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When the Tin Standard is Enough: Social Media Engagement vs. Broadcast

As I’ve said before, there are very few absolutes when it comes to social media.

Trust me, I’m well aware that the first word in “social media” is “social.” And there’s no question that the gold standard is to fully engage in any platform like Twitter, and that means retweeting, following others, etc. In Facebook, that means responding to questions. Some people say this is the only way to go.

But I think it’s inflexible to say that either you should hit the gold standard or stay offline, and that it denies potential benefits to the constituents of agencies that don’t have the staff or comfort level to fully engage.

I often talk of the tin standard: pure broadcasting. No, it’s not gold, but at least you’ll get comfortable with using the tool. And reluctant leaders get a chance to see the world won’t fall in. Maybe after finding some success with broadcasting, you’ll start pushing the envelope, find more staff to more fully engage, and just like in alchemy, your tin can become bronze, then silver, then gold.

Check out Maxine Teller’s Social Media Adoption Curve from 2008 – I’ve found it very useful when thinking through this stuff.

I’m speaking from experience. Our main Twitter account was fully automated until about 15 months ago. Then we changed because we had initial success, and I could justify assigning someone on my staff to putting more thought into our tweets. And we’ve seen significant growth in followership, from 6000 in January 2010 to 36,000 today. But Greenversations, our blog, is still fully automated on Twitter from an RSS feed, and it went from 8,000 to 18,000 over the same period. Yes, the main account grew quite a bit more, but it’s not true that automated stuff gets you nowhere.

In Facebook, we never really responded to questions that came in until the Japan radiation situation in March of this year. We were at 23,000 fans at that point. After two months of actively responding to comments, we’ve seen a massive increase in commenting and in the number of likes on specific posts. But the number of likes for our page has continued increasing at the same steady pace as before we started responding, now at 27,000.

In other words, there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy just receiving information from government agencies in the online places they already frequent. Not everyone is looking for more.

If you can’t find the resources to go gold, at least try tin and see what happens.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Great advice, Jeffrey. And that social media adoption curve from Maxine is a gem…

It’s definitely not “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to social media…here’s how I have helped agencies / cities map their current activities to social media…sometimes as broadcast tools, sometimes to engage with citizens…but it’s really up to them – their mission, goals, metrics, and desired outcomes:

Alicia Mazzara

Ditto, great advice. Starting out just by broadcasting is a great way to get buy-in from folks in your agency that may be wary of using social media altogether. It also takes care of concerns over resources, i.e. we don’t have time to have someone answers our Facebook comments full time, so we shouldn’t have a Facebook page, etc. Baby steps are better than not trying at all. 🙂

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

You make a good point that they perfect should not be the enemy. . .

However, there is a danger that the very leaders who need convincing will see that commenters have unmet expectations–i.e. that they will get responses through those untended social media channels–which in turn result in negative comments, or, even more startling, alternative feeds (I’m thinking of Fake Vivke Kundra and Fake BP) that provide the rapid-response content missing from official feeds.

Truly, this is the danger in not at least trying to achieve the gold standard. It’s one thing to say “we can’t do it, so let’s not try” and another to say “let’s do it, but we’re going to broadcast only” and better, I think, to say “this can’t be someone’s full-time job, but let’s have someone monitor the feed and respond as we can.” Maybe that’s the copper standard?

Eliza Blair

Eh. I still think broadcasting damages one’s credibility with people who actually know how to use the internet and is a neutral proposition at best with everyone else. It should be viewed as a temporary kludge rather than a “standard”, an inferior placeholder until the account (Twitter, Facebook, whatever) can be used the way it’s supposed to be.

The “social” in social media means that the goal is never to just get information out – a social media account should always be a two-way proposition. Attempt to maximize the number of interactions rather than the number of “posts” and you will quickly learn your audience’s level of engagement. Then you can tailor your information accordingly. Broadcasting gives you virtually no feedback – and if, as @Alicia mentions, there are people in your organization that are wary of using social media at all, broadcasting gives you no examples with which to convert them. When I see a “broadcast” account, I instantly assume that the account holder has made no effort to figure out how to effectively use this new avenue of communication, and probably has no interest in ever learning.

Stephanie Slade

I’m torn on this one. I know that when I’m following someone on Twitter (for example) that I don’t think is using it well, I unfollow them immediately. It creates ill-will on my end because I feel like they’re wasting my time. On the other hand, if that’s the first in the series of baby steps it’s going to take to get your bosses comfortable with social media, with the end goal being for you to eventually use it as it was intended, then who I am I to say you shouldn’t try?

Jeffrey Levy

Good thoughts so far, but we’re all buried neck-deep in this stuff. I wonder what normal people who don’t spend every day thinking about this would say?

BTW, you do get good examples that support expansion even in broadcast mode. For example, a woman once commented that she only knew about something because we’d put it on FB.

Jeffrey Trust

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately, and agree with Eliza and some of the other comments. I’m a park ranger in Yosemite and one of my duties is to give ranger-led walks. The best analogy I’ve come up with so far is that broadcast-only social media is like giving a ranger program but not accepting questions from the audience. Is the program still worthwhile? Yes. But… it’s not a complete program, it’s not nearly as effective as it could be, and it’s kind of strange.

We’ve been accepting comments (and new wall posts) and it’s gone great so far. Yes, I could I use more time to do a better job with the page, but responding to comments has been well worth the time and has built credibility. (And, now there are other users answering questions (usually correctly) for us!)

Eliza Blair

To piggyback on Jeffrey T’s comment and partially respond to Jeffrey L’s, the “credibility” that we build by interacting isn’t limited to the few people you interact with – it sends a tacit message to everyone who sees that page/post/comment: We are listening. We are attentive to the public’s needs. We are not a monolithic, uncaring entity. This might seem obvious from the inside, to those of us “buried neck-deep” in government, but it sure isn’t to to my several great aunts (who love Facebook). My great aunts do not think about interaction metrics, but when they surf over to a government page and see “the government” actively engaging with commenters, that is worth a million dollars in goodwill campaigns.

Jeffrey Levy

Totally agree, Eliza. That’s why interaction is the gold standard. And it’s what I say when I give presentations.

The question I’m trying to tackle here isn’t whether interaction is the best. Rather, it’s whether broadcasting is a net negative. Are we better off not doing anything if we can’t get to gold?

And I think the answer is “no.”