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Three Years of Social Media—Lessons Learned
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr., and Timothy Barnes
Published: 01/16/2010

Internet buzz words Editor's Note: Leonard Sipes is the Senior Public Affairs Specialist at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, DC.

We created our federal social media site three years ago; we were one of the early adopters. We try to incorporate social media in virtually every media outreach effort. We believe that the site has provided concrete benefits to the agency. At this writing, we are averaging 230,000 requests a month.

We have been asked to summarize lessons learned by a variety of requestors, especially those who are just entering the social media world.

This article is for them.

Both of us have assisted a variety of nonprofit agencies in establishing and marketing their own social media sites. The “lessons learned” are derived from that collective experience.

What is Social Media? Saying you want a social media site is like saying you want to own a dog. But what kind of dog? How much are you willing to pay? Will you adopt? What kind of personality do you want in your new found friend? There are so many questions that people need to answer before you bring a dog into the home.

It’s the same with social media. There is no formula or specific definition for a successful social media strategy; it depends entirely on your circumstances and what you want to accomplish.

But note that the heart of the philosophy of social media is the willingness to interact with your customers; to establish a dialog. It’s an even exchange; you give them neat and interesting content and they give you information to improve what you do.

Management Directives: Your managers state that they want to enter the social media world and have directed you to do it. But do what, and who will do everything necessary? Are they interested in a blog? Do they want video and audio? Are they interested in photos? Do they want a presence on Facebook and other social media sites? Who will respond to questions?

The bottom-line in all of this is that management needs to figure out what it wants and what it’s prepared to spend. They also need to know that it’s impossible for one person to do everything necessary for a successful site.

Who Creates Websites: Web sites are created by a variety of people with a mix of skills. Here are the skill sets necessary to create a website:
  • Website creation (designers and coders)
  • Website population (posting relevant materials)
  • Website marketing
  • Writing for websites

The problem is that there are few individuals who possess all those skills. Reliance on less than well rounded talent becomes painfully evident the more we visit emerging websites.

One of us reviewed a federally funded website that was great on content but the entire site was embedded within a photograph that made it impossible to be seen by Google and the other search engines. From the standpoint of searchability (search engine optimization or SEO) the site was invisible unless you were directed there. Google and the other search engines do not “read” audio, photographs or many kinds of video or graphic offerings; they read text.

People wonder why their website doesn’t work; which usually means that people do not go to the site or stay long. It’s usually related to the skills articulated above; all have to be used for a site to accomplish its goals.

But the sad truth is that few web specialists have all the skills necessary to build a successful site. The lesson is that dependence on one person to create and manage a website may not work.

What do you want your website to do? If you want a static website that will never or rarely change and if you’re not interested in using the site to market your agency or engage people, you have just hit the jackpot. These sites require little maintenance.

However, if you want the site to promote the agency and its agenda and if you want to interact with your customers/citizens (the heart of social media) then you have entered an entirely different world.

Marketing through social media means an endless effort to create new content that serves your customer/citizen base. The idea is a continual interaction with the people you want to reach, thus a constant flow of new products. The production of video, audio, blogs or other items requires dedication and resources.

You are trying to build a website which truly serves your base (the heart and soul of a successful site, per Google). This means story-based articles, fact sheets, audio and video that meet all learning styles and is truly relevant to the people you are trying to interact with.

Social media means having people to create products. Writing for the web or media production for the web must be appropriate. You’re not writing for academic journals. Web creation must be friendly, engaging in content and style and approachable. It involves telling stories or providing facts. You have to make it easy for people to get the information they need.

Marketing your Site: This is the essence of many unsuccessful sites, no one knows you exist. Suggestions:
  • Create a great site that users will find interesting and engaging.
  • Establish your key words; the words that will attract people. What are the key words or phrases that will attract people to your site?
  • The address (URL) title and description should contain your key words. This may be “the” most important factor leading to success in marketing your site.
  • Your key words need to be integrated into your postings.
  • Create e-mail marketing lists.
  • Create Twitter marketing lists.
  • Ask for links or create content that other people will feel compelled to link to. Links are like votes of confidence in the value of your site. The more links you have, the better your ranking is for key search terms. The better your ranking, the more people will find your site.
  • Leave helpful comments in relevant blog posts with your web address (thus creating a link to your site).
  • Create pages in the top 25 social media sites (i.e., Facebook, YouTube, etc.) and post to them often.
  • Ask other sites to include your site in its offerings. Ask major blog directories to include your blog.

We believe that web development and marketing must be seen in the context of the long run. It’s impossible to do all this in a series of days or weeks or months. We do marketing every day and take it in small bites. We do it as time allows, but it gets done.

Answering Questions: You will find that it’s not nearly as bad as some make it out to be.

I discovered this when marketing the “Mc Gruff—Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign. We were the best known public service campaign in America; but few contacted us for an elaborate discussion, most wanted a quick answer to a question or a had suggestion to offer.

If you have prepared materials your burden will be relatively small. But the heart and soul of social media is personal interaction when asked. I do not hesitate to pick up the phone and call the person. We need to know what others think of us and our services.

New and Shiny Things: One of the biggest mistakes people new to social media make is chasing every new and shiny thing that comes down the pike. There are some people (including yours truly) who cannot leave good enough alone.

If you developed your blog or website with WordPress, then you have an endless array of themes, widgets and plug-ins to choose from. I wasted many, many hours looking at new applications that in the long run meant little to nothing to the quality of my site.

Stick to basics. You have enough to worry about. Create a site that serves your users and move on.

Resources: Find the best resources. Go to the big retail outlets on the web that specialize in books. Search for books that describe themselves as basic or for newcomers or for “dummies.” They will take the time to offer explanations for people without social media backgrounds. Search for “social media” or ‘podcasting” or “blogs” or “marketing.”

Do not get anything that assumes prior knowledge.

There is another source for related terms such as social media, Twitter, podcasting, ect. Please go to"Social Media in Plain English".

The Common Craft store on YouTube provides simple explanations for these and many additional terms. Please do not be put off by their simplicity. Sometimes, simplicity is just what you need to learn or to explain terms to others.

Bandwidth: Your IT people may object to the use of internal servers due to security issues of lack of capacity. Using outside website hosting companies, which can start at approximately $10.00 a month, can put an end to objections.

Change: Search engines do not like change, and you may pay a temporary price in search visibility. But you may find that your original plan doesn’t work or you see a need to take the site in a different direction. It’s a normal part of the process. Make your changes to the site and marketing efforts as soon as practical and move on.

Conclusions: There are endless additional considerations when creating social media sites and there are existing materials that address them. But most issues seem to fall into the categories discussed:
  • Management needs to know what they want to do and provide resources. There is no single definition of a successful social media strategy.
  • Establishing your key words at the beginning and integrating them into every aspect of your site is crucial.
  • You can’t expect one person to create, populate, write for and market your website. The necessary skills are often beyond the capacity of one person alone. You may be great at writing code but marketing and web writing and document creation is foreign to you, yet all are necessary skills.
  • You and your managers need to understand the purpose of a social media site. Static sites have their place (but it’s diminishing). Interactive sites require resources or they will not work.
  • Market your site in bits you can deal with. We market every day. We do not try to take on the entire marketing effort at one time.
  • Unless you are J.C. Penny’s, you will not spend every waking moment of your professional life answering questions. But spend time with inquiries that cannot be answered simply. They often provide more in insight than you provide in terms of information.
  • Don’t chase every new “shiny thing” that comes along. Most are time wasters.
  • Get the right (basic—very basic) reference materials.
  • Bandwidth is no longer an issue if you hire outside companies to supply it.
  • Change is normal. Make your changes as soon as possible in the development process.

The authors are public affairs and IT specialists at an independent federal agency.
For more information about Leonard Sipes and his organization, contact him at 202.220.5616 or leonard.sipes@csosa.gov

Other articles by Leonard Sipes


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