Social media has long been a double-edged sword for public engagement strategy. The conundrum? We know many residents are on social media, and we want to meet people where they are, but having to make sense of “social media noise” is time consuming—and difficult to document for reporting purposes.
Social media has been fraught with challenges for government organizations:
Difficult to predict or know what demographics can be reached organically
No clear ways to track if social media is leading to actual engagement
Social adds another silo of comments that has to be accounted for manually
Social engagement doesn’t integrate into the bigger picture (e.g. alongside comments from our meetings or surveys)
Through a new wave of public engagement software tools, these challenges have been addressed and social media is beginning to realize its potential value.
Public organizations are now capitalizing on the everyday presence of social media in residents’ lives by applying targeted advertising methods and connecting these efforts to the bigger picture of engagement through centralized public engagement software.
Today, the selective application of social media outreach is helping organizations meet public participation goals like:
Reaching underrepresented voices
Reaching potentially impacted communities
Getting residents to actually engage (e.g. go to the survey or project page)
Capturing, organizing, and making sense of comments
How social media advertising reaches an equal representation across key demographics
Using the same technology as major brands and advertisers to reach target markets, public organizations can use demographic information and geofencing to target specific groups online. This is how we can start to reach all types of key demographics: Limited English Proficiency, Environmental Justice, low-income populations, residents in rural areas, Millennials, bike riders—just about any demographic based on age, interest, or location can be targeted using social media advertising platforms. This can be used as a first wave of outreach, or when comparing initial participation to census data, these tools are helpful for filling in demographic gaps.
What are the benefits of pairing Facebook & Instagram advertising with a public engagement and communications software?
With a few strategic clicks, Facebook and Instagram advertising helps ensure engagement opportunities reach underrepresented voices and potentially impacted areas. Leveraging software for community engagement maximizes the benefits of social media outreach to better understand residents over time, remove manual tasks, and make more data-driven decisions.
The ideal community engagement software should:
1. Create equitable engagement regardless of native language
Let’s say that you want to increase engagement from native Spanish speakers for your next project and someone on your team writes a social media post in Spanish. Through Facebook and Instagram you can now target that ad towards Spanish speakers, but what happens when they comment on the post in Spanish? That comment should then automatically be documented in English to remove another step of translation. Likewise, the resident should land on a project page that is already translated in Spanish—merely reaching them in Spanish will be for not if s/he drops off because the engagement opportunity is in English.
2. Compile comments from Facebook and Instagram into the same place as comments captured from a survey
When it comes to public engagement, every voice should count no matter how a resident weighs in. The current state of public engagement requires staff to manually account for and/or aggregate Facebook and Instagram comments manually. By pairing public engagement software with these social platforms, those comments can now be compiled and catalogued. This automatic aggregation of all comments leads to an even greater understanding of public sentiment when using comment analysis, comment tagging, and sentiment analysis.
3. Create a narrative from social media metrics
A holistic public engagement and communications software should pull in social media analytics so that you can track reach and engagement metrics—for individual posts, single projects, and over time for all projects—to see the full story of social media impact on public outreach.
Increasing meaningful social media engagement: leading with relevance and leveraging online communities
Reaching more residents and getting in front of key demographic groups is great, but how do you push residents to fully engage by getting them off social media and onto an engagement website?
In our work with 75+ government agencies and hundreds of projects, two best practices have been revealed:
1. An emphasis on relevant questions and the value of public feedback
Targeting by impacted location and/or specific demographic information already helps narrow the funnel for relevance by getting a message in front of the people you need to hear from the most. This is even more impactful when leading with a relevant question or showing the expressed value of public feedback. When writing a post, it is best to keep it simple: “How can we improve bicycle and pedestrian safety downtown?” or “Your input will help set priorities for the 2040 Longrange Economic Development Plan”. Even if the only thing that happens is a flood of social media comments, those will be automatically captured and catalogued, and available for analysis along with all other comments collected on the project page itself. Once on the project page, you can increase meaningful feedback by educating residents on the project and potential trade-offs between project outcomes.
2. Leverage existing community relationships online
Public engagement specialists are finding success reaching underrepresented groups by creating community partnerships and relationships with local leaders on the ground in those communities. Why not bring that online as well? By cross-referencing existing offline relationships with their Facebook presence (i.e. Facebook Group) you can have a group administrator post a link to your project page or post a link yourself.
Not only can you scale up your efforts by reaching your existing community partner groups online but also find new ones that may only be online communities. By creating partnerships with these groups online you are able to reach their audiences in a whole new way, meeting them where they are, capitalize on the trust that they have in that organization, and parlay that into building trust with your organization.
Recording social media outreach across all social media platforms
Documenting and creating a public record of social media outreach can be an anomaly for government agencies. Do you paste comments into a spreadsheet? Take screenshots and save in a folder on your computer’s desktop? Fortunately, there is an easier way to document through public engagement software. By simply copying and pasting the link of a social media post into a database, you can now have well-documented records of social media outreach in the same dashboard where you conduct all your community engagement reporting. This goes beyond Facebook to include other social platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and NextDoor.