Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Obama's Mastery of Social Media Can Teach Us

Michael Sebastian

Take a cue from the President and begin to incorporate social media into your Web site

change.govOn Inauguration Day Jan. 20, the Obama administration was not the first to adopt social media. The White House Web site under President George W. Bush features RSS feeds, podcasts and videos of press briefings.

However, Obama will become the first president to embrace the two-way communication that social media allows. During the month-and-half transition between Election Day and his inauguration, the president-elect launched the Web site,, to inform and engage Americans curious about the evolving Obama administration.

The site provides a variety of social media lessons for communicators—from novices to experts on Web 2.0—that they can adopt for their own Web sites and intranets. Here’s a closer look at those lessons, along with examples from corporate communicators who already use these social media tools.

Constant feedback

The Obama transition team asks for feedback throughout Visitors can share their thoughts in a number of ways—from blog comments to a general discussion forum. Visitors can even post comments on how to improve the site’s comment policy.

Officials from the transition team regularly present discussion questions that visitors then answer on the site. An Obama staffer responds to the many comments.

In December, the transition team kicked off the Q&A forum with this question: “What social causes and service organizations are you a part of that make a difference in your community?” It received 4,199 comments.

About one week later, transition staff member Dan McSwain followed with a blog post that attempted to sum up the responses. The post included a video response from Paul Schmitz, a member of the transition’s Innovation and Civil Society Team. In the nearly four-minute video message, Schmitz responds to several of the questions.

That blog post drew almost 800 comments.

openforAlong with this Q&A, the site includes a general forum where visitors can leave comments on any topic they wish. For instance, a forum thread in late December meandered through topics like the legalization of marijuana to concerns about cancer to the nature of online discussion forums.

Visitors can rate feedback throughout the site by clicking a thumbs up or thumbs down icon above each comment.

Tip: If you’re going to ask for comments, make sure you follow up with a response. For instance, when the Canadian province of British Columbia in 2007 pledged carbon neutrality by 2010, it asked employees for ideas to help reach the goal and provided several channels to give feedback. Communicators later developed feature stories about many of the employees’ ideas, which ran in print and on the province’s intranet.

The blog

A rotating banner atop is the site’s centerpiece. It features top stories from the transition team, for instance, the men and women recently named as members of Obama’s cabinet.

Just below that banner is the site’s untitled blog. Several transition staffers author this blog, which they update regularly, sometimes several times daily. Obama is not an author.

Tip: Passionate employees should blog. If neither your CEO nor your top executives will agree to blog, then recruit the communications department as bloggers. At Sony Electronics, the senior vice president of corporation communications authors the company’s blog. According to Andy Sernovitz, CEO of GasPedal and head of The Blog Council, employee bloggers should have a passion for the company, its products, and its customers. “I'd rather have a passionate blog from the janitor than a weak effort from a busy CEO,” Sernovitz told

Quick tips, compliments of

1. If you’re going to ask for comments on your Web site, make sure you follow up with a response.

2. Passionate employees should blog. If neither your CEO nor your top executives will agree to blog, then recruit the communications department as bloggers.

3. Steal the comment policy: stay focused, be respectful, tell the truth and no spam.

4. If your Web site remains unchanged for weeks or even months, consider incorporating a blog into the front page. Update the blog often.

5. Turn old media into new media.

6. Need help? Ask your audience.

Comments spice up content

The blog’s content is occasionally dull; posts lack the free-flowing, conversational tone of popular corporate blogs like Southwest’s blog, Nuts About Southwest. However, the hundreds of comments to most posts add color to the blog. The comments are spirited and informed, which is due not only to the commenters but the comment policy.

Just below the comment boxes for each blog post is a link to this policy. It features four major guidelines—stay focused, be respectful, tell the truth, and no spam—plus brief explanations for each one.

Tip: Steal this comment policy. Obama’s blog is a great example for organizations looking for a blog comment policy. The rules are succinct and protect against most forms of abuse.

Blog keeps Web site fresh

Beyond keeping readers informed and sparking conversation, the blog, which is featured on the site’s front page, serves an additional purpose. It gives site administrators an opportunity to update the home page when a new blog post is written. This will draw people to the site as often as the blog is updated.

Geoff Livingston, owner of PR shop Livingston Communications, follows this strategy. He incorporated his blog, The Buzz Bin, into the front page of his company’s Web site. Livingston, or an employee, updates the blog daily.

Tip: If your Web site remains unchanged for weeks or even months, consider incorporating a blog into the front page. Update the blog often. The Web site is no longer static, but an active and evolving destination on the Web.

Video: A new way to communicate

Every Saturday, Obama’s communication staff updates the blog with a video address from the president-elect. The video is also posted to YouTube. Visitors to the site can also listen to the address as an audio file in English or Spanish, or read the transcript, which is posted to the blog. This message is the same one Obama delivers as part of his weekly radio address.

The sitting president delivers a weekly radio address; the opposition party broadcasts a response. Since early November, Obama has given the weekly Democratic response. If Obama continues this practice in the White House, he will become the first commander-in-chief to give both a radio broadcast and online videocast of his address.

President Franklin Roosevelt first delivered weekly “fireside chats” on radio in 1933.

Tip: Turn old media into new media. At Mayo Clinic, for instance, Lee Aase, manager of social media, started offering the hospital’s weekly syndicated Medical Edge radio segments as podcasts on iTunes. When they premiered on iTunes in 2005, Medical Edge was among the site’s most downloaded podcasts. But keep in mind, you are creating an additional communication channel. Don’t replace old media; add new media.

Your Seat at the Table invites special interest groups to pitch the administration and the public on their plans. Groups can upload a pdf document to the site in a section called, “Your Seat at the Table.” Visitors can read these documents and leave comments. There are more than 40 pages in this section of the site.

For instance, one interest group, World Wildlife Federation (WWF), uploaded a two-page policy recommendation Dec. 17 on “marine conservation and immediate needs in the arctic.” The document is a pitch, tailored for the Obama administration, about why the new president must act on this specific area of the environment.

One week after WWF posted the document, 10 people had left mostly positive comments.

Tip: Need help? Ask your audience. Dell offers two forums for employees and customers to provide the company feedback—EmployeeStorm, on the Dell intranet, and IdeaStorm, on its external Web site. The company has enacted numerous ideas from employees and customers into the designs of its products.

No comments: