On September 1, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) hosted our first Twitter Office Hours, a Twitter chat for USCIS customers. The purpose of this pilot event was to offer our customers a different way to engage with us.
We aimed to leverage Twitter to answer questions on our agency’s programs and policies and to counter rumors and incorrect information that exist in the public sphere.
We were inspired to launch this event after hearing about the popular Office Hours hosted by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) team at the Department of Education. Our call centers receive thousands of phone calls per day and some people wait for a representative to ask questions that could be answered through our website. Twitter allows us to quickly share answers to common questions with lots of people at once.
While preparing, we spoke with members of FAFSA Office Hours team about how their events are structured. We also had conversations with colleagues who use Twitter to engage with the public at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
One of the biggest challenges for us during the planning stage was securing approval to try something the agency had never done before: respond to Twitter followers. We met with USCIS colleagues to get their advice and address their concerns with digital engagement. Then we developed our strategic plan. We also worked closely with our colleagues at DHS, our parent department.
Some of the concerns that we had to address before launching the event included adequate staffing for the event, handling questions that were not within the scope of the event, customer privacy, defining the audience for office hours, promotion to the target audience and the source of our content that would be tweeted.
In some cases, we were able to use tips we learned from our federal partners instead of reinventing the wheel. For example, we followed in the footsteps of FAFSA by posting to our blog and capturing the conversation we had with customers, to ensure that our customers would still see the answers to some common questions, even if they weren’t online at the time.
For the first USCIS Twitter Office Hours event, we wanted to ensure we weren’t overwhelmed, so we limited our promotion to Twitter, Facebook, and a blog post.
Here are some sample posts:
- Twitter: No time to call our 1-800 number? Ask us a question using #AskUSCIS from 3 – 4 (EST) today. https://www.uscis.gov/, http://ow.ly/i/cIkrD
- Facebook: Have customer service questions that aren’t specific to your case? Use Twitter to #AskUSCIS, then join us today at 3 p.m. (EST) for a customer service chat. We will respond to as many questions as we can. Be sure to protect yourself when asking questions: DON’T include anything specific to you or your case, such as your receipt # or A-file #. See our blog post for more information.
As we started the event, we weren’t sure what to expect and wondered if we would receive enough questions to keep us busy for an hour because only a handful of people sent us questions in response to our promotional messages. We were quickly proved wrong. One of the biggest takeaways from our first hour on Twitter was that our customers are definitely willing to ask us immigration questions via Twitter.
In fact, one of our biggest challenges during the event was sifting through the traffic in our #AskUSCIS hashtag feed as fast as possible and pulling out answerable questions.
In order to answer as many questions as possible within the short time frame, we assigned specific roles to our team members. We also had subject matter experts on hand to provide the technical responses to the customer service-related questions we received.
Overall, we feel our first event was a success because we had great interest from our followers and we answered 14 unique questions. After the event, we put up a blog post on uscis.gov that recaps all of the questions answered and provided replies to five bonus questions we did not get to answer during the event.
Another lesson learned from the event was that our followers expected fast responses. We saw followers commenting about the speed of our replies, and we have since modified our workflow to allow us to answer more questions during future events.
We learned that practice and training is critical. We held training sessions and dry-run events with our producers and subject matter experts, which really helped everyone feel more comfortable with the technology and workflow for the live event. Above all, you can’t be too organized for a live digital engagement.
While organization and practice is important, the best lessons have come from trial and error. You have to be willing to try, be accepting of the errors and be willing to adjust to make improvements. That refining process is the key to a successful pilot.
We’re looking forward to hosting these Twitter Office Hours events on a regular basis. We hosted our second session on October 6 and the next one is November 3. We encourage you to follow @USCIS on Twitter and share your feedback as well. Or drop us a line via email.Editor’s Note: Want even more information on Twitter Chats/Office Hours? Check out the Twitter Chat Guidance for Federal Agencies and Information on Hosting Successful Twitter Chats.