Jacob Anderson, Community Engagement & Public Participation Manager City of Colorado Springs
In this noisy, digital world, audiences are bombarded with catchy, carefully drafted, meticulously targeted marketing messages — and are increasingly tuning them out. With so many messages coming at them, it’s hard for people to know which ones are worth their attention. Faced with overwhelming information and options, people look for “social proof,” turning to those they trust for guidance. Accordingly, messages from friends, family, and any source a person trusts (regardless of whether the source is actually trustworthy) carry far more weight than even the most revered experts or brilliant marketing campaigns.
People are more likely to believe content they see from several friends first, says research cited in LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by international relations scholar P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, Senior Fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council — they then share it with others who believe what they say. So engaging audience members to spread messages to their own spheres of influence in words and ways that are meaningful to them is crucial to helping brands become a trusted source audience members turn to instead of tune out.
Furthermore, posts on social networks are public and personal at the same time. One-to-one messages simultaneously reach several others, making social media far more than a broadcasting platform. It’s a means of connecting and staying connected with real people and to connect them to each other. It’s not just about producing content, it’s about “creating experiences through engagement with that content,” says social media strategist Bryan Kramer in Shareology: How Sharing is Powering the Human Economy.
“[P]eople are no longer satisfied with simply consuming ideas, but increasingly expect to play a role in developing, tweaking, and propagating those ideas to an unlimited potential audience,” say Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms in New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World and How to Make it Work for You. Successful digital marketers communicate ideas the audience can interact with, build on, and take in different directions. Effective digital messages are “spreadable” — designed to be adopted, adapted, and shared from person to person. Audience members are active stakeholders with important insights and a crucial role in refining, reinterpreting, and disseminating ideas. Digital communicators are better served by throwing out lots of small messages, seeing how people respond, and iterating accordingly, rather than investing in meticulously crafting a few big messages.
When a user comments on a post or shares a message from an original creator, the message now also carries the thumbprint of the co-creator, who amplified, clarified, or somehow re-packaged the original post. Every modification an individual adds to a message makes it more appealing to his or her own community and networks. This essentially “viral” nature of social media can allow a message to reach beyond those who follow an account, but it also opens up the message to more modification on its way to the viral audience. This means marketers have far less control over their messages than in the pre-digital world.
Given the many ways social networks are changing our understanding of the world and the ways we engage in it, stakes are high for government communicators operating in digital spaces. Jen Pahlka, founder of Code for America, famously said that “government is what we do together that we can’t do alone.” It’s a very simple reframing, but government at its most basic form is just humans banding together to accomplish large things. Rather than viewing government as a force from the outside coercing regular people, it helps to remember (and communicate) that government is made up of individuals from the community, working to accomplish goals on behalf of the stakeholders they serve.
In this framework, government communication is not about an authority broadcasting its declarations out among the subjects. Government is more like a team, empowered by the community to work on their behalf against a common problem. As representatives of the larger community, then, the government (as represented by its communicators) is obligated to have a more interactive relationship with the community.
Social networks provide space for interaction between government and the people it serves. In fact, It’s the interactions and opportunities for relationship-building that make social media such a powerful communication channel. To be impactful in digital spaces, your brand must engage.
When people communicate with brands in digital spaces, they expect a response. Thoughtful, human responses can be more effective in building trust and establishing credibility than thoughtful content. It is wise to allocate more resources to digital responses than to digital content creation. In fact, the things that require responses often clue you into the topics you need to cover in the content you’re creating. Equip members of your team to monitor social channels, train them in empathetic customer service, and empower them to engage with audience members in real time.
A central tenet in the practice of Public Participation is that “people deserve a voice in the decisions that affect them.” This belief is present across the various types of events that governments use to engage their constituents– open houses, town halls, comment lines, online surveys — but it also extends to the communications techniques that a government employs to engage with its public. It’s not enough to post updates on social media accounts with a notice of “this account is not monitored” or some other disclaimer. If you’re on the platform, you are expected to take part in the conversation.
Government communication occupies a singular space in the social media conversation. For each community, there is only one national government, one province or state government, one city government, and so on. This gives unique power and gravity to government messages. But trust in government messages isn’t automatic. Trust is built over time as audiences become familiar with your brand and learn what to expect from it. Consistent demonstration of transparency, competence, and empathy develops impactful digital assets where audiences turn for information.
Define your digital brand(s). Your brand is the foundation for all marketing and communication activities. No matter who you’re attempting to reach and no matter what goal you’re trying to accomplish, you have to be true to the brand first and foremost. (Except for those rare times when breaking form with the brand makes strategic sense to grab attention for a specific purpose.) A brand is conveyed by the sum total of the visuals (avatars, profile pictures, cover photos, and other images) associated with your social media accounts; the topics you post about; the language, tone, and personality of the messages you send; and the way you interact with and respond to audience members. A funny, warm, friendly brand communicates differently than a serious, authoritative, expert brand.
Because social networks are populated by a wide cross-section of people interacting with each other in myriad ways, there will be several audiences you want to reach while maintaining brand consistency. Communicating and community-building through sub-brands, campaigns, employee advocates, and co-branding will often be more effective with some audiences than press releases and broadcasts through main government accounts.
Sub-brands are additional social media accounts the government creates and manages, but that have distinctly different brand attributes, allowing them to focus more narrowly on certain topics or audiences and communicate in different ways and in a different voice than the main government accounts.
Campaigns are time-bound, topical efforts to move public opinion or call community members to action on a specific subject. Campaigns are worthy of distinction from other content within your feed, but not large or distinct enough to require a separate sub-brand.
Employee Advocates are individuals within the government that are equipped and empowered to put a human face on government messages. They have their own brand, accounts are in their name, they speak in first person, and they provide relatable touchpoints with other humans by talking about everyday things that interest them in addition to government messaging. Humans are more likable, compelling, and trustworthy than faceless institutions, so human messengers have more impact than institutional messengers.
Co-Branding is an official partnership between the government brand and individuals or organizations that message in collaboration with each other. This can be a highly effective way of diversifying digital content and gaining credibility with new audiences.
Define your digital goals. What do you want audiences to do in response to your social media marketing? Think carefully about the desired outcomes of your digital messages and how those outcomes will advance key government goals. “Create meaningful opportunities for people to actively shape their lives and connect with the institutions that shape them,” say Heimans and Timms in New Power. Be wary of focusing too much on “shallow and intermittent” engagement — hashtag campaigns and photo submission contests come to mind — and strive instead for “deep, constant, multi-layered” participation. Building trust, proving competence, combating misinformation, and encouraging positive civic behavior will require different marketing messages than rapidly increasing “likes” and followers. These goals are also harder to measure than “likes” and follower counts, so you’ll need to decide what success looks like. An increase in shares, mentions, and audience-created content are good indications of trust-building, if they’re occurring in a positive context.
Identify and understand your audience(s). Social networks serve up content to everyone. Government serves everyone, so it’s tempting to use social media as a mass marketing tool. But successful digital marketing is about creating meaningful connections. To do that effectively, you have to decide who each message is intended to reach, what will resonate with them, and how to let them know they’re the intended target (because the brand will be communicating with several audiences via the same network).
While demographics and data are starting points for getting to know your audiences and making educated assumptions about what will resonate with them, social networks provide a more interactive and transparent way of gaining insight: ask the audience whatever you want to know. Many people are thrilled to offer their thoughts and opinions, especially when they trust they will be heard.
The mere act of asking creates a connection point and demonstrates interest in dialogue, while the public nature of the communication shows a commitment to transparency. It can also help dispel concerns about data mining private information. If research is clearly being conducted in the open, people may feel less suspicious about nefarious uses of private data behind closed doors. Bonus: public responses to questions you ask via social media are audience-created content you can amplify by liking, commenting, or sharing — actions which prove you are genuinely paying attention to audience feedback.
Claim your accounts on every network. Given the sheer number of social media networks, it’s difficult to maintain a robust presence on all of them. Goals, resources, and key audiences will determine which platforms an organization decides to heavily invest in, but government organizations should at least establish an account on all networks. Registering accounts is free on all major social networks, so failure to establish an account leaves the door open to imposters posing as the government entity on that platform.
Create content that resonates. To create resonant content, think in terms of human-to-human conversation, not institution-to-audience communication. People listen when they feel connected to the communicator and are primed and ready to receive a communication. “The trick is to unlearn hard-sell tactics and concentrate more on sharing the kind of content that sparks connection and earns trust,” says Kramer in Shareology.
Messages don’t exist in a vacuum, they are surrounded by other messages in newsfeeds, the broader culture, and the recipient’s own lived experience. Providing context for messages is crucial in delivering content that resonates. This means delivering a lot more “soft,” relational content aimed at building trust, as well as thinking about what context is needed to prepare audience members to receive “hard” content.
One way to determine whether your content is likely to resonate is to ask “is this something people will want to respond to or share with their own networks?” If the answer is no, see if there’s a way to redesign the content to enhance its “shareability.” What modifications will help the audience see enough value in the message to engage with it or pass it along to others in their life? Below are some things that make messages more appealing to share:
Truth and Authenticity. “In previous eras, marketing was about creating a myth and selling it. Today, it’s about finding a central truth and sharing it,” says Beth Comstock, former Vice Chair of General Electric, in Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change. “It is the organizations that are confident enough to share the truth – warts and all – that succeed.” Identify some less-than-ideal truths your brand can share that won’t undermine its credibility. How can your brand demonstrate authenticity while maintaining key brand attributes and values?
Storytelling. Stories connect us and shape how we see the world. They speak to our hearts and our imagination, providing context for facts and information. It’s easy to find flaws in arguments or opinions, but stories are harder to dismiss. Thinking holistically about all the stories your brand can tell leads to increasingly inclusive messaging. Telling other people’s stories (with their permission) allows you to authentically represent perspectives and viewpoints the brand itself may not be able to credibly express. It also amplifies your reach because people often share the stories you tell about them with their own networks.
Emotion. Another advantage to storytelling is that it has the capacity to evoke emotion more than statements and logical arguments. “What captures the most attention on social media isn’t content that makes a profound statement or expands viewers’ intellectual horizons,” say Heimans and Timms in New Power. “Instead, it is content that stirs emotions. Amusement, shock, and outrage determine how quickly and how far a given piece of information will spread through a social network.” Emotion isn’t characteristic of most government messages: they tend to be as dispassionate as possible. While it may not be wise to attempt to stir strong emotions on a routine basis, it is worth exploring ways of incorporating reasonable emotion into your content.
Humor. Another highly appealing attribute often absent from government messages, humor, says Kramer, “is an essential element to being more human online. People have shared humorous situations since the beginning of time and via all forms of communication. When employed in the right context and as a part of your planned strategy, humor can cement bonds, ease tension, even help smooth the way for collaboration.” Incorporating humor into your messaging can be tricky for government communicators, but it’s worthwhile to look for opportunities where it can be effectively employed.
Simplicity. Messages that can be absorbed almost instantly are more likely to resonate with audiences than long, complex communications. Use your social channels to highlight key points in the simplest way possible. Direct those who want more information to your website or other sources that lend themselves to longer-form content.
Variety of Content Types and Networks. Images may be more appealing to many, but different people respond to different approaches. Think expansively in terms of content: videos, photos, text, graphics, the “stories” feature on many social networks. Use a wide mix of content types to determine what your audiences respond to most.
Repetition. Another advantage of creating a variety of content and posting to a variety of networks is that encountering similar messages in multiple ways breeds familiarity and reinforces the message being sent. And people need to encounter messages over and over again to fully embrace and understand them.
Iteration. Social media is an ideal space for modifying, adapting, and even experimenting with messages. Make space in your digital strategy for trying new things, based on the trends you notice and the instincts you develop through continual monitoring of your social channels.
Social media presents tremendous opportunities as well as significant challenges for government communicators. Regardless of the perils, social media is a crucial component to any communication strategy because, as Singer and Brooking point out, “it now forms the foundation of commercial, political, and civic life.” Read on for ways governments can communicate effectively in digital spaces as well as rethink how to manage increased digital monitoring, content creation, and interaction. Digital marketing is a different undertaking than traditional marketing. It requires regular interactions with the audience and providing ways for the audience to participate in the creation, modification, and dissemination of messages. The inability to control messages is challenging, but when done well, digital marketing can be a powerful tool for creating trust between the government and those it serves.