Organizations pursuing civil justice objectives need a website. On this point, there can be no doubt. Often operating with constrained budgets, these organizations need an efficient and appealing means to inform stakeholders and attract supporters and, in this regard, nothing can be more cost effective than a website. It’s now an article of faith that promotion of that website and engagement of those stakeholders also requires an active social media presence. But do the facts support that view?
Based on analysis[i] of social media engagement with CanLII (a free-to-access legal information site containing nearly 1.3 million court and tribunal judgments, statutes and regulations), the answer appears to be … sort of. But you may need to rethink how you set and measure your social media goals.
To understand the contribution of social media towards the organization’s objectives, you need to look beyond Facebook friend and Twitter follower count, and you need to look deeper than page views. Consider the following:
CanLII has nearly 6,000 Twitter followers and on any given week CanLII can expect to receive hundreds of visits to its website from people clicking a link found in a tweet. As the chart below demonstrates, social media is a significant and growing source of traffic to CanLII. On the surface, this could suggest that CanLII has successfully leveraged its social media presence. However, a closer look reveals that CanLII is not the sole author of its good fortune and that not all page views are created equal.
Whose tweets drive the traffic? Hint: it’s not yours
In March of 2013, I examined the full extent of CanLII’s Twitter activity in 2011 and 2012 and determined that CanLII’s tweets were likely responsible for no more than 4% of CanLII’s Twitter-generated page views.
During that time period, over one-third of CanLII’s tweets were replies or retweets. Approximately three-quarters of the remaining “original” tweets contained links; about half of which (~350) pointed back to CanLII. Aside from its direct tweeting activity, CanLII played an indirect role in promoting tweets of its content and Twitter engagement from its stakeholders generally when it inserted Twitter buttons alongside the court judgments on its site back in September 2011. But even with this “nudge”, CanLII’s ability to claim influence is limited.
Ultimately, it is the interest and desire to share of the people visiting the content that will determine whether it is tweeted, liked or otherwise socially circulated. My research led me to this conclusion when I looked at social sharing via Twitter of the same court decision – one version from CanLII’s site and one version from the Lexum-run Supreme Court of Canada decision site (a comparison I was able to perform courtesy of Lexum’s willingness to support my research through access to certain internal statistics).
Crookes v. Newton, 2011 SCC 47, was an October 2011 decision about hyperlinking, thus making it a particularly apt ruling to examine. In 2011, a mere 55 of 2,368 page views of this decision on CanLII were attributable to inbound referrals from Twitter links. Over at Lexum’s Supreme Court of Canada decision site, inbound referrals from Twitter links accounted for 614 page views (stats of total views were not provided). This example showed that CanLII’s own tweets and its promotion of Twitter offered just the smallest of bumps, but the motivation to share the content from the SCC decisions site needed no such bump as the community itself decided the link was worth sharing and clicking.
Are social media visitors here for a good time, but not a long time?
Social media originated page and visit counts are easy to track, but they can offer a misleading impression of their impact. A closer look is beneficial. Most web statistics packages will permit detailed dissection of traffic results. When CanLII looks at its inbound social media traffic, we see a very different profile from that associated with visitor that access the site directly (e.g., from bookmarked pages or direct entry of the URL).
CanLII’s general experience with social media referrals appears to be consistent with that experienced by major media websites according to a recent Pew Research Center / Knight Foundation study. CanLII results are similarly consistent with other media across the range of social networks and in the distinctions that exist between networks. Here’s a sampling of CanLII inbound referrals from February 2014:
Part of the explanation for the appearance of lower engagement from a social media visitor is technological. On average, less than 10% of CanLII’s visitors access the site from a mobile device (smartphone or tablet). In contrast, 35-40% of social media traffic to CanLII comes from a mobile device. Statutes and long court judgments are not always easily digested on the smaller screen, so it is not surprising to see shorter visits from mobile traffic. The second major reason for the difference is attributable to the motivation of the person clicking the links. By this I mean, a person visiting your website directly does so with a specific intent to find some information, whereas a social media visitor is more likely to be surfing or following links without any pre-existing interest in reviewing the material or the subject matter. The latter behaviour is strongly correlated with short visits.
So if true influence via social media is limited, why bother?
In offering these insights into CanLII’s experience with social media, my intent is not to take the bloom off the rose. Quite the contrary. Social media presents an excellent opportunity for civil justice organizations to reach new audiences and, more importantly, to gain new insights into the interests of their communities and stakeholders. But these benefits come from true engagement – from following and interacting, rather than from merely amassing followers; and from seeing what is circulated, rather than stressing over how many people are seeing what you’ve posted.
Stats are a useful way of understanding the impact of your activity on social media, and digging deeper will only improve that understanding.
[i] In early 2013, I prepared a research paper as part of my LL.M. studies on the role Twitter plays in the dissemination of legal information. Even now with my studies complete, I continue to be intrigued by the story behind social media stats and spend far too much time tracking the stats and thinking about the implications.
A condensed version of this article first appeared on the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice A2J Blog.