With 80% of Americans and 50% of the ENTIRE WORLD on social media, there has never been a better – and easier – time for our villages, towns, and cities to connect with the people they serve.
But place-centered social media has gained the reputation of being shallow and uninteresting. Well-meaning mayors, city managers, and secretaries have turned Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms into yet another channel to copy & paste press releases.
But if your place is looking to leverage the power of social media by doing it better, put down the algorithm hacks and stop by your local bar.
Play by the (unwritten) rules
Bob walks into a bar, single and ready to mingle. People are taking shots, talking at tables, and shaking their thangs on the dance floor.
Walking up to the DJ, Bob grabs the mic and says, “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN. I am currently looking for other patrons at this bar who are also looking for companionship. If interested, meet me in the booth in the northeast corner of the room in 20 minutes where I will be conducting one-on-one interviews to evaluate our compatibility. Thank you for your consideration.”
Most people understand that this isn’t how to go about things. Why? Because Bob’s strategy of let’s-cut-the-small-talk-and-just-get-down-to-business violates an unwritten rule of social interaction in public places:
The approach is everything.
Bob may be really, really in need of some companionship, but blasting everyone with, “WILL YOU DATE ME?” is weird because he hasn’t done any upfront work that could encourage a “yes” response. His approach was wrong.
Said another way, Bob has to earn the right to ask.
Not everyone is willing to grab the mic from a DJ, but they are equally impatient in other ways.
Sure, he may get lucky with some freak in the crowd digging his confidence or finding his awkwardness charming, but he most likely will have better success being interested and interesting.
Buy someone a drink, ask them about work, ask them about their family. Talk with their friends if they’re there. Ask them to dance. Laugh, ask questions, give compliments.
Then, and only after Bob has shown who he is and what he has to offer, should he ask “Will you go on a date with me?”
When a city’s social media content is stale, boring, and “needy”, the city is acting like a Bob. Relationships don’t matter, people don’t matter.
“GIMME GIMME GIMME,” they say as they steal the mic from the DJ and start listing their demands.
Come to our event.
Pay your bills.
Stop setting off fireworks at 2 AM.
Cities, if they want to use social media to effect real world change, need to constantly try to “court” their followers.
Followers don’t just want to be educated with facts. This is social media, after all, and if people wanted relentlessly stale and mechanical content, they would sign up for an email list. People want to be entertained and inspired. They want to feel like their city is interested in who they are, what they do, and how they think. They want attention and recognition. Citizens want their city to give them a platform and a spotlight.
They want to be schmoozed.
A wonderful and exciting new love affair can begin when a City Hall or a Main Street organization abandons its role as an out-of-touch bastion of bureaucracy, acting instead like a human looking to love and to be loved.
Sidenote: Places sometimes use “professionalism” as a barrier to really engaging with its people. If you thought being in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable, “it’s not you, it’s me” partner was difficult, imagine a city that doesn’t laugh, tell stories, pay compliments, support, ask questions, or even fake being interested in the very people responsible for the city’s existence and well-being. Sterile professionalism isn’t an appeal to a higher standard but a mechanism of separation and an avoidance of the work it takes to build real relationships. A real, authentically human approach to communication often requires a commitment to transparency and a level of effort not many are willing to take.
Bob’s proposition bombed because the approach is everything. More specifically, relationship-building is everything. With businesses, I use the 80/20 rule: 80% of a feed should be relationship-building and 20% should be selling. People can spend their money in millions of other places, but what compels them to spend it with my clients is a relationship they can’t get anywhere else.
So what should fill 80% of your feed? What builds a digital relationship that translates to real world change? Anything that acts, looks, sounds, and smells like a human worth having a relationship with.
More specifically, relationship building posts are compelling stories, great photography, engaging videos (narrative or dramatic), funny memes, or enthusiastic shout-outs to community members by sharing and amplifying their content.
The final 20% are posts that sell. “Selling” posts are anything that is an “ask” or requires action by followers: coming to an event, donating to a food drive, voting in an election, etc.
This 80/20 ensures that a feed supplies the kind of content people want to see on social media. Governments and civic organizations are essentially outsiders in a platform that most use for individual-to-individual content, so they need to play by the rule “social media should be social”.
Bob’s initial “mic drop’ moment also fell flat because of the words he used. Of course, they were clear and efficient – no one is leaving the bar being confused about what Bob is looking for.
But unfortunately for Bob, they will all be leaving with someone else.
Using the same stilted language that makes many press releases unreadable makes a city’s social media posts even more obnoxious. Even in cases where clear and concise language is absolutely necessary (health issues, executive orders, moments of crisis), an understanding of the dialect of social media ensures that a city’s messages will be listened to and understood.
By “social media dialect”, I mean “how people communicate on social media”. This includes everything from word choice to pictures posted to word count to video length.
Example A: A mayor posts a 10-minute video outlining five responses the city is taking to the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by posting a 1200 word press release.
Example B: A mayor posts a 60-second video talking about the five responses (with captions!), a single written post describing the five responses, then makes short, five successive individual posts outlining each response.
Which example is communicating in the dialect of social media? Which has a better chance at creating an understanding and which will be unlistened to or create confusion?
The average amount of time someone views any given video on Facebook is 7 seconds. The 10- minute video in Example A is 86 times longer than the average video-watching attention span.
If it’s a written post, posts with 81 characters receive about 66% more engagement than posts with more than 81 characters.
The point: Posting information on social media is meaningless if it isn’t presented in a way people will actually consume it.
A city, town, or village deciding to leverage social media takes one of the most important steps it can take to cultivating pride of place in its people.
Content to use if a place wants to be more human on Social Media:
- Make citizens the stars of the show by telling stories of the businesses, people, and organizations doing great things in your community. Professional photography is great but not necessary.
- Give unsung heroes a shoutout. Nurses, teachers, janitors, volunteers, stay-at-home parents.
- Interact with comments. Reply with emojis, gifs, questions, and follow-ups.
- Ask for public comment about upcoming decisions (gutsy, but worth it!)
- Don’t be afraid to be funny – post memes, be charmingly self-deprecating.
- Hold live Q&As with department heads, city managers, or mayors.
- Create a hyperlocal podcast.