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How Did a Sewer District Grow a National Twitter Following?

John Gonzalez, communications manager for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, on balancing the entertaining and the informative on Twitter and how to tailor messages for different social platforms.

John Gonzalez Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District
Public agencies were still figuring out how social media could work for them when John Gonzalez started the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s Twitter account, @NEORSD, in 2010. Since then, he has built a strong following of utility customers who keep up with his posts not only for critical information, but for a steady stream of sewer humor. Gonzalez recently talked to GT about how he grew the utility’s success online.

1. How do you balance humor and respectability on Twitter?

People can trust that our Twitter content, our personality, is authentic. We’re emotional creatures who crave relationships, who laugh at difficult topics. We like to connect with people who share our points of view and look forward to conversations with people who disagree with us, and I think that that’s where people come to trust that we’re being real. We’re not just simply generating this content with an AI behind it. The utility service that we provide is touching people’s lives, cleaning their water, managing their streams, and they’re interacting with our services whether they know it or not. The more that they can see our content be relevant to them, the more likely they are to come to us when they do have a problem because they recognize that we are aware of the realities that they’re facing. It’s meeting people where they are, seeing them for the humans they are and recognizing that this engagement might be valuable. Sometimes it is for laughter, but once you hook them to laugh at something that you’re offering, the more likely they are to come back and see that what you’re offering them has something else that is much deeper.

2. What advice can you offer other agencies trying to build a social presence?

There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for how a utility or how others in this industry can go about developing a presence because you have to recognize what your resources are and how social media can help you move your communication goals forward. I say to know your leadership team and their expectations, and let them know how you anticipate preparing for risks that come with social media, and that you shouldn’t expect to have things happen overnight. I also tell them not to assume that they can be present on all platforms at all times with the same level of investment.

A lot of utilities would be better served by working on responding in the moment and recognizing that responsiveness really does make a huge difference. You don’t have to have a pun with every tweet, you don’t have to write poetry on your account if you’re not used to that, but if you want to show that your customers matter, responsiveness is a great place to start.

3. Do you use other social platforms?

We do of course have a Facebook page. It’s not as active, but there is an audience there, and we try to post information about careers or our affordability program because the audience on that page is much more likely to engage on that type of content. We have a LinkedIn account and we certainly post content there to keep followers engaged. We’ve experimented with TikTok, and that’s one we’re still trying to figure out. I’ll create content there and then cross-promote it on our Twitter; that’s where we see the most success.

The same content won’t work on all channels. If you have a message that’s relevant to all audiences no matter their demographics, you have to vary how you deliver it. The type of thread we can create on Twitter, for example, won’t work on other platforms. They don’t have the same functionality or feel. It’s just a matter of recognizing that the content and the audience work together when it comes to determining how we go about posting content on the various channels.

4. How do you keep your posts relevant and timely?

Especially on Twitter, reading the room is very valuable because there is such a stream of consciousness approach that people expect. If your content is timely and you have an audience who will engage with you, you’re going to put yourself in a position to be relevant. When it comes to our communication goals overall, every year we have a plan for outreach, for events, for messages based on the seasons that might be relevant to us based on weather or customer interaction. What we see, however, is while we may plan content for given months, we can’t necessarily make people step away from their worlds to come and be relevant in ours. The more we can be aware of what environment we’re working in, that ability to tailor the message to the audience in that moment is really where we see the highest return.
Lauren Kinkade is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 15 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.