This post originally appeared in the Public Sector Digest June 2017 issue “Modernizing Government Rules & Regulations.”

At last year’s Social Media Week Toronto, I had a legitimate ‘a-ha’ moment. In the midst of a brilliant presentation, digital strategist Amber Naslund compared social media to other once-disruptive communication technologies like the typewriter or telephone. When they first appeared in a business setting, she explained, specialists were the only ones trusted to use them. Over time, however, typing and answering the phone have become basic business skills that pretty much everyone is expected to possess.

The same goes for social media (now often referred to as just ‘social’). What was once the exclusive domain of your city’s issue-area expert is becoming commonplace for all professionals. Part of the changing role of a specialist in a municipal setting, then, is to enable city staff to use their growing social knowledge to benefit their careers and the corporation as a whole.

I. GOVERNMENT FACES A CHALLENGING SOCIAL LANDSCAPE

In a 2016 study of what industries annoy people on social media (see figure 1 below), Sprout Social found that ‘government’ is the absolute worst offender. While one hopes that municipal accounts contribute less to this perception than, say, presidential ones, cities can get wrapped up in ambivalence toward the public sector. Most municipalities use social in a helpful way – informing citizens about city business and receiving customer service requests back from residents – but we could always do better.

sprout index

Figure 1: Top Ten most annoying industries on social media Source: Sprout Social

To make matters worse, social media companies have been making it more difficult for brands to reach citizens without the use of paid campaigns. ‘Organic reach’ – the term for social content naturally reaching its audience for free – is now estimated to be below two percent on Facebook. For an organization with 100,000 followers, for example, fewer than 2,000 of those followers could be expected to even see a given post. Cash-strapped organizations can work around this with creative content and inexpensive paid campaigns, but the long-term trend is toward diminishing returns for cities that can’t afford to constantly pay for access.

What Facebook and other companies have realized is that people would much rather engage with other people on social. With less branded content in their news feeds, there’s space for more meaningful interactions with family, friends, colleagues and other people they value. It keeps users happy and has helped make social media advertising into an enormous industry, set to outpace traditional print ads by 2020.

At the City of Waterloo, we’ve experienced these trends across our social media channels over the past few years. Even as follower counts continue to rise sharply, those people have become more difficult to reach on a consistent basis. In 2016, for example, our total followers on Facebook and Twitter increased by 40 percent, but total impressions (the number of people who saw a post) declined by 45 percent. More importantly, meaningful user actions tied to those impressions – sharing a post, signing up for a service, or visiting your website, to name a few – have become more difficult to generate as well. While we run paid social ads and make hilarious videos to help bridge the gap, it’s not reasonable for all campaigns to commit significant resources to social. Especially when it used to work so well for free.

II. MAKE CITY STAFF YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA CELEBRITIES

Back at Social Media Week, another hot topic was ‘influencer’ marketing – a modern twist on the idea of celebrity endorsement. Instead of paying famous people with little connection to their products, companies now reward individuals with industry credibility for providing seemingly genuine commentary on social media.

Given the increasing number of non-experts who are good at social, however, organizations are also looking within their own ranks for sources of influence. According to Bambu, an employee advocacy software provider, the modern staff person has over 800 social media connections and is eight times more likely to create engagement versus a corporate channel.

With the decline of organic reach and the rise of human-centric social media, employee advocacy programs have already become a fixture in the private sector. They typically involve communications staff sharing approved stories to a central online location which staff can browse and then share with personal social networks. Staff in the advocacy program can use suggested messages written by communications or develop their own, but it all points back to content that’s valuable to the organization. The employer benefits from increased reach and a more engaged workforce, while employees develop deeper professional social networks and greater visibility in their issue area.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, municipalities haven’t been as quick to give their employees a platform to publicly comment on corporate affairs. While elected officials have long acted as top #cdnmuni influencers (think Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi or Toronto Councillor Norm Kelly) city staff are usually more hesitant to conduct professional affairs on social. One common reason is the overwhelming nature of the Internet with its ever-present notifications and knee-jerk reactions, all taking place in public view. But another reason might be that municipal employers have not formally encouraged them to dive in and use social media as an organizational asset rather than a liability. Whether it’s front line staff promoting initiatives in their department or c-suite executives developing thought leadership, employee advocacy on social media is one way for cities to unlock the growing power of online influencers

III. BRINGING EMPLOYEE ADVOCACY TO WATERLOO

As with many public sector organizations, the City of Waterloo treated social media cautiously in its first generation social media guidelines. Based solely in the communications department, there were only central corporate accounts run by trained professionals. Staff were encouraged to comment positively on city business when possible, but not to the point of it distracting from more important work.

In recognition of the growing importance and ubiquity of social media activity, however, in 2015 the guidelines were reformed to encourage the use of social for professional purposes (within established employee codes of conduct, of course). Whether through the relaxed regulations or the natural progression of employees’ social media activity, in the ensuing years we began to notice more staff engaging with corporate content and conversing with stakeholders through their personal accounts. This happened mostly with staff who ran open houses – members of the public knew who they were online, followed them and began asking questions about projects. In most cases the engagement was constructive, and when it wasn’t, staff referred people to attend open houses, send email or use other traditional feedback mechanisms. Without any coordination with communications, staff were already using social media as a professional tool, and doing a pretty good job of it.

Inspired by these examples (and the a-ha moment way back at the beginning of this piece) we put together a presentation for senior management on why an employee advocacy program would be a natural extension of staff’s growing use of digital communication tools and how it would be helpful to social media efforts at the corporate level. The problem was that except for the City of Las Vegas – not exactly a great comparator for a mid-size education city like Waterloo – we couldn’t find another municipality running an advocacy program. Nevertheless, we felt strongly enough about the potential benefits to forge ahead as one of the first Canadian cities to try it out. Senior management agreed to let us run the program on a pilot basis for 25 staff members, and asked that we report back after six months.

IV. AS EXPECTED, WE GOT SURPRISING RESULTS

After finding a software partner that would allow us to trial their product for an extended period (the helpful people at Bambu, it turned out), we set about recruiting staff to participate in the program. With only 25 seats and over 600 staff to recruit from, we shoulder-tapped a small group we knew would be interested and extended an open invite to anyone else, provided they had approval from their manager. We estimated participation in the program would take 15 to 20 minutes per week, alleviating concerns it would take up too much staff time. The mechanics of the software help as well – once you connect personal social media accounts to the tool, you don’t have to go into the distracting world of Twitter or Facebook to post something. It all happens within Bambu, which is available through the web or a mobile app.

Having no idea who would volunteer, we managed to attract a diverse group to the pilot program. Commissioners, directors, planners, designers, firefighters and front-line workers were among the ranks. All had a basic understanding of at least one social channel (Bambu supports Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn) and were up and running after one orientation session. The most pressing questions from the group surrounded suggested messages provided by communications: should they simply share stories with canned messaging attached, or write their own? It depends on your goals within the program, we explained. If you’re going for a unique profile on social, creating your messages in your own voice is ideal. But if you’re happy just being more engaged in good news stories about the corporation, sharing the suggested messages is fine, too.

With that, we were up and running in late 2016. One thing we quickly learned is that an advocacy program is at the whims of project and news cycles. If you hit a lull in between major city projects, there can be a shortage of earned media to feed into the program. You can work around this by promoting owned media – news articles or blog posts on your city website, for example – but the system works best when you have a mix of third party sources and your own material.

Since we launched in advance of the holiday season, things got off to a slow start, but as with any city, before long things got interesting in Waterloo. First the mayor and city staff visited an eight-year-old girl who wanted the city to let her keep a pony in her backyard. More recently, Waterloo gained national attention for plans to recycle dog poop. Both stories were shared by nearly all active members of the program and earned thousands of impressions and engagements.

On a more serious note, the program has also helped to drive engagement at our open houses, spread important customer service updates and encourage participation in community programs. While we are still working to improve how we track web traffic generated by the program, the raw data is startling: during the pilot phase, stories shared by employees earned over 60,000 impressions and generated 3,000 link clicks (not all pointed back to our website, but many did). Do the math, and it works out to a five percent click through rate – a 10-fold increase over what we would expect from corporate channels. In a world of ever-increasing competition for users’ attention, the advocacy program was proving to be remarkably efficient in driving website click-throughs, one of the most difficult user actions to acquire. And because we sometimes run social media ads, we know the cost of acquiring clicks through paid advertising. At $1.15 per click on average, this meant the program had generated almost $3,500 in value.

V. THE FUTURE OF ADVOCACY IN WATERLOO & BEYOND

With the success of our pilot, city management recently approved an expansion to the advocacy program that will see us double our membership and funds the program into 2018 (the only monetary cost is a modest amount for software). In addition to a waitlist that formed during the pilot, we plan to extend invitations to more issue-area experts and our elected officials.

As in the previous phase, we really have no idea what to expect. Though participants to date report a 95 percent satisfaction rate, some in the pilot didn’t share stories all that often or check the software for new content. Others, however, have taken the advocate identity to heart and run with the program in surprising ways, even with very little previous social media experience. What we do know is that as staff skill sets continue to evolve and social media becomes more prevalent in the workplace, the need to harness its power will grow even stronger. Municipalities are full of talented would-be influencers that could become even more important to your organization as part of an employee advocacy program.