Citizen Service

Making social media monitoring matter

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Behind every tweet, Facebook update and Instagram post, there's a desire to connect with people, even if only for a fleeting moment. And for federal agencies seeking to improve the customer experience, a strong social media presence is a must in order to reach people where they are. But agencies should also monitor social media feedback and respond to concerns expressed in people's tweets and posts.

Agencies that are successful at online engagement understand the differences between the social media channels they are using and how to make the most of each one. For example, the Interior Department has a popular social media presence in part because officials recognized that stunning photos of national parks are perfect for a visual medium like Instagram.

"You need a centralized strategy," said Abby Herriman, chief strategy officer at HighPoint Global. "You need the messaging connected throughout the agency, and you've got to be able to provide the information you're getting back through social media monitoring...so everybody understands what sentiments are out there, what citizens are thinking, feeling, who they are."

Identifying and responding to trends

Social media monitoring proved to be vital during the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, when HighPoint worked with the call center for the government's online health insurance marketplace. It was a stressful time for the Department of Health and Human Services. The HealthCare.gov website rollout in October 2013 had been rough to say the least, and technical problems continued to dog the site and make it difficult for people to sign up online. While the website was down, HighPoint reworked its call center script and processes to help thousands of people enroll over the phone.

Behind the scenes, HighPoint used monitoring software to search and analyze social media trends related to the Affordable Care Act, scanning social media outlets for any mention of the act. The company began noticing something that seems obvious in hindsight: Hardly anyone was calling the legislation by its official name. Nearly everyone was calling it Obamacare.

"All of our scripting, all of our language, all of our communication that had been cleared all the way up through the White House had the more formal title," Herriman said. But when social media monitoring showed that "Obamacare" was trending more than "Affordable Care Act," HighPoint officials took that information to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services so customer service representatives would be prepared.

"People aren't calling it [ACA]," Herriman said. "It feels more stilted. We want to be able to make changes so that we can handle that term. We can pivot our messages to fit what people expect to hear."

Agencies can program social media monitoring software to look for other helpful phrases. For example, if people are tweeting, "Are you kidding me?" about an agency, the software notices, and there's an opportunity to fix the issue quickly before other people experience (and tweet about) a similar issue. Monitoring tools can also gauge the emotion in words.

"It's monitoring sentiment in terms of how the voice sounds and interpreting that as emotion tied to those particular words," Herriman said. "That's a really powerful piece of data to help us understand how we need to change the message and how we need to change the medium."

What HighPoint officials monitored on social media changed over time. At first, people were asking what the Affordable Care Act meant and how it would affect them. As the program matured, the company monitored social media (and calls to the call center) for the parts of the process that people had the most questions about.

With social media monitoring, time is of the essence. "Sentiment changes at the drop of a hat," Herriman said.

Note: This article was updated on April 1 to clarify the timing of monitoring efforts.

About the Author

Bianca Spinosa is an Editorial Fellow at FCW.

Spinosa covers a variety of federal technology news for FCW including workforce development, women in tech, and the intersection of start-ups and agencies. Prior to joining FCW, she was a TV journalist for more than six years, reporting local news in Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Spinosa is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Writing at George Mason University, where she also teaches composition. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia.

Click here for previous articles by Spinosa, or connect with her on Twitter: @BSpinosa.


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