What social media and digital tools are think tanks using in their work? Views from a short clinic at the Think Tank Initiative Exchange 2012

20 June 2012

Alongside Enrique Mendizabal, Vaqar Ahmed and Peter Da Costa, I presented a session on digital strategy at the Think Tank Initiative Exchange 2012 in Cape Town yesterday. My presentation drew on a series of recent blogs that outlined three areas of response to digital disruption of traditional communications. Following the presentations, I ran a clinic for participants to share experiences and views on the current use of digital tools in their think tanks.

What is the state of play for the use of digital tools in African, Asian and Latin American think tanks? A clinic I ran in Cape Town found a good range of experiences with numerous tools and left me feeling positive that think tanks aren’t sticking their head in the sand in the face of the changes wrought by ‘digital disruption’ (at least for the self-selecting think tanks in the room).

Here is a summary of our key discussions:

  • Most think tanks used Facebook. However some had found it difficult to make it work at first, and only when they started posting regular content did they see increases in the numbers of people ‘liking’ the page and interacting with their content. Some posted content to Facebook manually by adding links to videos, blogs and event invitations; others had automatic feeds that posted direct from their blog or website every time it was updated. One think tank had used $100 of advertisements of Facebook to draw people to their website, and seen lots of success: they were able to tightly target the users they wanted in terms of age, location, and other factors. As a result the advertisement became the biggest driver of traffic to their site while it was running.
  • One think tank had set up a blog but was receiving no comments to posts on it. There was some discussion around why this might be, with people in the clinic suggesting this could be down to: cultural traits of not commenting on content; the style of the blogs being too authoritative and therefore people finding it difficult to question it; the blogs not feeling like they’re written by a person but by the institution so people find it harder to engage as it feels less like a discussion; and the kind of mode a visitor is in when they visit the blog of a think tank – they may be there to learn, not to interact – which would suggest that by posting links to the blogs on Facebook where people are in an interacting mood they may get comments there.
    • Suggested free tools: Disqus, a plug-in commenting system that can bring in social media chatter to a website.
  • Another discussion was on visualisation tools to make data more interactive and accessible, where one participant had seen an Estonian think tank make great use of data by creating an interactive tool to monitor the Estonian budget. This had helped the think tank reach a much broader audience in the media and public than they would have otherwise.
  • A discussion on tools using mobile phones threw up surprisingly little in this area. Given that in many African countries use of the internet on mobile phones exceeds use on computers, and mobile use is prevalent in other continents too, think tanks had thought about how to integrate mobile solutions into their work. At a basic level, one think tank in Kenya was using text messages to send reminders for events. They were going to expand their use of mobile technologies soon by integrating M-PESA as a payments system for their memberships, following a request from members themselves. One area where mobile phones are used heavily is for internal communications in the think tanks: some give phones to their senior staff; others pay for airtime. But even this is difficult internationally due to roaming charges.
    • Suggested free tools: There are too many to mention,  most digital tools have mobile equivalents. Those discussed included M-PESA, and SurveyGizmo to run surveys that can have mobile versions.
  • E-learning was another area discussed: some participants had taken part in online courses, and one was planning to encourage more people in his think tank to take up an offer of free courses via American Universities – Coursera.
  • A final discussion point was on videos and Youtube. Quite a few of the think tanks in the clinics had used Youtube to give wider access to video content from conferences and forums. However at least one think tank had lots of content on video but had never placed it on Youtube, potentially missing out on the many views that videos can get and the extra publicity and reach this can bring.
    • Suggested free tools: Youtube (but unfortunately they currently limit their non-profit programmes to UK, US, Australian and Canadian organisations, which makes it harder to upload longer videos).

I particularly like the example of the Kenyan think tank who are going to use M-PESA to receive payments for memberships, which shows a practical and effective use of digital technologies by a think tank for uses other than communication.

A few years ago, I often felt like I was pulling teeth when running similar sessions, with a few participants asleep at the prospect of digital, most bemused at it and perhaps one solitary enthusiast engaging. Today, the balance has shifted. There may only have been one sleeping participant, there were quite a few enthusiasts, and the looks of bemusement were less severe and came less often than previously. I can’t wait to see what the next few years will bring. I am not the only one that thinks major changes are coming to think tanks that will require institutional change; however unlike others, I have confidence that most think tanks will be able to evolve and survive (though perhaps inspired by some new model digital-only think tanks that show the way).