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Vol. LXV, No. 4
February 15, 2013
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Get Connected
STEP Forum Explores Making the Most of Social Media

Facebook. Twitter. Google+. YouTube. Yammer—the list goes on. Which social media tools are right for your institute and how do you measure their success?

The federal government is encouraging greater use of social media for professional networking. And NIH director Dr. Francis Collins is now tweeting and blogging regularly.

On Jan. 8, a Staff Training in Extramural Programs (STEP) forum titled “NIH and Social Media: You’ve Got Connections!” offered practical advice on developing and refining social media programs.

Such programs can make NIH research more accessible to its varied audiences and generate productive conversations. But they also take copious effort and staff resources, not to mention the challenge of regularly developing stimulating, timely content. This seminar emphasized looking beyond the numbers of followers and instead measuring effectiveness to get the most out of social media campaigns.

Scott Prince, chief of the Online Information Branch, OCPL, OD, says social media should be part of an overall communication plan. The STEP forum included (from l) GSA’s Justin Herman, Prince, Mac Cullen of Ogilvy Public Relations and Dr. Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research. Cullen argues that behavior change is a good measure of the effectiveness of a social media campaign.

Scott Prince, chief of the Online Information Branch, OCPL, OD, says social media should be part of an overall communication plan.

The STEP forum included (from l) GSA’s Justin Herman, Prince, Mac Cullen of Ogilvy Public Relations and Dr. Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research. Cullen argues that behavior change is a good measure of the effectiveness of a social media campaign.

NIH has more than 100 Facebook pages and Twitter handles and a host of YouTube channels, podcasts, blogs and more. Thinking of starting a new social media campaign or enhancing an existing one?

“When creating an internal social media policy, have a plan for your IC,” said Scott Prince, chief of the OD Office of Communications and Public Liaison’s Online Information Branch. He advises integrating that plan into an overall communications strategy that creates consistent messages and measurable goals.

After identifying which social media platforms fit with your institute’s mission, Prince counseled, confirm that the provider has a service agreement with HHS and the General Services Administration. Also check out NIH’s social media policy guidelines (see sidebar). And don’t forget to use the new NIH logo.

Another new resource is the NIH social media collaboration group shared among the ICs. Send information to the group and others will repost, widening your reach.

“The government is using social media to engage, share and listen,” said Justin Herman, new media manager at GSA in Washington. In January, GSA announced it adopted fed-friendly terms with Pinterest, an online pin board, yet another way for federal agencies to engage the public.

GSA’s Herman says, “The government is using social media to engage, share and listen.”

GSA’s Herman says, “The government is using social media to engage, share and listen.”

Photos: Ernie Branson

Herman emphasized collecting social data, which lets users track information, identify issues, make connections and integrate into larger programs.

“Social media should do two things with social data: cut costs and/or measurably improve citizen services,” Herman said. “Right now, with budget situations as they are, if you can’t justify your program’s doing that, perhaps it’s time to revisit your strategy.”

Many agencies are using performance metrics to understand the impact and numbers behind their social media strategy. Mac Cullen, a digital strategist with Ogilvy Public Relations in Washington, underscored going beyond the numbers and measuring effectiveness.

If someone asks how your social media plan is working, he said, “I don’t want you to answer, ‘Here’s how many re-tweets I’ve got’ or ‘Here’s how many likes or fans I’ve got.’ I want you to be able to say, ‘Here’s the behavior we’ve changed as a result of our social media programs.’”

Define program goals at the outset, Cullen said. Understand what you’re trying to achieve and listen to feedback to continually optimize your programs. That way, you can direct time and money toward what’s working.

“Set specific goals for each platform, every time,” Cullen said. Soft objectives—increasing awareness or starting a conversation—can be a good start, he said. But hard objectives that are measurable—increasing audience by 15 percent or driving 10,000 downloads of a fact sheet—get to the heart of whether your programs are influencing people’s behavior.

Polling also can be useful, Cullen said. Conducting pre- and post-surveys of the same group can measure desired action. Spot surveys on Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr can offer a snapshot of behavior.

Cullen recommends measuring each social media program against reach (how many see the content); sentiment (preference for the desired action, or attitudes toward the agency and/or health campaign) and action (whether the interaction drives the desired action).

Rockey said her Rock Talk blog offers an opportunity to share information with the research community.

Rockey said her Rock Talk blog offers an opportunity to share information with the research community.

One social media success story at NIH is the Rock Talk blog. Dr. Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research, runs the popular blog that averages 40,000 page views per month.

Rock Talk blogs about policy development, data on funding and awards, applicant guidance and other news of interest to the biomedical research community.

“You have to take the time and effort so it’s going to be meaningful to the community who you’re blogging to,” said Rockey. “If they lose interest in the blog, all this time and effort is lost.”

Rock Talk expands its reach through Twitter, the Extramural Nexus update and listservs. Rockey said her blog aims to increase transparency while helping OER to interact with the larger community on a more personal level.

“It’s a great opportunity to share information with and hear comments from the research community,” said Rockey, who typically posts to the blog weekly. A blog team moderates the comments and even negative ones are accepted.

The blog gets anywhere from 50 to more than 250 comments on its top posts, with discussions picked up by science blogs, the media and others.

Overall, Rockey has received positive feedback about blogging. “Everywhere we go we hear great things,” she said. “Individuals who talk to us say ‘We read Rock Talk; it’s really opened the doors to NIH and the understanding of NIH.’”

Rockey occasionally integrates the professional with the personal. An avid Bruce Springsteen fan, she recounted that she’d tweeted her sadness over the death of Springsteen’s saxophonist Clarence Clemons. In that tweet, she cleverly included a link to NINDS and the causes of stroke (which felled Clemons).

In discussing NIH’s social media future, Prince noted, “We’ve got a pretty large footprint here at NIH. We’re still trying to navigate the waters…It’s an ever-changing medium but I think we’re doing a great job to this point and we’re only going to continue to grow.”

Social Media Toolbox, Resources

Social media links at NIH:


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