Put on your digital face
Social networking is slowly becoming mainstream practice for social landlords. But, as many social tenants still don’t have regular online access, Tom Lloyd investigates why landlords should embrace digital communications
‘Morning all,’ chirps a cheery Twitter message from a housing provider. This is followed around eight hours later by another tweet: ‘Bye for now, see you tomorrow.’ It’s probably fair to say this is not exactly the cutting edge of social media.
Nonetheless, increasing numbers of social landlords are now using platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Landlords that are leading the way are offering employees corporate Twitter accounts, encouraging them to set up Facebook pages and issuing them with the mobile hardware they need to engage with online communities.
The question for other providers is, should they follow this lead, or is it best to let a corporate Facebook page and Twitter account tick the ‘social media’ box, and hold back while others attempt to negotiate the new media minefield?
For Paul Taylor, innovation coach at Bromford Group, the 27,000-home landlord which has 1,053 followers on Twitter and 180 Facebook likes, the answer is simple. ‘You can’t dip your toes in,’ he says. ‘You are either in it, or you’re not.’ Mr Taylor’s own corporate Twitter account has 2,667 followers.
Connecting with tenants
The most common reason given by housing providers for using social media is to engage with tenants, particularly those who are unlikely to respond to other more established approaches.
‘It gives you the opportunity to talk to people in your community that don’t attend involvement meetings,’ says Ahid Miah, director of social media business Panda Media, which works with housing providers on a range of projects from film production to application development.
Others say there is a risk that if they don’t get involved, they risk being left behind. Nick Atkin, chief executive of 6,000-home Halton Housing Trust, which has more than 2,000 followers on Twitter, says his organisation realised it needed to get more involved when it looked at the tools younger people on its waiting list use to communicate.
‘The majority of our customers were expecting to receive communications from us in ways we don’t currently offer,’ he says.
‘Some of the younger end were saying “we only use email when we are in work”. It got us thinking that we need to come at this from a completely different angle.’
This concern about the potential damage that could occur as a result of not engaging sufficiently with social media is shared by Mr Taylor.
He cites the example of a blog post by a Bromford customer critical of its allocations system, which staff were able to pick up and respond to quickly as a result of the landlord’s focus on social media. ‘This is just a taste of what is to come,’ he says.
Planning your approach
So if you are now sold on the idea of creating an all-singing and dancing social media strategy for your organisation, how should you go about it?
The most well-known platforms are Twitter and Facebook - although others are available - but if you are after customer engagement then most accounts suggest the latter will be the best bet.
‘We use Facebook and Twitter,’ says Steve Finegan, head of business effectiveness and communications at north Manchester arm’s-length management organisation Northwards Housing. ‘Twitter tends to be a different demographic. We do have tenants contacting us through Twitter, but generally it is other housing providers and partners, although we do push information out through Twitter.’
Anil Mehta, customer insight manager at Together Housing Group agrees Facebook is the more effective way to communicate with tenants - one of its members has accumulated 244 likes. ‘Twitter is more business to business,’ he says.
Some landlords are getting a foothold on other platforms. Bolton at Home is one of the few housing providers on the popular image sharing site Pinterest, which it uses to ‘pin’ photos of Bolton, energy saving tips and photos of social housing from around the world. It is early days, however, as it has just 10 followers.
Another big question is, who should be in charge of the social media activity? In the past providers have tended to set up a corporate page in the name of the landlord, and leave the running of it to the communications team. But this is starting to change.
‘At the moment there is a divide between people who just let their communications staff respond and those who are letting customer-facing staff respond to questions,’ says Jacqui Grimes, policy and strategy officer at the Northern Housing Consortium.
James Grant, social media and digital inclusion officer at the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, argues that putting front line staff in charge is the way forward.
‘You need corporate accounts, but if the staff aren’t using it then the staff can’t man it,’ he says. ‘The staff who are the most customer facing are the most natural choice for placing a Facebook page with. If the Facebook page is stuck with the communications team then I’m not going to be able to answer [questions from tenants].’
This is the approach that has been taken on by both Bromford and Halton. Mr Atkin explains: ‘We tried some stuff on Facebook, but people didn’t want to be following some corporate entity. We have our “Beyond the garden gate” improvement programme, so we branded it as that and it absolutely exploded.’
Putting non-media specialists in charge of what are often public communication channels may sound like a slightly risky proposition, but for Mr Atkin the benefits of improved engagement outweigh the risks, and it also appeals to staff.
‘We have also found that in terms of our recruitment, [young employees] have said it is one of the things they value about joining the organisation.’
For Mr Taylor, social media policies can only go so far. ‘To put a set of rules around how people will interact, I think is really difficult,’ he says. ‘Do we trust our colleagues? Yes, we do.’
The public nature of social media is one of the biggest concerns about its use, with every little quibble about repairs and anti-social behaviour posted online for the world to read, but providers and suppliers argue this complete transparency can be an advantage.
‘For me the art is in the response,’ says Mr Finegan. ‘We learnt early on that if you respond [to a complaint] through Twitter and say “can you call us?”, it doesn’t go down too well. Often we have to send two or three tweets to deal with an issue, but we found that does seem to be appreciated and we do have positive feedback as well.’
This in turn raises potential problems around resourcing. Is it realistic to expect front line staff to take on social media management roles on top of their other duties? ‘It is about just doing things differently,’ says Mr Taylor. He says employees need to reduce the time they spend on some types of communication, such as email, in favour of the new channels.’We have an expectation that you have a visible social media presence,’ he says. ‘It is not an option not to do it.’
The other major problem with social media is the elephant-in-the-room issue of digital inclusion. What’s the point of spending time posting messages on the internet if only a tiny minority of tenants can read them?
Figures on how many social tenants don’t have access to the internet are hard to come by. The latest Office for National Statistics figures, covering the second quarter of 2012, show 7.82 million UK adults - 16 per cent - had never used the internet, although as Mr Grant points out these figures don’t tell us how many people have easy access to the web.
Figures are also vague on how many people can access the internet through devices such as smart phones. Some providers, including Together Housing Group, also run services that allow tenants to connect to their digital platforms through satellite TV.
Mr Mehta says Together’s Looking Local microsites - which can be accessed through satellite or cable TV, smart phones, or Facebook - get around 3,500 hits a week, which is 10 times as many as the corporate website.
Mr Taylor admits Bromford doesn’t have accurate figures for how many residents are online, but says for new tenants it is around 89 per cent. He explains: ‘Our longer term approach is to say: “how do we make that 100 per cent?”’
With the government taking a ‘digital by default’ approach to welfare reform, digital inclusion will be an issue landlords must get to grips with anyway.
‘With welfare reform people are going to have to submit their claims online,’ says Mr Atkin. ‘They are going to have to be pretty proficient in basic IT skills. We are in a bit of a transitional phase which is why we still provide material in written format, but I suspect it will be different in three years’ time.’
Does it work?
Despite all the talk about social media, it is clear that only a minority of tenants are currently using it to communicate with their landlords, but it is starting to become more important.
‘It is early days,’ says Mr Taylor. ‘We’ve only given colleagues unrestricted access for just over a year. Unless you have people on there you are not going to get customers engaging that way. It is still a slow build, but it is happening all the time now. We are having to consider the nature of our [employment] contracts because we need people to be active over the weekend.’
Mr Atkin also says there are gains to be made in the type of feedback you can get. He compares two consultation exercises carried out with tenants, one using Facebook and one without. In the first the landlord received 700 responses, in the second it received 70 from a similar size community.
‘The discussion just sort of flowed,’ he says. ‘You could see what people were thinking and what they wanted to prioritise themselves.’
Social media isn’t going to replace traditional forms of communication with tenants any time soon, but it is an increasingly important tool for housing providers. Should you be getting involved? It might be more risky not to. Mr Taylor says: ‘We’re not going to just have one customer blogging about us, we are going to have hundreds, potentially thousands. I’d rather learn the lessons in the early days.’
Facebook and Twitter may be the most commonly used platforms for social media engagement, but they are far from the only options. Housing bodies are exploring a range of possibilities.
ihome app - Northwards Housing
North Manchester ALMO Northwards launched its ihome app about a year ago. Based on an off-the-shelf product from Panda Media, the app runs on a range of smart phones and can be used to report repairs or anti-social behaviour. The app also allows Northwards to engage with tenants by running competitions and promoting events.
‘It’s very much about offering customers choice,’ says Steve Finegan, head of business effectiveness and communications at the ALMO. ‘The phone app was another way to try to engage customers, particularly those who don’t engage with us that much at the moment.’
Around 500 people have downloaded the app since its launch, which doesn’t compare too well with the Northwards website, which gets around 20,000 visits a month, but Mr Finegan is relatively pleased with the results and says people have been using it to report repairs and anti-social behaviour.
‘What we are positive about is with the ihome app we’ve got 500 people who may well not have been engaged with us otherwise, so from that point of view it demonstrates good value,’ he says.
Smarterbuys - Northern Housing Consortium
Sometimes a plain old website is all you need to encourage a new form of tenant engagement. The Northern Housing Consortium’s site is one such example. Each month the umbrella body arranges a discount on an item, which tenants can then buy through the site. This month it’s a cooker.
The supplier benefits from increased sales, and the buyers benefit from getting a good deal. The site also encourages sensible budgeting, by linking the purchase to a credit union, and allowing buyers two weeks to get the cash together.
The site, which launched in April and has around 1,000 members, isn’t just for social tenants. ‘We’ve opened it to everyone, but we are relying on housing providers to help us generate sales,’ says Jacqui Grimes, policy and strategy officer at the NHC.
Online community - Home Group
One way to get round the social media problem of the world seeing your customers’ complaints is to create your own closed discussion forum. This has been done by Home Group, among others, which launched its site last September.
The online community is a discussion forum for tenants rather than a mechanism for direct communication with the landlord, although Home Group staff do monitor the forum and participate where appropriate.
‘We wanted to get an idea of customer insight in real time,’ says Donna Middleton, director of customer contact centre at the landlord. ‘We do surveys, we ask people what they think, but we wanted to get a feel for real insight and the conservations that customers are having with other customers.
‘We tried to create an environment where customers could talk to one another so we could hear it from the horse’s mouth.’
Again, repairs and anti-social behaviour are the biggest issues.
Ms Middleton says the debates have helped the landlord to develop a new repairs policy, and improved its understanding of what residents perceive as anti-social behaviour.
The community has just over 1,000 users, although Ms Middleton says the landlord hasn’t been promoting it heavily. ‘We wanted to test it really, and make sure we could manage it,’ she says.
‘Now we are coming to the point where we are looking at it as part of our bigger channel strategy.’