John Shewell: Using #socmed to predict the future

There has been a lot of discussion and few research papers written about how social media can influence organisation's reputations, but incredibly scant attention has been paid on how social media can predict trends. Until recently.

John Shewell: Public sector comms teams must deepen their knowledge of social media
John Shewell: Public sector comms teams must deepen their knowledge of social media

A study by Sitaram Asur and Bernado Huberman shows how social media can be used to predict real-world outcomes. Their thought-provoking paper 'Predicting the future with social media' is one of the very few empirically researched papers that demonstrated how social media can be harnessed to peer into the future.

This takes the wisdom of crowds to another level. Through social media organisations can quantify the chatter of communities to evaluate trends and predict future outcomes.

By tracking sentiment and devising a linear regression model, Asur and Huberman were able to accurately predict the revenue forecast of a movie at the box-office in advance of their release.

Asur and Huberman tracked conversations around newly released movies to predict box-office revenues and found that social media enabled them to outperform information markets such as the Hollywood Stock Exchange, which is regarded as the gold standard in the industry.

This is powerful insight and for any organisation it can help drive performance and value.

For local public services faced with trying to deliver value-for-money services while sustaining their reputation during these austere times this research could be welcome news.

For a start, local public services need to do more with social media to engage about issues that really matter most to citizens. And at a time when local public services are about to start the process of budget consultations for the new financial year, social media potentially presents an opportunity to determine how to design and deliver the right services that people need and want.

The starting point is moving towards open policy-making. The likes of the Democratic Society (Demsoc) are already exploring this space and understand how social media can play a powerful role in shaping debate as well as co-designing services.

An open-policy approach using social media is about as close to developing a democratic conversation and genuine civic participation in the design and delivery of important local public services.

Through careful planning, organisations can collaborate on concepts, test ideas and meaningfully engage with their citizens to improve public services. The benefits are potentially great, such as excellent engagement, savings made from expensive consultations using traditional approaches, and further savings by getting the service design right before delivering.  

Local public services can recreate this approach for policy-making and service design. This approach takes community engagement to another level and can help organisations truly listen and co-design services that deliver savings as well as improving reputation.

For comms teams this is welcome news. But comms teams need to deepen their knowledge and understanding of social media to help their organisations drive performance and service.

Local public service comms teams have a real opportunity to seize to truly take a seat at the top table if they can harness the wisdom of crowds through social media to predict future outcomes for their organisations.

The future certainly looks bright for local public service comms teams if they seize the social media agenda today.

John Shewell is head of comms at Brighton & Hove City Council.

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