As local government program managers and communicators, we try to involve our communities in the decisions that affect them. But we are in constant competition for their attention.
Between social media, the 24/7 news cycle and world events that are ever more catastrophic, how can we break through?
How can we cut through all the distractions and actually connect with members of our community? How can we communicate with people impacted by a project when the rest of the planet is also vying for their attention?
A little con-text
Enter the humble text message. First launched in the mid-1990s, Short Message Service (SMS) has become an essential aspect of modern life. Some estimates list a global rate of 23 billion text messages being sent every day.
Text messages have expanded far beyond the passing of simple sentences between individuals. With the advent of Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), richer conversations are available. Photos, emoji, links and memes are traded across the globe, a billion an hour.
And it’s not just between individuals – retailers, service providers and other organizations have begun using text as a customer service channel. They’re conducting customer support, sales campaigns, scheduling and other communications through text. Agents – or increasingly, artificial intelligence bots – are acting on behalf of the company, interacting with customers over text messages.
Why text is unique
Why does text work for engaging a target audience? Why should this older technology break through the noise when other communication methods fail? Let’s take a look at a few popular channels for engaging our audiences.
With most social media platforms, you rely on a user actively opening the platform, enabling alerts and tolerating your ads. Worst of all, you are subject to the algorithm of the platform, which can be changed to fit the needs of the company – not you. A change in an algorithm could mean disaster for a campaign designed for the way the newsfeed used to work.
Between spam blockers, throwaway email addresses and the sheer volume of spam email messages we receive, email advertising seems nearly pointless. Even with modern attempts to advance email filtering and labeling, the problem is that a single email can get lost in the endless barrage of email that we all get.
So what makes text unique? Because we often use texts to communicate with close acquaintances, the text app is likely one of the more frequently used apps on your phone. Text messages are simpler and use less data than social media messaging apps. Users don’t need an internet connection to receive a text message. Due to their simplicity, texts are easier for screen readers and language-translation apps to process. And texts are not subject to social media or other data-harvesting companies who target ads based on your conversations.
Separating text messages from the “Social Media” folder or your email app puts text messages in a separate, subconscious category. “This is where I get messages from my real friends,” we say, and we give them a different emotional weight.
Messages sent over text have an astoundingly better open rate than email or social media marketing messages. But they’re not a perfect ingress to the audience’s mind. Users can always reply “stop” to opt out of future communications. Poorly formed text messages can be hard to understand. And there are often character limits to consider.
Overall, though, text is a great category for local governments to send their messages. Separating local government communications from the commercial spam on email and social media means community-focused messages using text have a better chance of being read.
Government adoption of text tech
As usual, governments are rather slow in adopting this technology. But there are a few commercial off-the-shelf options being marketed to governments to facilitate government communications over text. And they’re worth a look. For the relatively cheap cost of some technology to enable communication over text, governments can send messages that have a much higher likelihood of getting to the community member.
Text fits the bill
Here are some ways we have used text in my municipal government:
- At an arts and science fair, community members texted their contact information to opt in to a community-wide Comprehensive Plan and be alerted of opportunities to take part;
- At a “motorless morning” to allow only people-powered wheels for a few hours in a park, visitors texted to start a text-based survey on the future use of the park;
- At a future-search conference, young professionals texted their responses to envisioning questions about the future of the community. Word clouds were generated and displayed to spark conversation among the attendees;
- For a road construction project, drivers were encouraged to text (when it was safe) to opt in to notifications about when the road would be closed and re-opened;
- For the revitalization of a beloved (but crumbling) city auditorium, open-house attendees gave feedback on the project team’s presentation and gave ideas for creative reuse.
How about you? Have you seen text break through the noise to facilitate community conversations? Let’s talk in the comments below!
Jay Anderson is responsible for digital engagement and public processes at the city of Colorado Springs. Jay holds an MPA from the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs, where he also serves as the Chair of the Dean’s Community Advisory Board. Jay focuses on the point of engagement between the community and its institutions, creating programs that give a voice to people who want to have an impact on their government.
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