10 Twitter tips from early federal adopters

How to integrate the newest social media apps in large organizations

Having trouble convincing your boss that Twitter isn't a waste of time? Then you might find it interesting to learn that social media evangelists across the U.S. federal government are blasting out Tweets several times a day to their constituents. Here are their suggestions for how to integrate new media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Flickr into a large, old-fashioned bureaucracy:

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1. Identify a business problem you are trying to solve. Don't deploy social media tools just to appear cool.

"You really want to focus on the business problem you are trying to solve and the communities you need to engage to help you solve that problem," advises Lena Trudeau, program area director for the National Academy of Public Administration. "You need to make the value proposition clear, so the people who engage get something out of the process."

The Defense Information Systems Agency, for example, is using a commercial mash-up tool from JackBe to allow military commanders to create real-time feeds using information from many disparate sources, says DISA CTO Dave Mihelcic. The Web 2.0 software solves a real-world problem for military commanders. "If senior leaders and decision-makers can get a common visual depiction of a situation, it will be easier for them to synchronize their decisions," Mihelcic explains.

2. Get buy-in from management. Involve all of the key stakeholders: the people who have the information and those who control its distribution.

The General Services Administration's top management "has been very supportive" of the agency's social media efforts, says B. Leilani Martinez, bilingual content manager with GSA's www.gobiernousa.gov. "That has helped us a lot. Across government, the reaction from top management has been quite inconsistent. Certain government agencies block employees from using some of these tools. For me, I was on Facebook every day from work and on Twitter. GSA allowed us to think outside the box and to experiment."

Similarly, when the U.S. Strategic Command launched its SKY Web blog in 2005, it was the command's leader, General James Cartright, who pushed the idea forward, Mihelcic says. And it was Transportation Security Administration head Kip Hawley who encouraged the agency to create an internal Web 2.0 collaboration environment called The Idea Factory in 2007 and a public-facing Evolution of Security Blog in 2008.

3. Start small and grow your social media efforts gradually.

GSA has embraced social media sites one at a time over the last year. First the agency began its www.govgab.gov blog. Then it began using Twitter. Now it has a pilot project with Facebook. "For management, that has been quite a good strategy," Martinez says. "For certain people [social media] is a big surprise. But we've been preparing for it….People are more open to it than they were two years ago or even one year ago."

Similarly, NASA started using YouTube, then Facebook and now Twitter, says Robert Jacobs, Acting Assistant Administrator for NASA's Office of Public Affairs. "We stuck our toes in the water with YouTube," Jacobs says. "Then we created some sites [on Facebook]. When Twitter came up, it seemed like a good place for us to create a conversation."

4. Keep it simple.

Don't try to add too many social media tools all at once, advises Chris Rasmussen, an intelligence official responsible for Intellipedia, a wiki used by the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and the military. Rasmussen says the intelligence community has too many Web 2.0 tools, including blogging, social bookmarking, video sharing, photo sharing, document storage, desktop conferencing, chat and a Facebook-type application. The problem, he says, is that analysts are using these tools and then doing their work over again using more traditional methods. "Take two things, and focus on the two," he advises.

5. Make sure the data you make available on social media applications is relevant.

Don't put data out there for data's sake, recommends Adelaide O'Brien, research manager for IDC's Government Insights. Provide data to citizens that they can "use to solve their own problems, become better educated and let them comment back."

You also need to understand the quality of the data being shared on internal social media applications. "We do need to understand the pedigree of certain information sources," DISA's Mihelcic says. "If we're going to make a decision of the deployment of U.S. forces, we need to know what that information is based on and that it has a reasonable pedigree. That it's authoritative. How do we indicate a piece of information is known to be true? How do we differentiate it from all the other information that's out there? One of the ways we're looking to do that is with a ranking system."

6. Set aside enough resources for social media efforts. These channels require ongoing monitoring and constant enhancement.

Intellipedia has more than 20 active moderators—dubbed gardeners—who watch wiki changes, clean up errors and keep conversations focused on the topic. NASA has a staff of 10 public affairs officials contributing to its main Twitter stream. TSA has five bloggers for its Evolution of Security Blog.

Another resource issue: storage. "If you need to keep the data forever and you need to keep it accessible forever…the requirements for archival are going to grow," Mihelcic says, adding that he sees promise in cloud-based storage services for Web 2.0 information and interactions.

7. Set expectations on the frequency of your updates and how fast you can respond to questions and comments.

Be careful about the expectations you set with the public in terms of how often you are going to blog or how quickly you are going to respond to comments. "If you start a blog as a leader in government, and you accept comments, and people suggest things to do, the issue is: What are you going to do with that information?" Trudeau asks. "You're setting an expectation that you're going to take some action based on the suggestions you receive." It helps to integrate new media into employees' existing workflow. At NASA, for example, public affairs officials send out daily tweets in addition to publishing traditional press releases.

8. Don't be afraid to replace a legacy media process with a new social media process.

One of the biggest problems with social media tools is that they get added on top of employees' workloads without older processes being stopped. "People are afraid to turn something off," Rasmussen says. "The [Web 2.0] tools are great, but then they are actually kind of viewed as lesser than real work because my kids use them. They have funny names. Serious work is done in e-mail and proprietary databases." That's why intelligence analysts are writing the same reports twice: once on Intellipedia and again on a legacy agency-specific system. "The real challenge we face is that you have to turn something off. Something has to give, and we're not seeing that," Rasmussen says.

9. Establish metrics to measure whether your new media approaches are working.

Trudeau say most social networking applications follow the 90/1 rule, with 1% of the people accounting for the vast majority of contributions. Another 9% contribute occasionally, and the other 90% are only reading the exchanges. "The 90/1 rule is OK. If you have 43,000 users, and 1% are contributing ideas, that's still a lot of new ideas," Trudeau says.

Jacobs says the best measure of Twitter's effectiveness isn't the number of followers you have, but the degree to which information is re-tweeted and shared across the micro-blogging site.

10. Don't forget security.

"You need to focus on security up front," DISA's Mihelcic says. "If you're going to leverage a new media wiki, you need to upfront understand what are the risks that are implied by that deployment and how can you manage those risks." He says you need to understand the operating system, the disaster recovery requirements and the scaling requirements when considering security. Most of DOD's Web 2.0 applications run on internal networks – either unclassified or classified – that use PKI certificates to verify users. "We provide security mechanisms at the point of access through PKI authentication so the person who has attempted to access [the social media application] has to have the proper credentials," Mihelcic says.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.