In July 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quietly announced through its Federal Business Opportunities (FBO) page that it was seeking a partner to help it monitor what people are saying about the agency on various social media channels. And now, despite recently cancelling other proposed contracts, the agency has announced it has awarded the contract to software developer IB5k.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story noted the contract was for $182,000. The contract is actually for up to $182,000, but is a five-year contract with an initial expenditure of $43,000. Subsequent years are contingent upon conditions.
A hallmark of many businesses in the last few years has been the use of analytics tools to gauge the impact of various "campaigns," including on social media. For example, by using special proprietary links to articles, companies can detect how many people clicked through to a website from a particular social media channel like Twitter, how often something was shared or emailed and how engaged the audience that clicked through to a webpage was.
This information is used to varying degrees depending on the company or institution. For example, the US State Department was recently found to have spent nearly $630,000 on buying "likes" - a social measure of approval - on the social media website Facebook. Suffice it to say it was probably not the best use of taxpayer funding.
But in a 15 July 2013 notice on the FBO website, FDA said it is looking to purchase new software to help it gain a greater understanding of the impact of its social media campaigns.
"The goal of this acquisition is to utilize a social media monitoring and measurement software tool to better understand the FDA's and the Office of External Affairs' (OEA) social media outreach campaigns," it wrote. Continuing, it said the tool was needed to assist OEA in three areas:
- helping it to refine its future social media strategies by gauging the success and impact of current ones
- monitoring "overall conversations to see what the public is discussing about our work," as well as answering questions and developing content to serve consumer needs
- formulating an "at-a-glance" presentation of what FDA is working on for public audiences
The software FDA is calling for would be capable of monitoring a wide range of sources, including social media, blogs, mainstream media websites and even aggregator websites like Reddit and Digg. Critically, the tool would have to deliver these sorts of posts to FDA in real time to allow it to respond to incorrect information or questions as soon as possible, it said.
In addition, the tool would have to be able to segment information by language, sentiment (positive, neutral or negative), and specific keywords.
Joining the Conversation
FDA already uses several social media platforms to disseminate its message, including several Twitter accounts, a Facebook page, the photo-sharing website Flickr, and video-sharing site YouTube. The problem, however, is that those combined audiences only represent a fraction of the conversations now occurring on social media, and even monitoring what is said on the channels it is on can be extremely complicated.
At issue for the agency may well be staying on top of breaking news events-a disease outbreak related to a recalled product, for example-or even just managing its own reputation. Even a brief perusal of FDA's posts on Facebook reveals that the agency has no shortage of detractors.
Tools to Assist FDA
That's where IB5k's software is set to come into play, FDA revealed in a recent contract award announcement. The company, which has offices in Washington, DC and other major US cities, counts two major products among its most prized.
The first, Correlate, is described as a tool that allows companies to list to what people are saying about a company online. Key features include the ability to analyze the general mood of posts, as well as the audience demographics and the topics of interest-a crucial point for FDA, which regulates a diverse range of products. IB5k says the tool was originally developed for use by the US House of Representatives.
The second tool, Aware, is similar, though more focused on analyzing the impact of a company's own communications, evaluating how effective each social media posting is.
The award notice does not state which of the two tools (or if both) will be used by FDA. In response to Focus' questions, the FDA contract specialist in charge of the project said the agency could not comment on the exact software used due to procurement regulations. Attempts to reach IB5k for comment were unsuccessful.
FDA has committed to spending as much as $182,814 on the contract over five years, with the first year's spending to total $43,000. Subsequent years are subject to conditions and an FDA spokesman said the agency may choose not to renew.