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DC Social Media Survey Touches a Nerve

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, October 16 2009

Yesterday's post about a new study by Marc Ross, Christine Steineman and Chris Lisi ranking more than a hundred Washington organizations based on how many social media tools they are using is spawning an interesting conversation. Critics like Matt Browner-Hamlin, the SEIU's deputy director of new media, and Michael Cornfield, a political scientist and longtime analyst of online politics, have chimed in to dismiss the study's import, arguing that simply counting the presence of social media tools being deployed by an organization means little, or nothing. It's how you use those tools to engage the public that matters, they argue.

Adding flesh to that argument, Ken Deutsch of Morningside Analytics did a quick look to see if groups that ranked high in the study were indeed having a greater impact with one high-value audience, bloggers. Here's a bit of what he found, using a 4000 blog dataset that Morningside developed to look at the health and energy debates:

Compared to the other organizations that were included in the social media tools study, the Sierra Club (the organization that used the most social media tools - ten ), was also the organization that was most cited as a source from the blogs most focused on energy policy.

Looking at the same organizations, SEIU (second in the social media tools study using nine social media tools), was the organization that was most cited as a source within the blogs focused on health policy.

However, after the Sierra Club and SEIU the correlations between tools used and links trail off. Two of the four organizations that used eight social media tools and three of the four of the organizations that used seven were not within the top sources used by bloggers discussing energy or health policy.

The American Medical Association, which used only one social media tool, was cited as a source by bloggers engaged in health policy more then any other group in that study with the exception of SEIU and the Human Rights Campaign.

Deutch notes that several DC policy shops that were not included in the study, like the Center for American Progress and the Heritage Foundation are cited much more often by bloggers than any of the groups in the Ross/Stineman/Lisi study. This isn't surprising, given that these big think tanks have actually invested a lot of energy in engaging online, and they have a huge stake in influencing (and being seen as influencing) the health and energy debates. By contrast, several of other groups in the Ross/Stineman/Lisi study aren't really trying to be players on those topics.

There's no question that, as a community, tech-pol practitioners need to do more research on how usage of social media produces tangible value for political and advocacy organizations. I'm not disagreeing with the points Browner-Hamlin and Cornfield make; mere presence proves little.

But I still think the Ross/Stineman/Lisi study shows something else that is also important to think about: Many name-brand trade associations still have pretty traditional media operations, and they're taking a pretty cautious, "you-first" approach to embracing new media tools. If you're the American Medical Association in the middle of the country's biggest health care debate in a long time, obviously you are going to be in the middle of the fight whether or not you're on Twitter (which they are, and which suggests that Ross et. al. may have erred in scoring the AMA as low as they did). For me, what the study illustrates is how far--for all the buzz about Web 2.0--social media evangelists have to go in proving the value of being open and social.