Social Media: A Way of Thinking

[Note: I sort of goofed in how I mentioned this blog post on Twitter;  this isn’t about the subject of whether it’s okay to plug your own blog more than once, but now that I think about it, I’ll write about that soon. Meanwhile, enjoy this one!]

Over the past few months, I’ve been briefing managers at EPA and other agencies about social media. During that time, it’s occurred to me that there’s a “social media” way of thinking. Maybe it’s a Web 2.0 way of thinking, or a New Media way of thinking, but however you define it, it’s very different from the standard project management approach.

Please share your own thoughts below my list. Oh, and at the bottom, I embedded the presentation I’ve been giving to managers, which incorporates the contents of this list.

BTW, none of this is original to me (which, I suppose, could be culture point 0: use and share ideas that work, even if you didn’t think them up).

1) Using social media well is a culture change. It’s not a technology challenge. Yes, tech issues must be solved. But you’ll never succeed if you start with tech.

2) Develop some strategy, but don’t wait for the perfect 400-page, $200,000 project plan. Come up with a few bullets and get going.

3) Experiment. You’ll never know every possible outcome in advance. That’s why you try things.

4) Define measures of success that are specific to that tool. Don’t just focus on financial return on investment.  “Return on engagement” is usually better for social media projects.  For example, our goals for EPA’s blog Greenversations included things like putting a human face on our agency and sharing personal stories connecting employees’ work and regular lives. Our goals for a regulatory blog, a scientific wiki, etc. will be very different.

5) Be ready to fail (fast, small). You will, someday. Guaranteed. But fail well: learn, regroup, revise, try again. And by following #2, you won’t lose that much if you do fail.  In fact, depending on what you learn, it might even be a net gain. More on this from William Eggers and Shalabh Singh.

6) Be ready to succeed. When it goes well, write down why. And tell others. Here, on GovLoop, Twitter, etc. Esp. if you’re in gov’t, sharing means that the taxpayer pays for that knowledge fewer times.  Ask yourself “what’s next” even as a project is winding down and plug that knowledge into the next one.

7) Embrace criticism (blog comments, anyone?). Rarely will complaints be utterly without value. “Your writing sucks” is useful. “Your agency has abandoned your mission” is, too. You’re not obligated to change everything because of every comment. But you may just discover some nuggets if you can get past any nasty language.

8) Accept that people will come up with ways to use your social media projects in ways you never expected. There are 6 billion people out there, which is a much larger crowd than your agency.

9) Know the policy framework. Not doing so risks running into brick walls at high speed. And when you do that, you often bounce backward. Whereas if you know the policies, you know which walls are brick, which are sponge, which are 3 feet high by 3 feet wide and which are 30 feet high and 2 miles long. Bonus: knowing the walls tells you where to push for change. And knowing the “why” behind the policies often leads to finding good solutions within them.  A great way to learn this information is to go to lunch with your IT folks and your attorneys.  That informal relationship will also help you when things aren’t going well.

I’ll stop there in the hope that the tendency to do top 10 lists will get you to suggest what #10 should be.

Oh, and here’s my presentation titled “Social Media And The Gov’t: A Brief Introduction for Managers”).


9 Responses to “Social Media: A Way of Thinking”

  1. 1 Ari Herzog April 13, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    On your fourth bullet, ROI is a 1920s term coined by Alfred Sloan for General Motors. Its history has no bearing on digital initiatives, which is why so many people question how it can apply and bicker over its case study successes.

    If nothing else, keep the RO and replace the I of Investment with Implementation, Insight, Influence, or some other word.

    • 2 Jeffrey April 13, 2009 at 5:39 pm

      Ari, there are rare cases where investment is the proper word. For example, when one part of EPA got a top-quality video about testing your home for radon by paying a $2500 prize in a video contest, you can actually see money saved vs. producing it ourselves.

      But as I said, that’s rare, and engagement is a much more apt concept.

    • 3 Neil Bonner April 14, 2009 at 2:33 pm


      Just because it’s a 1920’s concept does not mean it is not applicable in the social media space. I submit that measuring the “Return” on social media investments are, to put it mildly, difficult.

      Some folks have attempted to measure social media ROI (see:

      Senior government officials have a right to ask/wonder whether or not their investments in social media staffing offer a real benefit to the agency and what that benefit may be. This *may* become a moot point in the future, as SM may become part of the infrastructure or fabric of the way we do business. I.e., we no longer ask what is the ROI on assigning email accounts to everyone (although I do remember a time when Exec’s were asking me that question)!


  2. 4 paige April 13, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Jeff, great post! You are absolutely correct. The social web requires a new way of thinking about the world around us. Whether you’re a company, an individual, an NGO or a government agency you need to adopt and support a new culture and a new way of thinking. Personally, my fundamental values and way of doing things have changed as I’ve seen the power of “Web 2.0”. Most important is the concept of sharing – the fundamental belief that we gain more by releasing our data, ideas and even services to the world around us. Maggie Fox (@maggiefox) had a great example at web2.0 expo a couple weeks ago on Ford and how she helped them to expose their data and content to the world. Sure, there are risks to sharing and you may give up some of your “old school” power derived from owning the data, content and services, but I believe businesses and organizations gain much more when communities form around them. These communities can take your information and provide you value and insights you never thought possible. So, my personal #10 – “Sharing”

  3. 5 cdorobek April 14, 2009 at 9:53 am

    How wonderful this is — you’ve captured the mind-set so wonderfully.

    Re: ROI… OK, I understand the ROI debate. The simple question I’d just ask up front is, ‘Why are we doing this?’ The traditional mantra – ‘we don’t just use technology for technology’s sake’ – actually don’t work that well in Web 2.0. I think that truism grew out of the fact that technology was expensive. These tools, by and large, aren’t expensive. And, in most cases, we simply don’t know the results that grow from them… they provide benefits above and beyond what we predict. (I’d point people to the still wonderful Virtual Alabama developed by the Alabama Department of Homeland Security:

    In then end, start out with some idea — something that you’d like to do better – or faster – or for less money — and then Just Do It! Not everything is going to work – but some will work better then you imagined. Have a plan and then be agile.

    Great work Jeffrey!

  4. 6 Kevin Redican June 26, 2009 at 1:01 am

    Excellent idea…get them started and soon they will get the hang of it all. Today Micheal Jackson died and I watched the news media falling all over themselves trying to play catch-up to Twitter. Of course, they have been getting a lot of practice of late trying to keep up with event in Iran. Twitter and the like, the “Social Media”, are the new mainstream and that’s just the way it is. Deal with it as best you can.

  1. 1 FutureGov » Useful links » links for 2009-04-14 Trackback on April 14, 2009 at 9:00 am
  2. 2 Re-examining a truism — technology for technology’s sake « Trackback on April 14, 2009 at 10:20 am
  3. 3 IT forum, nontraditional agendas, and the power of emotion « Government 2.0 Beta Trackback on August 16, 2009 at 6:54 pm

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