To Succeed on Social, Stick to an Evolving Strategy

Government can no longer get away with pushing out the occasional press release — constituents demand real-time access. The changing paradigm toward immediate online engagement requires more coordination and thought from organizations to keep pace.

DENVER — Social media has evolved from a luxury for government to an expected necessity, and that evolution has come with growing pains. The new conversation isn’t so much whether an organization should have accounts — it’s pretty well established that it should — and has shifted toward strategy, management and developing a consistent voice.

The issue of the larger strategy for the modern agency social media account was the focus of one morning session during the Government Social Media Conference in Denver, April 24.

As presenter Bryan Bullock, communications manager for the city of Boulder, Colo., explained, establishing an overarching strategy is part and parcel of not only measuring any successes social undertakings see, but also developing a consistent and appropriate voice for the larger organization. 

“It’s really gotten to the point with local government, it’s no longer a matter of if we are going to use social media, but how,” he told the room. “So, one of the things we developed over the last couple of years is a social media strategy to guide our use.”

Creating the Direction and Voice for Content

Bullock explained that a strategy should differ from a use policy in the sense that a policy outlines hard and fast rules, while the strategy should be focused on outlining the “hows and whys” of online engagement. 

“A policy largely says, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.' It doesn’t usually say, 'Do this, do that, this is a best practice,’” Bullock said. “Social media is no longer this thing just floating around out there that is new and exciting, it really is an integral component of the communications strategy and your customer service strategy.”

For example, a strategy could determine how often posts from departments are shared through main channels, or which topics need to reach certain subsections of the community. Bullock said information meant for the senior population would likely go missed if shared through Twitter, while a platform like NextDoor or Facebook would offer better engagement. 

At the end of the day, Bullock said whatever information is disseminated to the public, it should bolster the larger goal of encouraging citizens to engage offline as well as on — at public meetings, events, etc.

“This is the real reason we are on social media, is that we want people to come to our meetings, we want them to use our services, our events, news and information,” he said. “We know that message can be more effective, they might stick around, if we share something interesting, something light and playful and then mix in the city content.”

“To get people to listen to important messages, you have to give them a reason to stick around,” he continued.

To Consolidate or Not to Consolidate, That is the Question

Depending on the complexity of the organization, consolidating accounts could help to drive traffic to a central point. While this approach may not be feasible for every government agency, consolidating online assets can help to reduce the appearance of a fragmented organizational voice and the mixed messages that come with that.

“We’ve definitely found benefit from that. We have a city Twitter account that has about 82,000 followers, and whenever we get a request for a new Twitter account we say, ‘Why do you want to share this with dozens of people when you could share it with tens of thousands of people?’” he said.

The consolidated approach allows the city of Boulder to showcase a wider variety of content while presenting a single, trusted source of information for residents and followers.

Measurement and Benchmarking

In Boulder, the process of developing social media as an effective communication tool has relied on consistently measuring what is being done. This helps to shape the future approach and adjust efforts to better fit the needs of the community.

“You can really fly by the seat of your pants with social media and say, ‘Hey, we had a great post Tuesday, we reached X number of people and got a number of likes,’ but so what? What does that mean?” he said. “If you were to go to your director or someone in city leadership and say, ‘We’re really using social media well, we had some posts that got 40 likes’ — is that a lot, is that a little?”

“Understanding historically where you have been and what you want to achieve is really critical,” Bullock said.

Setting benchmarks and outlining the expectations of posts helps to track the efficacy of the information being pushed out through these channels. If something is failing to connect to the intended audience, it is probably not worth repeating the same way.

In a similar vein, Bullock warned that channels that forsake the two-way dialogue with constituents risk being like that person at a party that only talks about themselves. Eventually, people will lose interest without more direct engagement. 

Whatever strategy an organization outlines, it should include a mechanism for direct online interactions with the audience — an audience that expects a fairly immediate response.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at