About 10 years ago I wrote an article for the American Water Works Association’s Journal, urging utilities to jump on the social media bandwagon. It was then that consumers started spending more time on social platforms than on any other type of website, comprising 20% of their total time online and 30% of their time on their phones (Nielsen). Facebook at that time was the most-visited social platform in the U.S. with one billion worldwide users, accounting for at least 17% of the 20% of time people were spending online.
By 2020, Facebook had 2.8 billion monthly active users and 66% of them were using the app on a daily basis (Facebook). If your consumer brand, nonprofit, government agency or utility did not have a presence on Facebook from 2010 to 2020, you didn’t just miss the boat, you weren’t even near the shore.
But tides have been changing. In 2021, a documentary, followed up by Senate hearings with a whistleblower, cast a dark shadow over Facebook, revealing its deliberate enabling of misinformation sharing. In early 2022, shares of Facebook dropped more than 26% after the company forecasted weaker-than-expected revenue growth in the next quarter. It blamed this loss on Apple’s privacy changes, issues with supply chains worldwide, and its first quarterly decline in daily active users. The future will reveal whether the drop in Facebook engagement continues with a corresponding drop in value. History will reveal whether Facebook’s dogged and often deliberate spreading of misinformation will be the cause.
Whatever happens, I am here, just over ten years after my first social media article, to issue new advice to clients and their use of social media.
Nothing about the way your organization builds relationships or conducts outreach should be random or chosen because of convenience. If it is, you’re likely not reaping the true value of being there, or worse, you are wasting precious time and resources. If you’re going to be on a social media platform – and I still believe you should be – know why you are there. Have a strategy, a purpose, and a way to know whether it’s working so you can keep doing the activities that reap the rewards and let go of the ones that don’t.
If it’s awareness you are trying to raise, social platforms should be a part of a multi-pronged approach that also employs a slew of other tactics like emails, stories placed in the media, advertising, and grassroots marketing.
If you are seeking to build relationships, you need to be engaging with diverse audiences in your community in a variety of in-person and virtual ways. For a utility, that may mean serving on community boards and committees, providing educational programs in schools, judging the high school science fair, hosting a stream cleanup, providing water at the annual Turkey Trot, and tabling at festivals and events. It means hosting open houses and tours. It means attending HOA meetings periodically until you’re a familiar face, then strategically asking to be on the agenda when critical projects emerge. Social media can be a place to build relationships if the content is great and your engagement is authentic and human and consistent. These are big ifs for most public entities whose social media posting is largely composed of information-only material.
If you want to build trust, it takes a combination of all those things, but most importantly, early, often, and consistent communication; full operational transparency. Whether raising awareness, building relationships, or earning trust, it’s important to note that social media isn’t the end goal – it’s a means to an end.
The big question is, which social media platform should you invest time in? Is Facebook still good? What about Twitter? Have you tried TikTok yet? The first question to ask yourself when determining which social platform to be on is, where is your audience?
The trap many organizations fall into is thinking that their audience is everyone and everyone is on Facebook, so they should be there too. That thinking isn’t false, but it is flawed. Reaching the proverbial “general public,” really reaching them, takes a lot of time and money. A post on a particular topic, once per week or once every few weeks likely won’t penetrate through the barrage of content your customers are pummeled with daily. Some brands are successful with this, but they are likely paying for their posts and have teams of copywriters and creatives making it all happen.
If you have a small communications team or are a one-person team, your best time spent is spent being very focused and intentional with the segments of your audience that are most critical to you. To help you determine which platform might be best for your needs, here are some interesting statistics on platform use from www.Business2Community.com, a platform that curates and shares insights from hundreds of well-known thought leaders in business and marketing.
Proceed with caution. Though Facebook maintains dominance over all other platforms in terms of number of accounts, it has started to develop a reputation as the “old people app,” with engagement from younger audiences dropping significantly over the years. The well-publicized scandals involving its data breaches, influence in the 2020 election, as well as misinformation related to the pandemic, are causing many well-educated consumers to rethink the value of their time on the app. And with Facebook’s ruthless focus on ad sales, it has all but erased an organization’s chances for organic (unpaid) views and engagement. To have success here, you will need to pay for posts and those posts will need to incorporate more visual interest than just text.
Pump the brakes. Twitter is still quite popular, but there may be more downside than good. It has a much smaller number of registered users than Facebook and Instagram. It’s also not growing the way other platforms like TikTok and LinkedIn are. It’s become awash in fake accounts, and because of the ephemeral nature of the tool, it’s hard to make a dent in impressions unless your content is extremely interesting, entertaining, or provocative, something that the public sector can struggle with.
Turn it on. Newest to the scene, TikTok poses possibly the best untapped opportunity for utilities and local governments. A platform that exclusively uses short videos with storytelling to entertain, engage and delight viewers, TikTok has already amassed more users than LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, and Snapchat combined, with 150 million daily users. Despite privacy concerns expressed by U.S. government leaders, American TikTok use has grown five times its original size in the last 18 months and that continues. I can vouch that it’s extremely addicting. The average user will spend nearly an hour each day on the platform and the app boasts the highest engagement rates across all social networks. Why is this? Because it’s incredibly personal and human. Here are a few more points about TikTok and its users:
If you haven’t yet, open a TikTok account and set aside 10 to 20 minutes each day for a week or two to develop your understanding of the myriad ways users are tapping into the platform to connect with each other. The video editing tools are user-friendly and the storytelling opportunities are endless.
Engage cruise control. Don’t write off LinkedIn just because it’s best known as the business networking site. One-third of all U.S. adults are on LinkedIn and it’s the largest demographic of users between 30 and 49, with half of them having a college-level education. Of those who sign up for LinkedIn, half of them use the platform each month and a quarter use the platform each day. LinkedIn is a decent way to share news about the work you are doing, policies you are considering, opportunities for partnerships and for learning more. And it is the number one social media platform to recruit from, something that is a definite need as the public sector grapples with the Great Resignation.
Tap on the accelerator. Instagram can help you round out your reach to a broader age range, with 67% of its users being under 30. With average daily usage at almost an hour, Instagram is perfect for building awareness with young adults of any gender. In fact, 90% of Instagram users actively follow a business account, a fact that makes Instagram a more attractive option to a public agency than Facebook. But take note, Instagram requires more of you. It’s a visual platform, so pictures and videos are needed here.
Knowing where to be is the easy part. Getting value out of your time spent there is the real challenge and many organizations overlook this. When I look at the content that most local governments and utilities are posting on Facebook or Twitter, it’s often text-heavy, informational in nature, and stilted in tone. They’re focused on educating, or just using it as a portal to throw information through. This doesn’t often connect with or stay with audiences. Social media is considered entertainment for most users, so entertaining should be the primary goal. Imagery, and especially video, should be used more frequently than mere text. Next, content should engage, meaning, it should involve the audience. To do this, you have to ask questions, invite input, share what’s meaningful to the audience in their terms, not yours. Third, your content should empower your audiences. Help them to help themselves – be useful to them. Last, your content can educate. Make the learning subtle and wrap it in a cozy blanket of entertaining, engaging and empowering content.
Last, measure what matters. Often, I’ll see local governments measure success by tallying the number of likes and followers, but this can be misleading and does not provide an accurate sense of true success. Both are good signs, for sure, but they alone are not the mark of much that’s meaningful. Having more than 4,000 followers does not necessarily mean they will all give you the benefit of the doubt if you make a mistake, so keep the data in perspective. Number of followers is an opportunity to reach more people, but the amount and type of engagement tells you more about what they’re taking in and understanding. If they are commenting, what are they saying? Is it support? Frustration? Misinformation? Are they sharing your content? That’s a sign of true value. And, who is commenting and sharing? Are they trusted community leaders? Antagonizers? Having a following of positive community influencers, even a small number of them, can be more valuable to you than thousands of followers who rarely like or share your content.
To determine whether Facebook (or another platform) still works for you – set aside some time to look at your statistics over time. Has following grown? Has the number of post likes grown or is it sporadic? Make a note of what type of content gets more likes, comments and shares and make sure that you’re delivering more like that. Evaluate comments to understand where your community is confused or misinformed and focus content on clarifying the matter.
Examine who is following you and invest some time making connections in real life, and asking key community influencers to follow and share your content. If, upon your examination, the following hasn’t been steadily growing, the post likes are low (less than 10), or you see more extraneous comments than those pertinent to the post, then it may be time to consider moving away from the platform and expending efforts elsewhere. To confirm, poll your community and ask them where they spend time online. Post a survey or host informal focus groups or conduct quick interviews downtown where people are gathered. The bottom line is find out where they are and be there.