A Social Media Playbook for Changing Commuting Behaviors

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[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab]

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Can social media be used to change a person’s commuting behavior or the way we design cities and transportation systems?

There’s growing research to show how behaviors are influenced by networks, and specifically how social media can cause behavior changes that benefit society (such as decreasing energy consumption). The same principles, done correctly, could no doubt help change commuting behaviors.

Here is a formula to create a social-media strategy that creates trust, engages people, harnesses their energy, establishes a community, and creates change (accompanied by an infographic about social media from Ad Age below).

  1. Establish objectives. Are you trying to promote information or get feedback for a public project? These are two very different objectives, with different approaches to outreach and messaging. If you’re a change agent or trying to marshall support for a specific project or plan of action, a specific point of view is appropriate. If your project is to solicit public information about a project, it’s important that your tone and messaging remain neutral and inclusive.
  1. Define your audience. If the purpose of your social-media campaign is to reach a certain segment of the population, define who this is. Your audience will determine not only the kind of messaging you engage in, but the social-media platform (or platforms) you use. Mobility Lab has found social media to work great with people who share our interests: transit and smart growth advocates, TDM agencies, and media outlets such as CityLab, Urbanful, and Greater Greater Washington. Choosing groups and individuals with common interests, then leveraging the network effect to expand a message exponentially, is the goal.
  1. Create trust. Establishing a social network doesn’t happen overnight. It takes consistency, perseverance, and, above all else, patience. To gain followers, your message output has to be regular and consistent. Don’t expect followers to find you. Once you find someone you want to form a connection with, reach out to that person personally via a direct message or tweet, establish your commonality, and engage in a dialogue. At Mobility Lab, we sometimes produce behind-the-scenes photos or videos to let people know who we are as individuals and bring people in to our organization. The point is that we’re not just a faceless company, we’re real people having fun, with a mission we believe in.
  1. Establish a dialogue. Communicating with your audience is known in new media as “engagement.” It’s about treating your clients, customers, or audience respectfully and making them feel valued. Direct messages or posts asking for feedback or ideas can help accomplish this. Online polls once a week are great, easy ways to achieve engagement, and they strengthen your data by having followers potentially contribute to your messaging.
  1. Use incentives. People like to be rewarded for their behavior, not just monetarily, but with acknowledgement and reinforcements as simple as “likes” and shout-outs. Psychologists use terms such as social norming to explain why we want to fit in, follow the herd, and be accepted. When you gain a new follower or friend, make sure you communicate with that person, like their comments, and cross-promote their posts.
  1. Be visual. We’ve found that the graphics and photos we use to accompany our stories on Mobility Lab seem to dramatically alter the click-through ratio of our posts. Therefore, be visual as much as possible. Infographics are a terrific way to get a message out there. This requires a dedicated, talented graphic artist on staff or on contract, but the costs are worth it. People love our videos and infographics at Mobility Lab, and these posts and stories have longer legs than our text-only stories.
  1. Follow the 80-20 rule. Social-media experts recommend the following ratio for posts: 80 percent should be informational, sharing data, information, and stories about your industry. The remaining 20 percent can be purely promotional, talking about your products or services.
  1. Create a call-to-action. Whenever possible, let people know what you want from them at the end of each post. Ask an open-ended question that they can answer in the comments, instruct them to your website to find more information, or ask them to forward your information on to friends. When readers respond, be courteous, respond to their comments or questions, and let them know their participation is valued.
  1. Spend some money. In many cases, it’s worth it to pay a social-media site to promote your posts. For as little as five dollars, Facebook will expand the reach of a post dramatically. Using algorithms the company closely guards, your post will be sent out to a targeted audience with an interest in your product or service. It’s a small price with a big impact.

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