Thursday, November 29, 2012

Social media - It's time to pay attention and yes, learn one more new thing

Social media may be the place where Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga dominate by sharing their thoughts with their teenage fans and a singer named PSY can get 848 million views (and counting) of a viral music video, but don't be fooled into thinking it's just for entertainment. During the last Presidential campaign, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had tens of millions of followers and exponentially many more social media interactions.  Just one of the posts by Gov. Romney referenced at the link above had 140,226 likes, 6,773 shares and 16,787 comments on Facebook. To paraphrase the Late Sen. Everett Dirksen, "a billlion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we're talking real (numbers)."

There are only so many pop stars and presidential candidates, but Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have grown to over one billion users. The professional networking site LinkedIn claims over 161 million  users.  While the individual web sites may come and go, the growth of social mediashows no sign of stopping.  So why discuss this on a policy blog?  The answer is simple. One year ago, I began DrUrbanPolicy and the associated social media as an experiment - I wanted to see if I could use social media to get my research and policy analysis out to more people and it's time to talk about my experience so far.


I write this post specifically for the colleagues from a range of organizations who have asked me about the usefulness of social media for policy audiences. While my personal strategy is evolving, social media has grown to be an indispensable part of my communications and networking, so I’ll briefly share what I am able to get out of it.


First, many of my colleagues need to rethink social media. It's not a simple marketing device or a fad focused on any one website.  It is probably best understood as a new communications device for all, so it makes sense for all of us to use it effectively.  I like to compare social media to the telephone. When first offered to the public, few had telephones and they were seen as novelties.  Then they grew in popularity and became essential ways to communicate with the world - if you don't have a telephone, people can still communicate with you, but your ability to interact in the modern world is limited.  Despite the fact that the heaviest users may be teenagers with little to talk about, telephones are essential for business and professional communication.  To me, social media is the telephone of the 21st century.  


I love the outlet that social media provides - I can create 140 character "tweets" on Twitter, longer posts on Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites, and even longer blog posts on DrUrbanPolicy.com (which began as a blog on Blogspot.com.) I now have an outlet for questions that went unanswered at a forum or for my reaction to a news item - I can share my thoughts and reactions and anyone else who is interested can find them.  I also often have the opportunity to make an existing report or paper relevant to a new conversation.  One of my early blog posts was a critique of a newspaper article that covered a topic that was related to my PhD dissertation from years earlier, and I used the blog to share my critique based on my experience.  While the first few months were experiments about what worked and didn't work, social media allows me to quickly respond to news of the day.  I use it to share news, react to world events, and to promote my own research, events and official content from affiliated organizations.

As a policy professional, there is equal (if not greater) benefit from the social side of social media - this may be the single greatest boon to networking since the invention of the business card. I currently follow a few hundred people from the @DrUrbanPolicy account on Twitter.  This includes coworkers, other colleagues, organizations, experts on issues of interest, news media, federal agencies, public officials, and others.  I can see their perspectives, opinions and analysis online and that allows me to find out about news, events, reports or other items of interest faster than by email, word of mouth or even telephone.  If I can't attend an event, following the "live-tweets" from those in the venue is the next best thing to being there myself.

I used to consider the LinkedIn site as a place to post my online resume and view resumes of others, and thought of Facebook as a place where friends and acquaintances shared thoughts that came to mind, (regardless of how interesting they it may be.) While they are still places for those things, they have an important value as well - networking groups on both sites (especially LinkedIn) allow me to speak directly with members of organizations that I lead or am a part of. Alumni groups, affordable housing discussion groups, even groups for PhDs who have jobs outside of academia are online, and these and many others offer great usefulness.  When I post an article, paper or blog post to one of these groups, I am typically hitting my target audience directly, and I then have the opportunity to see and respond to the reactions of people in those groups, both when they agree and when they don't.

Social media has a key difference from other media - there is a mutually beneficial quality to everything that is a part of it. If you write an interesting piece and I share it with my audience, we both win - more people are now familiar with both of us.  This is a welcome respite from the competitive nature of some other forms of media and communications where the fight is to cover something first or in the splashiest way possible. Online, you build a reputation and are free to openly appreciate your colleagues' work and share it when it's good or interesting.  You become part of a conversation on an issue. This is why I encourage all of you to grow your presence - it's time to join the conversation as a listener, contributor or sharer (or all of the above).

I typically publish a few fact sheets, papers or reports each year.  Most of those take months to go from idea to completion, but they reach a fair number of people. In recent years, I have given a few dozen speeches, presentations and talks each year.  These are always to a targeted audience, and usually take an hour or less to deliver, but planning, logistics and travel take months and a great deal of effort.  I'm not as consistent as I would like, but since I began one year ago, I have shared 902 tweets on @DrUrbanPolicy and this is the 27th post on DrUrbanPolicy.com. Those twitter posts average a few minutes to consider and a few seconds to type, and the blog posts take a couple of hours once I have an idea. Using web analytics, I know that my more popular tweets can reach upwards of 50,000 computer screens (how many people actually read them is another question.)  More importantly, I have heard directly from many of the advocates that I have influenced and the researchers and policy implementers who are my target audiences, and received useful and interesting feedback.  No, Beiber and Gaga aren't exactly looking over their shoulder, but that doesn't matter - I want to reach people that care about improving communities, and I am finding more of them each day. For those who understand things in finance terms, the ROI (return on investment) is incredible - there is very little cost for an individual and a relatively small amount of time is needed on an ongoing basis.  Social media doesn't eliminate or replace anything that I do, but it complements much of what I do, and makes it much easier to stay up to speed with the information that's out there.

I hope to grow DrUrbanPolicy in the future, but even if my audience doesn't grow quickly, social media is now firmly placed next to publications, speeches, and website content as another  important way to communicate my messages to the world.  It is also placed alongside the telephone, email and in-person visits as indispensable ways to converse with colleagues and others.  For those of you who are on the fence about social media, particularly Twitter, let me say this: there is a steep learning curve at first - you must learn a new writing style for a new medium.  That takes time and practice.  Over time, things get much easier - there is a point when this simply becomes a part of your regular activities and makes you more productive. Better technology and new devices have made staying active much easier than when I began this effort (more on that in a future post.) 


Do you find social media useful in your work?  Like DrUrbanPolicy on Facebook and Follow on Twitter, and share your thoughts on those sites or below. Look for occasional posts on getting the most out of  social media in the future.

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