Trial by Fire: Evolving a Social Media Strategy

Story 10 min
Watch as MSgt. Jarad Denton discusses the trials and tribulations that led to establishing a strong social media strategy for Minot Air Force Base.

Master Sergeant Jarad Denton arrived to Minot Air Force Base in 2017. The base was using social media in a traditional "soapbox" way by sending out messages but not conversing or engaging with their audience. In his time there, he implemented a social media strategy that created a sense of community and recruited engagement within and beyond the targeted audience.

Hi, I'm MSgt. Jarad Denton. I work with the Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs Course Content Development Team. Prior to that, I was at Minot Air Force Base working on their Command Information Section, which meant I ran the photos, videos, print stories and social media networks of the installation.

What was Minot Air Force Base Social Media like when you arrived? How did you start implementing change?

When I got to Minot Air Force Base, I noticed we had a small following and that was due, in large part, to the fact that we we posted pretty much how every other installation posts. We were putting out informational content and hoping it stuck and resonated with our audience so that they would get the information. There was no engagement, there was no building conversation. We would link to a website, maybe put an image up here or there, but it was typically just to inform people on happenings at Minot. And because of that, in 2017, we noticed our engagements were only about 30,000 per month. So we started taking more risks. We started posting more conversational and engaging content, always tied to an image, building up that conversation with our audience. We saw in 2018, those engagement numbers jumped to 57,000 per month. Now from 2018 to 2019, we completely overhauled our strategy and made it completely engagement focused. That allowed us to move those numbers to 89,000 engagements per month.

What was the result of those risks?

As a result of the risks we started taking, our following started to grow. More people were coming to Minot Air Force Base's social media network to see what we were talking about and engage in conversation. That was going really well, it allowed us to expand out and actually engage with other Air Force accounts out there. That brought in a whole different world of conversation and narrative building, until we had kind of a minor setback. And I don't want to into the details of that but if you Google Minot Air Force Base and Santa Claus, you'll get the picture of what happened. That said, it pulled us off social media for a while and allowed us to actually rethink our strategy to question why we were doing what we were doing and come up with a new direction for how we want to communicate or commander's intent and priorities.

How did you recover with leadership after the issue?

After the setback, we took a lot of time to analyze how we could rebuild trust with leadership. The previous leadership at Minot had moved onto a different assignment and new leadership had come in, and they were very focused on engaging with airmen, their families and people outside the installation through social media. That said, we didn't want to give them a half-baked strategy, so we developed what we called a unique value proposition. What that means is it establishes what people will have to go to Minot Air Force Base's social media network to see and experience that they can't get from anywhere else in the world. It also set our left and right limits and aligned those with our commander's priorities and intent. What that did is it opened up an entire world to focus our major strategy on engagement over reach.

To do that, we decided that we wanted to establish a voice for our platforms. A humanized voice, rather than sounding like a robot, which is something we had done in the past. We tested a lot of different voices out and selected what we thought would resonate with our audience the best. We also used our analytics a lot. We wanted to know when our audience was on hand and when would be the best time to post. So instead of posting when content became available, we started posting when they were most on platform and that strategy started paying off well as we focused more on engagement.

How did you find your voice and hone your persona?

Initially, when we were testing the voice and developing a persona for Minot Air Force Base social media, we looked at making the pages sound like Sam Elliot from Tombstone. Very stoic, very gravelly and very serious. We felt his voice would be best to communicate the intensity of Minot Air Force Base's mission as the most powerful base in the DoD. When we tested that our, we put it out to our audience, they didn't like it. They did not want to hear from Sam Elliot, they didn't trust him and they weren't resonating with his persona. So we had to pull back and rethink our entire voice and we came up with a sarcastic, witty, younger, charismatic character who would engage and converse with audience members on their level. It worked so well that audience members started coming to us asking, "Who's running this page?" "Who's behind this?" We didn't want to give individual credit for a team effort. So we developed a caricature, and that became Reginald Von Squeak, the social media dakrat. A dakrat is a native animal to Minot, commonly known as a Richardson's ground squirrel. And that became an inside joke with our audience that they could resonate with and enjoy and feel like they were part of a conversation that not a lot of people understood.

How did your commander react to this newly laid out strategy?

The initial response from our commander when we rolled out this new strategy was positive, and that's because we were able to sit down and talk to him about the unique value proposition and mitigate any of the risks that he felt might come up with this new approach to social media. It also helped that the local audience at Minot, our airmen, their families were really positive about this change. When the commander would go to conferences and meet other commanders, they would mention how well Minot social media was doing and how much they liked it. That support became enthusiastically positive and started to trickle down to group commanders and squadron commanders, who then helped Minot social media become a powerhouse for our communication strategy.

How did you audience react to the "new" platform?

We actually noticed a change in our audience when we rolled out this new strategy. Initially, we thought our core audience was going to be retirees, who previously had engaged on the platforms. When we shifted our strategy and became more conversational and focused on engagement, we unlocked a new audience of about 25-34 year old airmen, their families and people around the installation. They were ready and willing to join that conversation, engage with our content and amplify our wing commander's priorities because we were coming to them as a person in a conversational way.

At what point did you realize you had made a substantial shift in the perception of Minot?

I think I noticed a substantial shift in the perception of Minot when we posted a tweet that likened Minot Air Force Base to Westeros from Game of Thrones. That was right during the series peak popularity so it resonated really well with our audience on the platform and media. we were actually contacted by a local media outlet that we'd had trouble with engaging on stories previously. They contacted us and wanted to do a story on Minot Air Force Base's social media. We were initially hesitant because we didn't want to get into the business of self-promotion but we decided to take a chance and the result was that this media outlet became a strong partner in covering base activities and our commander's priorities from then on out.

What was the status of the strategy and platforms when you left?

By the time I left Minot Air Force Base, we were the most engaged wing on social media. We were seeing about 12,000 to 21,000 engagements per week on our platforms and that was due to a strong strategy that we had maintained throughout. We always went back to that unique value proposition. We made sure that the airmen on our team understood that. To the point that social media when I left, began to diffuse so that our airmen weren't just generating content. They were actually constructing campaigns and managing narratives throughout to amplify our commander's priorities.

What advice would you give to someone trying to build their social media strategy?

If I could offer one piece of advice to someone building a social media strategy or managing a social media network, it would be - don't plan for or expect setbacks, stumbled or failures. Encourage them. Failures are how we learn. Stumbles are how we get stronger. And since social media is an ever-evolving platform, learning from the mistakes we make is absolutely essential to building muscle memory with your team that's going to be required when leveraging creative content on those platforms. You have to understand everybody makes mistakes. It's natural. It's just that when public affairs does it, it's public, so the impact can seem larger because the audience is out there and bigger. Don't let that set you back. Don't let that discourage you. Learn from it. Adapt those mistakes into a strong strategy and mentor your teams. Encourage them to keep pushing boundaries, to keep taking risks. Don't let fear determine your communications strategy.