I’ve been doing a lot more training and consultancy work with housing associations, in particular I’m interested in how housing providers can use social media to connect with young people. In this guest blog post, Molly Howe, E Communictions Officer at Berneslai Homes, looks at their efforts to connect with Generation Y.
Berneslai Homes value social media as one of the key tools to enhance engagement with Generation Y tenants. Having struggled to engage with younger tenants for the past few years, we turned to social media as a prime engagement tool for this specific audience and have found that it has not only allowed us to reach a wider, more diverse audience, but has also boosted our online presence.
A lot of our younger customers are communicating with us online daily, whether it’s asking us to chase up a repair, ask us a general question or tell us about their experiences with us, so it’s absolutely vital that we offer them various social media channels to support their choices in engaging with us digitally. Offering not only younger tenants, but all tenants more free and accessible channels of communication has opened up so many opportunities to communicate with our audience and achieve particular organisational aims.
I personally found it very useful undertaking some research into why Gen Y tenants prefer to use social media as their preferred method of engagement and the results showed exactly what I expected – faster response rates, privacy, no associated costs and it’s much easier for them than picking up the phone. However, I was even more surprised to find that a wide range of tenants prefer social media as their preferred method of engagement, with our second biggest audience being built up of those tenants over the age of 60. With this in mind, my team at Berneslai Homes have spent a large majority of the past year dedicating campaigns and media releases to the world of social media.
Our theory relating to Facebook engagement with younger tenants is that our younger audience prefers to be captured by images, videos and posts that are short and sweet, so most of our campaigns are launched with this in mind. We’ve found that doing this increases our followers at a steady rate as opposed to big surges followed by shortfalls. Part of my role is primarily dedicated to social media engagement so offering an office-hour chat facility is something that really attracts our younger tenants to engage with us via Facebook. We’ve found that this is because of the 3 minute response rate they receive and the fact that it is a free tool that only requires their internet.
What I find particularly interesting is that our Twitter account currently has roughly 1,600 followers, most of them representing partners we work with, relevant organisations and staff members. Not many of our younger tenants are currently engaging with us using this channel and this is something that I personally really want to push over the next year. When speaking with some of our younger tenants, we found that Facebook is the only social media channel that they currently use to engage with us because of its unlimited uses and its popularity amongst their social groups. It seems as though our task for the next year is to combat this and try and increase the engagement with our younger audience through Twitter. We have so far started to implement this by encouraging different departments in the organisation, particularly those with front facing staff, to host their own Twitter accounts relevant to the needs and wants of tenants. For example, our Hoyland Housing Management Team uses their Twitter account to post about tenancies, the local area, rent etc.
Throughout the rest of the year we aim to continue increasing our engagement with younger tenants via social media in the hope that we can build on our current strategy and deliver a highly satisfactory customer service experience to more of our customers.
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.
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.
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?
I cannot believe I’m writing a piece on getting everyone in an organisation involved with social media in 2014, but the reality is most charities and public sector organisations are a long way off truly embracing the medium. Technology isn’t really the issue – it all boils down to trust. That isn’t to say that managers feel their staff will spend all day tweeting photos of their cat, but most don’t feel confident managing a strategic approach to using social channels.
While it’s easy to brush off social media as the responsibility of your marketing or communications person (if you’re lucky enough to have one), if you do, you’re missing a trick. Data shows that employees have greater reach, more influence and generate more revenue than official, branded organisation accounts. The organisation that taps into the reach and influence of its employees is much more likely to succeed in the social age.
So, if you’re tasked with making social media work within your organisation, how do you ensure everyone is on board? Here’s my five top tips which originally appeared in my article for the summer edition of Children in Scotland Magazine:
1. Show people that social media can help them get their job done
Staff don’t have an extra four hours in the week to ‘do’ social media. You need to show them how social media can help get their job done, how you can achieve your team’s goals and how you can reach your key audiences. You need a strategy. It’s a scary word, but, with a framework, you can create something meaningful and succinct.
2. Ensure people feel protected and empowered
If your social media policy was written by your IT-support person, it’s probably 15 pages long and terrifying as hell. He/she may be great at keeping your server ticking over, but they shouldn’t be single-handedly responsible for defining how your organisation communicates with the outside world. You need a policy that protects staff and your organisation, while making staff feel empowered and trusted, allowing them to experiment and drive your online communications. And it needn’t be more than one side of A4.
3. Create social media champions within each team
A strategy is great but without people driving it forward you’ll get nowhere. Start small and recruit social media champions who can get their team enthused – this also gives you a better opportunity to demonstrate impact to executive level staff. Give champions ownership of the channels they’re most experienced with and passionate about. Don’t make your video content champion the person who has never held a camera before.
4. Give volunteers and service users a meaningful role
At Third Sector Lab we spend a lot of our time training volunteers and service users to become social reporters for third sector conferences and events. The rich audio and video content these reporters create really tells the story of a conference in the way a written report cannot. How can you involve volunteers and service users in your online communications in a way that empowers them and tells their story?
5. Make sure the Chief Executive believes
The organisations that thrive in the social space are usually the ones who have a Chief Executive that values staff involvement. Just look at Young Scot – their online presence is driven by Louise MacDonald’s belief that social media can help bring about social good. More importantly she trusts her staff to get the job done using whatever tools necessary. While it can feel an uphill struggle at times, getting people from across the organisation involved in social media is worth the pain. People connect with people – they don’t connect with faceless, branded corporate accounts. If you want to use social media as a campaigning, fundraising and potentially service delivery channel you need to remember that.
Do you have any top tips for getting staff involved in your social media presence?
I was asked to take part in a Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy evidence panel session looking at Digital Democracy this week. You can watch the full session above or if you’d rather be spared my rants here’s what I see as some of the key issues or questions we need to tackle in Scotland:
Unlocking big data
- How can data (intelligence ) ensure we get the right services to the right people?
- How do we ensure data isn’t kept in silos within organisations and across sectors. We can be particularly guilty of this in the charity sector.
- Can we trust our government with our data and should people have open access to all their data?
- Too many local government functions still treat social media as a broadcast mechanism. How do we move towards ensuring government officials at all levels can use social media as an intelligent listening and engagement tool?
- 30% of Scots don’t have basic digital skills.
- 15% of Scots have never used the internet.
- Equipment and broadband access are still prohibitively expensive.
- Are we guilty of using digital exclusion as an excuse for lack of ‘digital first’ service planning within the public and third sector?
- Are we at risk of returning to an age when a narrow elite controlled the democratic process?
Do people actually want ‘Digital Democracy’?
- Much of the chat around digital democracy centres on the need for people to be constantly engaged with the democratic process or community action. Lots of people want a hands-off relationship with democracy – they just want their bins emptied and well trained teachers.
- Is there a danger that digital democracy adds even more layers of bureaucracy if it isn’t a truly fundamental shift in our thinking about democracy and government?
- Do we need to move away from a geographically-centred approach to democracy towards a more interests-centred approach if we are ever going to engage a significant chunk of the population?
I’d love to know what you think on any of these questions.