3 ways housing associations can embrace social media

My role at Third Sector Lab has allowed me to work with a number of housing associations and housing charities on social media training and strategy development. Digital isn’t about asking staff to find an additional four hours a week to ‘do’ social media. Rather it offers housing associations an opportunity to get their job done more effectively and efficiently than ever before. For me there are three key areas where housing associations can really make the most of social media – community building & customer service, thought leadership and storytelling.

Community building & customer service
Many housing associations have chosen a Facebook Page as their primary space to engage residents online when in actual fact a Facebook Group may be more appropriate for their needs. A simple Google search of ‘Facebook Groups vs Pages’ will help you weigh up the pros and cons. To paraphrase, a Page is a great marketing tool but it’s rare to see one work as an an online community for residents – that’s where Groups really come into their own.

Like many housing associations, Yarlington Housing Group had a small core group of involved residents, but the majority were older and retired. Ken Comber, Head of Communities at Yarlington, wanted to engage younger, more diverse tenants to become part of their resident focus groups. It was important that barriers, such as mental health, physical disability or location, didn’t impede the housing association’s methods of communication. With that in mind, Ken took the plunge and developed a Facebook group called Yarlington Chat. 18 months on, the group now has over 3200 residents signed up.

Yarlington Housing have found that while there are occasional complaints and criticism, most of the posts residents make are positive. Staff have built meaningful relationships with residents, increasing take up of opportunities, such as on training and digital inclusion projects. Ken also found that residents were answering each other’s questions and this resulted in fewer queries coming in to the office – streamlining the business.

Real friendships were formed. Isolated members of society became involved in the communities around them online. Members were offering help and support to each other in areas as diverse as depression and housing benefits. For Yarlington, their Facebook Group has become both a key customer service channel and a vital community building tool.

Thought leadership
Working in the social housing sector is about so much more than providing accommodation. Whether it’s the bedroom tax or making housing affordable for first time buyers there’s some huge issues affecting the sector. Every housing association should have a blog where your Chief Executive, Chairperson or policy specialist can offer their insights on the big issues. If you’re new to blogging a great role model to look towards is Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). JRF blog posts are genuinely interesting or useful and never focus on organisational ‘news’, for example: ‘Care about poverty? Here are 10 reasons why you also need to think about ethnicity’ or ‘The #indyref debate on housing in Scotland needs to go beyond the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. If your housing association doesn’t currently have ability to blog look at guest blogging on sites with existing audiences, such as The Guardian Housing Network. A blog used in tandem with an active Twitter presence is a formidable communications tool.

Storytelling
Video and audio are hugely underused mediums within the social housing sector. While dull, lengthy corporate videos are ten a penny it is rare to see short, engaging content that tells the difference housing associations make on a daily basis. Using simple, free apps like Soundcloud, Audioboo, Instagram Video, Vine and YouTube frontline staff can become social reporters, demonstrating the impact of their work as they go via short conversations with residents. Audio storytelling in particular lets you focus on a person’s voice. In many ways, it’s a more intimate form of storytelling than using video. People are often more comfortable speaking into a microphone than they are looking into a camera.

How could your housing association embrace social media?

This article originally appeared in the Nov 2014 issue of Housing Scotland Magazine.