News Column

Social Media in the Public Sector

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Last October, with Superstorm Sandy bearing down on New Jersey and widespread power outages imminent, PSE&G, the state's biggest utility, went into crisis mode -- and, consequently, Twitter mode.

Radically shifting its social media strategy, the company put together a team of 22 staff members and went from monitoring Twitter from 9-to-5 on weekdays to tweeting 15 hours a day, seven days a week. After 17 days of non-stop tweeting, PSE&G had gained about 47,000 Twitter followers, and management was reconsidering how it uses social media.

"We saw with Sandy how mobile-dependent and connected our society is," said PSE&G spokeswoman Jenn Kramer, who heads the company's social media strategy. "It is changing the way we think about engaging with our audience."

The Newark-based utility is one of many New Jersey businesses rethinking, emphasizing and experimenting with social media as a form of customer service and marketing. While most companies view online platforms as necessities for doing business, many are still unsure how to determine the return on investment of establishing a well-maintained Facebook page or Twitter account.

Banks are one area where social media strategies diverge.

When searching the most popular social networks for "Valley National Bank" and "Clifton Savings Bank," neither institution has created an active page for customers to "like" on Facebook or "follow" on Twitter. Wayne-based Valley National would not comment for this story about its lack of online presence. Bart D'Ambra, executive vice president at Clifton Savings, said it's all about demographics.

"Our customers tend to be older [and] not so tech-savvy, nor are they interested in communicating with us on a one-to-one basis via any kind of social media," D'Ambra said. "There is a place for it, absolutely, but not with us."

Valley National and Clifton Savings are becoming increasingly outnumbered by local banks such as Jersey City-based Provident and Lakeland of Oak Ridge, which are using the Internet as a tool for luring a younger generation of customers.

"For a bank to succeed in the future, you're going to have to be able to get new customers ... replacing the older customers," said David Scelba, chairman and chief executive officer of Montville- based SGW Integrated Marketing Communications, which helped develop the online strategy for Lakeland Bank.

Lakeland has taken an unconventional route by focusing on YouTube rather than Twitter. While some of the bank's videos feature senior management sharing banking advice in a straightforward manner, others show the bank's vice president of retail discussing identity theft while dressed up as a "Dragnet"-style detective.

The bank's analytics allows the institution to see how many more people opened the video from Lakeland's emails, which are sent out twice a month -- about 25 percent of the 23,000 customers emailed typically watch.

As for Facebook, both Lakeland and Provident use the social network primarily for marketing, sharing news, and posting banking tips rather than providing customer service. Both banks are cautious when responding to comments.

Prudential Financial Inc. has followed a similar path. "From a customer service perspective," said spokeswoman Deborah Meany, "given the business we're in, often our first response is through social media, but then we take the conversation offline because sensitive or personal information is involved in handling the issue."

With its "Bring Your Challenges" campaign, Newark-based Prudential has taken an open-ended approach to social media. On the campaign's Facebook page, which has more than 54,000 likes, Prudential posts questions and statistics about retirement and longevity, aiming to generate responses from intrigued customers.

"Our approach is to spark interest and conversations," said Colin McConnell, vice president and head of advertising at Prudential.

Prudential offers occasional customer service through Twitter and Facebook, but most of its communication with individual customers is done privately.

In the utility industry, however, companies are beginning to use Twitter more aggressively as a form of direct communication. In February 2012, PSE&G changed its approach from strictly informational tweeting to having a constant back-and-forth with customers. On its @PSEGDelivers account, the company responds to various concerns and outage reports, sometimes urging followers to reach out privately in a direct message.

"Companies make a mistake when they push marketing messages out on social platforms," Kramer said. "You have to be willing to engage in conversation."

Secaucus-based clothing store The Children's Place does a little of both on its Twitter page -- hyping sales but also posing questions and occasionally responding to tweets. Earlier this month, one angry customer tweeted that he "just got off the phone with the WORST CUSTOMER SERVICE REPS EVER!!!" The company wrote back: "Hi @MitchSchneider we're sorry to see your tweet about our customer service. We'll reach out directly to learn more and how we can help." The company followed up by tweeting out an email address and phone number for the customer to contact, for all to see.

The Children's Place also has experimented with trendy platforms such as the photo sites Pinterest and Instagram, as well as Vine, a mobile application that allows users to share six-second looped videos. On May 3, the company tweeted out a series of Vines from its Union Square store in New York City, featuring writers for parenting blogs showing off clothes they purchased.

Many businesses are facing the reality of how time-consuming it is to maintain social media platforms. While Children's Place posts on Facebook once a day, the company occasionally goes days without tweeting. D'Ambra said Clifton Savings lacks the resources and staff to build a legitimate online presence. Similarly, Lakeland's Facebook presence is primarily monitored by an outside marketing company.

At PSE&G, managing the company's Twitter has "become a more prominent formal part of an increasing number of people's jobs" in both the communications and customer service department, Kramer said. However, there is not yet a group of staff dedicated specifically to social media.

Cognizant Technology Solutions, a Teaneck-based information technology consulting company, has four staff members oversee the company's Facebook and Twitter accounts full time.

Smart Balance, a food company with offices in Paramus, uses Baltimore advertising agency TBC to help manage its social media accounts.

As companies devote more time to maintaining these various platforms, is the effort worth it?

"That's the million-dollar question," said Alan Alper, Cognizant's senior director of marketing. "It's hard to actually measure the impact, but we know that we have to be visible and we have to be seen as a leading player."

"It is very difficult to place a return on investment with social media," said Robert Capozzoli, vice president and digital media manager at Provident Bank. "But what we can definitely see is that we have a robust and active audience."

Kramer said there are measured increases in clicks when links are posted, which allows PSE&G to place a value on its social media usage. Cognizant is using analysis that determines the quality of each online interaction by compiling a daily "social media digest" that recaps the previous day's conversations on Twitter and Facebook.

"In a sense, that allows us to assess what the buzz is about Cognizant," Alper said.

All of the companies that use social media agree that the platforms have proved to be effective tools for business.

"Social media is constantly changing," Capozzoli said.

"Facebook and Twitter could go the way of Friendster and MySpace, and very quickly, too."

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(c) 2013 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

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