PARN Updates: How has Social Media Changed?

As we approach the launch of our next Sector Review, we look back at one of the key articles from last year’s publication. Here our Head of Research Rob Denny assesses the development of social media over the last decade, and provides an overview of how professional bodies have approached the rise of social.

2015 saw us look back at the last 50 years in the professional body sector. This year, we’re focusing on the future of the sector, assessing top issues such as automation, leadership and member engagement.

Find out more and attend our  2016 launch! 


Our overall theme of long term change in the 2015 Sector Review is particularly applicable to social media. The most obvious change is of course the invention of the Internet. This technological innovation has facilitated a fundamental transformation in the organisation of social and economic life in ways that could not have been conceived 50 years ago. Even more recently, the development of Web 2.0 may yet prove to have changed things once again. The shift from a passive static web to user-generated dynamic content now means that it is no longer broadcast and consumption, but engagement and creation which is the central feature of this interconnected network.

This year, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter will be 12, 11 and 9 years old respectively. If a crude weighing of number of users means anything, it is these platforms that, for the time at least, seem to have risen to the top of the social media hierarchy. In technology terms, these platforms have been around for quite a while. As the writer Clay Shirky argues, ‘it’s only when technology starts to become boring that its social effects start to become interesting.’ In other words, it is only when the use of new technologies become integrated routinely into our everyday social and business practises, and we stop thinking of them as ‘new’, that their full potential really starts to be felt.

PARN’s social media research project takes a systematic look at the use of social media in the professional body sector and suggests that its use is certainly becoming accepted as a central component of organisations’ wider communication and engagement strategy. We ask questions about professional bodies’ social media strategy, and how, if at all, it is resourced. We ask if organisations have a way to measure ROI when it comes to social media. We also engage with issues of internal governance including the formalisation of policy and procedures, and the necessity or desirability of these. Elsewhere in the research, we ask how well social media is understood across the different elements of the organisation. Do professional bodies need to deal with issues of monitoring and oversight? What is the appropriate balance to strike between formal control of social media output and maintenance of an authentic voice? With more than 120 responses, these questions are clearly of significant interest to professional bodies, too.

Our initial results have been striking. What has emerged from our survey work is a picture of strong engagement with social media, right across the sector. We know from our data that the overwhelming majority of professional bodies currently operate at least one or more ‘official’ social media accounts (93%). Similarly, we know that Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are most commonly used and that around 80% of respondents felt that these platforms were either ‘Important’ or ‘Very Important’ for the organisation. Of these platforms, Twitter is where professional bodies feel most at home, with more than 90% claiming to have had at least some success in its use.

But perhaps most interesting of all is how ‘laid back’ professional bodies seem to be about social media. Very few survey respondents reported any real anxiety about using social media, with few concerns consistently felt across the sector. Indeed, a little under half of responding organisations have no staff usage policy in place for social media engagement. Of those that did, often this was in the form of general guidelines or informal chats about appropriate content. Who knows, maybe this is because nothing really bad has happened, yet?  Or maybe this easy-going attitude is the first sign of organisations getting bored? If so, then perhaps things are about to get interesting.

Read more about current & upcoming research projects from PARN.

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