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The City That Incorporated Social Media Into Everything

In Roanoke, Va., Facebook, Twitter and all their social-network cousins have a home in every government agency.

Back in 2008, Roanoke, Va., a city of about 100,000, had a modest social media program run by its Department of Communications. But when an unusually strong snowstorm hit the city in the winter of 2014, things changed practically overnight.

Timothy Martin, communications coordinator in charge of social media, planned to use the city’s Facebook page to get information about the storm out to residents and to provide an avenue for people to ask questions about snow removal, among other things. He thought it also would be fun if residents posted photos of the storm. The response was overwhelming. “Those photos were viewed by more than 400,000 people on Facebook,” Martin says. “That was the moment social media took off in Roanoke.”

In that instant, Martin and others realized social media wasn’t just a side project anymore, something to use merely as an occasional tool to get news of an event out to the public. So officials went about integrating it into Roanoke’s daily routine. The city saw its followers grow from about 22,000 on Facebook and Twitter to more than 100,000 in just over a year, and the number of social media pages run by various city departments now exceeds 40.

Today Roanoke residents can find all of the city’s social media feeds under the “Social Media Center” icon on its website. Citizens can view combined Facebook and Twitter streams for all departments or just view posts from one agency. They also can browse the city’s various other social media platforms, such as Instagram and Flickr, as well as city videos and news releases. The goal is to make getting and sharing information from all the city’s departments easier.

Since Roanoke launched its Social Media Center, officials have found that the accounts also act much like a 311 service. While citizens can still notify the city about a problem via a phone hotline, social media followers increasingly use the city’s Facebook and Twitter pages to query, complain or ask for help. “It’s become a highly effective way to contact us,” says Melinda Mayo, communications and media officer.

Social media also has given Roanoke an economic boost in the form of increased tourism traffic. Along with the free publicity generated by photos of Roanoke posted by citizens, the city spends about $100 a month on Facebook advertising to attract outsiders to the city. This campaign has worked well, according to Martin, generating between 300 and 600 additional Facebook “likes” every month.

To cope with the new work and responsibilities generated by its new social media approach, Roanoke has introduced a set of very straightforward policies, which include obeying the law and refraining from making controversial remarks. They also designated a person in each city department to administer social media activity and paid to have a social media consultant review the city’s many Facebook pages, point out the pros and cons of each page, and offer recommendations for future posts to the department’s social media administrators.

Martin also holds regular quarterly meetings to review the effectiveness of pages, to provide more training, and to show more examples of new social media options and tools that pertain to Facebook and Twitter -- the two most popular platforms. These meetings can also act as brainstorming sessions.

The biggest drawback of the new approach is the amount of new work it has required. Social media needs constant feeding, Mayo says. High-profile departments, such as communications, police, and parks and recreation, usually post on a daily basis. Other departments post less frequently. While there are no specific performance benchmarks, such as a required number of social media posts, or how much “reach” or how many “likes” or “followers” each department has, Martin monitors metrics and consults with administrators on posts that might drive more traffic. The strategy is to avoid a drop-off in traffic, and it appears to be working. Roanoke has received a number of national awards, creating the kind of buzz that social media fans can appreciate.

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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