Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Digital Diplomacy Open House held at the Canadian Embassy by the Digital Diplomacy Coalition. The event featured small booths and presentations by various countries with embassies in DC.
During their presentations, I noticed a few trends with regards to the conduct of digital diplomacy as practiced by the participating organizations.
One: A few countries are starting to understand what it takes to “get noticed” online. In particular, the British Embassy has set itself apart by embracing internet culture and tapping into the viral factories of outlets like Buzzfeed. The British presentation proposed that rather than trying to attract audiences to their embassy website, it was better to “go to the people.” This included participating in a mix of online outlets, as well as real world and cultural events where they could build their online audience.
Two: There is still a general overall confusion about what to actually “do” with online tools. Of all the presentations, I got the impression, especially after asking direct questions of the presenters, that many of these embassies or international organizations do not direct their online activities to actually achieving particular foreign policy objectives. Some have had success in expanding their audiences—even creating hashtag campaigns that span the gamut of social media outlets. But with a few exceptions, there was little emphasis or analysis of whether anything was being achieved with these efforts. In some cases, efforts to get noticed online, or by traditional media, tended to obscure whether or not these efforts were actually accomplishing the intended purpose.
Three: Countries are getting better at identifying who they are reaching online. As I explored in a report on the challenges of the internet and social media earlier this year, there are three types of audiences: the target audience, the perceived audience and the actual audience. The target audience is the people you are trying to teach. The perceived audience is the people you think you are reaching. And the actual audience, is simply the audience you are actually reaching. As the internet is relatively “borderless,” aside from censorship and blocking technology utilized by countries like China or Iran, the communications an embassy directs at a specific foreign audience actually may be seen by a much wider audience.
The French presentation demonstrated an excellent understanding of this issue, indicating that roughly 59% of their Facebook followers are located in the US, and 18.5% are in France—meaning a sizeable 41% of their actual audience is not in the U.S. This type of understanding is key in measuring effect and shaping the content of messages.
The bottom line about online media, made even more evident by this event, is that output does not equate effect. This is something that is easy to forget, given the perceived ease of using online tools. Creating awareness by spreading information through these tools is not a guarantor of success, especially if people do not take some sort of “real” action after being made aware. Getting followers, likes, and building an audience is definitely an important factor in using the internet for foreign policy purposes, but it is far from the end-game. Public diplomats would be wise to keep in mind what it is they want to do with those audiences, and what it is they are actually trying to achieve.