A new dashboard created by the nonprofit group Expert Labs ranks 125 federal agencies each week based on their public engagement on Twitter.
The Federal Social Media Index mixes traditional measures of Twitter success, such as the number of new followers an agency gains weekly, with more complex indicators such as how many questions an agency asks of its followers, how many responses those followers Tweet back and the agency's question-to-response ratio.
The dashboard assesses each agency's Tweets based on the percentage that are in "broadcaster" mode versus "conversationalist" mode. Ultimately, the lab plans to add separate metrics for agencies' interactivity on other social networking sites such as Facebook and Google Plus.
Early results show that federal agencies with a relatively low number of Twitter followers are sometimes engaging much more with their followers than more popular agencies.
The current pilot version of the dashboard includes only questions that agencies Tweet out to their followers and the followers' responses. The next step, dashboard designer Andy Baio told Nextgov, will be to add a reverse metric -- measuring how responsive agencies are to the questions followers Tweet to them.
In the future, Baio plans to add several other metrics, such as how active agencies are under particular Twitter lists and hash tags. He also intends to use word and tone analysis tools to determine how many positive and negative Tweets agencies are responding to. The pilot version of the dashboard uses very rudimentary tools to determine what kind of engagement is happening -- essentially looking for a question mark at the end of an agency Tweet, he said.
The project's overall goal is to produce a more nuanced view of which agencies are using social media effectively, Baio said.
"That's too limiting," Baio said. "You can't look at this wide variety of agencies, large and small, and look at a single number to determine whether they're succeeding [with social media]. They may have very different goals and very different audiences."
Some smaller agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, for instance, may be engaging very deeply with a core set of followers in the scientific community but will never have the social media reach of a more exciting agency such as NASA, he said.
He hopes agencies will use the site to learn what they're doing right and wrong in social media and what they can learn from other agencies.
Baio was formerly the chief technology officer for Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform for creative projects. Expert Labs is funded by the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science, publisher of the journal Science.
It's not clear yet what metrics Expert Labs will use when it expands the index to include Facebook and other social media, Baio said. Facebook is generally a more popular social media than Twitter. But, because of their designs, it's more difficult to determine what's conversationalist and what's not on Facebook than on Twitter, he said.
The way agencies use Facebook may be so different that it will require an entirely separate dashboard, he said.
Some of the richest data that has come out of the dashboard so far, Baio said, hasn't been the raw numbers but the specific conversations they've pointed out.
The agency with the highest question-to-response ratio for the week ending Nov. 27, for instance, was the U.S. Mint, which asked only one question of its roughly 2,500 followers and received seven responses. The question: "Most dollar bills circulate for about 18 months. Do you know how long the average coin stays in circulation?"
In addition to curious numismatists, that question drew a response from the United Kingdom's Mint: "@usmint We expect @royalmintuk coins to have a 'lifespan' of 30 to 40 years!"