In a piece at The Next Web, Simon Owens features the Heritage Foundation's successful social media apparatus ("Inside the social media strategy of a conservative think tank"). No doubt, the numbers are impressive: more than 110,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 305,000 fans on Facebook. By comparison, other think tanks hit their cap around 10,000 on Twitter and 15,000 on Facebook.
What explains the success? Heritage wants to say the growth is "organic."
“We actually started our Facebook growth pretty organically, in fact we got to 300,000 organically,” [Director of Strategic Communication Rory Cooper] said. “A lot of organizations use Facebook advertising to build up their fan bases. They look at the cost per fan and decide the investment is worth it. I do think that for a lot of organizations that is a worthwhile investment, but we didn’t have to do that. We have done a few small short term campaigns on Facebook, but mostly they were issue based, they weren’t to build up fans.”
That may be true--they don't seem to need to pay a service to find 10,000 Twitter followers in 48 hours for them--but it's also a factor of other things at work.
The Heritage Foundation has spent very significant resources in getting the message out; it has, arguably, the most extensive communications team of all the think tanks that is extremely prolific, disciplined and knowledgeable on the policy issues in their realm.
Heritage also has the unique advantage of a strong membership base over other think tanks. Heritage boasts a membership of more than 710,000 individuals who are willing to pay a yearly minimum of $25, which not only gives them a significant revenue stream, but also a large base of communicators for all things Heritage. It could be that the membership boost over the last year may be a direct result of smart social networking, so the relationship between membership and social networking may be, to some degree, reciprocal.
All campaigns, even if not primarily intended as social media campaigns, are social-media ready--meaning, nearly all Heritage communications are easily sharable for others to take it to Facebook, Twitter or whatever else is up-and-coming.
And perhaps that is where Heritage excels--providing the right conditions for others to do the sharing and social networking for them. Outlined in Owens' piece is the invention of Heritage Center for Media and Public Policy Director Rob Bluey--the Tuesday Bloggers Briefing--where (mostly) conservative bloggers are brought together each week for a short talk and Q&A with political figures bloggers may not otherwise have access to.
The question is: Will other think tanks ever be able to catch up to Heritage? Do they even want to?