Tameside MBC, evidence and the £36,665 Second Life presence

SimonGeneral

Today’s seen a fair bit of coverage of one council’s foray into Second Life back in 2008 and how much it all cost. You can see the Daily Mail’s slant here and the MJ’s here

I will freely admit I know nothing about Tameside and the thinking or decisions behind this project, so all I’m basing my thoughts on this on the documents that have been released under the Freedom of Information Act in response to a request by Liam Billington.

I’m always reluctant to blog about stories like this without a rounded view of the facts, but having read the documents released there are just some obvious things that are crying out to be said about this. To allow you to make your own mind up about this, you can read all the documents and Liam Billington’s follow-up request here.

So, to cut a long story short it seems that Tameside MBC commissioned a company called Second Places to build them a presence in virtual world Second Life. The company had also produced similar Second Life presences for Manchester and Oldham. The total cost for the presence was £36665 and the project was seen as a pilot – essentially to test the water with a new and innovative digital presence.

The scoping document produced by Second Places looks like the best summary of what was envisaged – you can read it all here. What are also worth a read are the internal report that were put forward for approval of the project – the first that was written in February 2008 is here, while a second produced in May 2008 is here.

The first report to the management team  includes this paragraph:

Second Life presents a real opportunity to be at the forefront of a new technology which provides new ways of interacting with the community. It gives us the chance to empower and engage with hard to reach groups…It allows Tameside to establish itself as a leader in the use of new technologies, in new ways of doing things and it is an opportunity to publicise the borough on a global scale. This could be the next railways and canals opportunity, transforming our services in a dynamic and accessible way for the benefit of all in the borough.

The second report is more detailed and includes quite a lot of detail about what’s being proposed and how it would benefit the council:

As highlighted at the workshop the applications for Second Life can be as wide in scope as Real Life, but we have decided to concentrate on the following areas on the basis of that these might be the areas that TMBC would find easiest to demonstrate tangible benefits to the business and community:-

  • Virtual Council Office
  • Service Delivery Applications
  • Consultation Applications
  • SME Support Service Applications
  • Community Engagement Applications

Now regular readers of my blog or people that have heard me speak at conferences or on training courses will know I’m a big fan of evidence. Real evidence that proves a point about why public sector organisations should or shouldn’t do something. That means basing decisions on a particular communications or engagement tool on real facts about current usage among the target audience and, in the case of pilot projects, realistic estimates of likely future usage.

I’ve read through all the documentation released about this project. What’s strikingly missing is any evidence of an assessment of who the presence is aimed at (beyond a very untargetted “Tameside residents), any clear outcomes or measurable objectives, or indeed a very basic assessement of how many Tameside residents might be Second Life users (or even potential Second Life users).

While ideally this kind of evidence would come from primary research – for example the inclusion of a question in a representative piece of research about levels of Second Life use – it’s not that difficult to get a steer of levels of usage from publicly available information.

From what I can read in what has been released by Tameside MBC that didn’t happen, so here’s how I would have approached measuring the likely audience for a presence in Second Life back in May 2008 when the project was approved:

  • Based on publicly available data in February 2008 from the people that run Second Life , the UK then had 41182 active Second Life users
  • At the time the TMBC report was written, the best estimate of the UK resident population from the Office for National Statistics was  60,587,300.
  • That means the penetration of Second Life users within the UK population at that time was 0.00067971%
  • The estimated population of Tameside MBC (admittedly in 2005, but I don’t imagine the growth that may have occurred would be significant in this analysis) is 214,100.
  • As a rough estimate of audience size for the Tameside pilot project, it’s reasonable to apply the UK penetration of active Second Life users to the Tameside MBC population – giving an estimated number of Second Life users living in the Tameside MBC area as 146 at the time the trial was commissioned.
  • Around that time Second Life was reporting user sign-up growth of 10-15% per month – so taking the most favourable growth rate of 15% per month in active users (and that’s generous because not all new sign-ups will convert to active users), the 146 estimated users in the TMBC areas would become 656 users after a year or 2578 users after two years

Leaving aside the upfront costs to set the presence up, the two year running costs for the Second Life presence were £9940 (comprising “rental and support”) – that’s £4970 per year.

So in year one, the average estimated number of Second Life users in the area would be 401 (assuming a linear growth rate from the initial total number of users of 146 to the end of year total of 656) – and that’s using that all Second Life users chose to interact with the council’s presence on Second Life – which will be an overestimate, but again let’s take the most favourable view.

That means in year one there would have been an estimated 401 users against a running cost of £4970 – £12.39 per active user.

And remember this analysis is using data available at the time the trial was commissioned. I don’t have the SOCITM channel benchmarking data to hand, but it’s hard to argue that an online presence with such a low penetration is worth £12.39 per active user – especially when all those users will, by default, have access to the internet where a fully interactive online presence is available to all online residents anyway.

I don’t want to labour the point further on this one. I recognise the importance of innovation and testing in public sector communications – but that must be within the bounds of a resonable expectation about what might come out of the end of a pilot project.

My main thought on this is that as communicators (and others working in the local public sector) that commission communications and engagement tools to help us communicate and deliver services to people we must make decisions based on the best evidence we have available at the time. We need to avoid hype, bandwagon jumping and pet projects so that we can make decisions that will deliver the right outcomes at the right cost.

Being able to evidence our decisions in communications and marketing has always been important. We won’t always make the right calls and mistakes will be made, but what we do choose to do should be based on sound professional judgements the best information available to us at the time.

That’s always been important and will be increasingly more important as public sector spending is opened up to public scrutiny in the coming months.

So I’m not writing this in any way to criticise those involved with this project directly, but the thing I take away from reading about the whole experience is a renewed commitment to use evidence in making decisions on communications and marketing and challenging others to do the same.

Without good evidence-based decision making  the Tameside MBC Second Life won’t be the last of this kind of story that we’ll read in the next 12 months.