NAGW 2010: Adriel Hampton, "Social Media Boot Camp"

This past week I attended, and was an organizer for, the annual conference for the National Association of Government Webmasters (NAGW). The first session I attended was an extensive pre-conference workshop, a “Social Media Boot Camp,” led by Adriel Hampton.

The term social media guru is far too overused these days, but I’d argue that Adriel has every right to lay some claim to that title. His background is in journalism and community activism and he serves as an investigator for the San Francisco City Attorney’s office. His interests in new media and government led him to found Gov 2.0 radio, a podcast about new media tech’s impact on government. While Adriel does not consider himself a super techie, he has always been interested in media tools for communication. On Adriel’s site, adrielhampton.wordpress.com, you can learn more about Adriel and find extensive resources on social media, such as a Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

He started his discussion on social media by pointing out that the beauty of government is that we don’t have as many trade secrets. We can share what we’ve learned and avoid reinventing the wheel. In that light, we each shared what we had tackled in the realm of social media: it was good to hear that other government webmasters were facing similar challenges with social media tools.

Personally, I’ve focused most of my efforts on Twitter. I feel I get the most out of Twitter for the amount of time I spend on it, as it is a great information sharing resource. I have incredibly mixed feelings about Facebook for myriad reasons, particularly how every time you turn your head, they seem to change a fundamental way that Facebook works. Thankfully, Adriel spent the majority of his presentation discussing Twitter, with some interesting thoughts on the use of geolocation services as well.

Adriel pointed out that San Francsisco now has some 35 social media accounts, without any social media policies. So far, no lawsuits yet! He believes that fears of social media are often overblown, even if individual anecdotes can be pretty scary.

While we’ve all heard stories of people being fired for a Facebook posting, generally it’s because the person is being genuinely horrible, and then letting people know about it through Facebook. It’s the being horrible part that gets people fired. Facebook is just the medium through which people discover this.

Similarly, management is often concerned about staff wasting time on social media. He pointed out that this is a discipline, not a social media issue. Again, social media is just the medium. Genuinely useful uses of social media shouldn’t be stymied by the abuses of others.

In considering social media policies, he pointed out that in some situations, creating an official government policy may require the extra complication of consulting with unions. One alternative is to put out a straightforward, common sense memo regarding social media usage, which may not be as big a deal.

Most government social media efforts have started as rogue efforts without official permission. That said, it is key to understand who is responsible for a social media outlet, who is taking ownership of the content and monitoring of that channel.

A good practice is to have several different social media outlets, distribute your content between each one, and have each channel refer to the others. Each channel has different audiences. Think of a Venn diagram of your audiences in Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. Clearly there will be some overlap, but some people will be on only one channel, and if you’re not targeting that channel, your message will not reach those individuals.

Twitter

San Francisco has definitely gone the route of having different accounts for different services, officials, departments, etc., rather than having one over-arching San Francisco Twitter account. This also information to more easily reach a particular audience. San Francisco’s administration is somewhat decentralized, so this works well.

Another good tip: If an office is held by an elected official, there should be separate accounts for the office itself versus the elected official. This becomes particularly important if that official chooses to run for re-election or for another office. The account for the office can relate to more official business while the official’s account can be more personal (and more political). Also, if you think an elected official might be impersonated, make sure to try to grab all obvious variations of a name. While this falls outside the realm of government management of Twitter accounts, it is particularly important, again, during election season (although namejacking could be used to criticize an official’s handling of some issue as well). Another reason to create accounts for elected officials or staff? People don’t like to interact with the city seal: instead, they prefer to interact with city staff and officials.

However you set up your accounts, know that it is worthwhile. GovTwit has recorded over 3000 government-related Twitter accounts: combined, they have 44.9 million followers. There may be some overlap in those numbers, but it is a large group all the same.

The most popular Twitter accounts are almost always the ones with the most two-way engagement. One interesting example is @SF311, where San Francisco trained front-line customer service staff to handle requests on Twitter.

Keep in mind that there are different levels of engagement on social media. Don’t expect everyone to engage you in the same way. You often need to reach out to people to get them engaged. The reason people don’t follow you on Twitter is the same reason people don’t visit your website: they have not been engaging in a way that compels them to do so.

If your account looks dead, with very little tweeting, people are much less likely to get engaged and to follow you.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some people don’t follow those who don’t follow them, and if they follow you, and you don’t respond in kind, they may unfollow you. Adriel’s philosophy with official accounts is to follow those who are local or who have a worthwhile connection or area of expertise shared by that office.

He puts in the account’s bio, “Follow does not endorse,” to help make clear that just because the office is following somebody, it does not mean the office endorses everything that follower says.

Another way to make your policy clear is to put a link to your Twitter policy in the website field of your account’s Twitter profile in order to explain how you use Twitter in detail.

Simply waiting for others to follow you is often not enough. There are a lot of strategies you can use to help increase your reach.

Adriel encouraged having personal accounts if for no other reason that using Twitter regularly allows us to best understand how the medium works. As a side benefit, if you find somebody on your personal account that would be a good audience for your official account, follow them with the official account. They will likely follow back.

Ultimately, how you handle followers on Twitter depends on what kind of outreach you are doing, and how you are using your account.

There are a lot of Twitter applications that can help your management of your Twitter account. One great list can be found at OneForty.com, where almost 3,000 Twitter apps are categorized, rated.

As one example, Twitter lists are very useful for picking out the people you actually want to monitor, versus the people you want to follow in order to extend the reach of your message. One web app that can help is Listorious. If you create lists, you can submit them to Listorious and tag them to help with searchability (so others find you). You can also find people to follow for outreach by searching for terms related to your focus or locality.

One way to monitor Twitter is to just tune in now and then, favorite tweets you find interesting and then decide how to handle those tweets later, engaging with the tweeter when you are ready to do so.

Also keep in mind that you don’t have to tweet to use Twitter. Following the right people can serve as a great news souce. Hashtags are one way to find news on a particular subject. (For example, if you wanted to follow along during the NAGW conference, you could so by following the #nagw2010 hashtag. Using hashtags also makes it easier for others to find you depending on the subject you are tweeting on and its relevance to them.

Hashtags are also useful during emergency events. Remember that if a hashtag already exists, use the one that is most popular for that subject. If a hashtag doesn’t exist for a subject yet, you can start one and work to develop a community around it. If you do so and continue to use it, it will be likely that you will stay at the top of the SEO for that hashtag.

Another way to find people is through TweepML, a web app that allows you to find all the people who tweeted on a particular hashtag, then create a list from those accounts and follow them all with just one click. You can also use this service to find people who will automatically follow you back, bumping up your follower count: this really proves that your follower count doesn’t mean all that much.

Other sites that can help you find followers and make decisions about who to follow include: LocaFollower, Twellow, Twollow, and MyTweeple.

Eventually, you may need to unfollow people. ManageFlitter.com helps with unfollowing. Another important tip is to make sure you don’t unfollow a lot of accounts at once. Space it out.

You can learn a bit about the quality of your account, or of others’ accounts, via TwitterGrader.com or Klout.com. TweetMetrics gives you a lot of stats, including your Twitter conversation quotient. Another important stat, particularly when evaluating other accounts, is when an account first showed up on Twitter. In all of these stats, engagement with your followers equates to your influence with those followers, or at least it’s a big factor.

One way to succinctly share what you’re learning from the people you are following (and for you to succinctly see what they are saying) is to use the http://paper.li service. This takes a list of your followers and then creates a daily tweet that compiles all of their tweets, like a daily newspaper. This is ad supported, and since you’re not selecting which tweets are listed, it is particularly important to emphasize that following does not mean you are endorsing these tweets.

Another note is that if you are concerned with the appearance of endorsement of somebody who is following, you can block their account. They can still read your tweets on your public profile page, but they will no longer show up in your follower list, your tweets will no longer appear in their stream, they cannot put your account in a list, and you will not see any of their @replies or mentions.

Adriel reiterated that the best way to grow your account is to actually engage with people. It’s pretty amazing what kind of following you can develop with person-to-person, two-way communication. There can be a lot of things to fear, but Adriel shared a neat thought, that it’s amazing what can happen when you define yourself by what might be rather than by what could happen (hope versus fear).

If you’re looking for more best practices on building a Twitter following, you can find a white paper written by Adriel at http://bit.ly/TwitterforAction.

Location-based services

Adriel began his discussion about location-based services by reminding us to think about the goal or mission for why we are engaging on social media. One take is that social media is an opportunity to engage with people who might not otherwise engage with government.

One idea that Adriel implemented in relation to this was a way to promote all of the great public art in San Francisco. Why not do a scavenger hunt using Foursquare and Gowalla? By setting up check-in spots at locations of public art, people could compete in a scavenger hunt by checking in at as many locations as possible. One important note is to make sure that a competition like this is tool-agnostic. Allow people to not only check-in with multiple services, but to participate if they do not use check-in services, by taking photos of themselves each location, for example.

Of course a competition is often only as good as its prize. Adriel has found that one valuable prize is for winners to meet or have lunch with a city official: apparently, this can be a big motivator.

Going back to Twitter, one way that San Francisco rewards those who engage with their accounts is to create a retweet list for people who retweet, mention or message their accounts. This gives a bit of recognition to those who actively engage.

Recognition can be a serious motivator. People love seeing their names in lights.

When setting up check-in locations, keep in mind that checking in at city hall might not be exciting (although I think there’s something to be said for becoming Mayor of City Hall on Foursquare), but check-ins at cool locations can be a “gateway druf” for engagement. Having people check in at civic buildings can be used to educate them about the purpose, and for some people just the existence, of those facilities.

While there may not be a huge number of people who use location-based services, these people are passionate and connected. They find points, badges and leaderboards very motivating. If you can engage them, they will help you engage with others..

Not to mention that the press typically finds stories about government utilizing new technology interesting and will help get the word out. Even if you are copying something another city is doing, it’s still new to that city. The earlier you try something out, the more press you will likely get.

In all of your engagement, your key constituency is typically the interested citizenry, but remember that different things interest different people. You can really increase engagement by making social media fun. Use a sense of humor and aim to create delightful experiences.

Challenges and opportunities

  • For many location-based services, if you create check-in spots, your name appears as the creator of the spot.
  • Some precedents indicate that if you create a public forum like a Facebook Page, you may not be able to legally shut it down.
  • If you do create comment policies for things like Facebook, make sure to enforce them regularly, not arbitrarily. One way to think of a comments policy is that it similar to the standards you set for speaking at a public meeting: you can set standards there, and you can do so for social media as well.
  • Because Twitter is part of the open web, your tweets will be indexed by search engines, which help with search engine optimization for your agency. Since Facebook is more closed, your efforts there will have a smaller effect on your search engine placement.
  • It’s easier to automatically transmit your Facebook Page posts to your Twitter account than vice versa. The specific vocabulary on Twitter does not translate well to Facebook. (Although I have to say that when I see tweets linked toFacebook posts, where the tweet trails off in dots mid-sentence, I get pretty annoyed.) Ideally, you want to manually create Facebook to Twitter links, but doing so automatically does save time.
  • HootSuite was a good tool for scheduling tweets in advance, although now they are charging. Other tools are out there.
  • URL shorteners: go.usa.gov is available for official .gov sites to shorten .gov links. On a more general level, bit.ly allows analytics tracking of your link traffic and customized URLs.
  • Facebook ads allow you to do very tight demographic targeting. One tricky Facebook ad tip: you can choose to pay by click or by impression. Choose pay by click, and then deliver a message that doesn’t require a user to click on it.
  • Massachusetts and Utah are two models for how to do things with social media. They are trailblazing best practices.

My take

I love Twitter, but get nervous about some of the challenges related to other services, particularly related to dealing with comments, in light of first amendement and public form concerns. Adriel’s comparison of having a comments policy being akin to having a policy for comments made at council meetings seems apt.

The idea that engagement equals influence is also pretty powerful. His disucssion of how to grow your audience in a pretty authentic way was what I found the most useful. One thing he said sticks with me, that you need a community before you need a community. If an emergency were to come along, having a strong community to reach out to could be incredibly useful, but you need to build your audience before that emergency strikes. Doing so can be fun, and you can learn a lot from the process. If you really engage people, you can increased the number of people actively engaged within your community, and that’s a good thing.

All in all, a very excellent presentation. Of all the presentations I attended, this was one that had quite a lot of practical information that I could take away and begin using immediately. Great work, Adriel! If you are not already following him, and you are interested in this subject, make sure to follow him at twitter.com/AdrielHampton and visit him online to find more of these resources at adrielhampton.com.