Government and Social Media–Creating Meaningful Experiences

By Leonard Sipes

We are witnessing a fundamental shift in how people communicate. There are few times in world history where that happens and we are witnessing major change right now.

For centuries, we traded information about concepts, products and beliefs face-to-face. All that changed with social media and the internet (see “When Did We Start Trusting Strangers?” from Universal McCann, (http://www.universalmccann.com/).

The bottom-line of the research? People posting comments on social media sites are as influential as having a face-to-face conversation with someone we know.

Mass social commentary through websites can define issues. Mass commentary via social media can dominate mainstream media.

What does this mean to those of us who produce websites? Unless we create truly meaningful experiences for people coming to our sites, we risk losing our influence.

This has significant implications for any corporate or government agency.

Government websites have undergone dramatic improvements. We are now interactive and offer shorter, more interesting descriptions as to what we do. Forms to conduct business are offered. We offer places for citizens to comment.

But is this enough? Have government websites progressed to the point where they offer a truly satisfying experience?

A friend went to a motorcycle clothing store site on the Internet where the owner personally tried every product he sold and created his own reviews. Customers agreed or disagreed with his reviews. Short video clips were offered. It was powerful and interactive.

My friend was impressed with anyone who would go that far to serve his customers. He “guessed” that if the owner cared that much about customer service, he would be the kind of person he would want to do business with, which he did to the tune of a thousand dollar expenditure.

His interaction wasn’t with a store; it was with a person. It was powerful. It was social.

And this Means?

What does research on trusting strangers via social media and a motorcycle store mean for government service?

Having a site that’s social is no longer the issue. Having the right kind of social media experience is.

It comes down to two issues, authenticity and content.


A recent on-line seminar titled the “Future of Marketing” (http://futureofmarketing.com/) featured 60 of the most influential corporate marketers providing one minute statements as to their most potent visions for 2011 and beyond. Many of the statements were strategic and addressed emerging cell phone technologies or research.

But most focused on style over technology. Are we telling stories? Is the customer experience integrated into everything we do? Do we tell our stories with passion? Are we connecting people to the things their interested in? Are we building relationships? Do we give people what they actually want?

My favorite? “The solution is to start having a personality and to be more authentic” as told by Rohit Bhargava, author of the marketing book “Personality Not Included.”

Well-crafted social websites cater to learning styles. They are friendly with story-based articles, fact sheets and interesting video and audio.

Well-crafted social websites establish a brand that is widely recognized and valued. In the words of a writer for Advertising Age Magazine, “Brands need to have a personality and be someone that people want to be friends with.”

While many government agencies are branded, the opportunity exists for them to raise the quality of their product.

All we need to do is use social media to provide users with a personal, comfortable and meaningful experience.


Government agencies need to display a personality. We need to be friendly. We do this by respecting user learning preferences and by offering the right products.

Is your morning announcement of new research or services accompanied by short and interesting video or audio?

Yes, we offer audio and video; but do people enjoy those experiences? Are their questions answered? Are they 30 minutes or less? Do we pack them with footage of what we’re addressing? Are they interesting? Are they timely?

Yes, we offer documents, but do they quickly get to the point by summarizing research findings and policy implications in two pages or less. Do we write for the average person? Do we use plain English? Are they story-based? Do we create fact sheets?

Do we constantly reach out to our core audience to sign up for e-mail and Twitter lists?

Do we offer a friendly non-bureaucratic experience?

Are we creating a meaningful dialog with the public?

Do visitors to government websites find quick answers to their questions?

Are We “Fully” Engaged?

Not “fully” engaging in social media has multiple implications. One is the ability of agencies to accurately provide information and have desired effects.

The Harris Poll tells us that most Americans have Facebook or social accounts, (http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/mid/1508/articleId/403/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/Default.aspx).


The San Francisco Chronicle offered an article, “More Marketers are Counting on Social Networks” addressing the dangers of businesses ignoring a fully integrated social media strategy


The article offers the following: “Clearly, the online audience is already there. A Nielsen Co. report…found the number of social media users has increased 87 percent since 2003, and surpassed e-mail use for the first time…. In the past year, the time spent on social networks increased 73 percent, Nielsen said.”“For businesses, the social-media phenomenon is rewriting the rules about customer service and outreach. Looking forward, marketers will ignore these communities at their own peril,” Nielsen said.”

Are we the Best Source of Information?

The message seems to be that we control our own reputations “if” we do it right. But we need to define ourselves before others do it for us. This is an emerging issue with real implications.

With new technologies and cheap bandwidth, anyone with a basic understanding of website creation and search engine optimization can create a site in hours. There are cameras and software that can shoot and lift video to You Tube in minutes. They can create blogs and audio that provides a satisfying customer experience.

Do we risk conceding the authentic experience to others?


We need to fully engage social media and create dialogs with the citizens we serve. We need to do it to accomplish organizational goals. We need to do it to increase our capacity for service delivery. We need to do it because it’s what our customers want.

If we want excellence in service delivery, especially in times of budget difficulties, we need to do a better job in communicating with core audiences and citizens in general.

If not, others may define our agencies and issues to suit their own purposes.

The time for government to fully embrace social media is now.

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Great post. What’s your take on where most government agencies now? How would you convince senior leaders that they have to embrace social media?

Keith Moore

It is amazing how this articles aligns exactly with my meeting today with an agency that has a lot of influence over public policy that regulate the future of internet access. What a timely and authentic article.

I will probably piggy back off of this story in my next article. There are a couple of other salient points that can be covered on this topic. Authenticity, Content, Engaged. Thanks for sharing Leonard.


Leonard Sipes

Hi Steve: Government is just beginning the social media experience. It will take most agencies a long time to get over themselves and offer a personal and meaningful experience.

Business understands that people buy from people, not companies. Business understands the need for a personal and comfortable web experience. We are getting there but much too slowly for many of us. Best, Len.

Patricia Paul

I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment and comments. You’re right–if you don’t define who you are, someone else will do it for you—and they may not catch all of the wonderful things about you that you want the world to know. You really have to be proactive these days but with a personal touch.

Andrew Wilson


Agree that establishing meaningful connections is one of the next important steps in how government engages with citizens. A really good example of this is how USGS (led by @S_Horvath) has established a FB page that and program where individuals scientists have established “professional” profiles (those ending with -usgs on the page) and interact with people there (http://www.facebook.com/samhsa#!/USGeologicalSurvey).

Video is another great tool for breaking down barriers and putting a face on the work that we do. A great example of effective use of video is AIDS.gov (http://www.youtube.com/user/aidsgov#g/a).

I think one of the real challenges though in all this remains how to engage effectively around issues or programs that are very high profile and/ or controversial and make sure that the engagement remains productive. It is interesting and informative to watch this in microcosm in the current ExpertNet Wiki (http://expertnet.wikispaces.com/Getting+Started).

Great post and thanks for posting.

Leonard Sipes

Hi Andrew: Beautifully put. Some of us “get it” are doing a wonderful job of serving citizens in meaningful ways.

You are again correct when you cite high-profile and controversial issues as being the real challenge. But there are also real opportunities “if” bureaucracies provide staff with the capacity to create audio and video in real time.

Best, Len.

Leonard Sipes

Hi Patricia: Thanks. We are somewhat protected by the .gov designation but anyone can create a website about our priorities and if they do “it” better, they could become the authority on the issue.

In times of breaking news, this could cause real problems. Great sites keep people coming back for news and information. I assume that we in government see this as necessary for the conveyance of critical information during emergencies as well as everyday life.

Best, Len.

Benjamin Welby

@Leonard great post encapsulating most of the debate. In the absence of a ‘Like’ button, have a *thumbs up* from this side of the pond.

Christina Morrison

Great post Leonard – engaging with citizens should be a major goal of government agencies, whether online or otherwise, and it’s clear that social media gives us a vehicle for which to do so.

Sarah Giles

Great post! One of the important questions you pose: “Are we creating a meaningful dialog with the public?” Curious about what you consider “meaningful dialog” and if you see any government agency doing it well already.

Leonard Sipes

Hi Sarah: I apologize for the late response–very busy media week last week.

The really superb federal agencies are the DOD, SAMSHA and the CDC.

What do I mean by a meaningful dialog? When citizens feel that they have a positive emotional connection to the agency, best accomplished through “timely” audio and video and plain English publications. This is what business tries to do. We should do the same.

Best, Len.