Twitter follow etiquette for councils

SimonGeneral14 Comments

We’ve been running @medway_council on Twitter for a few weeks now.

One thing that I’m still unsure about is how councils should use Twitter’s concept of “following” others.

People are choosing to follow @medway_council for their own reasons, and we are, of course, very happy that they have chosen to do so. But should @medway_council follow those people back? Should @medway_council follow other people who haven’t followed us?

On my personal Twitter account (@simonwakeman) I follow people that I’m interested in hearing from. I look at everyone that chooses to follow me and if their bio looks relevant to me (PR, marketing, UK-based, possibly public sector) I’ll follow them back.

However I can’t help feeling the situation is different for a council on Twitter. Looking around I can see different councils have adopted different strategies, and I can’t see a great deal of consensus about which is best.

Here are four different approaches for councils and their followers:

1) Autofollow

There are tools that allow you to automatically follow those that follow you on Twitter, including some that allow you to automatically message the new follower.

The advantage of this approach is that is it doesn’t require any time to review and process new followers – saving valuable officer time.

However I can’t help but feel autofollowing is fundamentally missing the point of a microblogging platform – where it’s all about people interacting with other people – even if some of those people are doing so under an organisational or institutional guise.

If a council autofollows (and it’s fairly obvious if it does because the follow back and message happens pretty much right away), what does that say about the organisation? It just feels impersonal to me and doesn’t seem to help create a network of value to the council.

So for me, autofollowing is a non-starter

2) Manual follow those that follow you

A better way would be to check out those that are choosing to follow you and see if they’re relevant to the network a council is trying to build through Twitter.

It might be that a council is seeking to build a local network, so location might be a criteria for following back, or it may have broader aspirations leading to a different set of criteria for whether it follows.

However while this may well be a manageable approach now, when the numbers of council-citizen interactions on Twitter aren’t huge.  But can this strategy work in the longer term as the numbers get much larger – is it feasible to manually review each follower?

3) Manual follow people that don’t follow you

Anyone that uses Twitter regularly will know that its power is in the intertwined networks of people that exist. The value of these are in allowing the Twitter user to discover new people who are quite likely to have shared interests and may become valuable new connections.

This is something I’ve definitely experienced, particularly in “meeting” new people in Medway and beyond who share professional interests with me. When I discover someone like this I often follow them, regardless of whether they’re following me.

But I’m less sure how this would apply to a council. I’m not entirely comfortable with the concept of a council going out to follow people that it’s not had any previous contact/interactions with on the Twitter platform. It strikes me as a bit intrusive and I can see residents being uncomfortable with this approach.

4) Don’t follow

One of the key things I keep banging on about with social media and public sector communications is that social media is inherently two-way – a conversation.

So it may seem a bit odd to advocate a strategy which appears on the surface as not enabling a conversation on Twitter between a council and other people on the service.

However councils can still listen and have conversations on Twitter without following other people. We use free tools to scan for all mentions of “@medway_council” (as well as other keywords) on Twitter.

My feeling is that if someone includes @medway_council in a Twitter message, they’re effectively initiating a conversation with the organisation, and so then it’s fine to message that person back. Indeed with scanning in this way it means we’re picking up conversations throughout Twitter, not just within the people that the council has (or hasn’t) chosen to follow.

But a real disadvantage with the way Twitter works right now is that conversation can only take place in Twitter’s public timeline. Direct messages can only be sent between people on Twitter who follow each other – which isn’t an option if a council has chosen to not follow.

At Medway we’re primarily using the “don’t follow” approach at the moment. But I’m really not sure if that’s the right way to go.

I’m convinced autofollow is a bad idea, but I feel like the jury’s still out on what works best. Plus I’m sure there are other approaches that may be worth exploring too.

What do you think? What other strategies are councils using on Twitter? As a resident, how would you feel about your council following you?

14 Comments on “Twitter follow etiquette for councils”

  1. We use option 1, purely because manually following back takes up too much time, so I believe we’re better off catching everyone rather than catching no one (even if some of those who we catch may not be local).

    From a Twitter user’s perspective, I’m immediately suspicious of any account that has loads of followers but does not follow back. Gives me the impression that they aren’t really listening (even if, in Medway’s case, they really are) and just broadcasting.

    1. thanks Stuart – a fair point re perception of loads of followers, but not following back – because of all the different approaches I think it’s worth linking to a page from your “twitter bio” that explains how the organisation approaches this, much as Jon suggests in the comments below.

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  3. Very interesting, it’s a perception thing I think — using Twitter as an organisation is very different to using it as an individual, and watching the timeline (even in a “continuous partial attention” way) is not an efficient way of finding the important information.

    So really the only benefit of following twitter users is to allow them to DM you — apart from helping people feel “listened to” who have the (unfounded and quite old fashioned) idea that social media sites can’t be asynchronous.

    I think it’s important for an org to set out “how it uses twitter” — as much in the bio on a profile page as possible, and in more depth on a twitter landing page linked to from there.

    A an aside, is DM-ing a good thing to encourage? Responses either have public value (and should be seen by all?) or are private and perhaps should be being dealt with by the appropriate officer rather than the person responsible for twitter?

    1. Jon – think the point about setting out what you do /don’t do is important – I’ll be adding a page to Medway’s set-up in due course to see how that works out.

      As for DM’ing – I think the use of it that we would make would be to exchange email (or phone) details to take a conversation off-twitter – much as we’ve done the same with Facebook before – so yes, I think conversations either need to be public or on another channel, but sometimes DMs can be a means to exchange contact details to achieve this.

  4. We are somewhere between options 3 and 4 I think.
    We follow individuals (as long as it’s not an obvious spam account) and other councils / public sector bodies. We don’t follow commercial organisations. We have so far adopted a similar approach to that which we have on our main website for linking in terms of organisations at least.
    I agree with Stuart that we want to be seen as listening and for Twitter to be a way to conversing with the council rather than merely just another channel for broadcasting our online output.
    I’m not sure how well that will pan out longer term as we’ve only been active for about a month. I’m also not sure what we will do during purdah for forthcoming election – something we’re talking about at the moment!
    Interesting post 🙂

    1. thanks Sarah – keep us posted with how it goes – there’s no set way to do this so we can all learn from each other’s experiences!

      and as for purdah, that’s another challenge for everything we do – and the rules defintiely don’t prescribe anythign specific about soc media! 🙂

  5. We are currently using the manual follow option. Like Sarah, we generally try to avoid following those who are using us for spamming purposes, but for the most part we will follow local businesses and people if they follow us first. We have also searched for users who follow relevant Twitizens (such as local charities), and in following them have given the opportunity to follow us if they so desire. I don’t feel that this necessarily infringes upon anyone’s privacy, they can of course block us if they see fit. We have written a beginners’ guide to Twitter, and have explained what we are using Twitter for.

    But this is certainly an interesting topic, and I’m liking the almost unspoken consensus of council etiquette on Twitter that seems to be emerging as we all cautiously check to see how other councils are behaving!

    1. Hi Russell – thanks for the comment – interesting to hear that you’ve not had any negative feedback from the council seeking out and following relevant people/orgs. Maybe again it’s about expectations – if you set out why you’re following, there won’t be any suggestions re privacy etc.

  6. Neil Williams did an interesting post on how this same issue is a challenge for those of us in central government too :

    and my personal view – I use the Medway twitter channel to find out stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise been aware of – so far it has been really useful – including pointing me to a free day out last Saturday when it mentioned Kents Big Day Out. I dont expect the council to follow me back – if I need to contact them, there are loads of other ways.

    1. Julia -thanks for commenting and glad you’re finding Medway’s twitter useful! I’ll check out Neil’s post – thanks for the link.

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