State DOTs get creative with social media

By Robbie Webber

Although social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others have been around for years, state DOTs have mostly used these platforms to put out information about traffic delays, road construction, and to tout new infrastructure with impressive photos. However, some DOTs are being more creative by using cultural references, humor, emojis, and graphics. They also are sharing content from national partners and organizations.

A recent Socrata article profiles several DOTs using Twitter innovatively to engage the public and gives advice on successful social media use, and a recent AASHTO report delves into how DOTs are using social media, blogs, and other online tools to engage stakeholders and get out their message. The AASHTO report also notes that the number of agencies with staff devoted full-time to social media has grown. According to the AASHTO survey, states have an average of 15 people working on communications, and two-thirds have staff dedicated solely to social media.

The four takeaways that every DOT can start using to engage on day-to-day issues, as determined by the Socrata piece:

  1. Use images, GIFs, and video to tell a story (or news) beyond character limits.
  2. Add humor or cultural references where appropriate—everyone could use a laugh when sitting in rush hour traffic.
  3. Include hashtags about a specific incident to ensure your official communications are part of the broader conversation.
  4. Reply to people who ask questions like you would if they reached out through other customer service channels—this helps build trust and rapport.

Washington State DOT (@WSDOT) has taken these lessons to heart. They regularly use a variety of tools to engage their audience and deliver their message. Many DOTs want to remind drivers to drive cautiously, but WSDOT uses humorous GIFs to remind drivers to be safe on icy and congested roads. They also showed photos of peregrine falcons nesting on a WSDOT bridge, linked to an online open house to solicit comments, and featured a sea lion who was visiting a construction site at a ferry dock.

In order to broaden the ways in which it communicates with the public, Nebraska DOT has hired a backpack journalist—someone who not only writes and reports content, but also shoots and edits video and photographs. The department has emphasized creating its own content that can be shared across a variety of platforms. NDOT has also been engaging the public by running contests to create safety messages. Their Twitter feed makes liberal use of GIFs and memes to grab attention.

The AASHTO survey also looked at whether DOTs used Twitter and other social media as a one-way platform—sending out information without responding—or if they also answered questions and concerns posted by readers. While 83 percent of states will answer direct questions, a slightly smaller 75 percent actively encourage engagement. The survey also found that only a third of DOTs monitor their social media feeds 24 hours a day; most only monitor the feed during business hours and when there are special circumstances such as extreme weather or traffic incidents.

Both the Socrata article and the AASHTO report emphasized that social media holds the potential of both targeting specific audiences and soliciting feedback and community engagement. While all state DOTs are now using social media, some are clearly investing more staff resources in making their feeds more than just a place to track road conditions and travel times.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.