For those of us who follow the tech world, big tech has suffered in the press lately. Even development practitioners have been getting in on the game. However, I like to keep things interesting—so here is a positive story about Facebook helping catalyze a community of innovators in Cambodia on the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Development Innovations (DI) program.

From 2013 to 2019, DI helped civil society organizations (CSOs), technology companies, social enterprises, and young innovators design and use information and communications technology (ICT) solutions to tackle Cambodia’s development challenges. A key aspect of DI’s success was its ability to harness social media to advance project goals. DI’s approach to strategic communications was twofold: not only did DI create captivating social media content, but it trained Cambodian CSOs and social enterprises to tell their own compelling stories using data-driven insights and smartphones. In doing so, DI helped demystify a new communications method for Cambodian civil society. They can now reach thousands of people more quickly and less expensively than ever before, and to better understand and liaise with the people they serve.

20191130 - DI Office Photos-5.jpgPhoto courtesy DI.

The Context: In Cambodia, Facebook is King

Facebook is unquestionably the most popular social media platform in Cambodia. As noted in the 2019 Start-Up Kingdom report, more than 40 percent of Cambodia’s population used Facebook in early 2018, with this number expected to rapidly grow to more than 50 percent in less than a year. According to a poll conducted to inform this report, 38 percent of respondents reported using the Internet—but 46 percent reported using Facebook. This implies that a decent chunk of the Cambodian population perceives Facebook to be the internet.

Based on my own personal experience, Facebook pervades almost all aspects of life in Phnom Penh. From using Facebook Messenger for professional purposes (instead of email), to buying goods and services, to advertising events, to making restaurant reservations, Facebook is ubiquitous. For this reason, DI focused its social media efforts on Facebook—though many of its lessons learned are applicable to any social media platform.

Using Social Media to Advance Program Objectives

DI’s significant Facebook (and, to a lesser extent, YouTube and Twitter) presence helped build DI’s brand and lend credibility to its partners and grantees. Facebook proved transformative for the project. On a near daily basis, the DI team designed, generated, and published Facebook posts and videos in Khmer and English to its 46,000+ followers, which generated an average monthly reach of 150,000. Some DI videos posted to Facebook went viral within Cambodia. For example, a video about smartphone video training was viewed almost 250,000 times and shared more than 800 times in less than four months in 2019.

5.JPGPhoto courtesy DI.

DI Built a Trusted Brand

  • Serving as a trusted source of information—DI marketed its social media channels as the definitive source of information for Cambodian organizations using technology to increase their social impact. The DI team regularly posted content on a range of topics—everything from new funding opportunities within Cambodia’s tech ecosystem, videos with tips and tricks for professional networking, photos from its own events, and job ads for roles at trusted tech organizations. In addition to promoting its own programming, DI regularly highlighted its partners and their accomplishments, as well as other actors in the ecosystem. This brought greater attention to its beneficiaries, helped win the trust of key stakeholders, and allowed DI to gain visibility among key players within Cambodia’s civic tech ecosystem and the broader public. These varied tactics helped increase its number of followers, and by extension, the reach of its posts and videos.
  • Using analytics to drive relevant content—The DI team regularly used social media analytics to analyze the performance of their posts and videos. On a monthly basis, the team used Facebook’s Audience Insights tool to analyze the reach and popularity of their posts. The team optimized content, emulating successful posts (in terms of likes, reshares, and overall reach) and dropping less popular content. For example, 2016 data showed that videos were viewed much more frequently than written posts or photos, leading the team to prioritize videos. By the end of 2019, DI videos were generating thousands of likes in less than a week. DI also tracked analytics on its network of decision-makers and donors through Twitter and created content that spoke to their needs.
  • Investing in its strategic communications function–DI prioritized its strategic communications staff as a means to achieve its project goals, setting it apart from many other donor-funded projects. By the end of DI’s lifespan, more than one-third of DI staff members focused on social media strategy and content creation and on training up local partners in this niche area. Bringing this set of capabilities in-house made the DI team more agile, and able to understand and execute on the needs of the project and the local tech sector. It also helped ensure that its strategic communications coaches—working with local partners to improve their communications functions—also reflected DI’s values and built its brand.

Training Local Partners in Social Media and Strategic Communications

A key aspect of DI’s programming was providing Khmer language training, mentoring, and coaching services on social media and smartphone video to Cambodian CSOs. These courses and subsequent one-on-one mentoring and coaching sessions helped these CSOs use data-driven insights to develop and execute communications strategies tailored to their target audience. With practical tips and tricks optimized for a Cambodian audience, these trainings have changed the way that Cambodian CSOs share their message, engage with supporters and beneficiaries, run advocacy campaigns, attract funding, and tell stories in the digital age. For example, one organization reported achieving a 400 percent increase in its Facebook video views and a tenfold increase in its likes immediately after taking DI’s social media training, growing its beneficiary reach by 230 percent through enhanced online engagement. In addition, at least six organizations trained by DI have reported training their beneficiaries or other organizations in smartphone video and social media. This shows the relevance of this training beyond the project funding and initial technical assistance provided by DI, which greatly amplified the impact of DI’s trainings.

IMG_1628.jpgPhoto courtesy DI.

Tips on Using Social Media to Engage Your Audience

The impact of DI’s social media and smartphone video training, mentoring, and coaching services on Cambodia’s civil society landscape was unprecedented. The ability to tell compelling stories and create strong visual content for the digital age will last well beyond the life of the DI project. So, what can your project learn from DI to build a strong social media presence for the purpose of promoting and achieving its project goals?

1. Invest in a strong strategic communications team—Bring in strong local talent to manage your strategic communications, execute on your social media strategy, and create content that resonates with your target audience. Strategic communications roles are often the first to go when project budgets get slashed—but they should not be.

2. Know your user (and their preferred platforms)—Every target population has its own preferred social media platforms and ways of communicating on those platforms. Figure out where your users are and meet them there.

3. Use accessible, affordable digital tools—It’s 2020, folks! Smartphones and free video editing platforms abound. Lacking an expensive camera or editing equipment is not an excuse.

4. Create relevant local content—Localize, localize, localize. If your content is not relevant to your target audience audience, or in a language they do not understand, they will not pay attention.

5. Experiment with different formats—Use Facebook Audience Insights or other data analytics tools to determine which formats and messages resonate most with your target audience, then continue iterating and building upon this format.

6. Keep the conversation going—No sense in being (digitally) quiet once your social media machine is up and running. Engaging with your audience can help build trust and make them feel connected to the work you are doing.

7. Do not forget the people who are not on social media!—In your communications strategies, remember to address your offline audience, including stakeholders that do not follow social media closely. DI also reached citizens through in-person presentations and pitches at community events across the country and reached decision-makers and donors through a web-based monthly newsletter.

Convinced? You can access all of DI’s training materials and research on the ICT4D toolkit and see how you could use them, adapt them, or create your own strategic communications practice to help engage new audiences.

Good luck!