New era of social media pushes agencies toward data, away from platforms

Thursday - 1/10/2013, 5:34am EST

Just as agencies are becoming more and more comfortable in using Twitter, Facebook or other social media platforms to reach citizens and businesses, the real impact of social media is moving beyond the platform itself and on to how to best use the data.

"This trend just initially being discussed in the social media community of practice … that are seeing this need to engage citizens in ways that are beyond what a social media platform does," said Tammi Marcoullier, program manager for Challenge.gov and the team lead for engagement and outreach in the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. "With the third evolution of this, it's being able to do something with that information. Challenge and prize competitions is a huge example of that."

Marcoullier said the Transportation Department soon will release a challenge or contest asking developers to create an app using traffic and commuting data to make traveling easier in seven different cities around the country.

"You will be able to do something with that data that will affect the way you operate and make choices in your life, and that's because of a social share and collaboration between government, citizens and businesses that has not really bubbled up in a big way," she said after a panel discussion on social media at the Partnership for Public Service in Washington Wednesday. "The trend is spiking so high right now, and it's such a hot growth area."

More than two-way communications

Challenges and contests in many ways are the first steps toward becoming platform agnostic in the social media world. Previously, agencies focused on which platform to use to improve communications with citizens.

Tammi Marcoullier, program manager, Challenge.gov

Marcoullier said the move toward improving the use of data is part of the evolution of social media because citizens want more than just one-way or even two-way communications.

"People once they find out information is available, if they care, they become completely passionate about it and they want more and want to talk to the people who are collecting that information, and they want to have a say and participate in some way," she said. "The more we can come up with ways for people to participate and be engaged, the better products is going to come out of it, and the better information will come out of it."

Marcoullier added GSA and others have seen this excitement through challenges and contests, and this crowdsourcing approach is expanding.

Over the last two-plus years, agencies have run more than 250 challenges and contests on Challenge.gov.

Marcoullier said challenges and contests aren't the answer to every social media question, and several other platforms as well as traditional approaches to communicating with citizens all have a role to play.

She said the move toward the data and away from the platform isn't going to take hold in the short term.

Social media acceptance growing quickly

Agencies still are figuring out the best and most effective social media platforms to meet their needs.

The Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton released a report Wednesday detailing best practices and use cases around social media in the federal government. The report, entitled #ConnectedGov, highlights seven use cases, including FEMA using FaceBook after a major storm to more than 1,300 mobile apps developed by agencies to the Energy Department's Powerpedia wiki to improve communication between employees working on similar projects.

The report also highlighted common myths about social media, such as the cost will be high both in terms of time and money; Agencies will only get negative feedback and social media is only for the younger generation.

Doug Anderson, a retired Air Force colonel who served as director of Air Force surgeon general commander's action group for health communications marketing and organizational development, said the service had to overcome several myths when they decided to use Facebook to communicate with servicemembers and veterans about medical issues.

"One of the myths we overcame was the fact that you get more positive comments than negative comments," he said. "A lot of folks, especially across the 75 military treatment facilities misperception that the use of social media was a full-time job and that folks were going to have to sit at the workstation and engage. Quite frankly, we could set up the social media strategy, in our case we started with Facebook, getting folks started and all they had to do was inform the audience and not necessarily engage. Getting folks comfortable with social media and letting them overcome the misconceptions….started to proliferate, and once that started happening and once folks started catching the buzz, we would repackage some of the innovative ideas and happenings going on across the Air Force."

In the end, not only did Air Force staff realize the benefits of social media, but its customers also wanted to connect this way.

Multi-modal social media at State

The State Department is testing a host of social media platforms as part of its outreach to foreign citizens.

Suzanne Philion, the senior advisor for innovation at the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said a mobile app to help Tunisian citizens learn English achieved a lot of success with 535,000 unique users.

She said State launched several other initiatives on different platforms over the last few months.

One of them is Americanenglish.state.gov.

"This is a community intended for learners, teachers and those interested in American culture," Philion said. "What you will find here, if you are a teacher of English, in India for example, you come on to this site, you will find content you could share in the classroom. On the learner's side, we have a growing body of content, much of which is directed to outside partners like Voice of America."

She said another recent initiative is working with a company called Binu, which makes some of the most popular smartphone apps available on "dumb" phones. She said people in foreign countries mostly use "dumb" phones, so having a wide assortment of apps available helps State reach more people.

Philion and the other panelists said agencies need to ensure the use of social media is meeting mission needs and engaging the most appropriate audience.

"I think we had to take a step back in terms of what our goals were, and that was part of the framing of the discussion from the start," Philion said. "How does this link back to your strategic goals? How do you sell your leadership on that? How do you grab resources to make that happen?"

She said her office helped answer these questions when developing the English proficiency app for Tunisian citizens.

The goal of the program was not to make Tunisians proficient in English, but to connect with them and meet a demand they are hearing from the community.

Know your audience

Marcoullier added agencies need to make sure their use of social media is meeting their core audience needs. She said the Coast Guard is one example of an agency that thought it knew what its audience wanted only to change in midstream.

She said the Coast Guard thought it would reach its constituents through Facebook, but found its YouTube videos garnering a lot more attention and impact. So, the service moved away from posting on Facebook as its main option, and put more resources into YouTube videos.

"When you look at these examples, look at metrics, focus on the mission of what your agency needs to be doing and you can build from there," Marcoullier said. "Pilot, start small, take your metrics, and it's not just about the number of people are viewing or clicking, it's about what happens when they get that information you shared with them, are they doing something different with that, are they taking it to the next level, are you seeing another type of engagement beyond that initial social media engagement and developing your relationship or sometime of transaction relationship with your customers."

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