What Leaf Pickup Can Teach You About Social Media – Q+M

What Leaf Pickup Can Teach You About Social Media

Q+M has been working with public agencies for over a decade.  Our recent work has us creating Marketing Plans, campaigns and brands for cities like the City of Ferndale, MI.

In this post, Q+M interviews Kara Sokol, Communications Manager for the City of Ferndale.

The City of Ferndale maintains an extremely active social media presence and has found a lot of success communicating with residents using this channel.

How does she do it? Here are Kara’s words of wisdom for other cities who want to improve their social media communication.

When it comes to effective social media communication and cities, what lessons have you learned?

My biggest takeaway: be a person first and an organization second.

Your audience can get their information from a lot of sources; they follow your social media pages to connect with and learn from your people.

For example, if we’re promoting an event, rather than just sharing the who/what/where/when details, I try to find elements that our audiences will connect with–an activity that will appeal to people with young kids, or a vendor selling a popular local food.

When a resident is angry or complaining, I follow the EBA rule: empathize before answering.

Anger often stems from feeling afraid or unheard; nine times out of ten, people respond positively to an authentic engagement–even if I don’t have the answer or solution they’re looking for.

My other takeaway: go where the people are.

If your community is heavily involved in Nextdoor but hardly uses Twitter, don’t waste your time and resources on a tool you’ll get limited engagement from. It takes time and research (plenty of listening!) to learn where your community’s conversations are happening; but once you do it makes good sense to join them there.

In Ferndale, I’ve chosen to put the majority of our resources into Facebook, particularly the handful of heavily populated groups created by community members. Sure, it would be easier if residents would just contact the City directly, but the more I’m able to engage with residents and respond to questions and concerns in real-time, the more I’m trusted as a source of information and the more followers our official City page receives as a result.

What works best? What falls flat?

Shareability is key! Research shows that people are almost 60% more likely to remember and share information when there’s an image attached to it. Apart from time-sensitive or serious updates, I share all of our updates on Facebook and Twitter in the form of video, design, or infographic, or with an accompanying photo.

Making social media graphics doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive; Canva (www.canva.com) and Vennage (www.vennage.com) are both free and easy tools for making visually appealing drag-and-drop designs.

Why is it important for cities to communicate to citizens over social media?

I often tell people that social media is a telephone, not a megaphone. Communicators are sometimes asked to use social media “for the important things,” but not to waste time on the daily minutia–the little updates, questions, and conversations. To your audience, however, these little daily engagements are the important things.

Listening and responding on a daily basis establishes trust between you and your audience, which increases fans/followers and makes them more likely to hear you when you have critical information to share.

Just like a real service desk, social media is most successful when you respond quickly, are friendly and professional, and keep your ego in check when it comes to negative reviews. A few tips:

Can you share a specific story of a time when communicating with a resident over social media brought about positive community change?

For years the City of Ferndale provided on-demand curbside fall leaf pickup. Residents contacted our Department of Public Works (DPW) and reported leaves piling up on their streets, and DPW responded as quickly as possible to get them vacuumed. The internal perception was that people were thrilled with the system.

My first fall as communications director, however, I witnessed a huge amount of complaints about the leaf pickup on social media. I started engaging with people and asking questions; time and again, the answer was the same: “it’s unpredictable.”

After a thorough investigation, we learned that our residents didn’t want to make multiple phone calls to DPW in hopes of getting a pickup, they wanted pre-scheduled dates and custom alerts. I engaged with nearly 500 people on social media that fall, and then we came together as a team and regrouped.

Last year we launched scheduled pickups and a service that allows residents to check the status based on their address. Complaints were reduced by nearly 90%.

What tools do you use (looking at data, reading articles, etc) to improve your social media communication?

I join groups and follow fellow professionals to share ideas and get new info–a few of my favorites are the Social Media Association of Michigan Facebook groupSocial Media Marketing LinkedIn groupGovGirl, and ELGL. Also, when a new technology hits–for example, Snapchat or Pokemon Go–I download the app and spend about a month playing or testing. Usually I wind up deleting them, but you can learn a lot about trends and UX by watching how people engage with popular apps.


Kara Sokol has worked in marketing and communications for more than ten years, specializing in organizational writing and brand/tone development. She has been with the City of Ferndale as Communications Director since 2014. She earned her B.A. in English at Oakland University and her M.A. in writing from Northern Michigan University. Recent awards for Kara’s professional writing include a UCDA Shift Award and CASE Circle of Excellence. She considers herself a true social media junkie; loves memes and humor blogs, and wishes everyone would embrace the Oxford comma.