SOCIAL: Water tweetment?

Why, how, and which water utilities can benefit from social media

Social media provides water and wastewater utilities an opportunity to educate customers beyond traditional methods of communication and customer service. Before incorporating social media into an agency's communication strategy, it should consider three questions: Why is social media important to us? Which agencies are using it well? and how can we use social media most effectively?

Many utilities are only beginning to evaluate opportunities for social-media outreach, and with that comes challenges. “What networks should we use? How much time should we invest? What is it worth to our agency?” While one blog post can not address these concerns for all agencies, we can offer suggestions to help guide reasonable conversations within similar utilities. This framework is based on our own experience, customer-service data, and social-media relationships we have fostered since 2009.

“Why is social media important to us?”

When used effectively, social media can help agencies raise awareness of their work and benefits to regional health and safety, as well as serve as extensions of their customer-service departments.

First, realize that social media may not be right for your utility, or at least it may not be right now. But among the many reasons to consider taking the leap, here are three motivations we had.

  • It's personal. In the late 2000s,  we had several legal issues and new programs that needed to be faced head-on. Customers had questions and needed answers, and we wanted to be accessible in more places than just their bill envelopes or on our customer service phone line. Social media offered us that opportunity and helped us have a voice with our customers and concerned citizens.
  • It's popular. Well duh. Some say nearly 75 percent of Americans have some form of presence on the social web. According to a survey of our own service area in 2012, more than 30 percent of our customers considered social media as a primary news source. Rather than starting a new conversation and then waving our hands in the air trying to get attention, we stepped into the conversations customers were already having on social media, and we have found largely positive results.
  • It's piece of the puzzle. Keep in mind that social media should be only one component in a utility's communications strategy or strategic plan. It can't be the only venue; it should complement the resources and plans you already have in place.

“How can our agency use social media effectively?”

Launching a social media component of a comprehensive communication strategy can be a daunting task. Yet by understanding the commitment, creativity, and constancy required for successful social-media management, a utility can better evaluate its customers and opportunities to apply a proper strategy for meeting its outreach goals.

  • Be willing. I've had conversations with utilities who state they are apprehensive to jump into social. The reasons vary, so always start with understanding the customers' needs and whether social helps you either address those concerns or increase awareness of your work. Be willing and be honest about the service you provide and how it's received in your community.
  • Be prepared. Don't underestimate what's involved in managing social media effectively. Understand the investment of time and resources if you expect to be responsive and effective reaching your customers and earning their trust.
  • Be creative. In an agency responsible for wastewater treatment, potty humor comes easy. My point is that if you expect to be noticed in your customers' news feeds, in most cases you're going to have to go beyond talking about NPDES permit limits or phosphorus management. Important topics should be covered, of course, but draw your customers in. Make them interested. Humor can help.

“Which agencies are using it well?”

There are several water and wastewater utilities that can serve as social-media “role models,” based on their creative use of social platforms, as well as reliability and transparency during service disruptions. Even in recent months, we have found great examples of utilities reaching their customers and bringing attention to important infrastructure issues. How successful were they and what lessons can we learn from them?

Here are just a few, but there are many others worth following.

  • @DCwater has a responsive Twitter account and their General Manager George Hawkins even blogs on a regular basis. He'll cover inside-baseball stuff but shares stories that show customers how the agency's innovation is saving money and improving sustainability.
  • @SFwater embraces creativity and has raised awareness of capital projects by giving a voice to its own sewer system.
  • More locally, @AvonLakeWater faces a frozen-intake nightmare this past winter, but its Facebook and Twitter accounts kept customers informed and calm during the ordeal. Its Facebook following jumped by more than 1,000 followers in two days and their reviews were overwhelmingly 5-star.

John Gonzalez is the Communications Manager and Social Media Coordinator for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in Cleveland.  The Sewer District has been actively engaged in social media since 2009, building reliable followings on Twitter, Facebook, and our blog to share updates, answer questions, and promote often-overlooked aspects of clean-water work.

Comment Stream

3 years ago

Testimonial: In the 24 hours surrounding the frazil ice event, /AvonLakeWater FB likes went from 200 to 1700. Though we'll never know for sure, the immediacy (and ultimately, large reach) of the social media water-use conservation messages may have helped avert a crisis as much as the actual fix itself. Though we'd have been happy without it, a seminal event such as this is a very rare but powerful opportunity for customers to get to know you and what you can do for them.