How corporations use social media to gauge public persona

Sesame Street, the DMV, and others use social media to gauge public persona, collaborate internally

Social media sites such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are playing an increasing role in IT as corporations set up and monitor the sites to learn about their public image.

Even Muppets have their own profiles.

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"Media companies and social always go together. In the media industry, your whole world is about ratings," said Noah Broadwater, CTO of Sesame Workshop, the production company for Sesame Street. "So yeah, Big Bird tweets."

The need for a corporate focus on social media was part of this week's CITE conference, which is looking at various ways traditional consumer technology is working its way into the enterprise.

Sesame Workshop uses its social media sites to gauge viewer perception of its programs, and as strange as it may sound, the network show doesn't always come off as apolitical.

For example, an episode of Sesame Street spoofed CNN by having garbage can-residing Oscar the Grouch as a commentator on "GNN Network News." The Muppet commented on how GNN was garbage, but "if you really want trash, you want to go to Pox," Broadwater said, referring to a spoof on Fox News.

"We got a huge backlash on Twitter over Pox. All these people just started, well, trashing us," Broadwater said.

So what did Sesame Street do? What else? Playing off the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, it rolled the Twitter controversy into real appearances by the Muppets on Fox's Bill O'Reilly Show. That appearance, in turn, sparked a firestorm among liberals on Twitter, so the next day, the Muppets appeared on CNN with Anderson Cooper.

Sesame Workshop monitored another social media brouhaha after it aired an episode of Sesame Street that showed a mother breastfeeding her baby.

"On one day Republicans hate us. On the next day, liberals hate us. And somehow in the end, they all love us," he said.

Sesame Workshop allocates one full-time manager and four interns as the online personas of its Muppets, including Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird.

And, you might be a bit surprised to learn who's visiting the Muppet's YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Google+ pages. It's not kids, it's their parents.

Besides having grown up with the children's TV show, which leads to a nostalgic interest in the Muppets, parents will often visit the sites in order to share what they see with their kids, Broadwater said.

In stark juxtaposition to Sesame Workshop, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) uses social media pages to try to improve its image with the public. DMV CIO Bernard Soriano said that with 9,000 employees and 169 field offices trying to service 24 million licensed drivers, social networks are well-tailored to provide a more personal touch -- even if it's virtual.

The California DMV uses both Twitter and Facebook to answer questions and to monitor public feedback about in-person service. The agency also posts documentation, such as driver safety information and instruction manuals, online.

"We look at social media as something that can help us achieve a strategic goal - customer service," Soriano said. "It's one way of reaching out and trying to improve the way we conduct our services -- within limits."

In 2007, the DMV started its own YouTube channel with videos on rules of the road. Schools incorporated those videos as part of their curricula. Over the next two years, the DMV then opened up Facebook and Twitter pages.

The DMV uses two full-time employees and three "student assistants" who spend part of their time monitoring the social networking sites and replying to messages. Soriano admits the DMV has had "issues" in terms of turnaround time with replying to comments.

"The messages have to be drafted by subject matter experts," Soriano said. "Sometimes it gets to be a complicated problem that a customer has, so we have to dig deep down in the organization for that answer. Then it gets funneled through our public affairs area for final approval. Public affairs wants time to be able to really review it. Typically we'd turn something around...within the hour."

Soriano's next project: determining a way to gauge the DMV's success at using social media to handle public inquiries. "Our Facebook page has 5,000 followers. That's nowhere near how many are coming into a field office," he said.

Brad Wright, vice president of of IT Integrated Customer Services at Jacobs, an engineering technical services firm, uses social networks to help connect the company's 63,000 employees in 30 countries.

"We're a company of engineers," he said. "We deliver projects day in and day out. What's really important to us is to win those projects, deliver them really well, and do it so well that we continue to do business with that client."

To win a job, Jacobs' customers want to see engineer resumes, which help them determine both the expertise and experience they may be able to bring to bear on a project. Culling tens of thousands of resumes to find the right ones to package for a project proposal became a challenge, at best.

About a year ago, Jacobs' IT team wrote white papers for corporate business executives to explain what social media can do to aid project collaboration across the vast company. "It was a lukewarm reception," Wright said.

Finally, executives gave the go-ahead for the IT shop to spin up a social networking pilot using a free enterprise-class service from Yammer Inc. Within two days, Wright was forced to shut down the subscriber function to contain it the social networking site.

"It was supposed to be a small site," he said. "In two days we had 1,200 users. We couldn't contain it. It was out of control."

Jacobs is now at the end of an evaluation of products on the market that can deliver a good mix of collaborative and social capabilities. "It's being vetted upstairs and we're looking to implement it later this year," Wright said.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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This story, "How corporations use social media to gauge public persona" was originally published by Computerworld .

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