In the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about audiences, assumptions and effort.

Partly this follows on from the presentation I gave at Epic Social Media for the Public Sector in Exeter a couple of weeks ago, partly it’s from conversations which have passed through my Twitter timeline, partly the content strategy stuff and partly because I’m questioning absolutely everything at the moment.

What’s really bothering my brain cells at the moment is I feel there is a general assumption that people want to engage with local government online. This can be stretched out to assume that they don’t just want to engage with us online, they want to do it on their social network of choice.

So, let’s roll out some magic numbers to which we can tether the assumptions:

  • 30.1 million adults in the UK accessed the internet every day, or nearly every day, during 2010. This is about 60% of the population.
  • 73% of households had internet access.
  • Around 9 million internet users connected using a mobile phone.
  • Adults aged 65 and over made up 64% of those who had never accessed the internet.
  • Forty-three per cent of these internet users posted messages to social networking sites, chat sites, blogs or used instant messaging.

You can see the full detail of these stats on the Office of National Statistics website.

What does this tell us? Well, if we want to delve no deeper it tells us that lots of people are online, a growing number of them are using mobiles as their main internet device and that lots of them are using social media of one kind or another.

Do they want us to be there engaging with them? We don’t know. So, let’s try and find some more information that might help us with that question. Let’s take Facebook – because I don’t talk about it much and the assumption is that everyone is there.

  • In March 2011 Facebook announced they had 30 million users in the UK. That’s half the population.
  • About half of them check Facebook everyday – in fact one third of women aged 18-34 say they check Facebook first thing when they wake up.
  • Users have an average of 130 friends in their network.

So, where are we now? Sixty per cent of the population accesses the Internet everyday, about the same number have Facebook accounts and half of those look at the network daily.

Does this make the case clear cut for local government jumping on board and putting effort into creating content there and trying to engage (an assumption there of my own, that local government strives to engage online not just broadcast messages *slaps wrist*)? It certainly goes someway toward that.

But (yes, there’s a but), what are those 15 million people doing on Facebook everyday? Whatever it is might not necessarily include your council’s page.

Take this little nugget thrown out by Jeremy Waite on twitter during Social Media Week London (February 2012).

Of course, you might not want them to go to your page but just to like it once and then endeavour to have your posts show up in their newsfeed. But it’s a challenge to the assumption and I like that.

And, what of the other 15 million who don’t visit everyday? How often do they visit? Do they visit at all. The problem of fake and dormant accounts inflating user figures is one which is becoming more widely recognised.

Internet Access Here SignTake this September 2011 article in Time which reveals that only half of Twitter’s accounts are active (about 100,000,000); 40% of that number only log in to consume and don’t produce anything (not a huge problem in itself) but what twitter doesn’t reveal is how many of the active number are genuine people and how many are spambots.

I made the point in my presentation that huge numbers of friends, followers and fans don’t automatically equal huge success and this just goes to illustrate that statement. You can’t just take the headline figure and expect it to inform you completely. To really understand you need to delve deeper, question more.

This article by Tom Foremski on ZDNet expands on this and gives some interesting examples of academic study into the issue.

What other assumptions are lurking in here? There’s a biggie. Can you see it? Go on, have a look and I’ll give you a minute…no? How do you know from what’s pulled together here that these stats are representative of your council’s area?

The ONS gives us a starting point. They state that London has the highest rate of internet use (no real shock there I wouldn’t have thought) and that the north east of England has the lowest. I’d hope, but won’t assume, that your organisation has some data for their area or are at least working on getting some.

What it comes back to time and again for me is the need to ask questions. The need to ask a lot more questions than seem to be asked at the moment. The need for critical thinking as much as common sense. The utterly essential need to know your users (residents / citizens / audience / whatever you want to call them).

See if your organisation is already asking them whether they are online, how often and from what device. See what your website analytics tell you and marry this to your population stats or other data.

Most of all, for what you can’t piece together think about the direct route and ask them. And don’t just ask them the basics of are you, when are you, how are you, where are you? Be brave, ask them – do you want us to be online with you, what do you want us for, where do you want us?

Know your audience, your users and know, really start to know, whether your effort is in the right place in the right way. Accept that a number, no matter how big, how enticing, how ‘right’ it feels will never tell you the whole story.

Above all, assume nothing, question everything.