I’m a little skeptical about the idea of the federal government using Twitter and Facebook to reach out to citizens. Not because it’s a bad idea. Just because I find it weird. Being one of those early Facebook adopters who joined in college, when it was mostly drunken pictures of frat parties and whatnot, I’m still awestruck by its widespread use as a marketing tool and means of communication today.
In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s VP of global communication, indicated that with the right messages, the government can encourage even the most wary citizens to at least accept government agencies online, which then helps spread messages virally through Facebook’s news feeds and other tools. The challenge is getting people to act. Schrage said:
“I don’t think the United States has a particularly strong track record of doing that successfully. But I would say, based on my conversations with people in the new administration, they have a sensitivity to these issues and to [social media] as a priority like no other administration has had certainly since the dawn of the Internet era. So you’re going to see much more innovation, much more creativity. We have not yet designed the Internet equivalent, or the social networking equivalent, of Voice of America [the official radio and television broadcasting service of the U.S. government]. Voice of America was, for its time, an incredibly powerful tool. Incredibly powerful. But we have not yet come up with the tools and techniques for the social networking era that engage people in a way that the Voice of America really couldn’t, because it was constrained by being a one-way media.”
He’s right. But with some innovation on the part of the nation’s best marketing minds, Facebook and other social networking tools could really be used to engage Americans beyond simply getting out the vote. I’ve seen it happen for other causes. Be Hope to Her, a national campaign to raise awareness of the poor quality of water in Africa, was held at dozens of college campuses on the same day last month, and it was largely organized by volunteer groups that networked through Facebook. And that’s just one example. Young people, in particular, have become adept at reaching out to others via Facebook, in a way that the government and other entities haven’t yet mastered. Perhaps they should consider hiring some of those students once they graduate.
It seems it was just a while ago that blogs — both official and unofficial — were the hot new thing. Without a doubt, blogs are a great way for companies to build buzz and tracking unofficial blogs can help marketers find out what customers are saying about a brand, both good and bad. The general consensus was that how and when marketers should respond to those messages varies, depending on what it says and how many people are reading it.
Another way to build buzz that’s I’ve heard a lot about lately is Twitter. But until today, I had never been to Twitter. The whole concept was just weird to me, and I didn’t understand the appeal. Why would I want to provide constant updates on my daily thoughts and activities in 140 characters or less? Why would anyone want to read them (except perhaps to cure insomnia)? And whatever happened to good ol’ conversation? I find telephone conversations to be impersonal and awkward, so additional ways to communicate online — while sometimes necessary and useful — often seem unnecessary to me.
Nevertheless, I decided to sign up for Twitter as a way to enhance my own understanding of the site and face my fear of online communication. And it was enlightening. Mind you, I’m still not sure why federal lawmakers were doing it during President Obama’s big speech a few weeks ago and I still don’t think anyone cares what I’m doing, but I can definitely see why it would be useful for marketers. I searched Jones Soda just to see what a marketer for the company might find, and Twitter listed dozens of comments about favorite flavors, usage situations and stores that sell the company’s products. For TCBY, most of the messages focused on what prompted users to indulge in the frozen treat.
But Sobe Lifewater — the third and final product I searched for during my initial exploratory visit — showed how a company can actively use Twitter to reach out to consumer and generate word-of-mouth buzz. I was inspired to search for it because I tried one of the brand’s new zero-calorie flavors the other day, and I really enjoyed it. And apparently the company is using Twitter to track reactions from other consumers like me. Using the username sobeworld, the brand responded directly to almost every customer who mentioned the new product today, offering two-for-one coupons to everyone and apologies to those who didn’t like the flavor they tried. It’s a great way to reach out to customers, boost the company’s image and improve customer service. And I was able to access the coupon link, too, so maybe I’ll “tweet” again.