social media icons on smart phone (Chinnapong/


3 ways to inspire citizen engagement with social media

Government agencies know they must meet citizens where they spend their time: on social media. Officials are bypassing traditional means of communications and speaking directly to the people via Twitter, and states and cities are using Instagram to show off local scenery.

Yet followers on all social platforms have become increasingly passive in their social network consumption, watching videos and reading articles, but rarely interacting with the content itself. Nearly 40 percent of citizens use social networks to check news and fill their spare time, rather than actively engaging with posts. This lack of follower engagement on platforms like Facebook or Twitter creates a huge challenge for government agencies, especially for those looking to justify their resource investment in social media.

The variety of content -- or lack thereof -- that many agencies provide could be partly to blame for weak citizen engagement. Using social media primarily to share press releases and meeting announcements doesn’t inspire citizens to engage in a dialogue, share posts or turn to the agency as a resource.

To achieve more than just awareness and visibility, agencies must get more creative with their social media presence. Here are three tips for boosting engagement with the community:  

Create authentic content for a human touch. It’s encouraging that 85 percent of governments and agencies are active on social media, but they often use social platforms merely as digital notice boards. Instead of using social media to broadcast news, agencies should use their channels to share fun and helpful content to followers. They can post things citizens can’t find elsewhere -- such as archival photos of the agency or historic moments in time – or  share activities relevant to the agency that drive citizens to local businesses and events.

The New York City Police Department, for example, uses its social media channels to share lighthearted, local content, like this Tweet featuring a photo of officers volunteering at a Ronald McDonald House. This kind of friendly content also shows a more human side of the police force -- and because it’s highly shareable, it’s an affordable way for NYPD to increase its organic online reach. Authentic content encourages citizens to interact.

Connect with snackable videos that engage and inform. Video is a key component of every major social network, and it should be as well for any government agency. Sixty-seven percent of American citizens get their news through social media, and more often than not their preferred way to receive news and content on social channels is through video.

However, many government agencies only have experience with long, formal videos. On social media, attention spans are shrinking, and most users only want to watch videos that are short-- four to five minutes maximum. Agencies should provide smaller, snackable pieces of video content. The National Park Service, for example, posted a video on Instagram to promote National Park Week, and although the video was just 30 seconds, it garnered clearly 25,000 views.

Commit to a consistent cadence. Moving customer service operations to social media can be a great way to engage with citizens, as well as cut costs. Connecting with citizens through traditional call centers is expensive and inefficient. For example, last year the Social Security Administration handled 53.3 million calls at a cost of at least $275 million. Agencies that want to divert some customer service to social media must be consistent with hours, staffing and response times. Some agencies will engage at inconsistent times, or set unrealistic response-time expectations even though most Twitter users expect to receive a reply to a tweet within an hour. Use the social media bio section to clarify the days and times questions will be addressed.

Once unique, engaging content is in place and citizens begin to interact more with what is being shared, agencies must track the engagement to understand and realize its value. A tool that measures response rates and overall engagement with posts will help agencies ensure their content strategy has a meaningful return on investment.

The bottom line

Citizens are have made it clear that they expect government to be as responsive and relatable as the brands they interact with in their daily lives. Building community through social is central to meeting that demand.

About the Author

Ben Cathers is the government and financial services principal solutions consultant at Hootsuite.

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