“Everyone else is doing it!!”
The world of social media is probably one of the few places where this may be considered a reasonable justification to join in. Across a landscape of constantly evolving platforms and attention-grabbing gimmicks it’s easy to feel like you need to login first, ask questions later. And in some cases – especially for local government – it’s not necessarily a bad idea. In terms of community engagement, social media is so easily accessible it’s often one of the ‘low hanging fruit’ that any community can get started with quickly. It can allow local leaders to communicate more nimbly than traditional tools and get messages out in real time. And because it really does seem like everyone is on at least one social media platform, it can be a great place to start in developing or ramping up a community engagement strategy.
But user beware – effective social media efforts are more than funny cat videos and witty memes (though they have their place – more on this later). They are purposeful and engaging, require a balance of strategy and risk-taking, and while they are often directed towards residents and local businesses, can be an important part of a community’s broader marketing strategies, attracting new investments and talent.
Whether your community is relatively new to the use of social media, or you’ve been hashtagging and streaming video for years, here are some considerations to keep in mind when using social media to reach and actively engage your community:
- Get to Know Them: If your city or county is new to social media or may not be experiencing the level of engagement on social platforms as you would like, begin with an honest assessment of your audience and their history of engagement. Are citizens in your community generally trusting of their local government and easily engaged? Has there been some distrust or disengagement that needs to be acknowledged? Start from where you are. If used well social media can be a great way to sow seeds of trust, increase transparency and break down “us/them” dynamics. By easing up on the formalities that tend to surround more traditional communication platforms, social media can also show that local government is not a faceless entity but rather is comprised of fellow citizens who care about the community and are working on behalf of all its members to make it a better place.
- Assess Internal Capacities: As its popularity increases it’s not uncommon for local governments to host multiple accounts – in some cases dozens of pages dedicated to specific departments or neighborhoods. As Timothy Martin, Citizen Engagement Officer for the City of Roanoke, explained in a Q&A with ICMA, while quantity may seem tempting, it’s more important to focus on quality – making sure you have an audience for each account and the internal bandwidth to support ongoing engagement. Take time to understand the needs and capacities of the internal teams who will be managing accounts. By offering training to departmental staff, setting forth clear guidance, and even providing incentives like internal competitions, city leaders can not only ensure a successful social media presence but also make this a positive experience for their teams.
- Clarify Your Intentions: Social media can be a great tool to “push out” timely and important information to residents – things like road closures or details about upcoming events. But to be a true community engagement tool, social media platforms need also to be called upon to “pull in” information and ideas from the greater community, start a community dialogue or gauge interest in issues. When using social media to gather feedback be intentional and strategic. Choose the platform that works best for the information you’re seeking to gather. Also, have a follow up plan in place. Citizen engagement can quickly fade and become frustrating if participants who are taking time to engage do not feel like their feedback is being used. Social media should never be a “box to check” when “going through the motions” of community engagement. If you’re conducting a poll, requesting input or gathering ideas – follow up! Simple but fun infographics or other visuals may be enough to communicate back to residents what you heard and share with them how this information will be used.
- Lighten up! Possibly one of the most valuable – and undervalued – aspects of social media in terms of community engagement is the potential to show the human side of local government. Loosen up, show some personality, and have fun! Unlike more traditional communication tools that may come across as bureaucratic or overly formal, social media allows you to establish and develop real connections to the community. Timothy Martin describes how this has worked in Roanoke, “On Twitter, we’ve found that humorous GIFs work really well. We are a government that isn’t afraid to use humor to our advantage. Humorous posts on Twitter tend to get a lot more retweets. It’s also a great way to bring a new audience to your page that may not realize their government is actually cool.”.
Finally, with all the benefits and opportunities social media offers it should be noted that these tools are not intended to replace more traditional forms of outreach and communication that your community has successfully used in the past. Twitter posts, Instagram photo contests and Facebook groups can all serve to complement existing strategies and attract a broader audience – but should be the means to greater citizen engagement, not necessarily the ends.
Has your community had success with increased engagement through social media? Let us know by emailing your story to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow us at @lifewellrun!