Is Social Media a Wise Investment?

A reader asks about the importance of diving into Facebook and Twitter.
by | August 10, 2011 AT 1:40 PM

Several years ago, while working in the office of a state CIO, we decided to invest in social media. It was not a big investment; we had one employee work a couple of hours a week to start building an online presence in Second Life. If you don't know about Second Life, you can get the official explanation here.

In Second Life, we partnered with educational institutions to build a place where prospective employees could come and learn about our state's IT opportunities. We even hosted a career fair once. If memory serves me right, the fair was attended by, among others, a cat the size of beetle, an aqua-colored fairy with glitter wings and some student in a lab coat who kept trying to sit on the micro-cat. Government Technology even did a story on it. And hey — we even hired the cat, and last I heard, he turned out to be a pretty great guy.

(By the way, I was a stud in Second Life. Three inches taller and 20 pounds lighter, my hair was always perfect. And of course, I could fly. Still, I was never a big fan of the virtual world. It was like when video games went from a couple of buttons and a joystick to having to memorize a 17-move combination or else you just wasted a dollar to watch Dirk get eaten by bats again ... bats! Second Life was just too confusing. I'll stick to the intuitiveness of Facebook and LinkedIn.)

Government and social media have always had an interesting relationship. Many states host multiple Facebook pages but won't let employees access the site on their work PCs. It's not uncommon to see YouTube videos about public programs, and last year I used a state's smartphone app to help avoid road construction. Wherever you turn, there are new ways people are communicating, and innovative people in the public sector have really stepped up their game to try to exploit these. Plus, it's new, it's hip, it's cool — and all the kids are doing it!

This week's question comes from a reader, Nancy, who is watching the current social media craze all around her. Nancy wants to know 1) Is this a good use of our limited resources?, 2) Is it hitting the right people?, and 3) Are we alienating some of our most avid supporters in our efforts to reach a new audience?

We can't answer any of those. The truth is that government is too big and diverse — and social media is changing so fast — that while we could make a stab at answering it in one area, it would be totally irrelevant to another by lunch. But Nancy isn't just fighting the peer pressure, her brilliant questions should serve as a litmus test for all our online endeavors.

Remember the 90s when we all raced to put websites up? In our mad dash to get sites up and running, did we ever stop and ask ourselves who was going to be using this? My favorite example involves putting welfare benefit information online. These customers couldn't afford food, and yet we expected them to have Internet access in 1995, or "go the library" to learn how they can spend less time in line by spending it online?

We made the same missteps when we attempted the portal approach 10 years later. I remember sitting in meetings talking about color schemes and arguing over which elected officials would have their photos where. The biggest priority seemed to be making sure that users could easily click from the homepage to the winning lotto numbers. (No more than four clicks or we all may die!) No one ever asked if this was the best use of our resources; it was just assumed that it was. It's technology and technology makes it better.

Jumping into Social Media?

Here's one of a series of articles from Peter Wright to help you test the waters. If you don't want to read anything else, ask yourself Nancy's questions:

  • What are we trying to do here?
  • Who do we expect to use this?
  • Why are they going to use it?
  • What is the return on investment we expect?

It doesn't cost us too much to set up a Twitter feed or maintain a Facebook account. However, it is still a good idea to look at resources.

Nancy notes that putting all of our eggs in a new solution-basket risks alienating people that rely on more traditional ways of getting their information and services. Luckily, we're hoarders in government. We add a lot of new things, but we rarely throw anything out. In this case, though, that spreads us thin. And when we get too thin, we do a bad job at everything, or we hire more people. Well, we used to hire more people. Now we just spend more time and more energy using the same employees to reach fewer people.

But there's a bigger issue for us at Public Great. All these efforts to let citizens know when trout season officially begins, or tweets about when your elected official will be cutting the ribbon at the new bowl-a-rama, are fine. But they do not help straighten the pipes of government.

Communication is not the biggest issue we face.

Even the most celebrated and innovative attempts, like the smartphone app that tells you how long the line at the DMV is, only adds a bit of convenience. It doesn't allow you to pop in over lunch and get out in 10 minutes or less. Knowing the line length at any given time was never the real problem.

Our core problem is capacity. We don't seem to have the time and people to keep up with the volume of work. If you've been reading along, I hope you've noticed our theme, "Fix the pipes above all else." Fixing pipes includes looking at how we do the work we do and stripping away everything we do for all the wrong reasons and getting to the core of what our customers need.

Better communication is nice; short lines are nicer. To get our customers shorter lines, you have to look at how we process them for licenses and registrations. What we require from them, how often they have to come in, and how many staff work the line is far more influential on the pipes than a YouTube video telling you that we now require your grandmother's birth certificate as proof of ID.

Concentrating on social media, or almost any communication tool, is like poor Dirk trying to reach the dragon's lair. It only costs you a buck, but even if you win, you never got a real princess. Simply put, Facebook doesn't fix pipes. But if you fix the pipes, it might be a great tool for getting the word out!

Is your organization dipping into social media? If so, how? And more importantly, how is it working out for you?