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Measuring Social Media Impact

Last month I questioned whether social media could really be thought of as a “force multiplier,” when those free tools can demand significant outlays in resources, time and effort to realize its full potential. This month I want to talk numbers. How can you know something multiplies your force, if you aren't measuring it?

Any kind of resource deployment in one area of the city affects resources (and thus crime) in another, so constant measurement is required to ensure police aren't spread too thin and the public's quality of life isn't diminished (or if those are the outcomes, measurement helps fix the problem).

Social media should be no different. Yet like many businesses, many police departments have no idea how to begin measuring officers' time spent online, or the impact on citizens' quality of life. Without that idea, it can be hard to justify time or any other resources spent there. That much is clear from the wasteland of tried-and-tossed police Twitter accounts.

Yet where people are, police need to be. And so you need to know how to measure the resource allocation to being in those spaces, whether real or virtual.

Start with goals

You wouldn't deploy a saturation tactic without hard numbers on what the problem was, how many civilians within how many miles would be affected, or how long the campaign would last – would you? Don't start social media campaigns this way, either. Vague notions of “Connect with the public” or “Build trust” aren't enough. You have to know why this is needed in your community.

Start with problems (and don't think in terms of “social media problems.” There is no such thing. All problems that occur online have their roots in the real world, and good policing takes both into account). The problems could be as diverse as:

-        Your local gangs are using Twitter to openly plot violence against their rivals, and posting recorded results on YouTube.

-        Your officers are behaving badly on Facebook, and the public is talking about it so much that the local news media is running a story on tonight's 6 o'clock news.

-        You're taking an increasing number of calls related to cybercrime, and you're barely able to handle conventional crimes.

-        Your agency has seen a 200% increase in traffic collisions on a particular stretch of road in the past six months.

-        A rash of thefts from vehicles has stressed out families in several neighborhoods, and it doesn't help that some of them are reporting peeping Toms in the same timeframe as the thefts.

You know that the news media will be able to help you keep the public informed to some extent, but you also know that these things are being discussed online: via Neighborhood Watch listservs, on the local newspapers' member forums, within your own agency, and of course on social sites. That's why you've decided to take to those sites to add your voice and help direct the flow of information.

Your goals for each of those problems might therefore look something like:

-        Collect intelligence and evidence about the gang members, their connections, and their activities.

-        Collect evidence as part of your internal investigation into the officers' actions, and assure the public via both social and traditional media that while you can't discuss particulars, you have seen their concerns and are looking into the matter.

-        Educate the public about the specific forms of cybercrime they're reporting, and how to protect themselves.

-        Educate the public about the flow of traffic on that particular stretch of road (for instance, relative to the new business park that has created increased traffic, or the construction creating new traffic flows, new hazards, and additional frustration).

-        Keep the public informed to the extent possible about your investigation; ask for their assistance and vigilance, and educate them on how to protect themselves.

From goals come measurable objectives

You should be measuring community relations at least to some extent: positive and negative mentions in the press, complaints against officers vs. praise, the numbers of people (including officers) showing up at Neighborhood Watch meetings from month to month, and so on.

Social media complicates this because of the sheer number of channels available, which is one reason why last month's column recommended starting with one single problem. So, say you're focusing on education as your goal: you want more people to know the facts about the cybercrimes they're reporting, and you want them to know how to protect themselves.

Your measurable objectives might be:

-        More people within certain demographic groups educated.

-        More positive interactions among people in those groups.

-        More resource materials provided to people to self-educate.

Your strategies for those would include a mix of traditional and social media, face-to-face meetings and possible door-to-door campaigns, and so forth.

What to measure?

Say you want to educate teens, the elderly, and small business owners, with media as a secondary target group. You're using the social channels you know they're on, so you measure:

-        Number of Twitter followers, Facebook fans, and so forth; their growth rates over time.

-        Number of likes and favorites of your resource materials.

-        Number of shares, including YouTube embeds.

-        Number of downloads of your resource materials.

-        Website traffic, including page views, time on site, new vs. old visits, and referring sites and searches.

-        Number of interactions online, including blog comments.

-        Sentiment of online interactions, and the changes over time.

-        Subscriptions to your blog or YouTube channel.

-        Reach, and impressions.

-        Media value.

-        Influence of community members you're reaching.

You would also want to compare numbers over time, benchmarking the number of calls for service you get about cybercrime just prior to the start of your education campaign, and at regular intervals as your campaign moves forward.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and tools exist to help you track these metrics. So don't be overwhelmed; focus instead on solving the problem. Once you know what it is you want to accomplish, it should be possible for you to figure out what you (and your commanders and politicians) need to know about your efforts. Like any good policing program, a social media presence should be data-driven, and you may even find over time that your metrics will help you secure more resources: grant money, or more personnel.

What are you doing to measure your presence online? Leave a comment!