Why AARP has an entire team dedicated to answering Facebook comments

AARP’s Matt Chinn (left) and Jeff Taylor

AARP, the 60-year-old special interest group that advocates for older Americans, has never been shy about flexing its policy muscles or leveraging its enormous reach to influence legislation that might affect its members.

And that reach truly is enormous. AARP The Magazine has 23.7 million subscribers and is arguably the highest-circulation print magazine in the U.S. Its online presence is no less impressive, with a Facebook page that boasts 1.8 million likes and a Twitter account followed by 124,000 users. Jeff Taylor, the organization’s director of social communications, told me that its social media posts reach an estimated 10 million unique people per month.

With that kind of following, it can throw real weight behind supporting or opposing a piece of legislation, as we saw with the GOP’s efforts earlier this year to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and its more recent attempts to pass sweeping tax cuts. In both cases, AARP came out in strong opposition to the bills, publishing constant online videos, blog posts, social media blasts, and newsletters that not only explained the policy behind the legislation, but also encouraged members to contact their representatives.

For example, on November 30, AARP posted on its Facebook page that it had sent a letter from its CEO Jo Ann Jenkins to the Senate addressing its tax bill. “We are extremely concerned that this legislation will increase the deficit which will lead to automatic cuts to critical programs such as Medicare and Medicaid,” the post reads. “Additionally, this legislation will actually raise taxes on millions of older Americans and does not address the 2017 tax hike on seniors who utilize the medical expense deduction.”

That post has over 2,900 likes, 1,600 shares, and 280 comments, and it’s just one of dozens of policy-focused Facebook posts it’s put out in recent months. But to consider just the raw numbers is to ignore the depth and nuance of AARP’s Facebook strategy. If you actually scroll through the 280+ comments on the post, for instance, you’ll quickly notice that a sizeable percentage of them come from actual AARP representatives who are responding to the individual comments of users.

In that particular post, for instance, a Facebook user named Anita Barbara Benac asked, “In the new tax bill do you know if Social security is going to be taxed differently or the same that it has been?” About six hours later, AARP came back with a response, posting from its official account: “Hi Anita, there is no direct change to the taxation of Social Security in either the House or Senate tax reform bills in their current forms.” The comment, like all those that come from AARP, is signed with the first name and last initial of the employee who wrote it: “Caroline D.”

These responses aren’t an anomaly. AARP, despite its enormous reach, isn’t settling on a one-way broadcasting strategy, but instead has accomplished the impressive feat of developing a scalable system for responding to the thousands upon thousands of comments across Facebook, Twitter, and its other online destinations. To accomplish this, it hired and trained an entire “social response team” that’s responsible for answering a wide range of topics, from detailed policy explainers to simple questions about how members can request new membership cards.

To understand how AARP built out a system that processes and responds to sometimes over a thousand comments a day, I spoke to Jeff Taylor, director of social communications. Taylor joined the social team in 2014, and he told me that in those early days the approach to answering social media comments was much more ad-hoc with no strict processes in place. “Back then the volume [of comments] was so low that we just rotated the duty day by day,” he said. “Everybody had ‘duty day,’ and they’d spend about 1/8th of their day where they were just on point for handling any comments that came in.” Back then, they were only receiving about four or five actionable comments a day, so this ad-hoc system was manageable.

It became less manageable, however, once AARP began leveraging Facebook as a member acquisition tool. Starting in 2014 and then ramping up in 2015 and 2016, the organization started devoting significant resources toward Facebook ads, often in the form of dark posts that targeted specific demographics that AARP wanted to reach. “When we increased that effort, then the tidal wave of actionable comments came in,” said Taylor.

The vast majority of the comments that arose fell into two buckets: membership and policy. When an AARP member suddenly sees a membership-related post in their feed, it might spark them into asking a question that’s related to that post, like how to gain access to a particular member benefit, and rather than hunting down a customer support number on the website, they’ll often just comment right on the post itself or message AARP through its Facebook page via Messenger.

Policy-related comments, on the other hand, are much more cyclical; unsurprisingly, the volume goes up and down when a particular issue or piece of legislation becomes a subject of public debate. This held especially true during the heated healthcare fight over the summer, when the GOP tried hard to repeal the ACA. “There have been moments in time when a bunch of people flock in, and it doesn’t even matter what the content is, they’re using Messenger, they’re commenting on posts that sometimes don’t even have anything to do with healthcare,” said Taylor. “They’re saying, ‘What are you doing? This is hot on my mind.’”

By early 2016, it became clear that the social team’s system of rotating commenting duty was not going to scale, so they had to come up with a better system, one that would possibly require the build-out of a completely separate group. Taylor told me that they started this process by simply printing out about a thousand Facebook comments that had come in over the span of a week and putting them on a board. “We sorted them into categories and basically just hung it up on a wall,” he said. “That was the kind of impetus where we had some discussion internally. Here was a week in the life of all the inquiries that come in. We used that to shape a picture of what was out there.”

Next up was to review case studies and see how other organizations handled social response, but this presented a problem: AARP really has few peers in the association space. Its membership dwarfs almost all other interest groups, and few, if any, of those groups generate the same amount of social media engagement. “We ended up doing more comparisons to other large corporate brands, even though that’s not who we are,” said Taylor. “The scale comparison was much better.” Major consumer brands like Comcast and Delta, for instance, deal with thousands of customer complaints each day on social media and had to build out customer service infrastructure to respond to them. Taylor’s team also consulted with Facebook DC’s office, which gave AARP feedback and also connected it to other brands it could speak to.

After the social team gathered its case studies and built buy-in from the organization at large, it then faced a crucial decision: grow a social response team incrementally, or make several hires at once with the assumption that the additional capacity would come in handy pretty quickly. They opted for the latter. “Our take was that it was going to be better to build it right and go big first, rather than just add on little tiny bits and, say, hire just one more person to patch a gap here and there,” said Taylor. They started by hiring three response agents, one of whom had already been part of the AARP’s customer service team and so knew the organization backwards and forwards. Within a few weeks, two more employees were hired onto the team.

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With this group in place, it was now a matter of building out strict processes that would allow it to efficiently sort and respond to social media comments. It was around this time that AARP hired Matt Chinn to work on a division called AARP Experience. The social media response team, which Chinn oversees, was rolled into this umbrella organization that seeks to weave a consistent customer experience across all its mediums and business units.

So what does the average day look like for someone on the social response team? Well, as social media comments flood in, they’re logged and managed through Lithium, a software product geared toward community management. This integrates with AARP’s CRM system and allows social response members to review comments, respond to them, and log the responses; this is similar to the customer service ticketing system that will be used when you, say, call your health insurer or cable provider.

Example of a customer service complaint

But AARP, of course, does a lot more than just deal with customer complains. Unlike a Comcast or an Aetna, it’s the provider of all kinds of other information that pertains to its members, from retirement savings tips to nuanced policy positions. It would be unrealistic to expect the social response team to become experts across all these myriad topics, so the organization needed to build a way for this team to consult AARP’s designated experts on all these topics.

The answer? Slack. “We have a number of different people that we can easily contact through Slack if something comes in that’s awkward or if the person doesn’t know how to respond to something,” said Chinn. They set up a direct relationships within the Slack channel between the social response team and individual members of the advocacy team so that there’s never a question as who to turn to. “If a new question pops in that we’re not equipped to answer, a response agent will pop in there and ping the contact who’s the expert and is authorized and empowered to say, ‘Yes we can say this,’ or, ‘No we can’t say that,’” explained Taylor.

Of course, all those policy team experts have full-time jobs of their own and can’t derail their entire day to answer Facebook comments, so both the social and social response teams dedicate time before publishing new Facebook posts trying to anticipate what kind of questions will emerge from the community. “We do these documents called ‘Tough Q&A,’” said Taylor. “What are the toughest questions people can ask about this? After you do it again and again, you get better and better at anticipating what they’re going to ask.”

Because of how the Facebook algorithm works, the first few comments typically gather the most engagement and therefore remain pinned to the top of the thread for drive-by viewers of the post. This means that the social response team has to be on high alert prior to a post going live, ready to jump into the thread immediately. “We found that the first five or 10 minutes are really crucial for these posts,” said Taylor. “There are posts about healthcare this year that reached three, four million unique people on Facebook, so the audience is huge. But the first five to 10 minutes really steer the thread of the comments.” To help goad the comment thread in a particular direction, AARP will often post the very first comment within seconds after the post goes live. In that post about the CEO’s letter to Senators opposing the tax bill, for instance, AARP left a comment at the top linking to the letter itself and encouraging members to call their Senators.

As the healthcare debate heated up over the summer, the social team noticed something curious: AARP Facebook followers started getting more educated on the legislation and asking more and more sophisticated questions as new versions of the bill were introduced. What started out as generic questions about what AARP was doing to fight it eventually evolved into nuanced policy questions, and the Facebook users even started to recognize individual AARP experts. “Caroline Donaldson who answers most of our advocacy issues, she became almost like a celebrity because so many people would see her that they’d be calling her out by name,” said Chinn.

With the new social response strategy about a year old, AARP is continuing to discuss how it can streamline and improve these efforts, especially from a customer service standpoint. Taylor said they’re increasingly having conversations about how they can get more use out of Facebook Messenger. For many Facebook comments, AARP can respond publicly with its answers, but membership-related questions often get kicked to Messenger because it usually involves an agent having to solicit information from the member in order to pull up their account. “Right now, the social response team responds to, on average, about 100 different Messenger cases per day. They’re all just organically happening within Messenger, so we’re trying to figure out, based on that level of organic interest, what more can we do with it.” For instance, Facebook offers up advertising products that, rather than sending the user to a landing page where they can contact a brand, instead throw the user directly into a Messenger conversation, thereby eliminating a lot of friction.

So what has AARP noticed since rolling out the social response team? Taylor and Chinn told me that they monitor and report on all kinds of metrics, from sentiment analysis to the increase in reach that comes as a result of these comments. Because the Facebook algorithm rewards engagement, the back-and-forth discussions have exposed the content to a much wider audience than would have seen it otherwise. But Chinn told me that, beyond the metrics, he takes the most pride when he sees a total reversal of sentiment from negative to positive due to an interaction. For instance, he pointed to this exchange where a member threatened to not renew her membership:

Taylor and Chinn are confident that the social response team has been a success, not just in increasing the organization’s reach and helping it solve customer service issues, but also in that it’s helped in putting a human face on what can sometimes feel like a faceless, behemoth organization, one that is headquartered far from where most of its members live and historically hasn’t been able to communicate with most members on an individual basis. Chinn pointed to a Facebook comment from a user named Victoria Greenia that summed up and recognized the efforts his team had made:

“It makes you real,” said Chinn. “And human. And if anyone should be that, it should be AARP as a brand out there in the trenches with the people we’re advocating for and want to help. The fact that you can turn around people in that big of a space is incredible.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com