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10 Tips for Text Messaging in Government

Government agencies are constantly striving to better connect and serve citizens. Often, this has meant adopting new technologies as information consumption becomes increasingly computerized and mobile. To meet these changing trends, some government agencies are turning to text messaging services as an opportunity to engage easily and effectively.

This switch is a smart one. As Alex Yule, Product Specialist at GovDelivery, explained in a webinar entitled 10 Tips for Text Messaging in the Public Sector, 55 percent of people who receive 55 or more text messages per day would rather receive a text than a phone call. Joined by Marie Trigona, Online Public Engagement Specialist, and Eli Brownell, Communications Specialist, both of King County Natural Resources and Parks in Washington; as well as Kate McCarthy, Public Information Officer, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Yule offered 10 tips to increase citizen engagement and decrease cost.

1. Support the entire journey.

Yule recommends thinking about all the ways someone might interface with your program and how you can enhance their participation throughout the process.

For example, after McCarthy and her team rolled out the first round of their text messaging program in San Francisco, they decided to further expand the program’s reach by adding additional survey languages, including Spanish, Chinese and Filipino. This program expansion helped her agency connect with more people throughout the project. 

2. Identify goals and objectives.

The best way to implement a new community communication method is to establish clear objectives for the program. This makes it easier both to shape your text messaging around your goals and to establish methods to measure success.

When the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency began to plan construction on Van Ness, a major city thoroughfare, the agency decided to launch a program that could both provide residents with information about construction closures and progress, while simultaneously receiving feedback from users about the process. Based on these objectives, explained McCarthy, the agency was able to construct a useful text message survey. 

3. Start by asking a question.

GovDelivery has found that one of the most effective ways to encourage people to use a text messaging survey system is to start with an interesting hook question. Once users respond to the hook question, they tend to complete the entire survey.

4. Use an optimal number of survey questions.

Ideally, your survey should be between four and eight questions long. This is the best length because it doesn’t ask participants to make a major time commitment, but it still allows your agency to reap the most information possible.

5. Use skip logic.

The best text message surveys feel like the computer on the other end is actually a person. To create this feeling, use a skip system that sends different questions based on the previous answer. For example, a person who said they already knew about a program does not need to receive a follow up text that explains the program.

6. Automate to maximize results.

An automatic text messaging reminder system can be very valuable for users. For example, the Ventura County Human Services Agency in California has used automatic texts to warn citizens when their benefits are about to expire. The cost was less than alternatives, such as mailing or calling.

7. Hand out flyers.

“Texting is a great way to cross the divide between the physical and the digital world,” Yule said. To ensure this connection, he advises agencies to hand out cards and flyers at events or around the office to promote text messaging programs.

To reduce printing costs and increase accessibility on backcountry trails, King County decided to create a system to allow hikers to text in to receive an electronic PDF map of the trails in the area. Use of the system increased four-fold when they rolled out signage around the trails alerting hikers to the opportunity.

8. Solicit photos.

Text message surveys not only reduce costs but also open new avenues for responses, such as photos. This method makes it possible to visually report street conditions or even turn in forms.

9. Be persistent.

Some of the most successful text messaging programs have benefitted from continued and persistent bits of contact between agencies and users. For example, one New York program increased literacy by sending regular reminders to parents to read to their children.

10. Ask for feedback and make changes.

Feedback can help agencies determine how best to allocate resources.

Feedback played a very important role in some of King County’s survey programs. After the success with distributing maps electronically via text message, the county adopted similar text surveys for upcoming construction and capital projects to solicit feedback from citizens. After users texted their reactions to the project plans, they were invited to sign up for additional information, which helped increase overall engagement with the county government.

As technology usage changes, agencies are well served to make similar adjustments. By implementing these tips to support a text messaging program, agencies can improve their connection and engagement with citizens in a meaningful way.