As you crest the hill, there's a good chance you'll see a squad car perched at the intersection. It points out to Highway 54, with the radar gun leveled across the window sill. And if you follow @ChapelHillPD on Twitter, you already know to slow down.
That's right, the Chapel Hill Police Department frequently, but not always, tweets out when and where it'll be enforcing the speed limit.
To figure out why the CHPD might do something so awesome yet so unconventional, I sat down with Sgt. Bryan Walker, who manages its social media presence. As I planned for the interview, I realized that this was the first interview with a police officer where I've been asking the questions. How the times have changed.
Within minutes of our conversation, Sgt. Walker starts dropping lesson after lesson on marketing. All of us tech-savvy, startup prima donna, self-proclaimed "gurus" were getting schooled.
Here's what we can learn from the Chapel Hill Police Department about social media and marketing:
Go Against The Grain
Both the town and police department leadership support social media as a way to re-shape the town's image. This is no accident. While the town may be considered "progressive" by some (go ahead, insert your favorite Chapel Hill joke here), Sgt. Walker built buy-in initially, and repeatedly over time from its constituents. Buy-in means better chance of success.
Chart your own destiny
No one grants you permission to come up with new ideas. You only need permission from yourself. Sgt. Walker wrote the job description for which he ultimately was promoted to tackle. This is a fantastic strategy. If you want something from someone else, tell them everything you're going to do to help them, instead of asking for a handout.
Don't feel compelled to build every new concept and creative idea from scratch. Emulate peers whom you admire. Prior to launching their social media strategy, The Chapel Hill PD discussed at length what attitude they wanted to convey online. They admired the Seattle police force's use of social media, so they borrowed its helpful yet playful style. At a 2013 marijuana rally, Seattle's finest gave away bags of Doritos adorned with "You might be hungry" stickers explaining the new rules about legalization, while tweeting out #OperationOrangeFingers. Genius!
Master 1-2 Channels First
Every month, a new social media channel springs up. Marketers have a temptation to do them all, spreading too little peanut butter over too much bread. The CHPD focuses on two channels: Facebook & Twitter. The officers realize they still have enormous potential with just these two. They're going to go deep instead of going wide. Smart.
Find Audiences In New Places
Twitter & Facebook allow them to reach audiences they never have before. The few conversations I've had with police are usually in-person. Now, they reach me and thousands of residents every day with positive, helpful and valuable messages. Twitter becomes their primary vehicle to reach the college crowd, with Facebook messages geared towards longer-term residents. As a marketer, where are new places to find your audience?
Massage the Message By Channel
All marketers know this, but not everyone does it, including myself. Treat different platforms, and their audiences, differently, because they expect different content. Twitter is the department's medium for instant, real-time updates like traffic accidents, breaking news and speed enforcement. The officers use Facebook to tell deeper, richer narratives.
Include Your Personality
The CHPD likes Seattle's approach because it humanizes the department. It shows that the officers do indeed have personality, a sense of humor and are regular people. Is it all personality all the time? No. It's just the right amount. I love bringing this concept to marketing as well. Your marketing should include your personality, just not all of the time.
Tell The Story You Want to Tell
Social media allows anyone to be a media company - it means you're no longer dependent upon others to spread your message. This is incredibly helpful for police departments, which sometimes find themselves in the media because of a giant shit storm. Now, they get to tell their own story.
Stepping back from marketing, this is an incredibly valuable lesson for startup founders. It's easy to focus on the insanely challenging parts of your business and whine about that to anyone within ear shot. I complained, a lot, when my first company was melting down. In reality, the startup experience remains a life-changing event for me, which is a better story and much more enjoyable to share.
Remember the True Goal
Sgt. Walker initially received push back when tweeting out the location of speed enforcement. On the surface, it seems contradictory. Isn't the goal to catch speeders? Nay. The true goal of tweeting speed enforcement locations is to improve safety while driving through our town. If a few hundred people slow down as a result of a tweet, mission abso-freakin-lutely accomplished.
The ultimate goal for Sgt. Walker?
Reach the community. The most effective policing of a community comes from a partnership with it. That's what every company is after also; a partnership with its customers.
There you have it...ten lessons any marketer or startup founder can learn from the Chapel Hill Police Department.