The Interior Department has a reputation for featuring exotic animals and awe-inspiring scenes on its social media feeds.
But when Interior gave its audience a live glimpse of Everglades National Park’s alligators this Earth Day, what stood out was how they did it: using a new, much-hyped live streaming platform called Periscope.
Interior’s Director of Digital Strategy Tim Fullerton told FedScoop he’d reached out to Twitter, which recently acquired Periscope, about being a beta tester for the app before it launched last month.
“We’re always finding new ways to engage with the public and using different tools,” he said. “The live-streaming capability through Periscope provides us a new way to open up a window to our work.”
So far, the department has streamed about a dozen events. The most popular? A tour of the National Mall with a park ranger who answered questions from viewers. Interior also filmed a Periscope featuring Challenger, a rescued bald eagle who now makes appearances at various professional sporting events.
“It really works well as an engagement tool — allowing people to ask questions, having someone on camera answering questions,” said Fullerton, who FedScoop named one of the top 25 people under 40 in government tech in 2013. “They’re just more interesting that way.”
Through trial and error, Fullerton and his staff have learned that shorter broadcasts, those that last about five minutes, tend to get more viewers. He also said it’s better to wait about 15 seconds before starting a stream so viewers have a chance to get to the broadcast.
Fullerton said the department gets hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people watching.
“It allows us to show people parts of our work that are harder to explain via text or photos,” he said.
Amir Zonozi, chief strategy officer at Zoomph, a content engagement company, said ephemeral videos, like those from Periscope, its primary competitor Meerkat or Snapchat, are currently all the rage.
“I love the fact that they’re embracing it,” said Zonozi, whose company has worked with the State Department, the White House and the National Republican Committee. He added, “We’re giving people a first-person point of view of what these people are experiencing.”
A social media smash
Under Fullerton’s leadership, Interior’s social media accounts have received national attention. Fullerton created the department’s Instagram account, which now has 540,000 followers. Its Twitter account was named one of Time magazine’s top Twitter feeds of 2014.
The breathtaking pictures Interior posts on its public lands tap into a sense of wonder, said Ines Mergel, an associate professor of public administration at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.
“They have truly created something that people want to see every day that has nothing to do with negative news or breaking news,” said Mergel, who featured Interior in a recent report and has hosted Fullerton as a guest speaker in one of her classes.
Part of Fullerton’s success has to do with how he’s structured his team, which produces content for traditional and social media outlets, she said. It represents a “seamless integration” of the overall public affairs strategy, she said.
“Social media isn’t an add on — what the cool kids are doing,” she said
In her research, Mergel said she found that Interior’s tweets sometimes get more attention than the White House’s.
“I feel if you can get more engagement than one of the most social media-savvy presidents, that’s pretty amazing,” she said.
Next week, Fullerton plans leave Interior to take a new post at the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety in New York. He said it’s in line with his advocacy background. Before he came to government, he worked for Oxfam America, President Barack Obama’s election campaign in 2008 and the Alliance for Climate Protection.
“It’ll be very, very different from what I’ve done here,” he said of his new job. “But it will be exciting.”
Fullerton said he believes the Interior team will be able to continue to “move the ball forward.” Mergel agreed. She said Fullerton has stood up a strong team that will be able to carry on its social media successes. After all, it’s not a one-man shop, she said.
“I think he’s established something meaningful and fantastic that no other department has from I’ve observed,” she said. “It’s very, very special.”