The Power of Trust in Social Media Outreach

By M. André Primus

Anyone reading this blog probably knows that Highland Planning specializes in public engagement. As the resident “tech nerd,” I end up managing a lot of Facebook events for public meetings. Some events become lively discussion boards before and after the meeting, giving the public opportunities to engage with the project. Some events are seen by thousands of people, leading to great attendance by informed and engaged members of the public. Other events languish on Facebook’s servers, unseen and ill-attended. The difference between the two is pretty simple: trust.

An average user spends 50 minutes out of each day on Facebook platforms, viewing hundreds of posts in that time. Facebook has a tool, called “boosting a post” that will allow you to ensure that many people in your project area see your event. A boosted post, however, comes as an advertisement from Facebook itself, not from a trusted source. While boosting posts is a good step to ensure your event is seen by a wide range of Facebook users, to optimize your reach you should be sure your event appears to users from one of the following three trusted sources:.

1. Pages the user “Liked.”
Research what pages are most “liked” in your project area. Government agencies, chambers of commerce, neighborhood/merchants associations, and local news agencies are good choices that often have a few thousand likes each. Seeing an event shared or even hosted by a page the user specifically chose to follow increases their trust in your event as worth their time. Be sure to plan who will moderate and respond to comments on the post. It’s best to assign someone who can post as the page in question, since they will get notifications about any new comments. If this is not possible, someone from the project team will have to be assigned to check in on each post periodically.

2. Groups the user has joined.
With a little Facebook searching, you can find groups for specific neighborhoods, regional special interest groups, and groups specifically for sharing events. Generally, membership to these Facebook groups is restricted, requiring approval from someone already in the group, or from a group administrator. These restrictions mean posts from these groups have a higher trust for users. In order to post, you can ether request to be added to the group yourself, or find someone on the project team, or a stakeholder group like a steering committee, who already has membership in the group. As before you should have a plan in place for moderation, keeping in mind who can access which posts.

2. Personal friends.
Nothing in social media (or in life) is more powerful than a personal recommendation. If you want your event to be successful, you need a plan to get individuals to share the event. Stakeholder groups like steering committees are essential, as they are generally made up of community leaders. Asking them to invite all (or close to all) of their Facebook friends, and to post it to their personal feeds, is the single most effective step you can take in promoting your event. Instructing them to pick two influential people who are not on the committee and asking them to personally invite all of their friends will multiply your reach even further.

Social media is complex.
It’s tempting to assume that putting up posters and making a Facebook event is all you need,  and that once it’s on social media, your work is done. However, social media is made of people, and is as complex as a middle-school cafeteria, or a political party, or any other human group. With platforms powered by networks of people that value each other, having valued voices speaking for you is worth more than any advertisement. With these tips on how to capture those valued voices, I hope you are able to bring more of the voice of the public into your planning processes.

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