Today’s Buzz is by Jenny Kosek, Communications Strategist for City of West Allis, WIS — connect with her on LinkedIn or please, please interrupt her doomscrolling on Twitter with good government chatter.
What I’m Reading: One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
What I’m Listening to: The ominous tinkling of ornaments indicating my dog is poking around the Christmas tree where he shouldn’t be…
What I’m Cooking: Peruvian chicken
Despite all the changes wrought by 2020, one thing stays the same: prediction lists for the new year are coming in full force.
As a social media professional, I watch social media predictions closely. Social media arguably changes faster than any subset of the tech industry and staying ahead of trends is tough as platforms unleash new features and kill old ones seemingly on total whims. Still, it’s fascinating to see how audiences’ preferences modify with these shifts, and interesting to speculate about what might be on the horizon and how it impacts businesses. Of course, that’s the challenge for local governments – we’re not businesses, so many of these 2021 predictions lack context specific to our industry.
This year rocked social media managers with a never-ending onslaught of crisis communications challenges. It also challenged social media platforms with greater calls for moderation of harmful and false content. Industry leaders were called repeatedly to defend their practices while social media users were bombarded with misinformation and conflicting headlines. New networks emerged and old networks changed the way content is prioritized. What will all of it mean for local governments in 2021?
Here are my predications for what we’ll see in social media in 2021 in our world:
- The end of post and pray. Municipalities generally embrace the “post and pray” approach to social media content, plastering the same content across platforms and believing that their audience is everyone. This is a huge miss. Different audiences are embracing different platforms, and content that might resonate on one platform won’t necessarily reach eyes on another. In addition, if you’re not diving into your analytics and serving the demographics actually engaging with your content, you’re going to see less and less engagement and dismal ROI as networks change what content users are likely to see.
Municipal social media managers will have to focus more on tailoring content to platforms to connect with audiences in 2021 and need to understand usership of the platforms they are leveraging. Organizations who insist they want to reach “young people” by using Instagram often aren’t aware that the majority of Instagram users are between the ages of 25 – 34, and 34 isn’t exactly young people. Meanwhile, 44% of Twitter’s user base IS young people ages 18 -24. 65% of Facebook users are over age 35; the average age of a Facebook user is 40.5. 48.2% of Baby Boomers are active social media users, so assuming that older audiences aren’t on these platforms simply isn’t accurate. Less than 20% of Pinterest users are men, while 61% of Snapchat users are women. Instagram is used more by rural users than urban users, while Twitter has a larger base in urban areas than rural.
That’s just for starters. Add to this data pool any information specific to your community, like median resident age or gender breakdowns. In 2021, taking that focused approach will be the only way local gov social channels will cut through cluttered feeds to make sure their content is seen. Make a goal to dig into your own data and broader analytics from key platforms to discover who your audience really is and identify what content matters to them. Reassess if you’re on the right platforms and reaching the people you want to reach. If not, consider closing low-performing accounts so you can focus on the ones your audience is actually using.
- Less focus on Facebook. Facebook is slowly losing its juggernaut status, having lost over 2 million users in Q3 of this year alone. Exhaustive advertising, political discord, and triggering content continue to drive users away from the platform.
Loss of users aside, marketers and communicators have seen noticeable dips in their reach and engagement on Facebook in recent years, making it simply a less valuable tool in the outreach arsenal. Part of this is due to seemingly endless changes in the ominous Facebook algorithm. In 2020, Facebook made efforts to increase transparency on the platform and give users more control over their content. This essentially put in place a ranking system for the types of content users see – first, they’ll see content from those they regularly interact with; next, content prioritized by the type of media in the post (photos, video, etc); and finally, the popularity of the post.
Again, for those in the back: the popularity of the post.
With our hyper-local focus, most of our content cannot break through those popularity barriers to be prioritized in feeds. Even if we attempt to put ad spends behind our content, we struggle to break through, since even mentioning the word “government” can get your ad blocked for violating Facebook’s political ad guidelines (like when I tried to run a special ad this year recruiting a Finance Director for our “municipal government team” and the ad was blocked. I removed the phrase “municipal government,” and the ad was approved).
In short, we can’t win the algorithm game (and with little ad revenue coming from municipalities, Facebook certainly doesn’t care if we do), so it’s time to focus on other platforms. Devoting more time to platforms where you CAN reach audiences makes more sense and is a better use of time and resources as Facebook makes it increasingly difficult to actually get eyes on your content.
- The rise of partisan platforms. Partisan vitriol isn’t going away any time soon and will continue to divide audiences. In 2020, frustrated with perceived censorship on mainstream platforms, extreme conservatives began launching their own platforms, notably Parler, to connect with like-minded individuals. It wouldn’t be surprising for left-leaning social users to follow suit soon with platforms of their own.
This is a trend worth watching at the municipal level. Joining one platform or the other – even under the guise of simply claiming a username or listening without posting – causes the careful non-partisan line we walk to waiver. If our country’s political divisions continue to fester, these types of platforms may become stronger players in the social media landscape. Should they ever take the lead, we’ll have to have some serious conversations about how we fit into that new playing field in the social media game.
- Finally answering the Snapchat and TikTok conundrum. Due to the nature of its ephemeral content, retaining data from Snapchat is impossible. It cannot be archived for records retention purposes* unless manual screenshots are recorded and filed. Some municipalities are using it but admit to doing so in a gray area with their own records policies. Skip the gray area and refocus your efforts elsewhere. If you’re not snapping, consider this: Snapchat doesn’t even make the list of top social platforms worldwide, and in the U.S., averages only 46 million monthly users compared to 112 million monthly Instagram users. Focus on a great Instagram presence instead.
Meanwhile, the controversial TikTok continues to gain users, though only 9% of U.S. internet users have used it. That number soars amongst teenage users, 49% of whom have done so. While TikTok content isn’t ephemeral like Snapchat, at this time, third-party archiving tools do not offer the ability to archive content*, a big downside for potential local government users. Beyond that, while marketers are flocking to profit from the app’s popularity, TikTok is, for now, still user-driven. Those users are creating extremly creative, clever content and I propose we leave them to it. Let’s let the kids have TikTok awhile longer before we ruin it for them and let’s get really good at other platforms before adding more in the meantime. This leads us to…
- Refocusing on quality vs. quantity. As municipal social media managers gain a better understanding of their analytics, craft intentional content, and navigate emerging platforms, at the same time it’s okay to lessen your focus on social media in 2021 and refocus efforts to other engagement channels. If you post a bit less but devote more time to hosting virtual forums and holding actual conversations with residents, you’re still winning. Revisit direct mail, and try postcards or graphic mailers to promote community initiatives or events. As local media outlets have shuttered their doors and decreased their output in recent years, leverage e-newsletters or print newsletters to provide factual information and personal storytelling for citizens. When it’s safe, get out in your community and actually talk to your people. Do a pop-up city hall or make sure a city booth is at events. You may feel like you’re getting less reach this way than you would on social, but I promise you, you’ll get much more valuable interaction.
Like any forecast, all of this may prove wildly off base as 2021 gets underway but one thing will remain true: government communicators will continue to have to be agile, aware, and creative as we work harder and smarter to connect with residents. What do you think social media will throw our way in 2021? Connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn and let’s discuss. Have a healthy, happy 2021.
*After a few hours of research, I couldn’t find any platforms archiving this content. If you know of any, please reach out and let me know who does.