At the end of a journey you should always pause and look back over the distance you have travelled. And a journey of nine years certainly warrants a period of reflection.
Last month saw the end of our management of the R4D news portal and social media. Internal restructuring meant that DFID research was no longer to be written about and promoted via a separate channel and the DFID UK social media team were to take over tweets while any news items would appear alongside other less audience specific news items.
It can be difficult to let go of something you put energy into; something that you believe in and watch daily to see it grow and increase in influence. However, while in many ways this transformation might seem sad it also offered the space for contemplation on the value of the automatic categorisation and separation of research communication from other more generic development communications. This space gave me the chance to consider how a news service dedicated to development research actually served its users.
In the first few days following the handover I found myself wondering, in the moments when I would normally have been scouring the R4D database for interesting outputs or scrolling through the different RPC websites, whether the R4D users would still be able to access all the information they needed, and perhaps more significantly, the information they didn’t even know they needed.
This was the point I kept coming back to- the users who had not yet been reached by R4D and the little known research projects or resources that might now not find their way out onto the broader online stage. For, while the key research calls will of course still be publicised as will major new projects and allocated funding, as the editor of the R4D newswire I had always taken a delicious joy in finding that story which was not on the main agenda. One that might echo discussions in the general media but that until I stumbled across it on a project website had not been openly displayed to the R4D audience. This was the strength of a channel dedicated to research, I felt.
However, was I right? Part of our job involved monitoring the reach and engagement of each story both on the DFID website and when promoted via the R4D twitter and Facebook profiles and it was invariably the case that funding opportunities gained the greatest response from users. Understandable and indisputable perhaps, but I would argue that those smaller stories still had their worth. It might sound like a cliché but even if just one user found their way to something useful via one of the items on the R4D newswire then I felt it was worth it. After all, as the open data evangelists will tell you, all research, whether good or bad, informs better research.
But these were my assumptions. Perhaps my dreams. We could monitor, and we did, the reach of our posts and tweets; we watched the audiences grow exponentially on both the Twitter and facebook profiles and ensured that we maintained a vibrant and pertinent presence within the wider development research online community. This M&E was valued in itself, with R4D developing a usage dashboard visible to all users as part of DFID’s commitment to transparency. But while numbers increased could this be said to proportionally represent worth in the news items themselves? How were the users served by having a news wire tailored specifically to development research professionals?
Arguably, this is a question that can only be answered in retrospect. As the R4D database moves forward without its dedicated news platform perhaps something measurable will emerge in download statistics or click-throughs- but it is doubtful. It is difficult to track a lack of referrals, an absence of influence. So perhaps its value can only be captured anecdotally by continuing to listen to the voices within the R4D online community. But again, as the value I perceived existed in the discoveries not yet made and the users not yet reached, this will be difficult to capture. It is hard to notice, and bemoan the lack of, something you have not yet discovered.
So perhaps my assumptions are hard to prove. Yet, in the days following the handover that so quickly filled with other work- other stories to be written, other users to engage-I found myself increasingly confident in my conviction that there was value in this sort of categorisation- in specified communication channels.
It is such a noisy world. If you can make it easier for your users to hear then do so! The R4D users came to R4D because they were interested in development research issues- it provided a quieter space where even the smallest of stories had the chance of being heard. To me that is still worth a great deal.
While the R4D news platform may be no longer, DFID UK continue to manage the @DFID_Research twitter account. I will continue to engage with this community and will take the lessons learned from my time managing and editing R4D news into my other work- I will continue to develop strategies that not only speak to an established and identified audience but that seek to build that audience, to seek out the unimagined users.
And while monitoring and evaluation played a central role in our management of the R4D editorial and social media, perhaps one thing it has taught me is that some of the most significant pathways are not measurable- that sometimes you have to factor in the value of those invisible influences. And sometimes the unseen pathways are the most effective.