Do you know your LinkedIn from your Facebook, or how often to ‘tweet’ on Twitter? Having become well established among individual consumers, social networks are now being used by all types of commercial organisations to communicate with customers, prospects and staff. Housing Technology asked a number of housing associations how they use social media and their advice for organisations thinking of embracing this new communication medium.
Social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, have risen to prominence in the last few years with stratospheric rates of growth among the consumer population. However, there has been a lag between consumer adoption of these services and the awareness by commercial organisations, government agencies and news services, to name but a few, of the potential these services offer as a new communications channel.
Put aside any pre-conceptions about social media only being relevant to or used by young people to augment their already-prolific text messaging habits. While social media can be used to keep a wide circle of contacts updated on the state of your relationships or your behaviour the previous evening, this article is more interested in how housing providers can use social media as another interactive channel to communicate with tenants, staff, stakeholders and other interested groups, such as the local press.
In general, social media and networks can be described as tools which enable one-to many two-way communication. This means that you can publish news and information to a self-selecting group of people, such as your Twitter followers, who in turn can use the same service to contact you direct.
Why use social networks?
Housing Technology believes that there are two main reasons to consider social networks. First, it is an additional communications channel to augment most organisations’ existing web, call centre, face-to-face, telephone and email channels. The second is its widespread adoption, particularly among younger demographic groups. Ian Jacobs, senior analyst for customer interaction technologies at Datamonitor, said, “Social networks will not be a flash-in-the-pan craze and will not simply disappear or burn themselves out. Companies that choose to ignore this trend will relegate themselves to the outdated, ‘fuddy-duddy’ camp and maybe even to obsolescence.”
Places for People and Freebridge Community Housing have both embraced the interactive elements of social networks. Ollie Lawson, public relations executive at Places for People, said, “There is no longer any relevance or merit in one-way communications – the future is interactive, not necessarily proactive or reactive. Social media enables us to do this and it is quickly becoming an important resource with which to reach our key audiences.”
Sean Kent, finance and information director at Freebridge Community Housing, added, “We are increasingly aware that many of our tenants are using Facebook and Twitter and have even seen some them using social networks to try to set up mutual exchanges. As a communication tool, we believe that social media encourages a greater depth of communication and involvement. It can even facilitate polls, surveys, feedback, collaboration or voting feedback.”
Existing customer channels, such as telephone and email, are less attractive to younger tenants, so these services allow housing providers to engage better with a growing demographic group among their tenants. Malcolm Wilson, resources director for RCT Homes, explained, “We’re using social media to communicate with our younger residents, with the aim of involving them in the decision-making processes concerning our core values.”
Sue Williams, new media marketing manager at Wrekin Housing Trust, agreed and added, “Social networks are about communicating with our younger tenants. But a knock-on effect has been that local media follow us as well and can sometimes pick up stories that they otherwise may not have been aware of.”
Where to start?
The two most commonly-used services among our housing contributors are Twitter and Facebook. Robin Cordy, account manager for new media consultancy TH_NK, advised, “There are several major front runners which every business should consider, with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube being the most obvious. There may also be industry-specific social networks or community sites that can offer an organisation another way to interact with customers.”
Keep it relevant
There is a fairly clear demarcation between consumer-to-consumer communications, which tend to be fairly trivial, and business-to-consumer communications which are usually news-based, such as service and product updates and notices of forthcoming events. As such, information published by housing providers using social networks should not differ from information disseminated by other channels – it is merely a question of a different format and length, particularly in the case of Twitter with its 140-character limit.
Ian Jacobs from Datamonitor said, “When done properly, social network-based customer service interactions drive increased intimacy between company and customer. Customers feel that the company listens to, understands and cares about their preferences.”
The frequency of updates is also important. The general rule is to only publish content updates when you have something new and relevant to say to your audience. Sue Williams from Wrekin Housing said, “We have no set interval, just when there’s something worth saying. There’s nothing worse than either bombarding people with several ‘tweets’ a day or updates such as, ‘I’m looking out of the office window and it’s a nice day.’”
Robin Cordy from TH_NK explained, “The frequency of updates very much depends on the site or medium in question, but there is nothing worse for brand perception than to establish a social media presence which then becomes stale and outdated. For Twitter, organisations may want to do several updates per day at regular intervals, but not too many at once. There is also generally a 10-1 rule, in that only one message in 10 should be strongly marketing orientated, and the others should aim to give something back to customers, in order to prevent them becoming disengaged.”
Updating and maintaining housing providers’ presence on social networks tends to be the responsibility of the communications and PR teams. Sean Kent from Freebridge Community Housing explained, “Mindful of the pitfalls of social media, we have a policy that reminds staff of legal and other issues. We strongly believe that social media will develop to complement existing communications channels over the next few years and will be favoured by many of our tenants. Hence we want to develop our usage in conjunction with them, adding social media to everyone’s toolkit.”
Cordy from TH_NK added, “Effective social media engagement does require a financial and staffing commitment from the business in order to succeed, although the rewards are well worth it. Any engagement also needs to be supported by a social media strategy, based on the outcomes of research and analysis. Usually this would be owned by the PR and marketing team, and governed by a clear set of guidelines and corporate messages.”
Over at RCT Homes in Wales, Malcolm Wilson said, “Social media publishing is jointly run by the communications and tenant empowerment teams, and as we are based in Wales, the content is all bilingual.”
Automating social media
However Housing Technology expects that most of this publishing responsibility will soon shift to the tenant services and CRM teams as social networks become an accepted part of all organisations’ overall external communications strategy alongside web, email and call centres. Furthermore, we expect that customer interaction and CRM technology suppliers will soon offer integrated support for social networks within their existing applications or as add-on modules, in much the same way that support for two-way text messaging has been added to CRM systems recently.
The main reason behind this is the lack of scalability of most organisations’ social media strategy. Most housing providers’ social media operations are carried out by a small number of enthusiastic staff but this model cannot scale to meet the expected growth of social networking. As with other communications channels, the answer is to automate some of the processes using technology, allowing existing CRM environments to handle some or all of these business-to-consumer interactions.
Organisation adopting social networks as an additional communications channel need to think about how they will monitor and assess the success of their strategy. The main measurement used by housing providers and other commercial organisations is the number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers. While it is a relatively crude measure, it does give a reasonable indication of how well you are engaging with your target audience.
Robin Cordy from TH_NK said, “Social media can be measured in a number of ways, although as it is still relatively new, it is not always easy. Tools such as Radian 6 can be used for reputation monitoring; it scans selected sites across the web based on keywords and delivers analysis which allows organisations to monitor trends and assess the impact of their social media engagement.”
Who is talking about you?
One of the key characteristics of social media is that consumers often have larger online networks than real-world friends and colleagues. This leads to ‘viral’ communications; one customer or tenant’s good experience is no longer likely to be heard about by that person’s four close friends but by hundreds, if not thousands of people. The opposite is also true, with complaints about products and services ‘going viral’ very quickly.
Monitoring and responding to comments and complaints posted on social networks tends to be a manual process for most housing providers, sometimes supported by an online monitoring plan. As Ollie Lawson from Places for People explained, “The speed of communication is now phenomenal, with people updating anywhere, anytime. The potential impact that can have on our reputation and how we manage that is something we are actively exploring.”
Robin Cordy from TH_NK said, “A difficult concept for some marketers to accept is that in the world of social media, an organisation is no longer in control of its own brand – customers can say what they like about a brand and others will listen. Any comment about the organisation presents an opportunity. Negative comments can help organisations to understand what customers’ concerns are, why they exist and how they can be remedied. Organisations should view this as an opportunity to engage with those customers and change their opinions.”
Dip a toe in the water
As Datamonitor and other research organisations have said, social networks are unlikely to be a passing fad. Facebook, Twitter and other services will become part of tenants’ everyday ‘communications fabric’ so the sooner that housing providers engage with their tenants and other stakeholders via social media alongside their existing communications channels, the sooner they can develop an holistic communications strategy.
Housing Technology strongly advises all housing providers to at least dip a toe in the water by setting up a Twitter or Facebook account and starting to publish news and updates. Set yourself reasonable expectations; you won’t gain hundreds of followers overnight but it will give you an idea of the potential of social media without needing to invest too much time or financial resources.
You can also use those same services to communicate with other housing providers to find out what they’re doing, ask their advice and learn from their mistakes. In the meantime, don’t forget to follow Housing Technology on Twitter at twitter.com/housingtech.