I work in digital communications. In the public sector. If there’s one obsession both disciplines share, it’s the quest for ‘engagement’.

It’s often said about digital engagement that ‘we’ (organisations) need to go where people go. What that actually means to me isn’t ‘the people use Facebook so we’ll use Facebook and build a page there’. It’s ‘let’s go to a Facebook page that people use and talk to them there’. There’s a difference.

Often when we think of social media we can forget what ‘social’ means in the real world. The ‘social’ rules offline are the same as those for online.

So this is my case for why I think we should behave online like we do at real life parties.

Asking the right questions

At a party, if you’re introduced to somebody you don’t ask them to please comment on the party or feedback on their life so far.

In What do you want from me? 7 alternatives to ‘Leave a comment’, over on the brilliant Helpful Technology website, @Lesteph makes a great case for why we should think harder about the questions we ask.

“Think back to your last digital engagement project … Chances are, you asked for a ‘comment’. Maybe a ‘reply’. ‘Feedback’, perhaps. …it’s worth being aware that they’re the language of the office … which may or may not suit the audiences and contexts you’re working in.”

Places like Facebook are incredibly social spaces for many. We need to tailor our language to the occasion.

And, one step before that, I think we should think about our manners.

It’s time we focused on what we give as much as what we get

I’ve been thinking lately about how organisations seem to want people to ‘Like’ them, retweet them and leave comments on their blogs and consultations without ever repaying the favour. How rude.

If you were asking a friend or acquaintance for a favour or some advice, you wouldn’t demand they travel to your house to hear your request. You’d probably go to their house or a place convenient for them to talk. If you were at a party making conversation with other guests, you wouldn’t expect every partygoer to talk exclusively about you and your life.

So if we’re moving toward a more networked society, where organisations don’t do paternalistic or broadcast communications, why are we arrogantly sitting back and waiting for people to come to talk to us, like Kanye West posing in a VIP area?

All good communication is two way – conversations have at least two voices, relationships allow for give and take, true engagement means talking about issues that matter to the people we serve not dominating conversations with what we want to talk about.

Recently I was lucky enough to see Emma Meese deliver a fantastic demonstration at Oi! – the online influence conference. Emma’s spot showed us how to find online content where customers are talking about our organizations. Emma ran through advanced Twitter and Google searches can be used to get real time information about whatever we want. Finding and participating in what people are saying and doing is a fundamental part of good digital engagement.

In my case – I work for a council – I want to find content that displays community life: I want to find what people are interested in and what communities are being formed. Maybe our organisation can help, maybe we can say well done to those making a difference, maybe I can share with other council officers what’s happening out there. Sometimes it’s critical but maybe we can leave a comment just explaining the reasons for why your organisation behaves as it does. More perspectives on an issue inform and enhance the debate.

For once in my career I’m arguing for inputs as well as outputs (and more)

When my role was about press relations I was always arguing the case that the number of press releases we sent out was barely linked to the quality of work we produced. Yes we sent 20 press releases but they might have been edited/rubbish/not printed/ inaccurate/resulted in bad press. It’s about outputs I’d say – the resulting coverage and sentiment.

Not so in the land of social media. I’m not so interested in outputs like impressions, reach and clicks. I want qualitative evidence to know that people care about what we do, where they live and that we are part of a collective effort to make life better in the county.

A good party isn’t about how many people turned up or even how good the food and booze is. It’s about the company, the quality of the conversation.

In digital engagement – if we are conscious of how many times we engage with our audience’s content compared to how much we ask them to engage with us we’ll be doing our jobs better and having a more fun party with fewer wallflowers.

The digital engagement etiquette

Commenting, ‘Liking’, retweeting and encouraging other people’s social content – that’s when we become part of a conversation. Not just waiting for everyone else to find us. Not talking about ourselves all the time like the party bore. And imagine if more than one of us from our organisations are doing it and we start to teach our colleagues how to comment, share, show appreciation, and be interested in other people’s online content too?

I reckon that would be pretty engaging. And far better than the usual ‘please leave a comment’ box.

Photo Credit: Daniel Morris