer the question “what did it say?” so that their friend understands your idea.

Or to put it another way, have we successfully told our story?

Think Tank Storytelling

There have been several brilliant articles recently on the importance of think tanks telling stories. Thinking about the conversation test fits into this growing movement.

Soapbox’s Joe Miller draws a fantastic analogy with superhero movies. His article ‘WonkComms and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’ not only combines two of my interests, it makes the vital point that our social media posts aren’t just ‘trailers’ for the ‘movie’ of a report or event – they are part of the narrative.

This is made clear by the 21stCentury policy communications model by We Are Flint. This model is about not seeing social media and newsletter as simply supporting reports, but instead seeing social media as one part of the way in which we tell the story of our research.

I am particularly excited by the potential of digital reports and long-form articles online to help tell our stories. Helen Dempster makes the point that “long-forms are not designed to purely drive traffic to the report – they represent a way in which we are trying to pull out the story behind the work and turn this into a different product.”

A variety of outputs designed for direct consumption, rather than just pointing to a website helps think tanks avoid the ‘submarine strategy’ outlined by Richard Darlington. Overall, it is about providing our readers and followers with a direct experience. The Wellcome Collection’s Jennifer Staves put it well in her article, explaining that Wellcome’s digital strategy:

“recognised that our website and social channels  were Wellcome Collection rather than promoted Wellcome Collection.

That means the editorial content we produce should deliver a Wellcome Collection experience — one of being challenged to think and feel differently about health by considering its social and cultural contexts. We want to reach out to people, whether they are able to visit our physical space or not, and tell stories that speak to this strategy.”

Whether or not our audience are able to visit our website space, we can still tell them stories.

Getting content out of the link and into the post

A social media post from a think tank may link to a blog, report, or event. But I’m arguing that we shouldn’t just be focused on pushing the link but also on communicating the idea directly. That makes the focus less on action words – read, click, register, download – and more on getting as much of the content out of the link and into the post.

An example I love is the Centre for London’s ‘The London Intelligence’ newsletter. This quarterly update provides key data points about how the city is faring, for example international visitor numbers & NHS performance. The full reports are full of interesting detail. But the e-mail acts as mini-dashboard. Scanning it alone gives you a regular understanding of some key metrics.

Graphics and charts are another way to bring your content directly onto social media. The Institute for Government’s ‘trackers’ of cabinet positions, Brexit legislation, and trends in the civil service – all in the familiar IfG brand colours – are among my favourite for sparking great conversations.

In the RSA digital team, we’ve had a great response to using Twitter threads as a great way to get the actual content straight onto social media platforms, alongside using lists in a similar way for individual posts about blogs.

This challenge has become more pressing with the continued rise of Instagram – a linkless platform. Your options are the ‘link in bio’ approach or get to over 10,000 followers and gain the ability to put links into your stories. Your challenge is to use the opportunity to really say something directly to people there.

The goals of think tank social media

Obviously, this approach isn’t going to be practical a lot of the time. I’m not arguing clicks don’t matter. They do. But as think tanks start to spend more time analysing data, part of the communications team’s role is to stand up for storytelling, make the argument for our wider purpose of educating and informing, and keep looking for new innovations in how social media can do that.

As Anne-Marie Slaughter and Ben Scott put it in their piece Rethinking the think tankit’s about:

“dedication to broad public debate and education…the point is to expand beyond the language of politics and policy—the language that intimidates, bores, and thus excludes the majority of citizens. Good content should be published in whatever form is most likely to spark debate and encourage readers to keep reading or clicking — and, ultimately, to start responding.”

What better way can we ask for people to respond then starting a conversation?

Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Joseph Barnsley is Digital Communications Officer at the RSA. He tweets @joe_barnsley

Posted in Opinion, social media

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