State departments of transportation (DOTs) are getting savvier with their social media activity, using sites such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate with the public they serve, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
For the past three years, AASHTO has surveyed state DOTs on their social media activity. In that time, social media has become a standard method of communication with the public, says Lloyd Brown, AASHTO's director of communications. According to the 2012 survey results, 88 percent of the 41 states and District of Columbia that responded now use Twitter and 76 percent use Facebook.
Brown also has observed a significant change in how state DOTs use their social media presence. No longer do they use Facebook and Twitter accounts only for computer-automated status updates; instead, they've assigned staff members to personally post content and engage in dialogue with the public on those sites, he says.
"We used to be very rigid and formal in all our responses," one agency commented on the 2012 survey. "Now we're trying to humanize the feed. We post pictures of ourselves and answer the feed as people, instead of an agency."
State DOTs' communications officials tell him the public seems to appreciate their efforts, says Brown, whose professional interest in governments' use of social media began during his tenure as communications director at the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). While in Washington, Brown was recognized by AASHTO for his innovative efforts to develop and use social media strategies. He was named AASHTO's communications director in June 2010.
"I think the benefit to state DOTs for using social media is that, any time you can help someone who needs information find that information, they will feel better about your agency," Brown says. "The idea is that you're building your credibility one customer at a time."
State DOTs' social media activity shifts beyond 5-1-1
Many state DOTs' initial reason for using social media was to report news from their 5-1-1 systems, the Federal Communications Commission's designated three-digit phone number for travel information. Now, the state DOTs are using social media to share things like feature and human-interest stories on Facebook.
Thirty-two out of the 42 survey-responding DOTs said they have a Facebook account, up from 14 DOTs that had one in 2010, according to an AASHTO report on the social media survey. Half responded this year that they are changing their Facebook pages to make them more personable. Many also indicated they're using more photos and video on their pages to inform the public about department-associated special events.
Wrote one survey respondent: "We have been making an effort to keep the content fresh and to post more multimedia content. It does seem to have engaged more people."
While Facebook use is increasing, Twitter is the most used social media tool for state DOTs: 37 out of the 42 DOTs rely on Twitter to share information. About half of the 42 use Twitter differently in 2012 than they did in 2011, "with a stronger emphasis on personal messages that help build an online connection" with the people who follow their state DOT's Twitter account, according to the survey.
Also popular are online video services, which agencies indicated they use to communicate with their employees and the public. About 80 percent of the departments said they use YouTube, Vimeo or a similar service. "We've started using video to highlight all of the great things (DOT) is doing," wrote one department official.
Popularity of new social media sites such as Pinterest and Storify is increasing among state DOTs, while the use of certain older tools — podcasts and Linkedin, in particular — is fading, the AASHTO survey found. For example, 9.5 percent of DOTs are using Storify and 16.7 percent are using Pinterest in 2012, compared with 0 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, 21.4 percent are using Linkedin and 16.7 percent are using podcasts in 2012, compared with 50 percent and 23.6 percent, respectively, in 2011.
State DOTs' monitor social media effectiveness
In the future, state DOTs likely will expand efforts to measure how well their social media activity is reaching intended audiences and engaging them, Brown believes. As of 2012, about 70 percent of state DOTs are using analytics or other measurement tools to gauge social media effectiveness.
Brown also anticipates more agencies will use social media to generate public participation in community and corridor planning studies and projects. The Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) already has moved in that direction. This summer, IDOT staff used Twitter to help drive public involvement in the process to draft an environmental impact analysis for the proposed Chicago-to-Omaha passenger-rail planning study, says Amanda Martin, IDOT's freight and passenger policy coordinator.
IDOT was looking for as much feedback on the route alternatives as possible — without putting further strain on the department's tight budget. Martin and her colleagues developed a multi-approach communications strategy that included in-person and online public meetings, a website dedicated to the project, traditional media and Twitter. For example, whenever IDOT had information it had to get out to the public about the project and the environmental process, it sent out "tweets" to IDOT's 6,000 Twitter followers.
Martin believes those tweets helped generate as much attention, if not more, from the news media and the public than the traditional method of buying paid advertisements in local newspapers.
"It's hard to know how the news media get their information, but I think it helps when people see things on Twitter or Facebook,” she says.
Martin sees potential in expanding IDOT's use of social media to engage Iowans in initiatives such as the department’s passenger-rail planning study. Currently, the agency is drafting a departmental policy for how it will use Facebook once it launches a page.
"We are getting a lot more public responses than we would on a typical environmental impact statement," she says of the department's existing social media efforts. "Part of that could be because we're talking about passenger rail, which is more exciting for some people than the traditional highway project. But we've also never before used social media for a traditional environmental impact statement, so this was something new."
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