Think tanks are neglecting cheap and easy social media

Social media is disrupting traditional media and conventional approaches to public communication. Platforms such as Twitter offer a timely and low-cost way for think tanks to disseminate and discuss their ideas and findings, and potentially to broaden their audiences. Are they seizing the opportunities offered by social media?

A few weeks ago we did a quick bit of research on which UK think tanks had the most Twitter followers (this was for the main corporate Twitter feed). The ‘winners’ were Chatham House (19,320 followers), The RSA (18,597) and the new economics foundation (18,214). There were also some well-known think tanks with surprisingly small Twitter presences, such as Reform (2,357), The Centre for Social Justice (1,881) and The Institute of Economic Affairs (1,383). The full list of 35 think tanks can be found in an earlier post here.

Since then, we’ve also looked at individual think tank staff, fellows and associates for nearly 50 think tanks (comprising 1,385 people in total). We included fellows and associates because there is no consistent definition of think tank people and some think tanks effectively use this as an alternative staffing model. We didn’t include advisory boards or trustees. The full list has been posted in instalments on this blog, with the top 50 here. The methodology was pretty rough and ready: we just checked whether the individuals had a Twitter account that they use as part of their think tank work (inevitably this means that we’ll have overlooked a few people who don’t identify any organisation in their Twitter bio or use the platform frequently, but then again this also means that they are unlikely to be prominent or regular tweeters).

The top 10 is perhaps unsurprising; these are well-known people after all, and many of them also inhabit other spheres (as journalists, commentators, bloggers etc), which broadens their appeal. What is more surprising is the extent to which they are outliers. The majority of think tankers make relatively limited use of Twitter, suggesting that think tanks are neglecting a cheap and easy way to communicate.

Only 38% of people had a Twitter account that we could link to their think tank work. Of these, 71% had less than 500 followers, while 42% had less than 100 followers. No women appear in the top 10 and only seven appear in the top 50, which may also say something about a glass ceiling in think tanks. As might be expected, there’s also a generational dimension, with an emerging group of more junior think tankers who are making a name for themselves using social media. This includes James Grant (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1,448 followers), Tim Hughes and Edward Andersson (Involve, 798 and 770 followers respectively), Will Tanner (Reform, 760 followers), and Rory Geoghegan (Policy Exchange, 611 followers).

More generally however, the total Twitter community around think tanks is quite small. Only nine organisations have more than 10,000 followers in total for their staff, associates and fellows, with the top five comprising Demos (50,725), IPPR (41,280), ResPublica (21,884), Chatham House (21,701) and the new economics foundation (12,257). (In the case of Demos in particular, there are quite a large number of people who are listed as staff or associates who may not be current or active representatives of the organisation, nevertheless we have included them in these numbers since we wanted to avoid making judgement on think tanks’ behalf if these individuals continue to appear on their websites). Some high-profile think tanks have very small individual-based followings, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (137 followers) and Civitas (339 followers), and this echoes their relatively small organisational social media profile (5,615 followers in the case of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and 657 for Civitas). In contrast, in lieu of resources and established media profile, a group of newer think tanks are exploiting social media more effectively – for example the Sports Think Tank (2,412 followers with three staff) and British Future (8,583 followers with three staff). Involve also appears to place an emphasis on individuals using social media, with a total of 3,294 followers across its staff.

It also appears that most think tanks primarily use Twitter as they would traditional media (typically, publicising reports and events), rather than as a way to exchange ideas and provoke discussion. As a result, think tanks may be failing to reach out to broader audiences, particularly to engage the wider public in topical debates as a means of promoting their ideas and arguments – a missed opportunity for organisations most of which operate on a rather hand-to-mouth basis in terms of finances and which seek to influence public opinion as well as government policy.

13 Comments on “Think tanks are neglecting cheap and easy social media”

  1. The twitter postings have made me think about the pros and cons of posting about think tank twitter accounts / followers and also the use of twitter itself.

    I think that covering the twitter issue can be useful for fuelling discussion about whether twitter use is cost effective and reaches audiences etc. There are good points above regarding the lack of think tanks using twitter as a means to discuss ideas or provoke discussion but I also want to play devil’s advocate and raise the fact that twitter might not be the best or most cost effective way to do this…after all it can be difficult (on twitter) to get views across to the wider world beyond those on twitter/in the know about who to follow for what etc…also, using twitter can be very time consuming and it’s difficult to follow coherent conversations on it or themes and topics etc.

    If twitter was slightly different though…if it allowed grouping more by topics, easier following of discussions..with sub sections for themes / topics / interests it would be more useful…maybe something for the new think that’s web offer to address…

    It would be good if this ‘campaign’ raised more discussion about the usefulness or otherwise of twitter as a method and more importantly about the lack of female, BME etc representation…

    Just a few very quick thoughts here but would be great to discuss more!

    • Thanks Miia, I completely agree. There are two main points here: think tanks’ use of social media such as Twitter; and how representative and useful social media is generally in reaching out to different audiences. Quite a few people (via Twitter!) have pointed out the lack of women and ethnic minorities on the list, which I do feel reflects think tanks generally in terms of how representative they are, but may also say something about Twitter itself (I’d be interested in any research on the latter points). On your other point, certainly something we will be looking at for our website platform is how to organise discussions and projects more than is possible using Twitter, but to keep it easy and accessible (which Twitter is, pretty much).

      • Miia is right in that different online tools are useful for different things. Twitter is much better to letting people know that something is going on. Blogs are better to present arguments. a website may work best as a repository of knowledge. Social bookmarking sites can help, too, etc.

        I would argue that twitter use is a good proxy of an organisation’s involvement in social media. This is interesting.

        But more interesting is whether the organisation has an online strategy or if is just tweeting, blogging, etc. Disconnected social media use is the real lost opportunity. When organisations do this they are missing out of the possibilities of the web.

        I recommend a series of articles written by ODI’s online communications manager, Nick Scott, for on Digital Disruption. It outlines his strategy:

  2. mistergough says:

    The difference between numbers of followers and actual levels of engagement is an interesting one. I took the top three accounts you mentioned in terms of followers and put them through Klout for a quick analysis of their engagement levels (over the past 90 days). The results are interesting.

    Firstly Chatham House provided the following figures:

    Retweets 624
    Mentions 623
    Followers 20,000+
    Following 131

    True Reach of 2,000

    RSA provided the following:

    Retweets 942
    Mentions 1,100+
    Followers 19,000+
    Following 8,200+

    True Reach of 3,000

    and nef’s figures were:

    Retweets 2,900+
    Mentions 1,100+
    Followers 19,000+
    Following 484

    True Reach of 5,000

    Taking Retweets and Mentions as a good measure of how engaged these Twitter accounts are with the community it’s pretty clear that, although second and third on the list, RSA and nef are actually much more engaged than Chatham House.

    It’s also possible to draw some other conclusions. nef’s Retweet count is much greater than the other two accounts. This suggests that nef is putting out more shareable content. But let’s get down to your point about think tanks using Twitter like traditional media. One of the ways to see whether the think tanks are engaging in discussion is to look at the Mentions. The more each account is having conversations the higher the mentions will be. All three accounts have fairly similar levels, around 600 – 1,000 over 90 days.

    This seems reasonable but let’s put it in perspective. My personal Twitter account has just over 700 followers, which is pretty low in Twitter terms. But here is the Klout data for me:

    Retweets 319
    Mentions 2,300+
    Followers 708
    Following 699

    Nothing interesting in the Retweets figure, but the Mentions figure is over double the figure for any of the three accounts above, and I have less than 5% of the followers. So, to echo your thoughts, no, these accounts don’t seem to be used for discussion at all. And I believe that there is a huge opportunity in this respect.

    • Great analysis Simon, very useful and worth repeating on a larger scale I think. We’ll look into this. I also agree with Enrique’s point above about Twitter use being (merely) a proxy but that it’s the lack of broader social media strategy that’s the issue and potentially a significant missed opportunity for many think tanks.

  3. Reblogged this on on think tanks and commented:
    Michael Harris from New Think Tank has posted and interesting analysis on the use (or not) of twitter by think tanks in the UK. There are also some interesting comments made to the post it self that are worth having a look.
    His basic argument is that think tanks are missing an opportunity: they are only using twitter to announce events or publications but not to engage and debate with their publics (peers, audiences, staff, etc.). This is an interesting proposition but it could be argued that this Twitter is not the best tool for this and that others may be better (Nick Scott wrote about this in his posts on Digital Disruption).
    Also interesting is that his analysis ‘proves’ that the link between visibility and influence is not direct: they find rather low Twitter presences for well known and influential think tanks. And the RSA may in fact be described as a the least think tank of the list at it is rarely participates in active policy influence.
    Other interesting results: 71% of the top 300 staff and associates users have less that 500 followers, there are no women in the top 10 and only 7 in the top 50 (although as they point out this may reflect the composition of the industry itself), younger staff may be over-presented as a result of their more active use of Twitter, etc.

    • It’s absolutely fair to question the RSA’s inclusion on the list. We felt that their (self-) description could be regarded as being similar to a think tank: “…an enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges. Through its ideas, research and 27,000-strong Fellowship it seeks to understand and enhance human capability so we can close the gap between today’s reality and people’s hopes for a better world.” I agree that it doesn’t explicitly aim for sustained policy influence in quite the same way as other think tanks, but nonetheless its programmes, pamphlets and publications (see: etc are often intended to inform policy as well as practice. And its fellowship model also points to the potential for more network-based think tanks, which I know is of mutual interest to New Think Tank and On Think Tanks. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Transform Drug Policy Foundation ( ) has 5007 twitter followers as of this morning but doesnt warrant a mention – in these lists or discussions. Not sure why. Anyway – we have been using twitter actively for a several years and find it a hugely useful tool for bioth outreach and research.

    • Thanks Transform Drug Policy Foundation, and apologies for missing you off the list. Inevitably (or unfortunately) some organisations got missed in what was a fairly quick survey – especially since as a social policy generalist I’m personally more familiar with cross-sector think tanks compared to sector or issue-specific organisations. Not an excuse though. I’ve now added you to the list of top think tanks by twitter followers: As you say, this also shows that some think tanks are using social media effectively; the headline is a generalisation reflecting in particular on some well-known think tanks which have surprisingly small Twitter etc followings, and which are surely neglecting an inexpensive channel to promote their work and build a community around it. Good luck with the work.

  5. Thanks Michael and i agree with the gerneral thrust of your point. There’s a lot of untapped potential for social media – which seems to me to suit think tanks very well.

  6. Tim says:

    It seems a useful way of communicating amongst think tank world and there are far higher numbers of followers than I’d have expected.

    To pick up on the issue of how open/limiting the technology is, many people away from the worlds of policy do not use social media at all, or at least not in a work context.

    There are practical barriers to using this as a way to engaging practitioners in some areas, for example many Councils blocking Twitter access across their IT systems.

    The main thing’s surely getting the right approach depending on who you want to talk to and why. I’m not sure many (of the other) think tanks really want to engage a broader public in debate.

    • Perhaps you’re right Tim that some think tanks don’t really want to engage the broader public in debate (or to put it less starkly, they might prioritise policymakers and decision-makers, particularly in central government), but my sense is that it’s not so much a strategic decision on their part. After all, most think tanks want to influence the ‘climate of opinion’ in some way, and most of the issues that think tanks engage in are also the stuff of topical debates on TV and radio and in newspapers etc. Rather, I suspect that a major factor here is generational. While there are exceptions, one of the things we were struck by in looking at individuals’ Twitter followings was that many well-known older think tank ‘names’ were noticeably absent, while some younger and more junior staff are building up quite significant followings. It may be then that for some think tankers it’s more a case of unfamiliarity and a bit of fear that stops them giving it a go, combined with a (I would suggest) rather narrow view of their potential role in public debate, rather than it being a conscious choice not to exploit a free (and growing) communication channel.

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