Reaching Policymakers: Can a Few Social Media Comments Really Trump Thousands of Emails?

In attempting to communicate with customers or policymakers, you have a number of options at your disposal.  That includes both analog and digital methods, and all the many subsets within each of those areas.  Along those lines, a recent article article on this subject, entitled Just a Handful of Social Media Comments Can Grab the Attention of Congress, Study Shows, caught our eye, if for no other reason than it made a strong claim for one widely popular communications method (social media) over a tried-and-true one (email).

Advocacy campaigns have relied heavily on email for more than two decades, but a recent survey shows that a handful of well-conceived comments on social media may be just as effective as thousands of emails.

In a poll of House and Senate offices by the Congressional Management Foundation, three quarters of senior staff said that between one and 30 comments on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were enough to grab their attention on an issue. Thirty-five percent said that fewer than 10 comments were enough.

The contrast is shocking between Twitter volume and email volume,” CMF President and CEO Brad Fitch said.

[…]

The survey, Fitch said, demonstrated that staffers see social media interactions as authentic communication. Because of the volume of messages, they did not see email in the same way. While email is still the dominant form of communication, 63 percent said they expected communications with constituents over social media to increase over that via email or phone calls in the next five to 10 years.

[…]

Because many staffers have grown up with the media, Fitch said they are adept at separating out constructive comments on Facebook and Twitter from the noise. Just as in email, the tone and level of influence a sender has will boost the likelihood of a message being heard.

In terms of preference for a social media platform, Fitch said that “Facebook is still king, and Twitter is crown prince.” Lawmakers particularly like when constituents interact with content their staff posts on Facebook. “They want you to have a conversation,” he said, “not change the subject.”

This is fascinating stuff, with potentially important implications for communications by the cleantech industry in its attempts to reach policymakers and, ultimately, influence government policy. If, for instance, social media really is trumping email in terms of impact, then it would certainly suggest that cleantech industries consider making significant investments into ramping up their social media activities (and perhaps downgrading their email campaigns).

Of course, it’s possible – as McKinsey & Company suggested recently – that the findings described above aren’t as clearcut as they might seem. To the contrary, acording to McKinsey:

E-mail remains a significantly more effective way to acquire customers than social media—nearly 40 times that of Facebook and Twitter combined (exhibit). That’s because 91 percent of all US consumers still use e-mail daily, and the rate at which e-mails prompt purchases is not only estimated to be at least three times that of social media, but the average order value is also 17 percent higher.

It’s also worth noting the findings of  corporate marketing expert Mark Schaefer, who explained in a Vocus webinar on “Overcoming Content Shock” that the internet is being flooded with content, making it increasingly difficult for users to keep up and for advertisers to get noticed. There’s also the challenge posed by “algorithms” used by Facebook and other social media platforms, which aim to filter out content the algorithm “thinks” you don’t want to see, and only let you see content the algorithm “thinks” you DO want to see. Add that to the list of challenges companies, NGOs, and other organizations face in reaching their intended audience via social media, and it can quickly leave you scratching your head.

Fortunately, as Schaefer explains, the challenges and obstacles of communicating in the digital age can be combatted in a variety of ways, although not completely overcome. For starters, Schaeffer advises us to think of content as “social currency,” in which people are more likely to consume content that makes them look “cool,” “smart,” and “more relevant in some way.” If the content does those things, then people will be more likely to share it with their friends. Another advantage to going this route is that when people share content with friends, it is more likely to both get through people’s increasingly stringent “filters” and to be viewed as credible.  Because, in the end, Schaefer argues that we buy and sell things from people we know and trust. This means that companies which succeed in being more “human,” more “trusted,” will be more likely to succeed, while those that don’t will be in a world of hurt.

It also could be the case that “millenials” tend to trust content shared by their friends, as opposed to anything perceived as “advertising,” If so, the implication is that reaching these people – including many young, Congressional staffers –  needs to include smart use of social media.  Social media potentially could used in addition to or even instead of email, particularly if the latter is perceived by these staffers as “advertising” or non-“authentic” in some way.

Clearly, there’s no simple answer to any of this, and it may be that a mix of methodologies – email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – will be needed, depending on specific circumstances.  However, no matter what means of communication you do decide to use, we would advise that you keep key concepts in mind at all times: authenticity (or at least perceived authenticity), creation of compelling narrative, production of content that is interesting and relevant to the target audience — including compelling infographics and other visual content, such as video; and developing/maintaining trust with customers through respectful, two-way communications. In the end, the world of social media is complex, vast, and rapidly changing. Which means that it’s important to stay on top of it, and potentially damaging to your goals if you don’t.

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