How Snapchat puts a friendly :) on government

A handful of agencies are experimenting with the ephemeral photo-sharing service to reach younger audiences, and they’re doling out information with a healthy dose of entertainment and emojis.

Michelle Obama on Snapchat

First Lady Michelle Obama's Snapchat avatar.

In honor of Immigrant Heritage Month in June, USA.gov sent a story about Albert Einstein to its hundreds of Snapchat followers. One photo in the slideshow showed the Einstein memorial statue outside the National Academy of Sciences, where people take photos with the genius. A rubber duck in colonial garb was perched next to the statue, and the thought bubble above the duck's bill read, "Next week Alexander Hamilton."

More than 60 percent of Americans between the ages of 13 and 34 who have a smartphone use Snapchat, and it recently surpassed Twitter in daily users, according to a Bloomberg report.

What began in 2011 as a way to share disappearing photos and videos has morphed into an app that adults use. It's still squarely the social media platform of choice for teenagers and the 18- to 24-year-old demographic, however. In fact, teens are more likely to use Snapchat than Facebook -- 23 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds snap while only 8 percent post on Facebook.

Connecting directly with young people

Although Snapchat has more than 100 million daily users, it's still new territory for government agencies. USA.gov, the White House, NASA, the Peace Corps, and two Smithsonian museums -- the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian — are among the handful of early adopters.

The White House's account has gained a robust following since launching in January thanks to behind-the-scenes snaps of President Barack Obama and the First Family. First Lady Michelle Obama joined Snapchat on June 21, launching her account days before a trip to Liberia, Morocco and Spain to promote girls' education.

The White House said the First Lady wanted "to give young people everywhere a fun way to follow her trip." Followers were promised photos and videos of trips and events, photos of the official White House garden, and guest appearances from Bo and Sunny, the First Family's dogs.

Most agencies can't match the celebrity appeal of Michelle Obama, of course, but the idea behind official Snapchat accounts is the same: providing a fun way for young people to interact with the government.

As the government's official web portal, the General Services Administration's USA.gov seeks to make it easier for people to get the information they need online. GSA joined Snapchat on March 31 as a way to help young people find the right government services when they register to vote, get a driver's license or apply for student loans.

GSA officials knew that agencies were reaching an older audience via Facebook and other social media platforms, so they started monitoring Snapchat in the past year to see how it evolved.

"We realized in some regards, yes, maybe we were communicating to the parents on the other channels, but we wanted the opportunity to connect directly with that younger audience, and we thought Snapchat would be a great way to do that," said Jessica Milcetich, a digital media strategist at GSA.

It also helped that Snapchat began allowing users to send stories that last 24 hours rather than only photos that disappear after 10 seconds.

"Stories give you the flexibility to do a little more," Milcetich said.

Last fall, GSA developed a plan to ensure that Snapchat's terms of services would be federal friendly. Once those terms were ironed out in March, USA.gov started snapping. To appeal to the sense of whimsy unique to Snapchat, GSA took a cue from the way sports teams use mascots.

"We try to put out information that's really useful but in a fun way," Milcetich said. "It's putting that friendly face to the government."

Milcetich and a part-time colleague run the account and aim to send out at least one story a week. "Our strategy with Snapchat is to only put out a story when we have something really compelling," she said.

The goal is to get young people to watch the fun stories and share them with friends so they'll be more inclined to watch the serious stories. For example, after the June 12 shooting at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub, USA.gov shared a support number that followers could text if they needed someone to talk to.

The account had nearly 800 followers at last count, and Milcetich said it has had steady, continual growth. Most of USA.gov's followers are young, but it does have followers "older than Gen Z who are curious to see what we're doing."

Creating a persona

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is using Snapchat to garner interest and excitement for its Sept. 24 grand opening on the National Mall.

It all started with Lanae Spruce, the museum's digital engagement specialist, wanted to download Snapchat filters to apply to photos for other social media platforms. She thought the only way to do that would be to create a Snapchat account, so the museum joined on May 18. That day, Spruce snapped a behind-the-scenes tour of the building and sent it via Snapchat.

"It did exceptionally well, especially for a new platform," Spruce said.

She's learning as she goes and attended the South by Southwest festival this year to get ideas about how to engage users via the app. Working for a museum that hasn't opened yet has made it possible for her to experiment. One thing that became clear early on is the importance of cultivating a personality for the account.

"I really wanted to make it fun and create a Snapchat persona," Spruce said. "It's supposed to be a personal experience of how you view the world."

The institution's Snapchat personality is a young woman in college who is experiencing the museum and the world around her. "Everything that we experience in our Snapchat account is seen through that lens," she added.

To mark 100 days until the museum's opening, Spruce snapped a photo with an emoji. The use of filters, emojis and stickers appeals to young people and differs from the way the museum approaches its other social media platforms, Spruce said.  

"We definitely don't want to lose our [Snapchat] audience by being too academic or informational," she said. "We want to make learning fun."

That attitude can also boost user engagement as the snaps receive direct messages and responses. With Twitter, you can only send a direct message to someone who already follows you.

The museum's Snapchat account caught the attention of the USA.gov team. Members reached out to Spruce to host a Snapchat tour with sneak peeks of special exhibits and the ability for followers to snap their requests.

"I thought that was really cool that another government agency saw what we were doing and was excited and wanted to get in on the action as well," Spruce said.

Archiving the ephemeral

One of the challenges facing the government's use of Snapchat -- which, after all, was designed for ephemeral sharing -- is making sure all the work that goes into creating a story doesn't simply disappear.

Spruce described storyboarding a tour of the museum, carefully planning the order of the photos and sending the finished product to followers, all the while knowing it would vanish in 24 hours. She downloaded the story to save it, but it still disappeared from users' phones.

"I think finding the value and taking the time to create content that just disappears is hard to measure," Spruce said.

USA.gov keeps a record of all stories and photos by posting them to its YouTube channel, but it's up to each agency to figure out a strategy that works for them.

Although Snapchat stories disappear unless they are saved elsewhere, account managers can keep track of success by seeing how many followers they have, how many people view their stories and how many people screenshot the stories to save them. Another way to tell if people are engaged with the content is if they snap back because followers can send a direct message.

The National Archives and Records Administration is tasked with helping agencies archive all electronic and social media records by 2019, including snaps. NARA does not use Snapchat for its own public outreach, but it tells agencies that do to follow the guidance GSA posted in March.

"When creating a story with images or videos, we recommend downloading it in its full form from within the app and taking screenshots of all unique conversations within the app, which can then be emailed to your agency email [account] from the device used to create the story," Dana Allen-Greil, NARA's web and social media branch chief, told FCW.

The "Guidance on Managing Social Media Records," NARA's Bulletin 2014-02, how to capture and save social media records, including those created via Snapchat. Methods include using web capture tools and platform-specific application programming interfaces to pull content.

"This guidance is also written to cover emerging tools," Allen-Greil added.

As promised, USA.gov snapped a story about Alexander Hamilton. Through photos and captions, it described Hamilton's influence on American history and his role as a confidant to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Hamilton's face is clad in sunglasses as the first secretary of the Treasury enjoys his time in the sun. The caption explains that the hit Broadway musical helped keep Hamilton's portrait on the $10 bill.

The government might be new to Snapchat, but the agencies that are experimenting with it are finding unique ways to reach a broader audience and harness a growing medium.

"I would love it if we could make the government more accessible to people," Milcetich said. "[Snapchat] humanizes what can sometimes be perceived as a very big bureaucracy."

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