Social media is more than just followers

By John Simpson, Federal Consultant

It’s a given that social media and its wide reach with the public has revolutionized how organizations and companies interact with their stakeholders. Communicating to citizens through channels like Facebook and Twitter allows for a free, easy and more direct connection. Much of the government has embraced social media, working to integrate their communication efforts with these new tools to better reach the public. However, outreach through social media cannot stop with the simple re-posting of press releases or resting on the laurels of a large number of “followers.” As budgets shrink and offices are forced to justify initiatives, wasting or ignoring that opportunity to engage with your audience on a personal level is not an option.

An organization needs to know its community. Why are these people signing up to read your posts and tweets in the first place? Likely it isn’t for only site updates or press releases. Your organization provides a basic service they need to know about, research information related to their major, or resources to help build up their small business. When you send out newsletters, you work to craft articles or emails to a certain group of stakeholders. It should be the same for your tweets and posts. The attention span of someone surfing their Twitter feed through a smart phone won’t have time for an ill-targeted or uninteresting tweet.suggestion box

Once you understand the needs of your followers, solicit their feedback or comments. Posting general information about upcoming programs, events or blog entries is important, but social media was built as a tool of engagement. Ask for their advice on how to improve a program or how to better serve a need. Take questions on an upcoming tax deadline, inquire what they spent their tax return on or pose trivia questions on national forests. Build relationships with your followers so that they are actually looking for your next post instead of dismissing it after a quick glance. Stakeholder feedback is an invaluable resource for any organization and social media makes it easier than ever to solicit. Some public organizations fear that asking for feedback can only lead down a dark road of criticism and unregulated commentary. Sometimes your biggest critic can turn into your best resource. The Department of Veterans Affairs went so far as hired one of its sharpest critics to become a blogger on their site.

fist bumpOutreach is a two-way street. Your followers may communicate to you questions or concerns around a recent initiative. Just like the private sector, customer service is crucial to any successful company. You should respond completely, accurately and turn that inquiry into a real connection. If someone tweets your profile a question or places a question on your Facebook page, that is a sign that some of your audience is actually invested in what you’re posting. When Japan was scrambling in mid-2011 to handle the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant, some U.S. west coast residents were concerned if any possible fallout could affect them. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posted clarifying content and fielded questions on both Twitter and Facebook to answer the questions of concerned citizens and calm those who weren’t necessarily looking for press releases.

Luckily, any public organization looking to expand into social media doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. An agency can look to the work of other government offices to see what they’re doing to be successful. A nonprofit group, Expert Labs, has created a dashboard measuring the success of federal agencies based on their public engagement on Twitter. Although not a complete picture of an agency’s digital interaction with their stakeholders, the rankings of organizations and offices gives a view of who is regularly asking questions and receiving answers back on Twitter. This dashboard also illustrates that you don’t necessarily need a staggering amount of Followers to effectively communicate to the public. NASA is often listed as one of the most engaging agencies.

Interactions through social media must not be a second thought nor “might as well” automation. Like any communications strategy, there must be an endgame and a method for measuring success. Having 20,000 followers who aren’t truly invested in the information you’re posting means you’re wasting both your resources and your time. Doing something just for the sake of doing it is always a poor plan. Only when you actively interact with your subscribers will you turn Twitter followers into an engaged community.