Once inhabited primarily by college students, a social media presence is now almost a symbol of existence. As a result, companies and organizations have flooded the landscape, joining the symphony of voices vying to capture one of the world’s most valuable commodities: attention. Among those voices are also many government agencies and public officials.
Montage has supported government clients including the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Park Service, Minority Business Development Agency, U.S. Department of the Air Force, and Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection in using social media to reach audiences, share critical information, and influence behavior. But in a space saturated with clickbait, products claiming to change your life, pet videos, and breaking news, it can be challenging for anyone to break through. Add in compliance with regulations and the need to maintain good standing in public opinion, and government institutions and officials—and partners like Montage—have their work cut out for them.
So how do we use our social media knowledge and expertise to help the government engage audiences and get their messages heard? In this article, we examine social media marketing for government agencies and figures, where cross-sector best practices apply, and where we need to think differently using the familiar marketing framework of the 4Ps—Purpose, People, Place, and Product.
First, we must understand why it is vital for government bodies and personalities to be on social media. In recent years, we have witnessed the power of social media to fuel and spark societal movements. One such instance is the Arab Spring. Beginning in 2010, interconnectivity and the mass reach of social media helped fuel and organize protests in a way previously undertaken by complex revolutionary networks. During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, we again saw social media’s ability to change mindsets and perceptions with 23% of users citing social media activity as the catalyst to changing their views about racial justice, according to a 2020 study by the Pew Research Center.
Even in times not defined by momentous events, social media has become a primary source of information and news. While it might not possess the same prestige as peer-reviewed or accredited news sources, platforms such as X (formerly known as Twitter), YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook have become new search engines and serve as the starting point for research. Who among us could deny having checked X for news about a local event or YouTube for a quick how-to video? Given social media’s outsized role as a source of information and a litmus test for public opinion, it is essential that government agencies and officials join the conversation and share their voices.
The presence of government accounts is even more essential in our highly polarized, often partisan climate. Indeed, one shared purpose across all government social media accounts—be they for an agency, specific initiative, or public figure—is to be a beacon of truth and impartiality. Content must be devoid of bias and true to facts. Neutrality must be maintained to allow information to take center stage. And nonpartisanship must be a foundational characteristic to ensure the social media messages communicated are well received by as many members of the public as possible. As government marketers, we need to work cleverly within these bounds.
We also need to help our government partners define their purpose and objectives for social media in line with their broader communications goals. Whether aiming to prevent the spread of disease, make travel safer, or enhance the U.S.’s reputation abroad, the purpose of most government accounts revolves around educating the public and influencing behavior. It is therefore helpful for government marketers to understand the basics of behavior change models.
One of the oldest and best-known models is the Diffusion of Innovation Theory (Rogers, 1962). Shaped as a bell curve—thin at the start and end, voluminous in the middle—the model represents stages of adoption. Using it to think about how ideas spread through a population and gain momentum over time visually reminds us how messages need to be tailored to each group of people and their respective mindsets along the bell curve. Looking at all stages along the adoption journey, we are better able to understand the mindsets of key audiences and ensure our social media communications are engaging, convincing, and working to fulfill the government’s purpose.
The federal government serves more than 330 million people. While reaching them all on social media would be a crowning achievement, in most cases, government entities must create tiered social strategies to communicate both broadly and narrowly. Broadly to the American public; narrowly to audiences or populations most aligned with the agency or account’s purpose and goals. A best practice to develop such strategies is to first research the existing social media following and the desired audiences for growth.
In our recent work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we conducted a wholesale analysis of a specific Twitter channel (now X). We looked at the available demographic data as well as the audience’s activity levels and interests as expressed in their platform bios. Additionally, we examined quantitative and qualitative performance metrics to see what content resonated best and where CDC could more directly engage specific audience segments like health care providers. Together, these research activities laid a strong foundation for this CDC channel’s social media strategy.
A data-driven approach to social media does more than inform and guide sound strategies, in fact, it also reduces day-to-day guesswork. Tracking post performance helps clarify what resonates and is important to followers, in turn, enabling the creation of content that is engaging, timely, and relevant. Spending time on each platform, viewing social media interactions, and monitoring trends allows government social media managers to stay abreast of emerging conversations and speak with audiences rather than at them. Social listening on relevant topics takes this a step further. Montage, for example, uses both Meltwater and Brandwatch to keep on top of public sentiment and real-time conversations around key topics for our clients. By knowing what’s being said and where conversations are happening, we can advise government social media teams on how to proactively respond through direct engagement with audience members as well as future content.
Social media platforms might not be physical spaces, but each one is nonetheless defined by its specific use, features, atmosphere, and active user base. LinkedIn, for example, is well suited for professional and technical content aimed at civil servants and industry professionals who look to government agencies for policy and information leadership. The same content on Instagram, however, would likely fall flat. There, users skew younger, content is more evocative or humorous, and rich media is essential. Understanding the differences between these and other platforms—and the nuances and advantages of each—enables the government and its partners to place the right content in front of the right people at the right time.
Context must also be considered. Take FEMA for example. With a mission of supporting the public before, during, and after disasters, FEMA’s timely delivery of information is paramount. The nature of their communication makes X, formerly Twitter, where instant updates are the norm, an apt platform. FEMA’s strategic employment of X allows them to be visible and reach survivors and concerned citizens in real-time amidst disasters.
Another account that has successfully carved out its place on social media is the National Park Service. NPS’s readily available high-quality nature imagery is a match made in heaven for the visual-first platforms of Instagram and Facebook. Complemented by the account’s distinct voice that is simultaneously humorous, quirky, and educational, NPS has established a strong reputation for amusing and enriching the feeds its audience members. By playing to the strengths of its chosen platforms, NPS not only achieves its social media goals—it also drives traffic and stewardship for the national parks and other natural, historic, and cultural sites.
But platforms are subject to change. The obvious example here is X. Formerly Twitter, the transition to X not only caused a major shift in the public’s perception of the platform, it also affected what gets posted and promoted. Changes like these can—and did—cause certain audiences to feel alienated and unwelcome in this digital community, leading them to migrate to other social media platforms that better suit their needs and values.
Additionally, some platforms might simply not be an option. In the commercial sphere, TikTok is unavoidable with its immense international popularity. Yet, government entities are not permitted to use TikTok, meaning government marketers must find alternative platforms to engage with its massive GenZ and young millennial user base. Government marketers need to stay aware of such shifts in the digital landscape, particularly when changes affect the audiences they most want to reach.
This brings us back to knowing your audience. Multicultural and international audiences, for example, navigate the digital landscape differently. If the goal is to reach Latinos/Hispanics or Asian Americans in the U.S., for instance, then depending on their connectedness to their country of origin their most used messaging platforms might be WhatsApp or WeChat. This is where the value of research instead of assumption is essential.
The final P, product, is the biggest divergence from the norm. That’s because the government has no products to sell, but rather information to promote.
Tasked with safeguarding the nation’s safety, wellbeing, prosperity, and more, the information the government needs to communicate is often quite complex. Yet, social media is designed differently, favoring short, sharable messages and accompanying visuals. To effectively support the government, we as marketers must therefore transform high-level concepts into content that is easily understood and transmitted. Government requirements, such as the Plain Writing Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, support this. They articulate the importance of making government communications and information products like social media posts easy for the public to see, read, and understand. They also necessitate guidelines be followed when writing and designing on the government’s behalf.
Because the ‘product’ we are selling is often information, sometimes the product is the social post itself. For the post and the information therein (product) to land successfully, it must align to the government’s objectives (purpose), audiences (people), and platforms (place) as well as be relevant, on brand, and of the highest quality. One key factor in syncing all four Ps is by finding the appropriate tone.
Tone can be tricky. Too serious and people may tune out. Too playful and the government’s credibility may be questioned. Marketers must carefully consider what tone best suits their four Ps and find what works best for a given government account. It may not always be what you expect. Just take TSA for example.
With more than 1.2 million followers, TSA’s Instagram has become a viral favorite for its embrace of memes, puns, and funny videos. One of the account’s go-to tactics is to post strange things found during security checks. While on the surface this may seem off-brand for an agency dedicated to ensuring traveler safety, dig into TSA’s posts and you’ll discover each contains travel tips and reminders of rules to be followed when flying. TSA’s Instagram demonstrates how humor can be used as an effective tool for message uptake while also staying true to the essence of the agency’s mission: safety.
While we all love a good joke, some social accounts require a more authoritative tone—think Department of Defense or branches of the military. Other times, a balance must be struck. That’s precisely what we found when working with CDC. The CDC social media channel represented a scientist who is well acquainted with speaking to academics, high-ranking government officials, and medical professionals. But when we found the existing following on X, formerly Twitter, was largely composed of members of the public and public-serving individuals and organizations (health care providers, public health professionals, grassroots organizations), we recommended a two-pronged approach: use targeted messages to that speak the language of academics, health organizations, and institutions to direct their attention toward research and essential health policies, but dedicate the bulk of organic content to engaging with the people who experience or treat the health conditions CDC seeks to prevent. Using an accessible, conversational tone, the goal for the latter approach is to post content that providers and patients can amplify by sharing on the platform, within their community, or among their peers.
Sticking with the analogy of information as our product, we can think of disinformation as shoplifting. Unlike misinformation, which happens accidentally, disinformation deliberately intends to deceive, or, to steal mindshare. Much disinformation has regrettably been spread using social media, often employing sensational language and clickbait tactics to gain traction. This brings us back to the importance of government social media accounts as well as a critical factor when producing content. When we consider what government channels should be bringing into the social sphere, their product is, in its simplest form, truth. To maintain the trust placed in government entities, social content and how its delivered must be carefully considered and thought through. As government marketers, we can’t default to easy viral victories. Instead, we must think harder about how to reach people using well-positioned, well-crafted, and universally accessible truths. Are you up for the challenge? We are.