3 case studies in social media experimentation

Learning by doing in Gov 2.0

Federal agencies and government contractors rarely have a reputation for taking risks or being innovative thinkers. Most were slow to adopt the Web as a content platform, and few have truly embraced the social engagement tools of Web 2.0.

But then, sometimes, government officials and contractors surprise us by thinking and acting outside the box. Such is the experience of a few government technology specialists who boldly ventured into new territory in the Gov 2.0 world of social networks, multimedia videos and interactive blogs. In this arena, agencies can quickly try out a new application or networking tool with a relatively low investment — and the project's success or failure occurs in a very public way.

Here are three examples of federal agencies and contractors trying out new Gov 2.0 solutions to achieve their missions and spread their messages.

  • The Transportation Security Administration recently decided to lump all off-topic comments on its blog into a single area. It seems to have worked on many levels with the public and might be useful for meeting recordkeeping requirements. But now the off-topic area has become the most popular area of the topic-oriented blog, raising questions about TSA’s blogging mission.
  • Cisco Systems created Fred Federal, a fictional persona for marketing to the federal government. Fred has his own Facebook page with about 500 friends, a Twitter feed and a show on WTOP’s Federal News Radio that broadcasts in the Washington metro area. He’s unusual and attention-getting, and he's been noticed by a top official at the General Services Administration.
  • The Social Security Administration recently held a video contest to see who among the general public could submit the best publicity video for the agency. Three other federal agencies had previously staged similar contests and awarded $2,500 to the winners, and one agency got a big response. SSA's contest had no cash prize and got only a handful of entries.

Gov 2.0 innovations might not always achieve their goals, but the mixed results offer lessons for everyone. Sharing those lessons is likely to help other agencies and contractors with their own ideas and projects. And who knows — all this experimentation could be the start of something big in the way government does business.

TSA Off-and-On Topics

The official TSA blog started in 2008 and has been generating a steady supply of content — primarily publicity about the agency and its doings, plus consumer tips for going through airport security. Five bloggers publish one or two postings a week, and each post usually receives five to 30 comments, with some capturing 100 comments or more.

TSA blogger and social media analyst Curtis Burns, known as Blogger Bob on the site, said the agency noticed an increase in off-topic comments, such as unrelated postings, links to other news and similar comments posted repeatedly.

To handle the overflow, TSA recently created an Off-Topic Comments section on the blog to keep those comments together and keep the regular posts on topic. It appears to be the only federal agency that has created a special blog section for off-topic comments. Such sections are not a common practice in general.

Burns said visitors to the blog have embraced the new section. “Once our readers realized that we did this to keep things on topic and not to sweep their comments under the rug, they adapted,” he said.

They sure did. In mid-October, the off-topic section had 508 comments, which appeared to be the most popular posting on the site by far. Many of the most recent off-topic comments deal with complaints about TSA scanners and privacy.

“The fact that the [off-topic section] post is becoming popular only proves that it’s successful,” Burns said.

But others wonder if TSA is sending a mixed message. If people want to talk about TSA scanners on the TSA blog and that subject is considered off-topic, the agency's strategy could be off target, said Mark Drapeau, a social media expert who is now director of innovative social engagement at Microsoft.

In interactive social media, such as blogs, it is best to “let the audience determine the content,” Drapeau said. If the off-topic section continues to be the most popular, its impact could overshadow the rest of the blog. “The people who are commenting start to see the rest of the blog, the official part, as the off-topic part,” he said.

Jay Daughtry of social media consulting firm ChatterBachs said it might be helpful for TSA bloggers to write posts about scanners to keep the official sections of the blog relevant and reduce the need for off-topic posts on the subject. That way the users’ interests can guide the content, he said.

Even so, an imperfect blog is much better than no blog. “I want to give credit to the TSA for having a blog and allowing people to comment, even if it is off topic,” Daughtry said.

The Cisco Kid: Fred Federal

In 2008, Cisco’s public-sector marketing team was inspired by other corporate mascots — such as the Geico Gecko and Maytag repairman — and they introduced the fictional Fred Federal to help pitch the company’s cybersecurity and telework products and services. The company hired an actor to show up at events, scripted Fred’s fictional adventures in radio spots at Federal News Radio, and created Facebook and Twitter pages. Fred Federal now has about 450 friends on Facebook and 360 followers on Twitter.

“We wanted to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace,” said Tim Simon, Cisco’s public-sector marketing solutions manager and Fred's creator. People initially viewed the character with humor, but the campaign has also “become a conduit for serious conversations,” Simon said.

Fred's radio show — which had original scripts, a cast of actors, music and sound effects — ran for 19 episodes to “show how government is embracing technology,” Simon said.

The campaign seems to be getting noticed by people with influence. Bev Godwin, co-director of new media and citizen engagement at GSA, joked about being Fredericka Federal at a recent social media event attended by federal officials, contractors and reporters.

Daughtry noted that some federal officials and contractors might be uneasy about interacting with unfamiliar individuals on Facebook and Twitter because of hoaxes on the sites, including the recent Robin Sage incident involving an attractive female intelligence analyst persona created on Facebook to attract high-level friends. The Fred Federal character avoids those types of problems because he is obviously fictional and not intended to fool anyone, Daughtry said.

“I think Fred Federal is great, personally,” Daughtry said. “I would like to give credit for a campaign that is lighthearted and goes beyond the standard business model.”

Drapeau said it might be easier for an actor posing as Fred Federal to connect with clients emotionally, which is important in sales, in contrast to a more typical sales presentation that involves graphs and charts.

“I like the Fred Federal campaign because it’s so creative,” Drapeau said. “It is about fun, getting attention and thinking outside the box.”

SSA’s Video No-Shows

When the Health and Human Services Department held a competition for the best flu-preparedness video in 2009 and offered a $2,500 prize, more than 200 entries came in. A year later, the excitement seems to have dimmed: Both the Environmental Protection Agency and GSA held similar video contests and only drew about 20 entries each.

And when SSA counted the results from its “How Social Security Made a Difference in My Life” video contest, which started in April, the results were even more lackluster.

“We anticipated selecting the winner — or even several — from a sizable collection of contest entries,” wrote Frank Baitman, SSA 's CIO, on the White House Open Government Blog Oct. 1. “Well, we didn’t get as much participation as we’d hoped. Fewer than 10 solid entries came in.”

SSA did not lose money because unlike the other federal contests, it offered no cash prize and simply features the winning video on its website. But was the message weakened by entries counted in the single digits?

Not necessarily, Drapeau said. If the winning video was of high quality, that could be an acceptable outcome. “If their goal was to find a video, then they met their goal,” he said.

But if SSA’s goal was to engage the public and create excitement about a campaign, that’s a different story, he added. The agency did not respond to requests to discuss the contest.

Sandy Levine, public relations expert and president of Advice Unlimited, said drawing fewer than 10 entries in a contest suggests low participation. Lack of a cash prize might have dampened interest, but cash is not usually a determining factor because people enter contests primarily for prestige rather than money, she said. The culprit was probably lack of publicity and focus.

“If they issued a press release, perhaps they thought people would hear about it, and that’s not enough,” Levine said. “Definitely, 10 entries in a contest is very, very low. In my mind, 20 to 30 entries is also very low.”

Agencies contemplating a video contest should take care to assess the prospective audience beforehand, she said.

“The lesson learned is that they need to publicize it more, make it more appealing, reach out to the audience in a more engaging manner so they get people more excited and eager to respond,” Levine said.

“But again, for the first time, it’s great that [SSA] did it,” she added.


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