Until recently, Twitter’s famous tagline was simple and direct: “What are you doing?” Much of the media coverage on the site’s rapid climb in users focused on the “you” in that question, creating an image of social media users as little islands adrift in the internet, sending off messages into the void with hopes of receiving reply.
For goverment, the first step in successful social media deployment may be to examine both sides of the social media equation–the publisher, who answers “What are you doing?” and the audience, who is constantly asking, “Why should I care?”
There are a wide range of local government initiatives that can be supported through effective social media. Public safety agencies across the country are already utilizing Twitter to post critical incident updates, amber alerts, and even traffic notifications. Distributing this information helps police, fire, and emergency response teams to do their jobs more effectively.
However, what’s perhaps more significant is that the information is also of great interest to citizens, who can literally improve their lives by using these tiny details. Their neighborhoods become potentially safer, they are more aware of activities undertaken by the police hired to protect them, and hopefully they can shave ten minutes off their commute home.
The social media landscape is heavily dissected and covered by the media, and it’s almost always from the point of view of the publisher, those who create the content. However, equally important is for social media publishers to consider their audience and the needs they can fill.
For local government, social media is ultimately a customer service tool. Citizens are looking to engage with their communities in ways that enrich their lives. They may also be seeking a form of communication that provides for quick response and remedy to their issues.
Though social media seems predominantly focused on answering the question “What are you doing?” it’s more important for local governments to wonder what they can do for their constituents through social media. That is the sense in which content can be king of providing a successful citizen service initiative through social media.
Here are a few specific ways in which local government departments can engage with citizens in a productive dialogue that benefits both.
Create a participatory environment. Although the primary flow of content should be from the municipality to citizens, it is also important to consider the contributions of citizens as well. If there’s a Flickr stream with nice photos of a parks deparment event, that link can be posted for the entire community to share and enjoy. This creates a relationship that goes beyond simple broadcast messages and allows for ongoing collaboration to the betterment of the community.
Designate social media stakeholders. While participation should be enlisted across the municipality to encourage the best possible content and citizen response, there should be select individuals who are ultimately accountable for the consistent creation of content for social media outlets. Anyone in the communications or public relations departments are great candidates, but if there are employees in other departments who demonstrate enthusiasm for social media, they could be elected stakeholders as well.
Curating is content too. Part of the difficulty with managing sustained social media programs is developing the all-important content on a regular basis. It can create burnout among employees and lead to initiatives that start off with enthusiasm but slowly fade away over several months. It’s important to remember that the nature of the web means that curating (essentially providing links to content of importance to your audience) is as important as creating original content. Supplementing original material with links to material of interest on other sites helps alleviate the constant burden to generate content, and also affords the opportunity to participate in the larger regional and worldwide social media community.
Remember that social media is a marathon, not a sprint; a journey, not a destination. Measuring the effectiveness of any social media campaign is still a work in progress for many organizations, local governments and corporations alike. It can be difficult to view the big picture when progress is measured out 140 characters at a time. By placing content as king of your social media strategy, you insure that no matter how many followers or “friends” track your accounts, you will always be providing value for your constituents.