Agencies must thoroughly understand not only what they want to get out of social media, but what their customers are looking for.
Now that social media services have burrowed into federal IT operations, agencies are beginning to face the challenge of honing effective strategies for their internal and external users.
Public-facing social media services need a lot of thought and care so they do not become unruly and aimless, according to federal experts who spoke at an event sponsored by AFCEA's Bethesda chapter.
In other words, "social media is free like a puppy is free," said Ryan Koch, deputy director of the State Department's Office of Innovative Engagement.
Agencies must thoroughly understand not only what they want to get out of social media, but what their customers are looking for from Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, Tumblr and Instagram accounts and other social media services.
Scott Horvath, Web and social media chief in the Office of Communications and Publishing at the U.S. Geological Survey, said most federal agencies have a social media presence and are now in the process of developing a better sense of how to shape that presence into something customers can use.
All the panelists recommended that agencies review the General Services Administration's HowTo.gov online guide to using social media at a higher level. Tammi Marcoullier, program manager of GSA's award-winning Challenge.gov site, said federal IT managers should not be afraid to jump into social media services and should keep experimenting even if they fail at first.
Horvath and Amanda Nguyen, director of Web communications at the Agriculture Department, said federal agencies have unique opportunities to engage with the public by combining their vast troves of data with social media capabilities.
That approach can result in useful public input. For example, Horvath said USGS monitors Twitter for mention of the word "earthquake" in a variety of languages. A proliferation of the word can mean a seismic event is imminent and give the agency a heads-up on a possible quake. The information might arrive before the agency's worldwide array of seismic monitors senses anything, which gives the agency the opportunity to retweet the information while combining it with seismic data to give the public a fuller picture of the event.
Koch said State faces the challenge of tailoring its social media activities to users worldwide, including those who live in places that might not have broadband access. Officials must consider the countries their 700,000 Twitter followers live in and the demographics of the specific users they are trying to reach.
"You have to tailor to match your audience," Koch said. "You may not talk high-level trade but [instead] narrow it down to copyright infringement" depending on the audience.
That level of detail might be lost on agency leaders who have been interested only in the volume of Twitter traffic or Web page hits, Nguyen said. But as they begin to ask deeper questions about social media analytics, they will start to find smarter uses for the platforms.