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“The so-called ‘digital refugees’ use a variety of free [social media and] messaging tools – including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Viber – to share directions and information about road blocks.”                                                     – Nicole Bogart

“#Queens! Get rid of harmful household products like old paint at our Astoria Park #SAFEdisposal event Sat 9/19, 10-4”                               – @NYCRecycles


The technology-enabled ability for anyone, anywhere to capture, create, and share search engine-indexable content in real time has permanently transformed the way humans communicate. It has also created ongoing opportunities – and challenges – for individuals, businesses, and governments around the world.

In this article, I will answer the three questions I receive most often about governments and social media – why governments use social media, howgovernments use social media, and what are the best social media practices, right now, for governments.

A quick note that for the purposes of this article, the term “government” will include local, municipal, county, regional, national, and federal governments, and their agencies and departments. I welcome readers’ comments on the differences – big and small – they have seen in each level of government with regards to social media

From people to paint, governments use social media – some with immense energy and enthusiasm, others with genuine fear and reluctance – to fulfill their missions to provide for their citizens’ well-being and growth because of social media’s ubiquity, interactivity, immediacy, and cost.


Social media now reaches virtually all ages and demographics in both developed and developing countries. Interestingly, thanks to exponential increase in the availability and use of low-cost mobile devices, in many remote locations, people’s access to social media can actually be significantly higher than people’s access to traditional media. Said differently, it is no longer a given that print and broadcast mass media reaches more people in all countries than social media.


Broadcast media has, by definition, always been one-way, whereas social media is, by design, interactive. Both its feature/functionality and its community-driven culture encourages two-way communications. Social media users are active, and engage proactively with government accounts and profiles, even with smaller agencies and departments who had not previously received much public interest or attention.


Thanks again to its mobile optimization, social media allows governments to capture, create, and communicate content in real-time at the source. Likewise, mobile social media allows citizens to receive, reply, and share government content in real-time. The result? Record-high levels of government authenticity, credibility, and transparency – admittedly not always embraced – which serves to further increase citizens’ engagement in a virtuous circle.


Contrary to popular belief, social media is not free. As social media requires a device with Internet connectivity to both publish and to receive content, and takes a significant investment in time to create content that is both clear and compelling, it is a misnomer to say that social media is free for governments or its citizens. It is true, however, that the majority of mainstream social networks donot charge for their base level of services. This not only encourages widespread use, but gives everyone – sometimes for the very first time in history – a voice which can be heard, found (indexed on search engines like Google and Bing), and shared.

It’s not hyperbole to say that no matter the specific effort, issue, or campaign, governments share an urgent, ongoing need to communicate effectively and efficiently with their citizens. Social media’s high levels of both effectiveness and efficiency have driven a broad set of use cases of how governments increasingly rely on social media. These use cases fall into the four categories of “liberating” existing information, broadcasting urgent information, reaching target audiences, and promoting specific policies.

Liberate Existing Information

Governments around the world typically excel at creating valuable reference information for residents, businesses, and visitors. Before social media, their ability to make the sum total of this information not just accessible, but shareableon demand was extremely limited. Add to that the fact that reference information is often updated. The solution? Social media – being directly linked to recency-driven search engines – helps people to not only find the information they need, but to locate the most-up-to-date version of the information they need.

Broadcast Urgent Information

I live in the state of Florida. Florida is one of many parts of the world which experiences unpredictable severe weather events, including a long and regularly catastrophic hurricane season. The ability of governments to immediately broadcast urgent messages on multiple social channels – emergency preparedness guidelines, severe weather warnings, and disaster relief resources – saves lives. And while less deadly, but arguably more consistently impacting the quality of daily life, the ability to communicate traffic, construction, and road updates in real-time saves – individually and collectively – time, resources, and of course frustration.

Reach Targeted Audiences

Seniors. Students. Families. Travelers. At-risk populations. Social media enables governments to communicate with each of their many different audiences with the most appropriate content in the most appropriate format and language.

Promote Specific Policies

Governments have agendas. They have specific work that they want to achieve. When the “friction” to communicate disappears, timelines can be accelerated, budgets can be reduced, and policies can be implemented. Social media improves communications. And improved communications enable the more effective and efficient execution of broad and focused political agendas to provide for their citizens’ well-being and growth.

What are the best social media practices, right now, for governments?

1. Everybody Writes

Take a look at your smartphone. How many photos do you take of something to get a good photo? A great photo? Social media is no different. When everybody can contribute social media content, you don’t just get more content – which is valuable in and of itself – you get to be selective, and only publish the best content. Teams from different agencies and departments (not just with the title of “Communications”), especially when they consist of a mix of people with different backgrounds, skills, and experiences, consistently produce the most effective social media content.

Best Practice #1: Use multiple authors

2. Show and Tell

While the actual number differs according to the research study, it is a fact that humans process visual information faster than text. What does this mean for governments on social media? When they use images, the information they are communicating is understood faster, understood more accurately, retained longer, and shared more frequently. That’s a really good day for anyone who has something to communicate. Bottom line, think about the most appropriate images, animations, or videos you can include with each of your social media posts.

Best Practice #2:  When you have a new idea for content, think first about how you can represent that idea visually

3. Rapid Reviews

Information ages. Rapidly. Yesterday’s weather forecast is of little value to anyone. Yes, you must review, edit, and approve content before it is published, but when you create your governance workflows, think about how you can enable the review of your social media content in minutes, not hours.

Best Practice #3: Review posts quickly

4. Co-Publish

Back in the distant ink and paper era, when we created, printed, and hung up physical flyers, we never hung up just one. We posted as many as we could. Why? We knew that the more flyers we hung up, the more likely our chances of catching people’s attention and getting them to read our flyers. The same holds true today with social media. When we create social content, it takes minimal effort to post it on multiple channels.

Best Practice #4: Publish on multiple platforms

5. Results Matter

Closely examining the impact of your individual posts on social media is critical. Paying attention to “the numbers” gives you actionable insights which will help you to make better decisions and to improve your communications.

Best Practice #5: Understand your analytics

6. Use Great Tools

Yes, the number of new tools can be overwhelming, as new ones appear daily. Listen for what tools people are finding useful, and consider following people who use social media and share the tools they find useful.

Some of my current favorites include:

  • Layout for creating photo mosaics
  • OneShot for visualizing website text
  • Adobe Post for creating illustrations
  • Replay for creating videos from your images
  • Outbox Pro for creating, reviewing, scheduling, publishing, and analyzing social media posts (full disclosure: Outbox Pro is a SocialGrow solution).

Best Practice #6: Get in the habit of trying out new tools

In this article, I answered the three questions I receive most often about governments and social media – why governments use social media, howgovernments use social media, and what are the best social media practices, right now, for governments.

Individuals within government agencies and departments around the world are being incredibly innovative. Don’t believe me? The next time you’re in Spain, visit social media-savvy Jun! The choice for governments is no longer whether to use social media, but how well they use it.

Which social networks should we be on?  Do we need to be on all of them?

The answer for government agencies and departments is the same as for businesses. It is more effective for you to have an active (consistently posting), engaged (actively listening and responding) presence on just one social network, than it is to have an inconsistent (random and infrequent posting), broadcast-only (talking without listening) presence on a dozen different social platforms.

The simple answer is that you should be active on the specific social networks your target audience uses most. Please note that this can not only change (quickly!) over time, but it can also differ widely by country, language, age, and gender. In the U.S. for example, if I want to reach an audience of seniors (people who are ages 60+), currently the best social channel on which to have an active presence is Facebook. Alternately, if I want to reach an audience of high school students (people who are ages 14-18), the ideal social channel right now in the U.S. is Snapchat.


Ranked the #2 CMO globally in Social Media Marketing magazine, world-class social marketer and Unified Inbox Chief Marketing Officer Ken Herron has held senior-level marketing positions in multiple corporations and startups. Ken is also a popular international author, speaker, radio host, and consultant on social business best practices. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenHerron.

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