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Lucy Bernholz on the Need for Social Analytics

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, July 20 2010

Lucy Bernholz is writing one of the smartest and most engaging blogs I follow, Philanthropy 2173. The title of her site might make you think it's only about philanthropy, but it's really more about the future, social change, and how we can use open data and networking to reimagine public engagement. A recent post on "Measuring Success" gets at questions that should lurk constantly in the mind of anyone using new media for organizing. In a sentence, she is arguing for a new science of "social analytics" to enable better organizing, the same way web analytics allow marketers to fine-tune their online efforts. Here are the highlights:

Just as click through rates changed advertising forever - and with it the news business, recording industry, publishing, real estate - the deep connections between generation and use of data on the web and actions taken in community are going to change how we make change happen. Being able to apply data on page views or unique visitors in a meaningful way to how neighbors organize or communities protest or vaccines get delivered or votes get cast will be as important going forward as old standbys of community organizing (serve pizza at the meeting) have been in the past.

There are whole methods and sciences of "social analytics"* being developed that look at how we travel through our web and mobile and social network worlds - but most of what is known is known from a marketing and sales standpoint. This means that major advertising companies (like Google) and corporate marketing departments (like those at Amazon or Starbucks) know how to answer these questions:

* How many times did I abandon my shopping cart on the web site?
* How many times was I shown a certain recommendation before I bought the book?
* Did I use the coupon that was texted to my mobile phone to get a free cup of coffee?

We need to take this kind of intelligence and apply it to other questions, such as:

* If I join a disease-oriented social network do I manage my medications better and am I healthier because of it?
* If I read and comment on a story on my neighborhood on a local blog am I more or less likely to show up at the supervisors' hearing on a subject than if I read about it in the print paper?
* What about if I submit a story to that same blog?
* If a follow the tweets from a nonprofit am I more or less likely to donate or volunteer to that organization?
* If I become a "fan" of an organization on a social network site will I do anything else to raise awareness of the group? Will I take any offline action to support its work?

All I can add is that for too long, we've been arguing about the power of the internet to change politics mostly with anecdotes (I'll take your "#iranelection" and raise you one "One Million Voices Against the FARC") and snippets of data. We need a more rigorous level of research into what works and what doesn't work. I'm not saying that all of online (or offline) organizing can be boiled down to a science, but now that social media is nearly ubiquitous it's time we took this seriously as a field and tried to develop a real research agenda to measure its impact.

[Photo credit: ZeroDivide]