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Smart and Dumb Uses of Social Media by the US Government (and What Brands Can Learn)
Posted on July 5th 2013
It may seem the topic for this blog post was informed by the Independence Day holiday, but it just happens this week brought news of two social media programs by the US government--one dubious and the other smart. It is worthwhile to consider the two programs, why they hit or miss the mark and what it means to social media marketing for brands.
Doing it Wrong: State Department Buys Facebook Fans
An Inspector General’s (IG's) report was published criticizing the State Department for spending over $630,000 to increase Facebook “likes” for four of its pages. The assessment of the department's use of social media is buried deep in the report, "Inspection of the Bureau of International Information Programs" (embedded below). For a document that only touches on social media for a handful of its 57 pages, the social media assessment is surprisingly sharp and well informed, and it contains some recommendations as appropriate for brands as for government agencies.
The IG notes that the department "spent about $630,000 on the two campaigns and succeeded in increasing the fans of the English Facebook pages from about 100,000 to more than 2 million for each page." An increase in fans of 2000% may sound impressive, but the report notes, "A consensus is emerging that developing numbers of Facebook followers and Twitter fans may not lead automatically to target audience engagement." While I'm tempted to criticize the idea that this is just an "emerging" consensus, there are too many brand marketers and social media dashboards that count fan growth as a primary objective.
The real rebuff--and the message that many marketers need to hear--is this: "Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaigns as 'buying fans' who may have once clicked on an ad or 'liked' a photo but have no real interest in the topic and have never engaged further." We've explored on this blog the mistake of spending marketing dollars to attract disinterested fans, but the lure of big fan counts seems irresistible to many. Many marketers fail to recognize their goals are not achieved by being visible to everyone but by engaging the right people in the right manner.
The report notes something every marketer using Facebook should, by now, understand, "If a user does not interact with a site’s postings, after a time these postings will no longer appear in the user’s news feed unless the site buys sponsored story ads to ensure their appearance." So, paying money to buy disinterested fans only leads to spending more money to reach those fans--the report cites an example where "a posting on cyber censorship in March 2013 reached 234,000 Facebook users on its first day; only about 20,000 would have received the item on their news feed without advertising."
That may sound good on the surface, but "engagement is a means, not an end," as noted by the IG's report. "The bureau could reduce spending and increase strategic impact by focusing its advertising not on raising overall fan numbers or general engagement statistics but on accomplishing specific goals." The Inspector General of the United States government recognizes something that some marketers do not--that larger fan counts and higher engagement statistics are not primary objectives.
The danger of bad metrics and poor priorities is reinforced in the IG's report. "Facebook analytic tools can measure engagement by counting the number of people who click on a link, 'like' a posting, comment on it, or share it with their friends. However, these measures do not evaluate the usefulness of the engagement because many people post simple remarks, like 'so nice pic,' or comments on unrelated topics."
As it is in too many organizations, so too is it with the US Government--organizational silos and poor coordination cause diminished social media results. For example, the IG's report criticizes "overlapping social media efforts" to reach those in Iran. The Bureau of International Information Program's Vision of America Facebook page and Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs page, USAdarFarsi, both target people living in Iran. The report notes, "It is not efficient for the Department to have competing Persian-language Facebook and Twitter sites." That may seem obvious, but look at the Facebook presence of most larger organizations, and you are likely to see the same mistake of overlapping pages aimed at identical audiences.
The report is an interesting and insightful read. With so much focus on Federal budgets and deficits, perhaps the US Office of the Inspector General should hire itself out to complete social media audits for brands. The IG office may be more informed than some marketers and marketing agencies nowadays.
Doing it Right: Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Instagram
There are few government agencies as loathed as the TSA. Everyone has their own tale of woe about passing through a security checkpoint at an airport--long lines, missed flights, rude employees and slow equipment. The TSA has been the focus of a great deal of negative media attention, such as a woman claiming she was detained because a TSA agent did not like her attitude or a video capturing a woman being "groped" by a TSA agent.
A recent study found that 43 percent of Americans have negative views of the TSA, and that may not even be the worse part--many people do not trust all this hassle adds to flying safety. A 2010 study by the Consensus Research Group found that barely half gave positive ratings for their feelings of safety and security on flights, and this was largely due to their perceptions of air travel security screening procedures. Among the most negative ratings assigned by recent flyers was "their perceptions of the overall effectiveness of security screening procedures in general." Two-thirds of air travelers would travel more by plane if "security screening procedures were improved so that they were sufficiently effective but more passenger-friendly."
The perception that TSA engages in "Security Theater," a term coined by security specialist Bruce Schneier in 2003, is widespread. It harms the TSA's reputation and diminishes the cooperation from flyers and elected officials. To solve the problem the TSA has turned to Instagram.
The TSABlogTeam feed on Instagram is simple, conveying only the items confiscated at security checkpoints. One glance, and you are likely to have an "Oh my God" reaction.
With a few simple and crude pictures, TSA can achieve what a thousand press releases cannot--a visceral reaction from anyone who flies about the value of airport security. One glance at the gun "discovered in a carry-on bag in Albuquerque last week," the "Bayonet... discovered at #LongBeach" or the "#StunGun #disguised as a pack of #cigarettes discovered at #Cleveland," and the reaction of most reasonable flyers will be appreciation these items were found and confiscated.
The Instagram feed launched a week ago and has already amassed 28,348 followers with just eleven shares. It has also garnered attention on Condé Nast Traveler, Yahoo! News, ABC News and other mainstream media outlets.
While the State Department acts as if visibility and reach is its problem, TSA's strategy reflects its awareness that perception is the issue. While State turns to advertising to garner disinterested fans, TSA is earning engaged fans with interesting, relevant content. The strategies and their outcomes could not be more different. Your brand probably does not have shocking pictures of weapons to post to its social media feeds, but the TSA's strategy of utilizing content to change minds and garner authentic engagement is a strategy worth duplicating.