01/30/2012 02:31 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

More Than Fans, Followers and Likes: Measuring Social Media in Local Government

"I have a Facebook page, why isn't it working?"

Emily Landsman, founder of Red Boot Media has been asked this question several times over the past two years as she's worked with various local governments and other public officials.

"Well, that depends on how you want it to work," she typically replies. "What are you using to measure your government's social media plan's success? Number of likes or comments on Facebook? Followers, retweets or mentions on Twitter?"

When Landsman asked the GovLoop community last week how they measure the success of their social media activities, they concurred that engagement is the key factor they strive to measure.

However, most government social media sites do not start out that way.

Neelu Modali, CEO of SM Resources Corporation, has observed that "most government folks are starting with those citizen facing initiatives -- i.e. communicate information from this platform that people want to digest all the time. Emergency closures, infrastructure reporting, traffic, etc."

While this is a good start, it is not enough to sustain activity, leading to complaints from agencies who believe their social media is "not working."

Glen Thomas, supervisor of communications and public relations for Memphis Light, Gas and Water, gave an excellent example of this phenomenon. "A negative event, such as a large storm, will cause rapid increases in these numbers as people seek ways to get information about restoration. Your followers/likes increase when the public needs something from you -- when they know they can get that via social media, you'll experience more rapid growth." In this case, he says, "it's folly to depend solely on [the number of followers and likes] as a measure of social media effectiveness" because people came to seek information about a certain event -- not to be consistently involved.

But how do you get people to engage, and make Facebook "work?"

Modali explains this is the tough part. "Truth is, organic social engagement will climb over time, and there is a curve that applies. Find a common platform to explore around, and make sure there are multiple touch points for your message."

Having a clear message is essential to successful social media. Public Information Officer Jill Parker described that not incorporating social media into her agency's overall marketing plan was a big mistake.

"We found ourselves 'rambling' as it were on social media," said Parker. "Over the past couple of years we have integrated social media into our overall marketing strategy. We now know what we are looking for and while it may not be as tangible as it is in traditional media, it does not make it any less successful or important for us."

The goals of agencies will inevitably vary based on their size, location, and purpose. However, they all share the same question: How do we measure social media success if we are looking to track quality, as opposed to quantity, of interaction?

At Memphis Light, Gas and Water, Thomas says they "measure the number of interactions, ratio of positive/negative interactions and 'problems solved'." In other words, are people getting what they want from us via social media, and how often are we providing solutions through social media."

For Parker, the bottom line in social media measurement is this: "For us 10,000 followers from all over the world is not nearly as effective as 100 from our community who are willing to 'talk to us.'"