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Government and Social Media--Creating Meaningful Experiences
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr., Senior Public Affairs Specialist/Social Media Manager Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency
Published: 01/31/2011

America-computer We are witnessing a fundamental shift in how people communicate. There are few times in world history where that happens and we are witnessing major change right now.

For centuries, we traded information about concepts, products and beliefs face-to-face. All that changed with social media and the internet (see “When Did We Start Trusting Strangers?” from Universal McCann.

The bottom-line of the research? People posting comments on social media sites are as influential as having a face-to-face conversation with someone we know.

Mass social commentary through websites can define issues. Mass commentary via social media can dominate mainstream media.

What does this mean to those of us who produce websites? Unless we create truly meaningful experiences for people coming to our sites, we risk losing our influence.

This has significant implications for any corporate or government agency.

Government websites have undergone dramatic improvements. We are now interactive and offer shorter, more interesting descriptions as to what we do. Forms to conduct business are offered. We offer places for citizens to comment.

But is this enough? Have government websites progressed to the point where they offer a truly satisfying experience?

A friend went to a motorcycle clothing store site on the Internet where the owner personally tried every product he sold and created his own reviews. Customers agreed or disagreed with his reviews. Short video clips were offered. It was powerful and interactive.

My friend was impressed with anyone who would go that far to serve his customers. He “guessed” that if the owner cared that much about customer service, he would be the kind of person he would want to do business with, which he did to the tune of a thousand dollar expenditure.

His interaction wasn’t with a store; it was with a person. It was powerful. It was social.

And this Means?

What does research on trusting strangers via social media and a motorcycle store mean for government service?

Having a site that’s social is no longer the issue. Having the right kind of social media experience is.

It comes down to two issues, authenticity and content.

Authenticity

A recent on-line seminar titled the “Future of Marketing” featured 60 of the most influential corporate marketers providing one minute statements as to their most potent visions for 2011 and beyond. Many of the statements were strategic and addressed emerging cell phone technologies or research.

But most focused on style over technology. Are we telling stories? Is the customer experience integrated into everything we do? Do we tell our stories with passion? Are we connecting people to the things their interested in? Are we building relationships? Do we give people what they actually want?

My favorite? “The solution is to start having a personality and to be more authentic” as told by Rohit Bhargava, author of the marketing book “Personality Not Included.”

Well-crafted social websites cater to learning styles. They are friendly with story-based articles, fact sheets and interesting video and audio.

Well-crafted social websites establish a brand that is widely recognized and valued. In the words of a writer for Advertising Age Magazine, “Brands need to have a personality and be someone that people want to be friends with.”

While many government agencies are branded, the opportunity exists for them to raise the quality of their product.

All we need to do is use social media to provide users with a personal, comfortable and meaningful experience.

Content

Government agencies need to display a personality. We need to be friendly. We do this by respecting user learning preferences and by offering the right products.

Is your morning announcement of new research or services accompanied by short and interesting video or audio?

Yes, we offer audio and video; but do people enjoy those experiences? Are their questions answered? Are they 30 minutes or less? Do we pack them with footage of what we’re addressing? Are they interesting? Are they timely?

Yes, we offer documents, but do they quickly get to the point by summarizing research findings and policy implications in two pages or less. Do we write for the average person? Do we use plain English? Are they story-based? Do we create fact sheets?

Do we constantly reach out to our core audience to sign up for e-mail and Twitter lists?

Do we offer a friendly non-bureaucratic experience?

Are we creating a meaningful dialog with the public?

Do visitors to government websites find quick answers to their questions?

Are We “Fully” Engaged?

Not “fully” engaging in social media has multiple implications. One is the ability of agencies to accurately provide information and have desired effects.

The Harris Poll tells us that most Americans have Facebook or social accounts. .

The San Francisco Chronicle offered an article, “More Marketers are Counting on Social Networks” addressing the dangers of businesses ignoring a fully integrated social media strategy.

The article offers the following: “Clearly, the online audience is already there. A Nielsen Co. report…found the number of social media users has increased 87 percent since 2003, and surpassed e-mail use for the first time…. In the past year, the time spent on social networks increased 73 percent, Nielsen said.”

“For businesses, the social-media phenomenon is rewriting the rules about customer service and outreach. Looking forward, marketers will ignore these communities at their own peril," Nielsen said.”

Are we the Best Source of Information?

The message seems to be that we control our own reputations “if” we do it right. But we need to define ourselves before others do it for us. This is an emerging issue with real implications.

With new technologies and cheap bandwidth, anyone with a basic understanding of website creation and search engine optimization can create a site in hours. There are cameras and software that can shoot and lift video to You Tube in minutes. They can create blogs and audio that provides a satisfying customer experience.

Do we risk conceding the authentic experience to others?

Conclusion

We need to fully engage social media and create dialogs with the citizens we serve. We need to do it to accomplish organizational goals. We need to do it to increase our capacity for service delivery. We need to do it because it’s what our customers want.

If we want excellence in service delivery, especially in times of budget difficulties, we need to do a better job in communicating with core audiences and citizens in general.

If not, others may define our agencies and issues to suit their own purposes. The time for government to fully embrace social media is now.

Other articles by Leonard Sipes


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