Though the federal government has lagged behind the private sector in adopting social media, initial steps to use it to foster engagement both within agencies and externally with the public are moving in the right direction, a social-media expert said Tuesday.
Dan Zarrella, social and viral marketing scientist at Hubspot, said that using social media to put a human face on government officials, to call citizens to provide feedback on government policies and to spur engagement between employees are all good tactics to effectively use social media.
Zarrella - a social, search and viral marketing scientist and author of "The Social Media Marketing Book" -- led a session on the importance of a social media strategy at the Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington on Tuesday. He spoke to InformationWeek on the phone following his discussion.
Zarrella said that most people know that when they receive communication from an agency, there is a person behind that message. So it makes sense to use social media to actually interact with people, not faceless organizations, he said.
"The power [of social media] when you talk about government is it has the ability to make the boundaries of an organization more porous," he said. "With social media tools, people can talk to the actual individuals in the trenches. People know deep down they're not talking to a logo, not an acronym. Social media has the potential to connect individually in that way."
This is especially effective for the federal government, which - although officials have public personas and engage openly with the public - has always been shrouded in an air of secrecy and formality.
Recently, government agencies have been using social media to foster more engagement both internally and with the public. The efforts are largely part of the Open Government Directive, an Obama administration mandate for government agencies to use technology to make their activities more transparent to the public. Federal agencies also are using social networking to foster better collaboration internally.
The State Department, for example, is piloting a Facebook-like application called Statebook that lets people in the organization connect with each other, while the Joint Chiefs of Staff office recently issued a memo that among other things encouraged its Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, to pepper his Twitter updates with personal information about what he did on the weekend and the like.
The latter activity especially fosters positive social engagement because it puts a more human, accessible face on a government official, Zarrella said.
"Taking an example from politics, the litmus test for the popularity of politicians is do you want to have a beer with this person [running for office]," he said. "If you understand these people are more human and you can identify with what they do on the weekends, then you are more apt to socialize with them and connect about their work as well."
A common marketing technique to call people to take action about something also is a proven social-media tactic that the government is using, he said.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration launched an online brainstorming campaign to collect feedback from citizens about how government agencies can follow the Open Government Directive plans. The campaign -- called the OpenGov Tracker - specifically asked people to submit ideas for projects they'd like agencies to undertake to better engage with the public.
"I think calls to action are huge," Zarrella said. "Whatever an organization can do to amplify a call to action, the more they can convince them to take the action they'd like them to take."