Part 3: Success factors that emerge from the eight case studies

Learning from public entities' use of social media.

In this Part, we discuss the success factors that emerged when we analysed the eight case studies, which could be useful for public entities considering, or engaged in, using social media.

Summary of the success factors

As part of our preparation for this work, we researched models of change management and social media practice. In particular, we drew on:

  • Kotter's eight-step process for leading change; and
  • Forrester Research's POST social media model.

We used these models to help us identify elements of notable practice in the eight case studies and identify the success factors that we talk about in this report. Appendix 1 sets out more information about the Kotter and Forrester Research models.

Figure 2 lists eight success factors that we identified from the eight case studies.

Figure 2
Success factors that we identified from the eight case studies

Success factor Descriptor
Leadership Good leadership means being open to exploring the possibilities of social media and providing a culture for innovation.
Strategy Social media should be used deliberately and targeted to achieve a clear purpose.
Implementation People and time are just as important as technology and money.
Risk management Risks need to be recognised and managed, but do not need to act as a barrier to participation.
Integration The use of social media needs to be nurtured, then slowly and deliberately brought into the entity's day-to-day operations.
Adaptation Entities need to be adaptable and learn as they go.
Measurement It is not always easy to measure social media's effect on outcomes, but it is important to know "what success would look like".
Considered communication Public entities need to make their "terms of engagement" in social media clear, and consider how social media might require changes in how they communicate.

The success factors that we have identified are not intended to be definitive, comprehensive, or unique to social media use. Nor are they mutually exclusive. In our view, they are important and should be considered carefully when getting involved in using social media.

Also, it is important to note when looking at our case studies:

  • having some of these success factors should not be interpreted as meaning that the case study featured all of them;
  • what worked effectively for one entity and one project or purpose might not work as effectively for another project or purpose; and
  • some of the success factors were closely linked to wider good management practices and not specific to the entity's use of social media.


From our work, we have concluded that leadership plays an important role in successful social media adoption. Wider research also tends to support this view.5

In 2012, Stanford University conducted a survey (the Stanford survey) of executives and board members of North American companies.6 The objective was to understand how senior decision-makers view social media, and the extent to which they incorporate it into their business practices. The Stanford survey differed from other social media surveys because the sample included representatives only from the highest levels of the organisations. Stanford's respondents' average age was in the mid-50s. Our senior management survey was similar, in that we too targeted the most senior members of organisations.

We used aspects of the Stanford survey's approach to analyse the results of our senior management survey. The Stanford survey classified respondents into:

  • personal and/or business users of social media;
  • active – those who engage in some form of social media activity; and
  • inactive – those who do not engage in any social media activity.

We found a statistical relationship between respondents who were classed as active in social media for personal purposes and active in social media for business purposes. Respondents who were active for personal purposes also tended to be active for business purposes. This suggests that respondents who engage in social media for personal reasons have greater understanding of its business potential.

Our findings about the relationship between personal and business use of social media are consistent with the findings of the Stanford survey. Figure 3 compares our results with the results from the Stanford survey.

Figure 3
Senior management's personal and business use of social media

Our survey Stanford survey
Active business Inactive business Active business Inactive business
Active personal 76.7% 23.3% 74.2% 25.8%
Inactive personal 49.1% 50.9% 40.6% 59.4%

Note: Using a Pearson Chi-squared test, we found the relationship between personal and business use to be statistically significant (p = 0.001). The bold figures are used to highlight this relationship.

Innovation often flows upwards – it is not uncommon for staff at lower levels of an organisation to generate ideas and suggest innovations. However, without engagement and leadership from senior levels, innovation can remain fixed within specific projects, rather than spreading more widely throughout an organisation as part of business as usual. Using social media can be a form of innovation for an entity, so it too needs support from senior staff to make the transition from an idea to business as usual.

Clear leadership can also help to manage any aversion to the risks of using social media. Leaders need to have a clear vision of how social media, as a form of innovation, can help their organisation achieve its core objectives, and be actively involved in seeing that happen. This is especially important in thinking about social media beyond its communications role and more as an element of business transformation.

In our senior management survey, 86% of the entities regarded social media as a business opportunity. Of the 86%, almost 60% were either making changes or planning changes to realise the opportunities presented by social media (see Figure 4).

Figure 4
Our survey respondents' progress in realising business opportunities from social media

Figure 4 Our survey respondents' progress in realising business opportunities from social media.

In the Christchurch City Council case study, the challenge was starting a meaningful and sincere conversation with a whole community, only a short time after a significant earthquake and as more earthquakes occurred. The Council's leadership provided clear messages about the project's direction and priority. This ensured that staff throughout the organisation knew its importance, which was crucial to successfully meeting the short time frames.

Senior leaders in the New Zealand Police are committed to social media as an opportunity to do things differently with a range of the Police's activities. The Police's successful use of social media for recruitment is partly attributable to the rich stream of content the Police's other social media activities provide. This is possible only because of the Police's widespread use of social media as part of its normal business.

Waikato District Health Board's use of social media for immunisation and other public health messages has evolved from small beginnings. The District Health Board now considers it "business as usual" to use social media in this way and it is likely that the District Health Board will continue to look for ways to use social media. One of the reasons this is possible is a clear supporting message from the top of the organisation. This creates the trust and the environment that allows people to think creatively.

At MetService, the senior management team, including the chief executive, use social media in their personal lives. This helped to reduce any "fear of the unknown" and created a supportive environment for using social media. Clear leadership, understanding the opportunities social media offers, and not being frightened to use it, are all factors that help MetService to continue to enhance its online and social media activities.

The co-chairs of the Women's Refuge have stated that they see social media as vital for the organisation's sustainability – the Refuge needs to engage with a younger generation of supporters and potential service users.


Organisations using social media should be able to answer fundamental questions, such as "Why are we using social media?" Having a strategic view of social media will be more effective in the longer term. But the strategy needs to be clear about the objective and justify why the organisation is operating in this medium – it is not wise to use social media simply because other organisations are doing so.

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) is an international organisation dedicated to advancing the practice of public participation. It describes five stages of a spectrum of public participation. Each stage increases in impact, involvement, and potential for dialogue over the previous stage. These five stages are:

  • informing;
  • consulting;
  • involving;
  • collaborating; and
  • empowering.

Appendix 1 sets out more detail about the five stages' typical goals, impact on the public, and techniques.

Using the IAP2's five stages, Figure 5 shows how the organisations that responded to our senior management survey were using social media. Most were using social media for less sophisticated forms of public participation.

Figure 5
Our survey respondents' purpose for using social media

Figure 5 Our survey respondents' purpose for using social media.

For entities experimenting with social media, using a business case approach can act as a proxy for strategic thinking, if a fully considered strategy is not yet justified. In our view, public entities need to be clear about the benefits and costs of using social media, and describe the value that the activity will add.

The recruitment campaign run by the New Zealand Police was based on a business case approach and used Forrester Research's POST model to prepare the overall strategy. This set clear objectives, described what success would look like, and set key performance measures, so the Police would know if the campaign was successful.


Most of the entities we spoke to as part of our work told us that they thought it would be damaging to their reputation to overstretch themselves on social media and then pull back. They said it was better to start small and expand outwards, but they recognised the risk of using social media to carry out a series of piecemeal and unco-ordinated projects without strategic coherence.

The social media guidance produced by the Department of Internal Affairs7 describes a spectrum of involvement in social media, summarised as moving from passive to active to engaged. A public entity need not make a large-scale commitment when it first starts using social media. It can start with passive involvement, move through to becoming more active, and finally be fully engaged with the target audience.

Based on our case studies and other work, the optimal approach appears to be "think big, start small" – but always within the context of a clear strategy. The purpose and objectives of using social media need to be clearly understood.

The Women's Refuge is thinking big and starting small. It realised that many people in its donor base were older people who were still sending in donations by cheque. Society's move towards a cheque-less and cash-less future has significant implications for this behaviour, but donating through social media or mobile devices is very new.

The Women's Refuge recognised that a future where supporters make widespread use of social media to donate, and vulnerable people use social media to access services, may be some years away. The Women's Refuge learned that it needs to "take people on a journey", in distinct steps and one campaign at a time, to attract a more sustainable donor base and reach a new audience of women who might need its services.


Having a strategic view of how social media can be useful to an entity will be more effective in the longer term. The entity must know which audience it is trying to engage with and where it will find them.

Our case studies showed evidence of clear and intelligent thinking about the intended audience. The Law Commission consulted on whether the legal rights and responsibilities that applied to news media should be extended to digital media (such as current affairs bloggers and web-only news sites).

People engaged and involved in digital media were a key audience and the best way to consult with them was clearly through digital media. This approach enhanced the quality of the Law Commission's final proposals, because it was able to access new insights and it was challenged in a different way to the more traditional submissions.

The Ministry of Health used Facebook to create and sustain a community of practice for breastfeeding mothers, an activity that can rely on the advice and support of others. Research identified what kind of information women in the Ministry's target audience might require. Two community managers, who were subject-matter experts and knowledgeable about social media, started the conversations between breastfeeding mothers. By careful monitoring and management, they have kept the conversations going.

The dynamic nature of the conversation, the knowledge sharing, and the evolving content has kept users coming back to the Breastfeeding NZ Facebook pages, which generates a sense of community. When we prepared this paper, there were about 16,000 users of the pages.

At the Women's Refuge, core funding was reducing and the organisation was feeling the effect of demographic change. Its donor base was ageing but more than half of its service users were under 35 years old. The Women's Refuge set some clear objectives and identified a target audience of younger donors and service users to reach out to.



Using social media need not require complex and expensive technology, compared to other information and communications technology initiatives. However, social media does require attention to human factors and time commitments.

Careful resource planning for social media is important. Getting involved in social media should not be thought of as a way to deliver "quick wins". To be meaningful, social media involvement needs to be nurtured and resourcing should be sustainable. A "think big, act small" strategy would accommodate this.

Resourcing can be more challenging for small organisations, but it can be done. Some of our case study organisations are small. In our view, public entities can manage social media commitments if they recognise their resourcing limitations and plan how they will deal with them. It can be about managing expectations in an open and honest way – for example, social media audiences can sometimes accept that an entity might respond only during business hours, if that has been clearly stated. Public entities also need to consider how resourcing a social media function when it operates as "business as usual" might differ from how it is resourced as a project with a finite time frame.


Social media requires some different skills than more traditional communications channels, and public entities might not have access to those skills. External support is one obvious solution. One less obvious solution is to look for the necessary skills among all staff, not just in the communications team. Most organisations will have staff who use social media extensively in their personal lives and there could be some "hidden gems" waiting to be discovered. The senior leadership should not be forgotten, either – depending on the entity's plans for social media and what it is trying to achieve, there might be a need to build the capability of the senior leadership team in using social media.

MetService found that it needed to provide only guidance and some individual coaching for those who were blogging, Tweeting, and posting on Facebook. MetService learnt that some staff naturally think and write in ways that are well suited to social media platforms, and looked to involve people with those skills.

Economy and efficiency gains

Among our case studies, some organisations have used social media to deliver economy and efficiency gains:

  • New Zealand Historic Places Trust spent around $120 on five years' subscriptions to Flickr. From this, the Trust has received around 1300 images, and selected over 400 of them to include in its Register of New Zealand's treasured heritage places.
  • The New Zealand Police's recruitment campaign reached its target of 600 extra recruits at a cost 29% lower than the previous three-year average. It also reduced the workload of the recruitment staff. Answering candidates' questions in a public forum meant that all candidates saw the answers to all the questions, which reduced the number of duplicate requests to be dealt with.

Risk management

Social media presents risks, but it also offers opportunities. An organisation can miss those opportunities if it is too risk averse. The best approach is risk management rather than risk avoidance. Organisations need to understand the ways that social media exposes them to risk, identify them, and set up ways to control and monitor them.

From our senior management survey:

  • 67% of respondents regarded social media as a business risk;
  • 64% of respondents had put in place a way to mitigate the risk; and
  • 48% of respondent organisations had a formal social media policy.

Some of social media's characteristics, such as it being immediate, dynamic, and informal, do not lend themselves well to more traditional risk management structures. The social media guidance produced by the Department of Internal Affairs identifies some common organisational risks and describes some appropriate mitigation measures for those risks.

The Digital Workplace Trends 2013 report, based on international research, advises organisations to:

... define governance based on freedom within a framework … try to place all decisions at the lowest level of accountability, thereby empowering people as much as possible but ensuring that risks are managed. Evaluate carefully what needs to be handled by the ‘center' and what decisions are better made by other parts of the organisation. This will depend very much on your current organisational dynamics and your vision for the future.8

Responding quickly

Social media often requires a quick response, sometimes in near real-time. Often, that response means communication with service users and the general public. Some of the entities in our case studies show that it is possible to have adequate safeguards that balance risk with the different and dynamic nature of social media.

For Christchurch City Council, the approach to moderating comments was thought about during the preparations for the Share an Idea campaign, recognising that moderating comments had to be both robust and quick. When implemented, ideas submitted on the website were instantly acknowledged by return email. Moderation was done quickly and comments were uploaded for public display with little delay. The Council felt that this speedy recognition and feedback in a public forum turned the campaign from consultation to more of a conversation. The Council considers that the increases it saw in public engagement and response rates were a result of the quick approach to moderating comments.

Social media accounts that are not frequently updated or have comments and questions left unanswered can make the account look neglected and unprofessional. During our review of entities' Facebook pages, we looked for evidence of timeliness. We found that:

  • 79% of agencies posted an item to their page at least once a week; and
  • 56% of entities responded to posts within 24 hours (we chose 24 hours as a reasonable indication of a quick response, because many entities only monitor their social media accounts during office hours).

Balancing formality and informality

The New Zealand Historic Places Trust found that an easy balance can be struck between the need for formality, such as copyright laws, and the informality of social media. For example, the Trust sends an electronic letter to image providers seeking their permission to use their images and to credit the images to them. Public responses range from formal letters of reply to a casual "yep".

During its consultation process, the Law Commission was clear about the terms of participation. These terms stated that comments made through blog sites would be treated as official submissions, could be used by the Law Commission, and could form part of any final report.

Moderating posts and responses

MetService relies on sound management practices. The social media policy states who can blog, Tweet, and post on Facebook. Responsibility for doing so is dispersed, which mitigates the risk and helps with resourcing and timeliness. This internal network assists with checking operational or technical content, which also helps to mitigate risk.

A network of operational staff in the New Zealand Police is used in the same way, as "subject matter experts". When operational answers are needed, the question is passed to an appropriate person in the network, who is aware of the need for a timely response.

For both MetService and the New Zealand Police, the risk of an incorrect answer or poor moderation is mitigated and the resource burden is spread throughout the organisation. This approach is possible only with the support of the wider organisation and senior management.


It is not enough to have goals – entities also need to have a longer-term view of the social media "journey" and recognise that introducing and developing social media takes time.

The New Zealand Police have learnt that building a strong base of followers in year one is an investment that might begin to produce benefits in the longer term. Because the Police are forecasting higher recruitment in 2014 than in 2013, the organisation already has a "pipeline" of engaged social media followers who could, potentially, facilitate a recruitment surge if necessary.

Social media and other communications channels

Entities told us that social media works best when it is considered alongside other communications channels. Social media can help to amplify messages on other channels, and the other channels can support the messages through social media. In our view, the decision to use social media always needs to be part of the essential communications consideration of audience and purpose. As with all other communication with the public, it requires a strategic approach.

MetService has spent time gradually building up its expertise in, and use of, social media over several years. MetService extended the use of its existing website by adding a blog in 2007. This allowed forecasters to engage with the public by providing explanations for certain weather conditions.

In April 2009, MetService started Tweeting weather information and, at the time of writing, had more than 11,000 followers. In early 2011, MetService started using Facebook and, at the time of writing, had around 19,000 "likes". Facebook allows more interaction with the public, with photographs and comments on the weather, and offers a way for organisations that rely heavily on weather information to connect with MetService.

MetService has linked all its communications channels, including its website, Twitter account, Facebook page, and weather blogs. The website and social media channels can be accessed through mobile devices, so information is available in real time for people carrying out weather-dependent activities.

The New Zealand Police also used an integrated approach during its recruitment campaign. Figure 6 sets out how the integrated approach worked.

Figure 6
The New Zealand Police's integrated approach to recruitment

Channel What the New Zealand Police provided
Facebook Status updates featuring real work stories from Police officers.

Links to the Police Commissioner's regular blog to provide future recruits with an insight into the Police's operational environment.

Links with reality television shows, such as Ngā Pirihimana Hou on Māori TV, which followed Māori police recruits through the Royal New Zealand Police College. Potential recruits were able to chat with Police role models on Facebook during the broadcast of the show.

Online seminars to begin the recruitment process.
Twitter Several Police officers around New Zealand regularly Tweet about their work stories on the job. The "Twitter cops" gave potential recruits an insight into different career pathways and life at the Royal New Zealand Police College.

A selection of these stories were re-tweeted by the recruitment project and also featured on the Police recruitment Facebook page.
YouTube and Flickr A Police recruitment YouTube channel provided video content and a Flickr page provided photographs.
Other media True Police stories were recreated as street art installations in Wellington, Christchurch, and Auckland, and featured in targeted online, television, and outdoor advertising.

The street art installations were mentioned in television news programmes, blogs, and other social media as the target audience discussed the campaign, which provided further unpaid publicity.

Source: New Zealand Police.


Social media can help an entity to connect with new audiences, form communities of practice, and deliver services and messages in new ways. Our case studies illustrate all of these points:

  • reaching new audiences – the consultation by the Law Commission and Christchurch City Council;
  • establishing communities of practice – the breastfeeding community facilitated by the Ministry of Health and the images provided to the New Zealand Historic Places Trust;
  • providing services – the weather forecasts provided by MetService and recruitment activity of the New Zealand Police; and
  • delivering messages – immunisation and public health messages by Waikato District Health Board and the campaigns of Women's Refuge.

Keeping the quality of content high is an essential factor in maintaining the public's interest in social media. For a Facebook page, there are recognised techniques for maintaining public interest. Figure 7 shows how frequently the public entities in our review used some of the more common techniques. Less interactive techniques, which reduce the potential for conversations, were more common than other techniques.

Figure 7
Our review of Facebook pages: Prevalence of techniques to maintain audience interest

Figure 7 Our review of Facebook pages: Prevalence of techniques to maintain audience interest.

These techniques are not mutually exclusive, so any number can be used at the same time on a Facebook page. Figure 8 shows how frequently the entities in our review used multiple techniques. Just over half of the Facebook pages used more than two techniques simultaneously.

Figure 8
Our review of Facebook pages: Frequency of use of multiple techniques to maintain audience interest

Figure 8 Our review of Facebook pages: Frequency of use of multiple techniques to maintain audience interest.


Social media is sometimes best learnt through experience. Generally, our work suggests that senior managers who use social media in their personal lives tend to be more open to its business opportunities. Entities need an approach that allows for experimentation and learning.

In our view, an approach that facilitates the sharing of knowledge and learning throughout the public sector would be beneficial. Many public entities told us that they did not know how to access any collated and shared learning about social media use in the public sector. Without a mechanism for sharing knowledge and learning, there is a risk of inefficiency because several public entities could make similar mistakes instead of benefiting from each other's experience.

Women's Refuge reflected on its 2011 fundraising and awareness-raising campaign and identified what went well and where it could have improved. It concluded that it needed to reach out to the same audience, but in a less labour-intensive way. These lessons were built into its 2012 campaign.

The Ministry of Health experimented with different ways to attract new members to its Breastfeeding NZ Facebook community and found competitions to be effective. It also learnt that seeding topics into the Facebook pages kept the conversation going and maintained interest.

The New Zealand Police reflected on why its initial recruitment campaign was less successful among the Pasifika community compared to other target groups. A lack of related content, such as "Better work stories" featuring Pasifika people, was one possible explanation. The Police modified its approach and exceeded its Pasifika recruitment target by 44% the following year.

Christchurch City Council used the information from Share an Idea in other ways, such as ideas for temporary developments in the central city and the New Urban Village project (an international design competition).

New Zealand Historic Places Trust learnt that crowdsourcing is an effective way to tap into the community's interest in heritage and desire to help, which can supplement the Trust's limited resources. The Trust is now considering whether there are other opportunities that it can apply this model to.


Evaluating and measuring the effectiveness of social media is an evolving area. Entities will have different ideas about what to measure and how to measure it, depending on their objectives for using social media.

The results of social media efforts should deliver some form of outcome. In our view, public entities need to know "what success would look like" and have thought about how they will measure their progress towards those objectives. We note that the social media guidance produced by the Department of Internal Affairs includes suggestions about approaches to measurement.

For some of the entities in our case studies, measurement was easier because there was a direct and tangible output or outcome. For:

  • the New Zealand Police, it was the number of police recruits;
  • the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, it was the number of Register entries that featured an image;
  • Women's Refuge, it was the result of the fundraising drive and the number of requests for help; and
  • Christchurch City Council, it was the number of ideas submitted about the central city rebuild.

Measurement is about outcomes

Social media is easiest to measure and evaluate when there is a clear outcome to be achieved. Measuring is more difficult when the outcome or output is less tangible, qualitative, or part of a co-ordinated campaign that is difficult to disaggregate. It is still possible to measure the contribution that using social media can make, but it requires entities to give more thought to what success looks like.

For example, MetService needs to know how well informed people are about the weather and their level of satisfaction with the service that MetService provides. For the Law Commission, success depended on the quality of submissions rather than just the quantity. One rational and insightful submission can be worth more than hundreds of poorly constructed or inaccurate submissions.

Considered communication

Entities often start with social media by listening to what people are saying about the organisation. MetService described its approach like this:

If people are already talking about the organisation on social media, why wouldn't we decide to be part of it?

However, any engagement in social media can reveal discontent that an entity might not have anticipated, or might be more negative than expected. Not all types of social media provide the means to moderate or remove comments; sometimes, moderating or removing challenging comments is not the best course of action. Entities need to recognise this and be prepared for it, which includes actively considering which social media platforms allow a degree of control appropriate to what the entity is trying to achieve, and how negative sentiments will be responded to.

Three of our case studies encountered negative sentiment:

  • The New Zealand Police learned to balance the interests of free expression with the welfare of the people the Police were connecting to through social media. For example, when unfounded, unrelated, or even abusive comments were made through social media, advocates would initially come to Police's defence. But the advocates were seen to retreat as they became the targets of abusive commentary. This pattern was at odds with the Police's objective – inspiring and encouraging potential recruits. With that in mind, the moderators of the Police's social media pages made a policy decision to be less tolerant of abusive comments. The moderators used their discretion to suppress the views of users who repeatedly posted anti-social comments. The Police described the new approach as being "true to your audience".
  • The Law Commission reported some minor negative feedback during its consultation exercise. The Law Commission had been clear about the terms of participation, which included that comments would be moderated.
  • Waikato District Health Board's immunisation campaign attracted comments from some anti-immunisation groups opposed to the District Health Board's measles message, but the negative sentiment was received through channels other than social media.

The other four entities in our case studies did not report any significant issues with negative feedback or posts.

Language is different

The informal nature of social media means a different type of language is required. Writing for the web is different to writing for printed matter. People tend to scan content on the web, hunting for the information they want, rather than reading word by word. Web-friendly content draws on plain English principles: clear and simple language with shorter words, active verbs, and simple sentence structures. The language used in social media is often anonymous, public, and informal.

These characteristics can present problems for public entities, especially when they have complex information to communicate or must adhere to certain legal requirements. If these matters are not thoughtfully considered, they can prevent the conversation that entities are trying to have with the public.

Conventions such as Twitter's 140 character limit are forcing entities to communicate in a shorter, clearer way. MetService uses Twitter to send weather information to its 11,000 followers using no more than 140 characters, so the dialogue is short and effective. MetService has also learnt that people who use social media want to talk about their experiences, so MetService encourages staff to enter the conversation and reveal some of their personality.

Christchurch City Council learnt that ideas and processes have to be simple to make participation easy. Although there was some initial resistance, it meant simplifying ideas and providing web-friendly content. For example, using what the Council called "real" language, seven complicated planning workstreams were simplified into four colour-coded themes and a single word was chosen to represent each theme:

  • Move – for transport issues;
  • Market – for work and business;
  • Space – for the environment; and
  • Life – for homes, leisure, and culture.

This made it easy for people to understand and get involved in the conversation.

5: See, for example,

6: The Conference Board and the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University.

7: See

8: See

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