As an online engagement software company, we recognize that social media is one of the most useful tools out there for promoting your project and increasing engagement. Since these platforms are free the only real cost is time. By following best practices and using tools and techniques to increase productivity, social media can lead to huge gains in engagement with relatively little cost to the project.

We’ve put together some best practices based on hundreds of the most successful MetroQuest projects. We hope you find these tips useful for your next project.

Be strategic

Social media success requires consistent effort, so make sure that you have a plan in place before starting. Strategically allocate the necessary resources to ensure success. Think carefully about your brand, your tone and your key messages, and get agency buy-in before beginning.

Craft compelling content

Social media is an amplification tool for interesting content. Use it to promote your initiative and share materials throughout your community. The key to social media success isn’t just having a bunch of followers – it’s about real engagement with your community and encouraging them to share your content with their network.

The goal is to create content that is compelling enough that people will be eager to talk about and share with their friends. In our experience less is more and a picture (or video) is worth a thousand words. It’s best to focus on issues that the public is most concerned about today, even if your plan is looking 25 years ahead. Keeping your message concise and using great images leads to substantially higher levels of engagement. Take Twitter for example – tweets with photos get 35% more retweets on average and now that Twitter video is here, well, you get the idea.

Focus on quality, not quantity

While it’s good to take advantage of as many channels as possible to promote your project, be cognizant of how much time and budget you can allocate to all of these different mediums. It’s easy to sign up for every social network under the sun, but if you’re devoting resources to managing accounts on Pinterest and Instagram and Vine and Google+ and …, you could be spreading yourself too thin and missing out on quality engagement opportunities.

Focus on the areas that really matter and have the highest potential for impact. In our experience, Twitter and Facebook are the best tools for engaging local communities. LinkedIn can also be very useful for targeting professionals and business owners in your community. Be sure to look for Facebook and LinkedIn groups that are relevant to your area or project and post some great content.

Be consistent

Try to post at least once per day in order to reach the largest audience possible and stay top of mind in your community. There’s a lot of debate and research surrounding the best time to post content online, but a good rule of thumb is to just think of when you would most likely see and read the type of content that you’re posting.

For example, posting a link to a survey at 10 pm on a Friday might not get a lot of results. But 8 am? Now we’re talking.

Create a content calendar

Schedule posts in advance and fill your weekly calendar with compelling and relevant content.

Use a social media management tool like Hootsuite to schedule your social media activity, reducing the amount of time you have to spend every day posting on multiple networks. You could reserve some time on a Monday morning to schedule posts for the entire week, leaving you with more time to focus on the big-picture tasks needed to make your project a huge success.

Hootsuite is free to use with up to 3 social media accounts – another good reason to limit the number of networks that you use.

Be a good listener and involve yourself in conversations

Another key advantage of using social media for your project is the ability to “listen.” In our work, a quick search of “MetroQuest” on Twitter gives a live stream of all the people that are talking about MetroQuest. This gives us a unique opportunity to involve ourselves in these conversations and reply to people. This is something we do every day, and it’s very easy to set up a similar process when promoting your next project.

Again, a tool like Hootsuite can be very useful in that you can create a view in your dashboard that shows you all the posts across social media that include the particular keyword or hashtag that you’re interested in following. This is a very simple way to stay up-to-date on what people are saying about the topics that matter to your project, and opportunities to get involved in the conversation will come up when you do a good job of listening.

Give it a shot! Search for topics in your local community today and get involved.

Use advertising to boost reach

If you have the budget to spare, it’s very easy to integrate some ad spending into your social media posts to reach more of the people that you want to get involved in your project.

For example – if you’re trying to get input on a proposed light rail project in Arlington, you can promote your Facebook posts to people who live in a 50-mile radius around Arlington. You can also specify by age, interests and other demographic information. These kinds of ads have been proven to be much more effective than traditional methods like print and radio advertising. With an advertising campaign on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn you can track how much you’re spending per click – seeing what works and what doesn’t. Used well, a little bit of advertising money can go a long way to getting your message out to the public.