State Department officials spent $630,000 to get more Facebook "likes," prompting employees to complain to a government watchdog that the bureau was "buying fans" in social media, the agency's inspector general says.
The department's Bureau of International Information Programs spent the money to increase its "likes" count between 2011 and March 2013.
"Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaigns as 'buying fans' who may have once clicked on an ad or 'liked' a photo but have no real interest in the topic and have never engaged further," the inspector general reported.
The spending increased the bureau's English-language Facebook page likes from 100,000 to more than 2 million and to 450,000 on Facebook's foreign-language pages.
Despite the surge in likes, the IG said the effort failed to reach the bureau's target audience, which is largely older and more influential than the people liking its pages. Only about 2 percent of fans actually engage with the pages by liking, sharing or commenting.
In September 2012 Facebook also changed its approach to users' news feeds, and the expensive "fan" campaigns became much less valuable. The bureau now must constantly pay for sponsored ads to keep its content visible even to people who have already liked its pages.
Another problem with the bureau's social media outreach is a lack of strategy for reaching the right audience, the report said.
"The absence of a Department wide PD [public diplomacy] strategy tying resources to priorities directly affects IIP's work. Fundamental questions remain unresolved. What is the proper balance between engaging young people and marginalized groups versus elites and opinion leaders?" the IG said.
Not only does the bureau lack its own social media strategy, but various State Department bureaus have more than 150 social media accounts that are uncoordinated and often overlap, according to the IG.