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5 Lessons About Social Media Engagement From the Embassy of Canada’s Inauguration Tailgate Party

This post originally appeared at the Microsoft blog Publicyte and on Huffington Post DC, January 30, 2013.

Seems like forever, but President Obama’s second inauguration was just a week or so ago. I was fortunate enough to spend most of Inauguration Day at the Embassy of Canada. If you’re not that familiar with the layout of Washington, D.C., there aren’t that many private buildings to have an inauguration party near the Capitol or White House or along the parade route. There are a few hotels, the Newseum, the Canadian Embassy, and a few residential apartment buildings. That’s it. Otherwise you’re on foot, in the cold, where there’s not a lot of food and drink to be had.

In true Canadian style, the embassy threw a tailgate party for about 1,000 guests. It was terrific fun. But they didn’t just engage their audience at the party in the real world; they also had a small team of people engaging the attendees and people who weren’t even there in the virtual world. Here are the five secrets to their success.

Step One: Throw a remarkable event to get the right people to engage with you in the first place.

In the planning stages, it’s possible to get so wrapped up in debates about decisions like “what software will we use to display hashtagged tweets with” that not enough attention is paid to real-life aspects of an event to make the overall engagement remarkable (in the Seth Godin sense of the word). That wasn’t a problem at the Canadian Embassy tailgate party. There were friendly staff, quick check-ins, free mittens, hot coffee and cider, hot dogs and hamburgers and pastries and soup, Crown Royal and Molson and wine and soda, Mounties posing for photos, heat lamps, Blackberry giveaways, special messages from Ambassador Gary Doer, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, astronaut Chris Hadfield (the first Canadian to walk in space) videoconferencing from the International Space Station, and more. It was simply an outstanding party, the right kinds of people showed up, and wanted to stay all day.

Step Two: Create and utilize a memorable hashtag that lives beyond the initial event.

When I produce charity fashion shows for Microsoft and Bloomingdale’s, we use the hashtag #Geek2Chic. It’s short, it’s catchy, and it is not strictly tied to a certain day, location, or even event. It has a meaning beyond the Geek 2 Chic event proper. Likewise, the Embassy of Canada used the hashtag #ViewFrom501 to conjure up feelings about watching the inauguration, and especially the parade, from their building (the address of the Embassy of Canada is 501 Pennsylvania Ave., about five blocks from the Capitol and 11 from the White House). “View from 501″ is elegant, easy to remember, in the active voice, and can be used for pretty much any future event at the embassy. When somewhat forgettable embassy events in a capitol city are a dime a dozen, the Canadian Embassy is in a position to launch “View from 501 Hockey Happy Hours,” or any similar such thing and have the idea stick in people’s heads.

Step Three: Use a dedicated staff to curate and deploy social media from official and audience sources.

Staff at the Canadian Embassy left little to chance with social media, leveraging their existing Connect 2 Canada (”Canada’s network in the United States”) team to watch what people at their event were tweeting, find the best remarks and photos, and then curate that into a stream that was not only online but also on a very large screen set up at the tailgate. This didn’t surprise me — I wrote about C2C using social media for “public diplomacy” in an Oct. 2009 article for Washington Life — but it’s great to see them implementing better than ever. Attendees could watch CNN coverage with sound on one jumbotron, and simultaneously look at people’s quips and pictures on another one, adding an entire other dimension to the event. To my eye, the C2C team seemed to choose a lot of tweets with photos, which made the content more visually appealing. At one point, CNN began showing viewers’ Instagrams taken from the National Mall and tagged with #CNN next to the C2C-curated tweets. It all got very meta. Particularly on a day when phone and wi-fi connectivity was sometimes hard to come by, embassy staff using old-fashioned computers and large screens for this work was a very wise choice.

Having a decent hashtag and tweets displayed in near real-time on a screen is not unprecedented, of course. However, diplomats don’t necessarily have a reputation as adventurous technology and social media users, either. I reached out to the embassy to get a sense of what their social media strategy was at the tailgate event. Alexandra Vachon White, the Canadian Embassy’s deputy spokesperson related by email, “As the Embassy offers a unique vantage point to Inauguration festivities, we thought social media would be a great vehicle to provide access to our C2C followers on Twitter and Facebook who were not in attendance. Secondly, the screen featured at the tailgate party provided a vehicle for attendees to share their experiences in real-time. We also thought it was a great way to encourage guests to take full advantage of the activities and offerings of the event.” To briefly summarize that: Engage in-person attendees, share valuable information, and spread the story to a wider audience.

Step Four: Identify and interact with influential people engaged with the event

The tailgating party had a “main event” on the ground floor and in the expansive courtyard, and then a smaller VIP event hosted by Amb. Doer on a high floor of the embassy. Both portions had people of note walking around and enjoying themselves. Not only did the C2C team curate a lot of content from “average people,” but they also had some more specific goals in mind. It was not lost on them that numerous media reporters and editors were invited to the event. Thus, when they noticed tweets from, for example, Steve Chenevey of ABC 7, Brian Bolter of FOX 5, and Garrett Graff of Washingtonian magazine, they retweeted them, interacted with these relatively influential people, and amplified the fact that they had “VIPs” at the party to a wider audience paying attention from elsewhere.

I had drinks with public affairs officer Alexi Drucker, a longtime member of the C2C team, after the event. I asked her how they kept track of the most pertinent information in real time during what must have been a hectic day for the embassy staff. She told me, “In advance of the event, we identified Twitter handles for all confirmed partners, guests and participating media and actively followed their tweets throughout the day. The feed displayed on the screen in the courtyard was curated to showcase a diverse range of content from a variety of sources. We aimed for a healthy mix of images, Canada-U.S. trivia and guest feedback.” Most interesting to me was what must have been a lot of preparatory work prior to the event — Studying attendee and vendor lists, searching for, confirming, and saving people’s public social media accounts, using software to track social sharing, and then using that knowledge to execute a plan in real-time during a six-hour window. No doubt, the work in the week or two before the event saved a lot of time on the day off and removed some of the ambiguity and confusion that social media can contribute to.

Step Five: Promote the brands of your partners and friends in a fun way

Go figure: A lot of the food and drink at the tailgate party was Canadian in origin. But if you’re not Canadian, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about the history of various companies — perhaps how they’ve made inroads into the United States (most people at the party were American). After all, a primary goal of embassy outreach is to inform the locals about their country back home. So, we were treated to bits of info about Blackberry (Research in Motion’s CEO was apparently in attendance; I didn’t meet him), TD Bank (I think there’s a TD Bank pen in my swag bag, too), Molson (and I can neither confirm nor deny that I had two to three delicious Molson beers at the party), and Tim Horton’s, the beloved donut maker (who also provided warm coffee for attendees). This style of content + “advertising” makes both the main communications team (”stay on message”) and the sponsors (”thanks for the shoutout!”) happy, without being annoying to the audience that, let’s face it, mainly came to the event to stuff their faces with free poutine.

Cross-posted from Publicyte, a blog about technology, entrepreneurship and culture impacting the public good.

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The Social Media Political Campaign

Recently, a local government employee in California declared his run for the U.S. House of Representatives – on Twitter. In full-blown ‘Government 2.0′ style, he appears to be communicating his message in a very personal manner, largely through new media technologies. Will that be enough to carry him to Congress?

New Media Elects a President

The world has seen a U.S. President campaign partly by grassroots organization via new media channels, and now everybody wants to learn. In the nation’s capital, consultants, lobbyists, and people closely associated with political parties want to know about things like organizing a tweet-up about pending immigration legislation in a specific zip code on the Mexican border. It will be very interesting to see who the winners and losers are – both by the judgement of voters and that of social media gurus – during the 2010 Congressional election season.

But what about the reverse? Too much emphasis is placed, perhaps, on traditional political consultants learning about new media tools and incorporating them into a traditional campaign. What if an avid new media user with some political chops used his social network for a major political run?

Adriel Hampton for Congress

A little over a week ago, Adriel Hampton declared his candidacy for what will probably be a special election for an abandoned seat (CA-10) in the U.S. House of Representatives.  An employee of the city of San Francisco and a former Chronicle newspaper editor, he seems to be personally interested in his local community. Speaking about social software on his website, Hampton said: ‘I want to use these new tools to join [Obama] in Washington, D.C., to transform a government that has become strangely disconnected from the everyday realities of people in District 10.’

His campaign Twitter account accumulated about 600 followers in its first day, and he has also started a podcast
, among using other new media tools.  And the novelty of the campaign (and probably the candidate) sparked mainstream news coverage, even in national political publication Politico.

Count the Metrics

It’s hard to quantify the impact of a candidate’s performance during a press conference, or the effects of a new policy proposal made in a speech. But new media ’success’ is increasingly based on metrics. And early metrics for the campaign fall a little flat. After an initial one-day 600 follower boost, the @Adriel4Campaign account flatlined. And since declaring his candidacy (and asking for $100 from each of his followers, many of whom do not live in his Congressional district), his personal account has also flatlined.

Not to be Twitter-centric, while it is way too early to judge interest in and traffic to his campaign website, custonm Ning social network, podcast, and so forth, mainstream media coverage also evaporated after about two days, and it wasn’t even all positive. This SFist article reports Hampton’s tweets as ‘meth-like’ – not a terrific quality for someone campaigning to hold the public trust.

What’s the Verdict?

When long-shot Barack Obama started his campaign for President, few people were betting on him to win. So it is far too early to truly judge Adriel Hampton’s campaign for Congress. Nevertheless, it is clear that it takes more than merely utilizing new media tools to make things happen. And using them improperly – particularly if the candidate’s words are search-engine optimized - may end up being worse than goofing a question at a press conference, or performing poorly at a debate shown only on a local television channel.

Candidates need platforms, personalities, financing, timing, and luck to pull off a successful run. In the end, a campaign is a campaign, and new media tools are just that – tools. They can in principle helpful for executing a campaign against a candidate’s core strengths and beliefs. But they more than likely cannot be used successfully in isolation.

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Government 2.0: The Rise of the Goverati

This post was originally published on ReadWriteWeb (now ReadWrite) on February 4, 2009, shortly after President Obama took office. It was important because it defined a group of people (i.e., the “goverati”) inside and outside government making IT, social media, and other reform and innovation happen.

Everyone knows how well Barack Obama’s presidential campaign made use of new media to raise money and market the candidate. We also know how big a role social technology played during inauguration week, from handheld flip HD footage appearing on network TV to people reporting on Twitter about what they liked and disliked. After President Obama took office, spirited debates proliferated in the blogosphere about whether or not whitehouse.gov is Web 2.0-enabled and what the role of President Obama’s CTO might be. But one striking trend has largely flown under the national radar: the rise of the goverati.

What is the goverati? It is made up of people with first-hand knowledge of how the government operates, who understand how to use social software to accomplish a variety of government missions, and who want to use that knowledge for the benefit of all.

The goverati includes not only government employees, but also people from think tanks, trade publications, and non-profits. And it includes high-profile thinkers outside of the government who have an interest in a more open, transparent, and efficient government; people such as Joe Trippi, Craig Newmark, and Tim O’Reilly. Using formal and informal social networks, the goverati is networking, sharing information, and changing how parts of the government interact with each other and with citizens.

About a week ago, President Obama issued a memo on this very topic. The memo, which affects all Executive Branch employees, has three main pillars: government should be more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. Social software will be part of an overall strategy to make this happen, spearheaded by the CTO, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the General Services Administration (GSA). The naming of a “New Media” czar, Macon Phillips, will no doubt push the process along and keep branches well informed.

There are many barriers to this kind of change, so many they would be overwhelming to list. But the changes that are happenening are being covered by the mainstream press, and they are being enacted mainly by — you guessed it — the goverati.

Case in point: webmasters. Numerous policies and customs restrict the government’s use of things like commercial websites to host video and cookies to track visitors. Insiders from across the government have written a number of white papers that explain the problems (without using jargon) and outline reasonable solutions (here’s one of those white papers).

Former CIO of the Department of Defense, Dr. Linton Wells II, often comments to me that battles in government are often won by the most persistent. And the goverati are certainly persistent. It knows that momentum and timing are on its side, and it is pressing its agenda on Washington.

But changing the government is not like changing Apple Computer. President Obama issuing a directive is not the same as Steve Jobs issuing one. It simply doesn’t work that way, for all kinds of reasons. To change government, you must be persistent, have a hook, and know when and how to leverage connections and power to “muscle” change. And there are usually competing factions, outside interests, political seasons, etc.; it’s a very delicate business.

But interestingly, just as the goverati is fighting for a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government, it is also leveraging the social tools it loves so much to become a body more powerful than the sum of its parts. The informal Government 2.0 social network GovLoop was developed by a DHS employee in his spare time; in a few months, it has surged to over 5000 members. Intelink, the intelligence community’s internal social network and information hub, is awash in blogs and other communication about the topic. Events are sprouting up everywhere, most notably non-profit ones planned by insiders and advertised primarily by word of mouth.

The Sunlight Foundation, which uses the power of the Internet to shine light on the interplay of money, lobbying, and government, is hosting an unconference in late February called Transparency Camp, in which open-government advocates from all walks of life (tech, policy, non-profit, etc.) can talk across organizational and party lines in a casual atmosphere about new strategies for goverment transparency. It is sold out. This is exactly the kind of event you can expect the goverati in Washington and elsewhere to be holding in the next year as we transform President Obama’s memo into a reality within government.

Closer to home, three partners and I have recently established the Government 2.0 Club, modeled on Social Media Club. Government 2.0 Club will bring together thought leaders in government, academia, and industry from across the country to explore how social media and Web 2.0 technologies can create a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government. Local “Clubs” will hopefully also sprout up to discuss issues specific to them. And the first Government 2.0 Camp is happening in Washingston in late March.

The excitement over new social technologies has not abated in Washington. Change is indeed on the way. The intriguing part is the mechanism by which it is happening. By using these social tools to network and share information among themselves, the goverati is helping to spread the use of these very tools throughout the government.

Dr. Mark Drapeau is a biological scientist, government consultant, and author. He has a B.S. and Ph.D. in animal behavior, conducted postdoctoral research on complex genomic and neural systems, and has published writing in Science, Nature, Genome Research, American Scientist, the New York Times, the Washington Times, and other venues.

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