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Social Media Sweet Spot: When to Respond

People ask me all the time how we commit staff time to responding to comments. But it often depends on circumstances, and can change even hour to hour. Your goal is to find a sweet spot between responding to everyone (often poses impossible time demands) and responding to no one (not taking advantage of opportunities to connect with people).

Some people ask a question, get a response, and are satisfied. Others will follow up, but eventually accept your answer and stop asking. But some will never believe you, asking the same questions repeatedly. Still others might believe you, but keep coming up with new questions.

The challenge is to decide when to stop engaging. The answer depends on how much free time you have, how serious the issue is, how much you think your answer can help someone, etc.

For the past two months, I’ve been heavily involved in EPA’s online response to the Japanese nuclear emergency. I’m doing many things, but the role that relates to this blog post is that I’m the primary person responding to questions on Facebook.

It can be hard to not respond to people on any topic, but especially so with something scary like radiation. My public service ethic kicks in and I just want to help. And the whole point of being on Facebook is to help folks more directly. And sometimes, you want to respond even to someone you know from past experience isn’t really listening, just so others reading don’t think you’re ignoring valid questions.

It’s easy enough to handle commenters who yell at you or accuse you of lying: ignore them. Leave their comments unanswered; I don’t mean delete them.

For everything else, responding is “easy” in that I can sit there and respond over and over and over again. Eventually, though, my time is up and I have to go home, do other work, etc.

I know all that, but I still hate not responding.

How do you approach it?

Update to reflect a comment from Josh Kaufman: Often, we’ll get the same question from several people. It can be a good approach to just post the question and answer as a new post, usually starting with something like ‘Several folks have asked …” and then providing the response. This is also a good approach when people ask questions I don’t know the answer to, because it can take several days to get a solid, approved response. Meanwhile, the post where the person asked the question is quite old. We’ll do our best to go back and post the response there, but sometimes we can’t because of time demands, so creating a new post works well.

To help you find examples to ponder, here’s our main Facebook page, where we’ve posted more than 100 times about radiation. Just scroll back a bit to find them, or here’s a specific example: a note saying that we’re returning to routine radiation sampling and monitoring.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Responding is pretty easy for me when people talk about GovLoop – I have a google alert on “govloop” plus monitor on Twitter and our Facebook page.

Our volume is much lower than EPA for example so I get to most and generally just try to respond to every @ response I get (probably 5-10 a day) and any questions on our FB/LinkedIn page (2-3 a day)

Obviously we aren’t a government agency so that makes the rules easier.

But I do think it brings up a big point – the # of comments. For specific agencies like EPA or White House, there are so many comments it seems almost impossible to respond (or have a full-time staff of multiple people just doing that – which can be hard to make case in tough budget times). Other agencies have a lot of fewer comments and I feel like they should respond to most or all (for example OPM Hiring Reform page which I’m a member of on Facebook – which has 3-4 posts a day)

Profile Photo Josh Kaufman

We don’t respond to anyone on Facebook either directly or indirectly. There are a few staff, including myself, that are working very hard to change that, but until we can gain buy-in and support from key executives (hopefully within the coming weeks), the public’s questions and concerns will remain ignored and misinformation within the community will go unanswered. The longer it takes to institute best practices in social media, the more disengaged we look.

Lastly, with regard to responding indirectly, I think that’s a piece Jeff that you did not mention in your post. If you see the same concerns and questions repeatedly, consider responding with new content that aims to address those questions in bulk.

Profile Photo Jeffrey Levy

Josh, good point, and we do just that. If you look at our FB page, for example, you’ll see posts that begin with something like “Several people have asked …” and the we respond. I’ll add that to the post.

Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Jeff – Another thing that people are interested in learning about with regard to social media responsiveness is staffing:

1) How many staff are dedicated to assisting with responses?

2) How do you allocate their time (i.e. X hours per day or week)?

3) Do you schedule their time to be “on” – sort of like staffing a help desk (i.e. 8a-10a, 10a-12p, 12p-2p, etc

Profile Photo Tom Le Veque

We work in a similar fashion, Jeff, just with much lower volume. If an agency does not want to engage in conversation, then just stick with a website. A main benefit to use of SM is the conversation. I like your point of not deleting…we have to take the good with the bad. We have a “take-down” statement, but knock on wood, have yet to use it. We have also used a common question/concern theme to generate blog posts. That concept seems to eliminate some of the repetitive postings.

@Andrew, there are primarily two of us that work our SM, working on a third contributor. No set schedule, but like Steve, we have alerts and notifications set-up that assist as a tickler. We don’t respond real-time unless on a particular platform at the time. If you spread the 15 minutes here and there throughout the day, I would say that a fair estimate is an hour per day. If working on our blog, it may be more. A whole different discussion on time, esp. for public safety, is real-time monitoring for emergency management. Some day, I would love to see SM incorporated into our EOC and dispatch operations.

Profile Photo Faye Newsham

My agency doesn’t allow FB except for the Secretary, but we (a small sub-agency) have a twitter and youtube accounts. We don’t currently allow comments and just “push”… how do you encourage overworked and underbudgeted programs to find a “champion” to start the “pull” process? As a contractor, it can’t be me, it has to be the right people in authoritative positions to vette and answer. How did you get involved, for example?

Profile Photo Kevin Lanahan

We’ve got five people who monitor our MO Dept of Conservation Facebook. We try to answer all questions, but don’t always respond if there is not a direct question. If someone posts erroneous information, we’ll jump in and correct them. I’d say we end up responding to most posts on our site.

We have had to kill some comments because they violate our posting policies (thank you Mr Levy and the USGS), but most people are respectful.

We get quite a few duplicate questions, especially when something is in the news like a levee break or mountain lion sighting, but we generally just post a link to an appropriate web page or copy an answer from a previous question.

Even if you do a “several people have asked…” post, it will fall off the front page of FB in a couple of days and people will ask the same question. I think most of them are impressed that they can get a response from the government within an hour, and it certainly helps with public opinion of us.

Profile Photo Jeffrey Levy

Faye: I had the very great benefit of two people above me setting the tone, including my boss specifically telling me “get out there and lead.” That was in 2007, and I haven’t stopped running since. 🙂 But there’s nothing wrong with getting your feet wet simply communicating for a while, even without much two-way engagement.

Since I was so lucky, though, I try to pay it forward by getting out there and talking up the benefits. Have you seen my presentation on slideshare that I use to promote social media to managers? http://www.slideshare.net/levyj413/social-media-and-the-govt-presentation

Kevin: I’m delighted I could help in whatever way possible w/your comment policy! I agree completely: people express their surprise when we do manage to respond quickly.

Andrew: right. That was what I meant in the first sentence about people asking me about staffing. We dedicate about half a person to managing our blog, although she only posts and moderates; she doesn’t really respond to comments. We have one person to manage our Facebook and Twitter accounts, which are still mostly just broadcast. The Japan thing was an experiment, which came along right as I was wondering what it would take. At this point, it’s down to maybe an hour spread over the whole workday. I also can’t help myself, and log in a couple times each night to see if there’s anything I can quickly answer. We’ve never gotten into shifts because it’s not that busy, and we don’t have the people to set up expectations of instantaneous response.

Profile Photo Lisa Jenkins

Thanks Jeffrey, I’ll keep your advice in mind as I respond to the few comments I get via the Cleanup web topic.

Note to others, Jeffrey and his office have also done a great job of training and empowering the EPA Web Council to respond to specific topical areas across the Internet and social media. It helps to spread the responsibility out across the Agency.