5 top tips for think tanks using social media

This is a summary of a presentation to the London think-tank summit ‘At the intersection of traditional and social media’, Europe House, 15th June 2012, by Mike Harris and Chris Sherwood.

In our day jobs we work at existing organisations – a well-known think tank and a large national disability charity – that hope to inform and influence policy. We’re not representing these organisations today, but we think that how these types of organisations go about engaging in policy needs to change in a social media world – that policy ‘expertise’ and authority is being increasingly challenged, and that social media offers incredible opportunities to develop policy in new, far more open and collaborative ways.

In this presentation we want to explore how think tanks can better engage with social media in order to achieve their objectives. What are the key characteristics of effective organisations, and how can think tanks reap the benefits of this cheap and easy technology?

A few months ago we did a simple piece of research. We looked at the Twitter following of 40 UK think tanks and also at their individual staff, fellows and associates (comprising nearly 1,400 people in total). We used our blog to ‘crowd check’ the accuracy of our results by publishing the findings in installments. This was a quick, broad-brush piece of research so we don’t want to over-claim, nonetheless it did reveal some interesting findings. It seems that many think tanks are missing an opportunity to use social media more effectively to drive their objectives.

The total Twitter community around think tanks is actually quite small. Only nine organisations have more than 10,000 followers in total for their staff, associates and fellows. 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 Futures (8,583 followers with three staff). (This research has subsequently been updated and extended by the European Parliament Information Office in the United Kingdom).

Less than 40 per cent of people have a Twitter account that we could link to their think tank work. The majority of think tankers make relatively limited use of Twitter, suggesting that think tanks are neglecting a cheap and easy way to communicate. Of these, more than 70 per cent have less than 500 followers, and 40 per cent have less than 100 followers. No women appear in the top 10 individual tweeters and only seven appear in the top 50, which may also say something about the ‘glass ceiling’ in think tanks. As might be expected, there’s also a generational dimension, with an emerging group of younger think tankers who are making a name for themselves using social media.

So how can think tanks make better use of social media? Forget Lady Gaga – think tanks can learn a lot from other organisations whose mission is to engage in policy. The ‘Global Go To Think Tanks Report’ from the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania rates only two UK-based policy organisations in the top 10 in terms of how they use the internet and social media – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. What are organisations like these and others doing that we can learn from?

In the style of a Twitter headline, here are our ‘5 top tips for think tanks using social media’:

1: Share ideas rather than own them

Who likes being hectored? Top tweeters engage in open discussion about their ideas – that’s why it’s called ‘social’ media. Yes these organisations have a point of view, but they also engage in a conversation. What this reflects is a broader cultural change in how we engage with the internet – more of us want to be producers of content, not just passive consumers of content produced by others. For the ‘business’ we’re in, this offers the possibility of using social media for an ongoing open dialogue between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ of research, across all phases of the research cycle. If you think it’s a battle of ideas, you risk sounding like a loser.

2: Promote others not yourself

Social media is about discovery – of people, organisations and ideas. People follow others when they help them discover other interesting people, ideas, facts and sources. We’re not interested in being told over and over what we already know you think – we’re interested in how you arrived at that place and what you’ve come across that you find interesting, provocative and challenging. You become seen as an ‘expert’ not in what you know so much as in what you hear about before anyone else does. From a research point of view, this also opens up possibilities for collaboration, connecting people who otherwise may never have met and secondly means that you stay abreast of the latest developments in your field.

3: It’s personal, not a press release

Individual tweeters are often more important than think tanks’ corporate feeds – and so individuals are critical to extending the reach and impact of organisations. Social media isn’t a centralised communications function – it isn’t about compressing your one-time press releases into 140 characters – it’s about expressing personality in under 140 characters again and again. Our observation is that most think tanks aren’t supporting their staff to be spokespeople in social media – and this is the critical respect in which think tanks are missing a massive opportunity.

4: Co-opt people in a mission

A lot of commentators assume that we’ve entered an era of passive disaffection and cynicism. We prefer to think that lots of people are waiting for something to believe in. Let’s give it to them. That’s what organisations like Amnesty International do – go look at their Twitter feed. It’s a conversation but also an invitation to action. Every think tank advocates for something – even if it’s just more research into their area of interest – why not invite others to advocate with you? Because social media offers the opportunity for think tanks to engage with a wide audience at virtually zero cost, it also poses the question of who think tanks think they are talking to – policymakers, the public, the press? It’s not clear that many think tanks have decided who.

5: Think without limits

Traditional media is about scarcity and exclusivity – there are only so many stories in today’s papers. Social media is unlimited and democratic – there is effectively no limit to going viral. Charities, think tanks, government could all usefully consider what we can learn from the Spartacus report from earlier this year, where a tiny band of disabled activists took the social media world by storm by organising, researching and promoting their own report against welfare cuts online.

Let’s also think more creatively. Compared to many other businesses and charities, think tanks have only just begun to consider how they can create resources that people would want to share with each other through social networks – such as pictures, video, infographics. As a result, think tanks are 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 organizations many of which operate on a rather hand-to-mouth basis in terms of finances, and which often seek to influence public opinion as well as government policy.

Our new venture, Guerilla Policy, is an experiment – we want to explore what a think tank looks like for a social media age. Our hunch is that it’s open, transparent, collaborative, democratic and participative – and genuinely social. In the spirit of social media, let’s see what happens.


8 Comments on “5 top tips for think tanks using social media”

  1. Clare says:

    great tips – thanks for sharing! The idea that Twitter is about, “expressing personality in under 140 characters again and again” seems particularly pertinent.

    • Thanks Clare – yes we’re increasingly convinced that being a bit more relaxed, natural and authentic is the key to effective use of social media, based on what seems to be the most effective (and most followed) organisations that engage in policy, e.g. Amnesty International. If people want to read press releases, they can, but this doesn’t seem to be the best way to exploit the potential of social media.

  2. Reblogged this on on think tanks and commented:
    Related to the subject of digital strategies, Michael Harris from Guerrilla Policy in the UK has published this very interesting post on how to use social media. Michael and others consider that think tanks need to change to meet the changes that new digital technologies have brought to society. This is not just about doing the same but with digital tools; but being a different kind of organisation.

    • Thanks Enrique, we appreciate your support. We do think that social media challenges think tanks, researchers and other policy and campaigning organisations to reconsider not only how they work but fundamentally how they are organised, especially how they could be more public/open, networked and transparent organisations – something I know you have also been thinking about.

  3. Duncan Green says:

    Sorry to be a pedant, but ‘guerrilla’ has two rs – comes from the Spanish ‘guerra’.

    • No need to apologize for being a pedant. The OED recognizes both ‘guerrilla’ and ‘guerilla’, but I appreciate the argument that since the term derives from guerra it would be consistent to use the former spelling, and apparently the BBC also tends to favour this version. This said, we preferred the way that ‘guerilla’ looked, and there’s precedent in the way others have used the word e.g. in guerilla film making etc http://www.guerillafilm.com/

  4. Thanks for this, I am about to share it with my colleagues here at PiPP. Because of our location (in the South Pacific) and the spread of our audience (throughout the Pacific) we need to be making use of these tools as Internet take up takes hold in our part of the world – these tips will help.


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