Social Media in the Government – Part 1

by Stuart Ridgway, Original Music for Film and Television

This is a reprint of an article I published May 18, 2010. Social Media has a evolved a little bit since then so don’t be surprised if some of the material is a little out of date. 😉

Social media means different things to different people. A common thread running through many definitions of social media is “a blending of technology and socializing for the co-creation of value.” Social Media usually implies Internet interaction that enables a dialog among multiple contributors that fosters an atmosphere of collaboration. As a result, social media-based websites comprise an abundance of user generated content (UGC). This has its pros and cons as described below.

People around the world are becoming more accustomed to participating in social media spaces. It follows that they bring that expectation to government websites. A such, there has been continuing pressure on government agencies to further leverage social media tools.

Furthermore, the President issued the memorandum calling for the establishment of “a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration” last January. But what should that look like? How does an agency best use social media to support its mission?

Meeting Needs

If and when an agency determines that it will become involved in social media, it should ask several questions:

  • Why? Don’t do it just to do. The agency’s should tie its use of social media to its mission, goals, objectives, gaps, and needs. Assess those needs and see if social media will indeed fulfill them.
  • How? Not all tools do the same thing. Decide which tools best meet the agency’s needs and use them.
  • What? Content is the key to success. Make sure it’s substantial enough to engage visitors.
  • Who? Social media requires an investment in resources. Assign an owner who will corral contributors and provide for ongoing maintenance. Also, define the audience. Know for whom these tools are being built and which ones will work best.
  • When? Create a schedule for implementing, nurturing, measuring and evaluating each social media tool.

Popular Social Media Tools in Government

In the government space, several social media tools have emerged as the most popular:

  1. Blogs
  2. RSS Feeds
  3. YouTube Channels
  4. Podcasts / Vodcasts
  5. Twitter
  6. Wikis
  7. Idea Exchanges
  8. Forums
  9. Facebook

Each of these tools enables visitors to interact in different ways. Depending upon the needs of the agency, one tool will be more effective solving a problem than another. Moreover, agencies will not likely need to use all of the social media tools at their disposal.

There are all kinds of Social Media platforms

For the purposes of this document, the tools are divided into two broad categories: dialoging and collaborative. The dialoging tools enable a content creator, such as an agency, to “push” content to readers and enable the readers to respond to that content. The collaborative tools provide platforms for multiple content creators to interact and collaborate. I write about the collaborative tools in the second half of this article, Social Media in the Government – Part 2.

~ Dialoging Tools ~

Blogs

A blog, short for weblog, is a type of website that contains regularly periodic articles from an author. Blogs are typically text based, but can contain graphics, video and photos as well. An author can be one person or a team of writers. There are two distinguishing characteristics of a blog:

  1. The author regularly creates new blog articles on a predictable schedule.
  2. There is a space on the blog that allows visitors to comment on each article.

Although blogs started as journals with running accounts of an author’s personal life, they have evolved into a medium that enables authors to write about their topic of interest at any level of formality: from very casual to official. The White House’s Open Government Blog is a good example.

Blogs are web-based but can be viewed using a “blog reader” application as well as a browser. When a visitor subscribes to a blog, new articles are “pushed” to the visitor’s blog reader when the author adds the new article. There are many software packages for blogging including WordPress, Blogger, and Movable Type.

Takeaway: Government agencies can use blogs to provide periodic updates to issues relevant to the agency. How is a policy evolving? What is the administrator doing to address an ongoing issue? What innovations are being implemented and how are they reducing costs.

Requirements: An agency must updated its blogs regularly with timely articles that are relevant to the blog’s topic. It should also create an editorial calendar that contains each new article’s topic and its date for publication.

An agency must manage comments that visitors leave. Visitors can have their own agenda and take over the blog’s commenting area. An agency should have moderators on hand to review incoming comments and determine if they are appropriate.

RSS Feeds

RSS stands for “really simple syndication” and is used to publish frequently updated works in a standardized format. This is similar to publishing a blog, but RSS is not limited to syndicating just blog articles. A content creator might place an RSS feed on a web page or on a newswire enabling visitors to automatically receive updates using their “feed reader.”

Typically, visitor customize their own feed readers to collect content from across the web. The benefit is that visitors no longer need to visit all of their favorite websites to view any updates: the new pages are brought to them. RSS feeds are created using generic XML code embedded into a website. As such, there is not a sole software product for creating RSS feeds.

Takeaway: RSS feeds are the least interactive of the popular social media tools. Nevertheless, agencies can easily create RSS feeds for web pages that they update frequently. This enables them to efficiently push the most current content to visitors who are particularly interested in that information. The USA.gov RSS page has several RSS feeds available to the public.

Requirements: Like blogs, RSS feeds are only worth placing if the content is high quality and updated regularly.

YouTube Channels

YouTube has become the de facto destination for uploading video onto the Internet. They are not the only game in town: Vimeo and Dailymotion come to mind. But YouTube has become ubiquitous and has also made allowances for government-created video content. Additionally, visitors do not have to view the video on the YouTube website itself. An agency can embed the YouTube video player on its website that “serves” the video from YouTube.

YouTube enables frequent content providers, such as an agency, the ability to create a “channel” that assembles videos under a brand. The agency can design the channel’s web page with a branded look, group related videos into playlists, recommend other channels, and provide profile information about the agency. Similar to a blog, the channel also provides space for visitors to leave comments about each video. The IRS YouTube Channel is a good example.

YouTube has also extended several privileges to government agencies. Agencies are allowed to exceed the three minute limit and upload videos as long as ten minutes. Agency channels do not have advertisements on them and the video player itself does not have the YouTube watermark. Finally, GSA has negotiated a blanket Terms of Service (TOS) document with which all agencies can comply.

Takeaway: Government agencies can take advantage of YouTube’s existing tools to host their videos. They can let YouTube manage all of the logistics of serving videos, providing a video player, creating and serving closed captions, providing commenting space, and organizing the channel’s pages.

Requirements: Web videos must comply with Section 508 regulations. YouTube provides tools for meeting these regulations such as automated closed captioning and a video player that a visitor can control with devices other than a mouse.

Like a blog, an agency must regularly upload content to encourage visitors to return. An agency should have moderators on hand to review incoming comments and determine if they are in the spirit of the video channel. It goes without saying that the quality of the videos must be outstanding. Nothing will kill a channel faster than poorly produced videos.

Podcasts / Vodcasts

Podcasts (playable on demand broadcasts) are used to publish episodic audio on the Internet analogous to a radio show. Similar to RSS Feeds, podcast enable visitors to subscribe to its feed. Visitors can use a browser to listen to a podcast using a browser or software like iTunes but they can also use other devices like a mobile phone.

The visitor’s software accesses the podcast online, checks for updates, and downloads any new files in the series. The software can automate this process so that new files are downloaded automatically. Files are stored locally on the visitor’s computer or other device ready for offline use.

Vodcasts (video on demand broadcasts) are similar to podcasts but provide episodic video instead of audio. Vodcasts are different from YouTube because they provide automated access to an ongoing series of videos. YouTube does allow content creators to assemble playlists of related videos, but visitors don’t typically expect playlists to be updated regularly.

Takeaway: Government agencies that create audio or video series can publish them as podcasts or vodcasts and thereby widen their audience. Visitors who are interested in these series can access them at their convenience. Podcast and vodcast software also enables visitors to rate the series providing valuable feedback to the agency.

Requirements: As difficult as it is to create high quality videos, it is even harder to create high quality audio and video series on an ongoing basis. Agencies interested in creating podcasts or vodcasts should either own or work with a professional production facility. Additionally, an agency should create an editorial calendar that details the content of each episode, the resources involved, and the schedule.

Twitter

Twitter has quickly come to the forefront of the social media realm. It’s a commercial microblogging service that enables its users to send and read other users’ messages called “tweets.” Tweets can contain a maximum of 140 characters of text or small photos. People that subscribe to someone’s Twitter feed are called “followers.” Twitter is not the only microblogging service but it is by far the largest and best known.

Although Twitter started out as a way for people to notify friends of what they are doing, it has become a way for any entity to quickly notify followers of important but short pieces of information. For example, the Center for Disease Control tweets several times a day with updates on health trends, developing illnesses, and even epidemics.

Anyone who receives a tweet can forward it to his or her followers. This is known as a “retweet.” This can be extremely powerful, because any tweet has the potential to reach an exponential numbers of followers if it is “retweeted” multiple times.

Furthermore, tweets can contain URLs. This is useful when combined with other messaging strategies. For example, if the agency has updated content on its web page, blog or other web asset, the agency can advertise it by tweeting the URL.

Takeaway: Government agencies can use Twitter to provide periodic and brief updates to issues relevant to the agency. Who is the administrator meeting with today? What’s a breaking new headline? What’s the latest news on an evolving issue? Followers interested in the agency’s activities can help push those messages further by retweeting them.

Requirements: Tweets must be useful and informative and they should be sent regularly in order to keep followers’ interests. An agency should create an editorial calendar containing each tweet’s topic and its date for tweeting. A list of other messaging efforts that coincide with the tweets should be included as well.

Agencies have been impersonated on Twitter. It’s important for agency representatives to beware of these impersonators, report them to Twitter, and counteract any misinformation.

Please continue reading Social Media in the Government – Part 2.

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