47 of the top 50 tweets sent by federal government Twitter accounts yesterday were warnings from various National Weather Service (NWS) offices on the severe weather impacting the Midwest. Of the three non-NWS tweets, two were from the U.S. Embassy in Manila about typhoon relief and one was a beautiful picture of Canyonlands National Park from the Department of Interior.
We’ve never seen an event take over Great Gov Tweets like this, but this is the first major weather event in the US since we created Great Gov Tweets. I expect we’ll see something like this whenever a major storm is impacting the country.
There are two quick lessons we can take from NWS’s tweets yesterday.
Matter to People
Twitter is a great tool to share information that actually matters to people. If you’re trying to get them to care about something people don’t already care about, you’ve got an uphill battle. It’s a battle worth fighting, but you won’t get far until you can provide something that your audience really cares about.
This morning, I chatted about this with Carol Spencer, Digital & Social Media Manager for New Jersey’s Morris County, and she told me that people always respond to information about weather and roads. It’s information that people trust when it comes from the government, but, more importantly, it’s information they really need. Weather information directly impacts people’s lives – what they choose to wear in the morning, what crops to plant, and sometimes how to survive.
We’re lucky to have the NWS, and now we’re lucky that it’s learning to use Twitter so effectively. People clearly appreciate being able to get authoritative weather information directly from the source.
The lesson here, however, isn’t to start tweeting about the weather. It’s that you should build your content strategy around what you’re qualified to talk about and what matters to your audience. It’s almost certain that your content won’t have the same broad appeal as weather information, but that’s ok. You matter to someone. Matter to them.
Images of Text Can Be Useful
Six of yesterday’s top 50 tweets included images of text, and the #1 tweet (embedded above) is an image of mostly text. I’ve noticed for years that people often respond more to images of text than they do to plain old copy-and-pastable text.
For instance, this picture of a Memorial Day quote was liked over a thousand times on USA.gov’s Facebook Page. I doubt the text alone would have received so much attention.
My guess is that this happens simply because images can present text in a novel way. People have to alter their normal reading behavior to read images of text, so they stand out. This may be related to the way Comic Sans appears to help people remember what they read because it’s harder to read than more elegant fonts.
There’s also an obvious benefit from sharing images of text on Twitter: it lets you share more than 140 characters. If you have critical information to share, sharing it via an image can be helpful.
There are a few downsides of relying on images of text though.
First of all, it makes it harder for people to copy and paste. Fortunately, on Twitter your followers can simply retweet your images and there are now plenty of popular image sharing services (Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, etc) that people can use to re-share your images elsewhere.
The other issue is that people who use screen readers can’t read text in an image. This is a big problem. Images of text are clearly useful, but make sure critical information is in the plain text of your tweet or on your website, not just in the image.
Engage Your Audience Purposefully
Note that the #1 tweet asks for a retweet and explains why (“to spread the word”). This certainly contributed to the tweet’s massive reach. Be careful about asking for help like this though. Reserve it for instances when your audience can really help with your mission. In this case, the need for retweets is clear to anyone.
If you’re tempted to ask for retweets because you (or your boss) enjoys getting retweets, fight that temptation. Honor your audience and engage them when it really makes sense for them to help you with your mission.
Quick aside: this tweet could have been written in plainer language within 140 characters if it didn’t include all three hashtags. “Please RT to spread the word! Moderate to high risk of severe weather outbreak across our area later today!” is a perfectly fine message on its own. Anyone who follows weather-related hashtags (or who knows that “wx” is short for weather) would certainly already know about the emergency. Focus on plain language before hashtags. But, hey, it was the #1 tweet, so they clearly did something right.
These are just three quick lessons. There are many more to be learned from NWS’s Tweets yesterday, so go check them out. I’ll just close by highlighting this one excellent tweet from NWS Northern Indiana:
The worst decision you could make today is to ignore a severe/tornado warning. These storms will be nasty— NWS Northern Indiana (@NWSIWX) November 17, 2013
Plain language. No link. No hashtag. Just rock solid, authoritative, and direct advice. More of that please.
Nearly one in every five American adult cellphone owners uses the app (18%).
Let that sink in for a moment. Go ask five random people with cellphones (so pretty much anybody, considering 91% of American adults own a cellphone), and at least one of them is likely to say they use Instagram. That’s an absolutely mind-boggling penetration rate for a single app that doesn’t come pre-installed on the vast majority of devices.
A few thoughts:
- Facebook was clearly smart to buy Instagram.
- While Twitter appears to have taken over Facebook as teens’ preferred social network, it’s actually down 1% from this time last year. What’s more, Marketing Charts points out that Twitter has a high attrition rate. They cite a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll in which 36% of 1,067 people who have joined Twitter do not use it. Unfortunately for Twitter, many people still can’t seem to tell what it’s for.
- When Piper Jaffray revealed the numbers from its spring survey this year, the drop in Facebook’s numbers spurred a lot of anxiety about teens “abandoning” social media. The continued – even steeper – drop shown here should make people think twice before investing heavily in Facebook to reach teens.
- Teens are not abandoning social media, as Cliff Watson explained in his excellent piece on Medium Teens aren’t abandoning “social.” They’re just using the word correctly.
- Things aren’t looking good for Google+.
- We’re a little surprised by Tumblr’s low numbers. Quantcast ranks Tumblr as the 4th most visited network of properties on the Internet. Tumblr’s an odd case though because of its hybrid nature as a highly customizable blog platform and social network – perhaps survey respondents aren’t sure how to compare it to other social networks.
Finally some caveats: it’s worth looking at what teens are up to because they define trends and can give us a glimpse into where things are heading. Remember that we’re looking at percentages here – the sheer numbers of people using social media continue to grow. The social Internet is so vast now that you can reach many millions of people on Facebook while ignoring teens. This is not a call to abandon Facebook and race to Instagram, but to recognize that you are less likely to reach teens there than you were a year ago.
Costa Rica: Day 2
I got back from Costa Rica on Friday last week. The second day of the trip was even busier than the first. My first presentation was to about 100 communicators and leaders from municipalities around Costa Rica. Following that, I presented to journalism students at the Latin University and the University of Costa Rica, the two largest universities in the country.
My presentation to the municipal leaders was largely the same as the presentation I’d given the day before, but with a bit more emphasis on the importance of customer service. Just like in the United States, Costa Rican municipal governments are better positioned to provide service through social media than the federal government, simply because they’re more closely connected to citizens’ day-to-day lives.
In all of the sessions we had with government officials, people asked questions about how to handle negative comments on Facebook pages (Facebook is extremely widely used throughout Costa Rica). I was surprised to find out that everyone understood the word “troll.” We spent a considerable time talking about troles. Most people understood the importance of not engaging with people who are simply trying to start fights, but they weren’t sure if they could delete highly offensive or inciting comments.
I recommended GobiernoUSA.gov’s Facebook commenting policy, which explains that certain violent or offensive comments may be deleted at the discretion of GobiernoUSA.gov. This allows governments to quash abusive behavior without eliminating people’s right to share criticisms of the government, even if they include strong language.
My presentation to students (slides, in Spanish) was similar to the one I gave to government, but I focused on how government’s usage of social media was altering the future job landscape. I explained that writing jobs are going to be harder to find at traditional media organizations with shrinking revenues, but that more writing jobs are cropping up within institutions like government agencies. This quote from Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, sums up my advice:
Many businesses, NGOs, arts organisations, public bodies, universities, etc are now publishers of extremely high quality stuff. [They’re] good places to practise your craft before moving on.
Many thanks again to the State Department’s office of International Information Programs for the opportunity to visit such a beautiful country. If you’d like to have me speak at an event, please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Costa Rica: Day 1
I’m in Costa Rica this week as a guest of the State Department’s office of International Information Programs. I gave two presentations yesterday: one at the legislature for the public affairs staff of Costa Rica’s legislators and one at the presidential palace for the cabinet-level ministries’ public affairs staff.
The topic has been how government organizations can figure out what kinds of content they should share through social media. Social media is immensely popular in Costa Rica, particularly Facebook, and most government communicators are already very savvy about using it.
The advice I gave yesterday is very familiar to anyone who reads this blog: focus on creating a consistent voice, communicate directly to people, and, above all, focus on your mission.
Today, we’ll be visiting a federal agency that helps municipal governments and then two journalism schools. More later…
We’ve whipped up a few graphs that use social media data to show the effects of the federal shutdown on government communication.
The top graph shows the number of Tweets sent each day from U.S. federal government Twitter accounts from August 25th to August 31st. This is what a normal week looks like – around 650 Tweets on Saturday and Sunday, and around 2,000 each weekday.
Next is the following week, which happens to include Labor Day. It shouldn’t be surprising that few Tweets were sent on Labor Day, which is a federal holiday.
And then there’s this week. It looked pretty normal at the outset, but the effects of the shutdown are obvious on Tuesday, with only 1,334 Tweets sent. Most of Tuesday’s Tweets were notifications that the shutdown had put future tweets on hold, and Wednesday’s Tweets give some insight into which government agencies are still operating.
We gathered the data for these graphs as part of our Great Gov Tweets project, which looks at every Tweet sent from accounts in the General Services Administration’s Social Media Registry.
We’ll provide more analysis of the shutdown’s impact as we gather more data.
When I compose a tweet, I feel like [Rodin] who said, “When I make a sculpture, I just cut away everything that isn’t the man or the woman, and then that’s what’s left.” … You trim, you carve the words such that all that’s left is the most important concept communicated in the simplest, most direct way. And that does not mean using big words.
Neil deGrasse Tyson on the craft of the soundbite.
Pair with Several Short Sentences about Writing.
(Source: , via unionmetrics)
Todd phones home, taken from this tweet.
Todd Gloria is our City Council member. He represents San Diego’s District 3, where our offices are located. He is also a perfect example of an elected official who uses social media to govern rather than simply using it to get elected.
I interviewed Todd in June, when he was merely serving as San Diego’s council president and as District 3’s council member. Today, he holds both of those titles as well as that of interim mayor. I wanted to talk to him about how he uses social media, as I’ve long admired how he uses Facebook and Twitter to talk about his work with his constituents.
As you’ll read below, he didn’t understand Twitter when he first encountered it, but he’s since learned that social media can be a powerful tool to serve his constituents, learn from them, and remind them that he’s a real human being who likes Rick Ross.
Using Social Media to Educate and Inform
MV: When did you start using social media?
Todd Gloria: We started using it because of the campaign in 2007 or 2008. It was pretty nascent technology back then. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it. We had an intern who was into it, and he set up the Twitter account. To be very candid, I didn’t understand why Twitter was useful, but I figured it out over time.
It turned out that Twitter was never really a big campaign tool, but it helps us fulfill the informational roles we play as the office of an elected official.
So you use it to understand what’s happening?
Yes. It helps us hear from constituents, particularly extroverted people who are bellwethers in the community. It’s an interesting way to remain in touch with them, but from our end, it helps us let constituents know what’s going on.
For instance, we recently posted about the Vermont Street Bridge painting. We knew people would have questions about it: “Why is there all this noise?” or “Are they tearing the bridge down?” We use social media to provide information that will hopefully make everyone’s lives easier in some way. By getting in front of the questions, people can say “I know Todd Gloria said the other day that they’re just painting it.”
We have an educational role, so social media is just another tool that facilitates that.
What are the other tools you use to communicate with people?
My joke is that I like to communicate with folks in whatever format they’re comfortable with. We produce a hard copy newsletter. I often host “Coffee with Your Council Member.” People can come to public meetings. Then there’s social media stuff, email blasts, and everything in between.
Taking the Pulse of 150,000 People
What are the advantages of Facebook and Twitter?
This job is about being connected to people. My job is to represent about 150,000 people. The question we ask is, “How do you stay in touch to understand what their feelings are?” It’s always very present in my mind that when I’m pressing the “yes” or the “no” button, I’m voting for policies on behalf of a whole lot of people.
You want to make a decision that you think is reflective of your personal judgement but that also represents the people you represent. The instant feedback that you get from social media is really valuable for that.
Sexy streets is a good example of this. I spent a year of my life walking door to door in every neighborhood in District 3. When you do something like that, you notice things like busted sidewalks and bad streets. I think the first photo I shared of a road repair was one of the first road repairs we had done in years, and people’s reaction was really overwhelming.
The reaction isn’t always positive, but you get thick skin in this business. I also don’t get upset over negative comments because they’re still valuable feedback. If you’re getting feedback, you get a sense that you’ve touched on something people want to talk about, just as I notice if I post something that no one comments on. Either way, it’s helpful for me to stay in touch and understand what people’s priorities are.
On the other hand, it’s helpful when people share stuff with me. Folks share things with me, they reply to me, and they rally for things. I’d had an interest in bike stuff before, but San Diego’s bike advocates are very prolific on social media and are able to point things out to me that wouldn’t have been on my radar otherwise.
The last thing is that we use social media for the transactional part of our work. People report stuff to us through social media. I’m not particularly comfortable with that because I get a lot of people interacting with me and I’m concerned I might miss something.
Tweeting to me is not the best way to report a pothole, but it’s still a way that we collect information. Grant Barrett reported a dead animal on University not too long ago and we were able to pass that along to the people who could take care of it.
My job really is customer service for the city, and social media is another way to take in customer feedback and resolve those issues. However, it’s still not fully integrated. Your tweet to me won’t automatically generate a work order in the city’s system.
The challenge is that social networking is still informal, but I’ve learned that people see it as a formal way of requesting a service, and I’m trying to be sensitive to that. I can’t tell people that the city’s computer systems aren’t set up to handle their requests through social media because they don’t want to hear that. We either pass the information along to the right people or point people in the right direction.
The Importance of Being Human
You recently used some strong language on a Facebook post about the condition of our streets and sidewalks.
Well, I feel that strongly. I was at home and catching up on my email and I saw a Google alert for a piece in Voice of San Diego that I’d been interviewed for 6 months ago. I just think it’s awful. One of the first steps of becoming a sexy street is repainting and installation of curb ramps because the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires it. I get it, but why does the ADA only concern itself with the ramp if it takes you onto a busted sidewalk that isn’t passable? Please explain that logic to me. No one can.
As an elected official, how do you become comfortable showing emotion on social media?
It’s always interesting to learn what people think about you. In this line of work, you get to hear it a lot. People tell me they don’t like my outfit or that my hair sucks. One of the things that people share with me a lot is that they think I’m pretty authentic, and I appreciate that. Social media is another way to show people that I’m a real person.
For example, I know you like Rick Ross because of social media and I think that’s really good to know.
I do! I like Ludacris and Lil J. One of the things that’s interesting about this job is that people somehow think that you’re not a human being. I was at the laundromat the other day and this guy was staring at me and came over and was like “Shouldn’t someone do this for you?” and I was like, “I’m an elected official, not a celebrity.” I’m not a wealthy man.
It’s good to have the opportunity to show folks that you are, in fact, a human being and that you have personal tastes and preferences. I have a pretty left-leaning district, and one of the things that horrifies some of my constituents is that I love fast food. I’m the guy who offered the Urban Agriculture Ordinance but who also loves fast food. I don’t mind sharing that because it’s authentic to who I am.
I’m not going to change how I present myself because it’s politically expedient. I’ve found that social media rewards authenticity. It rewards instantaneous communication and authentic responses. I think people like my feed because I do it myself. People recognize that it’s in my voice and consistent with what I feel.
Anything I post about my family or personal observations are the most popular. I try and be judicious with personal posts because ultimately I use social media as a tool to communicate about work, but people do like to know that they’re represented by a real human being.
Does that enable you to lead more effectively or represent people more effectively?
I think that’s true. Obviously, letting people get to know me doesn’t just happen through social media. In 2008, I walked door to door and visited 25,000 homes in about three months.
Three things became very clear over those thousands of conversations. First of all, public safety is number one. People want to feel safe in their neighborhoods. Next was infrastructure. People want the brick and mortar stuff of the city to be done right. And the last piece was about accessibility. They want to know that, good bad or indifferent, they could share their thoughts with me directly. They understand that we will have disagreements, but as long as they can share their thoughts with me, they’re willing to hear me out.
This job requires you to lead occasionally. Some of this bike stuff is controversial. Some of this mobility stuff is controversial. But I think if people have the sense that I’m a guy with a family who has tastes similar to theirs or whatever, it lets them understand that we’re all fallible human beings trying to make the best decisions we can with the facts that are presented.
Doing it Yourself & Learning as You Go
You do it all yourself. How does your staff feel about that?
I’ve never asked Katie that question and she might not like it. I don’t know.
(Katie Keach, Todd’s Deputy Chief of Staff, was in the room with us.)
Katie: I love it. I think it’s absolutely authentic. I think I could model his voice, but he’s the one present at every meeting, so it’s better to let him run it. There are times when it would it would be nice if we could unburden him of it, but I think that he feels such a personal responsibility to the people he serves that it would be very difficult for us to rip it out of his hands.
Todd: First off, it does require a certain level of intimacy and immediacy. I can’t ask Katie to do a post about the Vermont Street bridge and have her write a draft for me to review. Next thing you know, a whole day has passed and it didn’t get posted. Then, if I’m sitting at a council meeting, I have my phone with me so it’s easy to post things from the meeting. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I’m going to post about this, that, or the other thing.
For instance, I got the Google alert about that article about our borken sidewalks, and thought I should probably post something about it. That’s how it happens.
Another thing about me doing it myself is that it lets me show people that I haven’t figured out how to clone myself. It’s funny. We get a lot of invitations to go to a lot of events, especially now that I’m Council President. One of the values of social media is that I can prove that I wasn’t sitting at home with my feet up if I didn’t make it to your event!
Katie: Or the times when he’s going to be at three events in one night, and we get to post pictures of each event so people know we’re not lying when we say he has to leave to go to another event.
So it sounds like you don’t have any formal processes for social media, but that you’ve figured it out as you’ve gone along.
Absolutely. As a nerdy student, it’s weird that I didn’t take a course on this. What’s really funny is when other elected officials ask me how to do it. I’m like, “Why are you asking me?” It’s just this organic thing that has happened in the last couple years and I think it’s here to stay.
Part of me thought it was a fad when I first encountered it, but it’s become very real and very useful.
We can’t thank Todd enough for giving us his valuable time to do this interview.
From National Geographic:
To spread political views, soldiers release balloons holding leaflets in Taiwan, January 1969. Photograph by Frank and Helen Schreider, National Geographic
What governments did before Twitter.
This chart and table are taken from the Pew Research Center’s latest report explaining the shifting role of news organizations from reporters to watchdogs. We’ve been waiting for a report like this because it underscores our belief that organizations – particularly government organizations – need to use the Internet to communicate what they do directly with the public.
What we see here: people are increasingly likely to look to the Internet for news, but they’re less likely to trust news organizations for factual reporting. Instead, they’ll look directly to institutions and powerful individuals for reporting on their activities and they’ll look to news media for analysis and opinions on the significance of what’s happening.
The Economist Group gives us another graph that illuminates some of the economic reasons behind Pew’s report:
What this chart shows is that the Internet has created essentially infinite advertising inventory, which – following basic rules of supply and demand – has gutted the cost of running ads. This has eliminated newspapers’ ability to charge high (usually duopoly) rates for local advertising and, therefore, the revenue needed to pay for reporting. When big stories break, media outlets now scramble to break stories as quickly as possible in hopes of attracting site traffic. Recent events like Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing have demonstrated that this is a bad thing as it has led to false reporting.
This is bad news for newspapers, but it’s not necessarily bad for readers because the Internet has simultaneously enabled institutions to tell their own stories (we document this phenomenon on our blog with our going direct tag). After all, why follow a newspaper for the latest news on the Boston Marathon bombing when you can just follow the Boston Police Department?
This leaves newspapers to provide analysis of the news as reported by the people who make it. Cable news channels realized long ago that it was much more profitable to hire charismatic and opinionated personalities than reporters. I won’t go into the pluses and minuses of this new reality, but I’m optimistic that there will always be consumer demand for thoughtful and fair analysis despite the inanities that we see on many cable news channels.
I’m also optimistic that this gap in reporting will be filled by more and better reporting directly from institutions. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the round-the-clock reporting we’re getting from both humans and robots exploring space.
Of course, space is an outlier (is that a pun?), so it’s important to point out that we now get 1st hand accounts from law enforcement agencies, research institutes, and ambassadors every day now. We get more of these accounts every day, and they’re only getting better.
If you’re intereseted in reporting on interesting work, join the communications team of an organization doing interesting things. You’ll be able to tell stories that no news organization ever could before. As I write this, there are 354 communications jobs listed on USAJOBS.gov.