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What We’ve Learned: Three Years of Answering Questions on Social Media

USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov have been engaging with the public on social media long before Mayor Cory Booker underscored the need at this year’s SXSW.

In January 2010, we began to respond to questions and comments on our Facebook and Twitter accounts. We never advertised the service, but people naturally had questions for the government and we answered — to the tune of more than 300 questions in 2010. Not long after we started answering questions, it became clear that our two-person pilot program wasn’t robust enough to keep up with demand, so we instituted a more formal, but flexible system. We recruited other people in our office who had a knowledge of government programs and a willingness to help monitor social media accounts and assigned each person a day of the week. On his or her day, the team member checks our social media accounts, moderates comments, and responds to questions. The team meets occasionally to discuss difficult questions, new resources, and changes to social media platforms. Since launch, we’ve answered more than 3,000 questions in both English and Spanish and the team has grown to 7 people. In 2013, we spent half as much time per question as in 2010 by regularly reviewing our system and making changes to increase efficiency and accuracy. I can report these stats because we track engagement responsiveness metrics. We use a Google Form to record every question, the team member who answered it, the channel, and how long it took. This allows us to identify questions for the cheat sheet and show ROI to management. We’ve learned other important lessons over the years, such as:

  • Keep a cheat sheet of the most frequent questions and the answers. This will ensure continuity among the team and save time.
  • Know when to ask for help. Ask the team if you’ve spent more than 5 minutes looking for an answer. More heads are always better than one.
  • Keep your social media guidelines up-to-date and train your team. Our editorial guidelines (PDF) discuss important points like voice and tone to keep answers consistent.
  • Adjust based on metrics. Collect metrics that can help you improve.

Do you engage with the public on social media? If so, what have you learned?

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