In January 2015, we packaged our early lessons from the first City Accelerator Cohort into a Guide for Embedding Innovation in Local Government, and learned "what works" about sharing knowledge in real-time.

This Throwback Thursday blog was originally posted on June 16, 2015. You can now view a full report to learn more about our findings and lessons.

One of our key objectives at Living Cities, is to help cities across the country apply some of the most promising practices bubbling up in places like Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, or the Albuquerque Mayor’s Office and Innovation Teams from New Orleans to Tel Aviv.

In fact, this was built into the focus of our first cohort of the City Accelerator, a project which brought three cities, Louisville, Nashville and Philadelphia, together to collectively learn how to make government innovation course-of-business, with an explicit focus on low-income people.

Throughout the first cohort, Louisville, Nashville and Philadelphia focused on sharing with and learning from one another. And out of that came an important milestone in our open- sourcing efforts – the release of The City Accelerator Guide for Embedding Innovation in Local Government (the Guide), authored by Nigel Jacob, Co-founder of Boston’s New Urban Mechanics. The Guide articulates our evolving thinking about how to build an enduring culture and practice of local government innovation.

Why Publish A Guide?

City Accelerator Guide Tablet Mockup

The City Accelerator Guide, viewed on an ipad.

The content itself was built on and inspired by the successes and lessons of efforts like Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Delivery Teams, and offers practical action steps and helpful examples for local government officials to adapt and adopt. We hypothesized that A) documenting our thinking would make the ideas more mobile and accessible for local-government practitioners and that B) the “tried-and-true” guidebook format would lend credibility to the approaches we put forth. Thus, we saw the guidebook as a tool which could make it easier for cities to build an enduring culture and practice of innovation. We plan to update the guide as we learn from the work of the City Accelerator cohort and our other public sector innovation efforts, and to build out additional content to help cities implement what we learn.

Learning From Our Efforts

The timing of the Guide’s release was serendipitous. As the Guide came together, my team, (which oversees Knowledge and Communications at Living Cities) had decided to more rigorously measure the impact of our open-sourcing and storytelling efforts. We wanted to take the dive, and deepen our understanding of what was working. What kind of content resonated with the people on the ground, leading social change work? What isn’t working? What do our stakeholders need that we can better deliver? We even engaged digital and analytics partners at Threespot, so we could better measure, understand and continuously improve upon our knowledge offerings.

By applying our measurement and analytics efforts to the Guide, which was explicitly created to further ideas and imperatives for innovation in cities beyond the three in the cohort, we learned a few valuable lessons for any organization looking to open-source social change. Now, we’re sharing lessons about three things we learned are working, that we would replicate, and three things we’ll probably change. (You can read more about the communications strategies we implemented and what we measured in the full report, coming soon!).

3 Things We Learned are Working

1) Communications: More than Just Talk

First, our results proved that we were able to significantly expand the reach of Living Cities’ resources, content and tools by accompanying their launch with a holistic knowledge and communications strategy. For the Guide, we specifically targeted audiences that we believed would be interested in the content (e.g. folks working in city government and funders of public sector innovation efforts). The overall return on the investment (ROI) of our efforts was high.

This may not come as a surprise to some folks. But, the key here is that we were able to gather data to demonstrate that our efforts to share the Guide on social media–and other platforms where the target audiences already go to get information–drove the significant boost in traffic and engagement to the guide. For instance, we measured site traffic to the Guide, and compared the Guide’s performance to prior resources launched without a targeted dissemination strategy in place. Over the course of the pilot, the Guide performed 78% to 95% better than these “low-touch” resources (by pageviews and unique visits). By monitoring user behavior by referral source, we found that visitors who came to the Guide via Living Cities’ promotion efforts spent an above average amount of time exploring and engaging with the content. These visitors stayed on the page for an average of 03:25 minutes, compared to our 01:09 minute site average. In addition, saw three times its usual traffic during the launch period for the Guide.

2) Partnership: Finding The Perfect Match

Related, the real success of the Guide came from the fruits of our partnership with and the Citi Foundation. We had a hypothesis when we launched the City Accelerator: we believed that working with partners who were already connected with our target audiences would help us extend the reach and impact of our work. We acknowledged that different platforms have different audiences, and identified Governing as a key partner–in part because of the overlap and volume of audiences who already saw Governing as a reliable, trusted source of information on municipal innovation. For the Guide, we followed this hunch and developed a strategy that fully tapped Governing’s network and brand, from banner ads on the City Accelerator microsite, to features in a weekly Governing newsletter. And it paid off. Governing was our #1 Referral site during the period in which we launched the Guide And, referrals from Governing accounted for 13% of the traffic to the Living Cities website as a whole during this period, up from an average of 3.9%.

3) Social Media: The LinkedIn Effect

One piece of data that really jumped out at us, however, was how well the guide performed on LinkedIn. Nearly 60 LinkedIn users shared the guide in groups or on their pages. That’s independent of interaction with the post on Living Cities’ LinkedIn Page. You can compare this with approximately 20 shares of the Guide on Facebook and 0-10 Linkedin shares of other resources we released late last year!

We learned that there is a core audience who uses LinkedIn to find information on municipal innovation, stay in-the-know and connect with others in the field. By measuring social sharing behavior around the Guide, we were able to identify LinkedIn as a platform to focus on and craft targeted knowledge strategies around in the future.

3 Things We Would Change

1) Design Strategies around Desired Outcomes:

Strategic communications efforts can have a lot of return on investment, as I said previously. However, these efforts take time and pay off most when they are tied to specific goals, or targeted outcomes. Our goals were broad (e.g. Get the guide in front of local government practitioners). So we know, generally, that the Guide was received well, but we haven’t yet been able to track HOW those audiences are using lessons from the Guide in their own work. Nor have we been able to really narrow down what pieces of our audiences found most useful – not without more follow-up! So, a logical next step as we continue to iterate on the Guide and other related content is to build feedback loops—like polling questions or email sign-ups–into our content and communications strategies to help us to better understand the impact of our work.

2) Packaging Does Matter

Related to our goals, we designed, formatted and packaged our lessons from The City Accelerator into the Guide-format based on assumptions about how our targeted audiences consume content. As we have learned more about the audience for this type of resource and what is useful to them, we have begun to reassess our assumptions. For instance, as we look at a version 2.0 of the Guide, we are considering formatting the content in smaller, more bite-sized pieces, so practitioners can access what’s useful to their situations or cities individually, as well as review the whole. Because our learning is ongoing, we are also thinking about ways to enable feedback from others to supplement our own learning. In this way, we believe that we can accelerate progress towards a next version of the Guide that harnesses the best thinking available. This can also inform our own public sector innovation practice.

3) Timelines and Deadlines Oh My!

We’re all about Build-Measure-Learn. Often, at Living Cities, we’re working to finish laying the tracks as the train is already in motion. It’s worked for us in the past, allowing us to get plans into action, and discover emergent lessons in half-baked ideas. But in this case, it actually hurt our ability to measure and learn. For example, we launched the Guide on an internal deadline, before fully setting up features in our Google Analytics account that would help us track progress toward our goals. The additional data that we could have collected had we been align our communications goals with our program goals would have helped us to better understand how folks engaged with the content.

By coordinating promotion from multiple partners across targeted platforms where we could meet key audiences where they are, we extended the “discoverability” of the City Accelerator Guide, making it accessible to new audiences. We look forward to building on the lessons learned through this process to better understand how people are actually using the next version of the guide!

Resource Document: The City Accelerator Guide Report on Analytics, Impact and Learning
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Images courtesy of Magic Mockups.