I’ve been going about alerting all wrong.
I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert in the crisis alerting space, having built or deployed SMS, FM and satellite text and video notification systems in the past. I’ve also been fairly vocal on how their inherent limitations of cost, public adoption rate, and lack of agency best practices have yet to make any of them a big win. (Read more on GovLoop why I think Twitter FastFollow should be used for SMS alerting and how agencies can alert more efficiently)
After all this time, I realized in a sudden Ah-Ha! Moment yesterday how we could get emergency alerts out to a community faster. Let me explain.
Most alerting technologies rely on a viral effect. Chances are that if (A) your city has SMS alerting, then (B) at least one – probably just one – of your friends is subscribed, then (C) your friend would tell you if something really serious was going on. At that point, you and everyone else he told would tell the people they care about – and on and on. If I were to draw it, it would look something like this:
That’s great except for one thing: each hop takes time, and in some situations time means lives.
What do I mean? If I’m one of 5,000 people in my community registered for St. Pete emergency alerts and receive something critical, I’ll share it to my network of 264 Facebook friends and 275 @GovLive Twitter followers within 30 seconds. The result isn’t easily measured, but in theory Facebook considers me to be important (which we call an “influencer”) to only 50 of my closer friends and family. This means my warning about the emergency will make it into their “Top News” right away. Some of them will “Share” my post (or Retweet if Twitter) with their friends, but that hop may take another 30 seconds.
It could take a lot of time and a lot of hops to get to a large portion of the community.
So really, what’s the limiting factor in this equation? It’s me.
Despite my charm, those 50 people I reached don’t make me much of an influencer (usually defined as someone who has a lot of connections that value and share what they have to say).
The goal then is to make sure an emergency alert reaches as many influencers on that first hop as possible. These are the local Facebook pages with lots of “Likes” and Twitter users who are influential with a local audience. It’s not rocket science.
And even if you’re not on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll still find out if you have near proximity to someone who follows an influencer who publishes an alert. This could be someone in an elevator with you, or the 80 year old neighbor you care dearly enough about to tell. And let’s face it, the percentage of your community that has at least near-proximity to someone on Facebook is a hell of a lot larger than you could ever achieve with a traditional alerting system.
So how then do we reach the influencers in a community? Here’s my 3-point plan:
1. Get the Data. Compile a list of the most influential Facebook pages and Twitter users by community. Example: In St. Pete the most influential Facebook page is “I <3 the Burg” with 10% of the population (25,000+) as fans. (Why? Because they share what’s going on in St. Pete. The county government’s Facebook on the other hand has about 300 fans)
2. Build the System. Create a straightforward alerting dashboard where the city and emergency management can copy their alert to the influencers. This could mean “Allowing” (a term for authenticating) this new app to post directly to the walls of those influencers (fastest) or at a minimum, SMS and Email them that a new alert is available for manual posting (a little slower, but still good). When an emergency alert hits the wall of a big influencer, you can guarantee the word will spread quickly.
3. Get the parties on board. Pitch to emergency management: “This will get your alert out faster and to more people.” Pitch to influencers: “These messages will get reshared heavily, gaining you new followers and greater influence.”
The cool thing is there is no “4. Get the public on board” – the influencers will do that on their own.
My only caution: if this gets used for everyday road closures, cold weather warnings, etc., the influencers won’t be as willing to share and the viral effect is lost. If this stays focused on real emergencies – not inconveniences – then I think it’s a win.
So let’s kick off Step 1! Reply with the Facebook page names and Twitter accounts of groups or people that are influential in your town.
Next week I’ll have an update with some real technology to play around with.
Read Last Week’s CB2: Keeping Batman Busy
About Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett is a self-proclaimed emergency management innovator who is trying to make government better by improving citizen preparedness and crisis communications. He’s a graduate of Wharton with a master’s from Harvard with in “Technology, Innovation, Education.” His portfolio of companies and former projects include OneStorm Hurricane Preparedness, ReadyTown, GovLive, TexasPrepares and America’s Emergency Network. Chris was the recipient of FL Governor Crist’s 2008 Public Information Award. He lives in St. Petersburg, FL, loves to fish, and has been spotted sharing a pint with GovLoop Founder Steve Ressler in Tampa.
What does CB2 Mean? “Chris Bennett’s Crisis Blog.” It was originally CB Squared but the superscript 2 never took, so now we’re rocking the big 2.