A Different Way to Think About Countering ISIS’s Social Media Campaigns

This piece in the Wall Street Journal goes into length covering the efforts of the State Department to combat ISIS’s successful social media campaigns which the group uses to recruit foreign fighters.

The long story short of it is that the State Department’s efforts have been dismal due to miniscule budget funding and lack of applicable experience by the diplomats in charge of the mission.

Just because a person has been a diplomat, with deep subject matter experience, does not make them adept at leading what is essentially a marketing campaign.

When BP had the huge oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico and oil was washing up on beaches in Texas and Louisiana, I’m quite certain that the people hired to counter criticism of the company were not the same ones charged with finding untapped oil reserves.

One video, produced by the State Department veteran Alberto Fernandez, was so off the mark with its sarcasm it was lambasted on HBO by comedian John Oliver.

“Welcome to ISIS Land” went on to be viewed in numbers never approached by any of the center’s other films. But even now it is not clear that any of those viewers were ever at risk of joining the Islamic State, let alone diverted from that path.

To Fernandez, the center has been subjected to an impossible standard.

“How do you prove a negative?” he asked. “Unless some guy comes out with his hands up and says, ‘I was going to become a terrorist. I saw your video. I loved it. I changed my mind.’ You’re never going to get that.”

There are a few things wrong with Fernandez’s thinking and it demonstrates his lack of marketing experience.

One is that he’s measuring success on too large of a scale.

Often times it takes several small steps to reach your objective. He should have been thinking about micro conversions to have a more realistic chance of success. Defining those steps forward as goals helps bring the process into better focus.

This, in the conversion rate optimization world, is about as 101 as it gets.

Another thing wrong with his approach is that as terrible as the video may have been, it did get more views than anything else the team had produced. That in itself is a small victory and the video should’ve been analyzed to see what can be taken from it to be used for future efforts.

You need to learn from each campaign, test, and effort. Even if you lose, you need to learn something from the failure to inform the next efforts.

Again, 101 for anyone working in the optimization field for marketing or education.

What would be a better way for the State Department to conduct these sort of campaigns?

Coming up with reasonable metrics of success would be a great place to start. These might look something like decreasing the rate of growth of the ISIS social media campaigns. For example, if new ISIS video when launched averages 1,000 plays per hour, reducing this view rate by 10% after 6 months of counter campaigns would be considered success.

Videos, social posts, etc. by the State Department could also be measured by their own view/share rate to test different themes against each other. Businesses use split testing like this all the time to great success.

No doubt that the effort would require serious efforts over the course of several years especially when dealing with confirmation bias of its target audience.

Skeptical, Stengel cited what he said researchers have called “the backfire effect: when you try to disabuse somebody who has a strongly held belief, more often than not it makes their belief even stronger.”


The state department’s task might be difficult, but not impossible.

Having worked in the conversion rate optimization (CRO) for as long as I have, and knowing some of the talented people who inhabit this field, I have no doubt that the State Department’s efforts would benefit greatly if they took a business based approach to achieving their objective.


Posted in Optimized Education


I’m Keith Lovgren and I’ve worked in the field of conversion rate optimization for almost a decade.

Have an interesting project and budget to go with it? Let’s talk.

Of Note

I co founded Waves Of Impact, a non profit that provides free surf camps for kids with special challenges and wounded veterans.
Check out the fun we have at WavesOfImpact.com

Check out the fun we have at WavesOfImpact.com