Relying Solely on Social Media to Engage Your Community? Some Reasons to Rethink That Plan.

I’ve been working to help government organizations to engage their communities online for 10 years now. When I started, the main problem faced by those wanting to use social media looked a lot like this:

Thankfully most organizations have moved on a little from those days and social media is now an integral part of the outreach toolkit of most government organizations.

So what have we learned overall?

That social media is a very useful tool for getting the word out to the community about what you are up to, but that it has limitations that are important to recognize as you develop your strategy for social media use. These limitations become particularly severe when you try to use social media to listen to the community. Some things to consider:

  1. You need to manage community expectations carefully as to where you are listening and responding and where you are not. By all means use methods to amplify your reach like enabling active community members and staff to intervene and set facts straight and pass on your message, but don’t try to be everywhere all the time.
  2. Be aware that not everyone who has liked your Facebook page or followed you on Twitter will see your pronouncements in their feed. Twitter flows past pretty quick for those who are following more than a couple of hundred people or organizations. Facebook’s algorithm (meanwhile) ensures that your post is only seen by a small proportion of your likers or followers unless you promote it with cash. You can maximize the number of people who see your post by using rich media like video, but ultimately you need to pay to ensure you are being seen by all your followers. Promoting your Facebook posts can actually be very cost effective and should be considered.
  3. You should give some thought to equity and ethics in devising your social media strategy. While it is true to say that ‘most people are on Facebook’ significant parts of the community are not. In 2017 there were around 104 million Americans who are not on Facebook – that’s around one-third of the population (though there are reports that 10% of accounts are not associated with real people and that up to 70% of Facebook accounts are inactive so the real number is most likely much higher). There were around 260 million Americans not using Twitter and about 320 million Americans not using NextDoor. All these companies have business models that involve using the details and interests of users to expose them to advertising. If your community members need to give their details to one of these organizations to exploit commercially in order to be engaged with their city, county, state or national government this presents an issue and there are many members of your community you will be excluding.
  4. Social media is an echo chamber. Far from bringing communities together social media has encouraged us to mix only with those who share our views and our outlook on life. Contrary opinions are often unwelcome in discussions and there is a danger that people will fail to develop empathy for those who do not share their outlook on the world, something that will be detrimental to local communities as well as to society at large. In practical terms, this makes social media a difficult place for you to derive community feedback and to facilitate diverse community discussions.
  5. As well as being an echo chamber social media is a very noisy place full of distractions. In fact, the advertising-based revenue models of the major platforms allow third parties to target people who are engaging with you very effectively. Imagine a scenario where you are trying to engage the community about a new proposed development in the same space where the developer is pushing advertisements containing ‘alternative facts’ to the people you are speaking to – you’d never allow this to happen in a public meeting. This issue was highlighted in a recent article by Rep Rick Crawford – some quotes in Rep Crawford’s words that I think illustrate the issue beautifully:

“Unfortunately, the incredible volume of highly politicized, paid advertising and misinformation diminishes the possibility for authentic communication before it even starts.”

“Because those political entities and activists have the resources to spend big on targeted messaging in the same space that we are trying to talk to our constituents, meaningful dialogue simply can’t compete and is drowned out. And while I celebrate the success of these companies, their current commercial model should not be confused with a public-serving governing platform.”

“Imagine you’re one of my constituents testifying in a committee hearing. You’re trying to tell me how a law under consideration affects you and how the law could be made better. Think how frustrating it would be if a television was on in the background spewing out incredibly loud, irrelevant, or misleading information about the people in the room and the laws we’re talking about. Distracting at best, disastrous at worst if it means we can’t communicate with each other in a helpful way. This is what happens to elected officials and their constituents on social media every day.”

So, in light of all this, how should we use social media in government organizations? Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Don’t disengage. Understand there is a difference between using social media to get the word out and using social media to listen and respond. Be very clear about where you listen – this should include replies to posts you make on any platform but it might be limited to that.
  2. Bring people from social media to your own space. Direct complaints and service issues to your 311 app, have your own engagement space where you can have well informed discussions about issues and measure participation and feedback. The click of a link to go to a new site is completely effortless for the community and the use of ‘Facebook connect’ allows easy sign in.
  3. Try out new platforms and have some fun – social media is at it’s strongest when you are sharing photos and videos and humanizing your organization in the eyes of your community.
  4. Consider promoting posts on Facebook and Twitter to get the word out to your community about events and opportunities to engage. This is very cost effective and cities have been paying for this sort of communication for a long time in the form of postage.
  5. Use all your online engagement activity to compliment and promote face-to-face engagement. No matter how good your online community it is always better to get people in the room to work through issues. Use social to promote events and a key success factor (along with likes, shares and comments) should be seeing attendance of face-to-face events increasing.

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