Three questions on the back of the Connected Housing Index 2013

Finally found some time to pen my thoughts about the recent release of this year’s Connected Housing Index developed by @VisceralBiz

I was one of the contributors to the report alongside Brett Saddler, Deena Samani and Sean Wijesiri. I’m sure it was useful for Anne McCrossan and co at Visceral Business to share the load a bit this year and I know I found it beneficial to play my part in the research by looking at facebook use by over 200 housing associations.

It’s been great to read some of the initial buzz from the report with worthy blog posts already on the subject from Jayne Hilditch and Thom Bartley (if there are any more out there so far, I’d love you to share them with me).

Anne at Visceral Business held a Google Hangout on Monday which got a few of us together to discuss the findings of the report and to post three further questions. Here were some of my thoughts on these, in relation to social media:

1. What makes the best kind of housing provider in a connected social and commercial environment and how can digital and social help?

I’m not a Chief Exec or a Director so I’m perhaps not best to answer this one, however, I would suggest the best housing provider is one that’s open to change. We cannot afford, as a sector, to shun digital and ignore the social, cost and efficiency benefits of embracing it. There are of course numerous fundamental issues to resolve around digital inclusion (which is a blog post, nay, a website in itself) and connectivity first but there are plenty of opportunities available to us. The amount of money that can be saved around reducing printing and posting alone makes it worth looking into it more seriously to fund the shortfall in our digital strategies (cue Asif Choudry to champion the benefits of an integrated marketing campaign which still includes print 😉 ).

Like Nick Atkin has presented on previously, there’s also an awful lot for us to learn from the commercial sector – there are so many great examples of online brand expression and customer service from the likes of Innocent, Argos & O2. Let’s get more of our personalities out on show for all to see. Digital is a great way to do this. Let’s also stop looking at each other and learn from outside instead.

2. Should housing organisations be aiming for a thin presence across all social media platforms or concentrating on just a few?  

For me this is quite a simple one – be where the majority of your customers are whilst keeping a keen ear to the ground. Aside from offline surveys and customer profiling, there are plenty of free or low-cost monitoring tools to hunt out what’s been said about your company online. Stuff like Social Mention is a great starting point to scour the web using keyword searches. Stick your HA’s name in there, you’d be amazed what people are saying about you and where they are saying it.

For those who are more mature with their social media strategy, analytical tools such as Google Analytics should help to show what’s working and what’s not in terms of referring traffic to your website (assuming that’s why we’re using social media…right?). Free social media dashboards are also worth installing on it to get a clear view of what’s going on. For example – over the last quarter, 15% of referrals to our North Lincolnshire Homes part of ongo website came from social media, and 78.5% of these come from our facebook page. We also know that we have a heck of a lot more customer enquiries through FB than Twitter. Therefore we are investing more time and energy into improving our facebook use at the moment.

Customers are savvy though and will post their comments or complaints on whatever platform that’s right for them. We can probably guide them to where we’d like them to be but we can’t force them. For us at ongo at the moment, it’s about following them. For others, it’s about starting their own online communities and trying to attract customers to use them. I’m yet to remain convinced on this one. For me, bespoke online communities are great in principle but it’s another level of commitment or involvement to ask of our customers. It’s hard enough keeping track of the amount of social networks we, as housing professionals and individuals use without introducing other communities to join, monitor and contribute too. Maybe once Thom Bartley has played his hand on his vision of an online community by next year’s report, I’ll be eating my words. I hope so. It’s exciting in theory.

To answer the question in short, I’d say rather than spreading thinly, it’s best to “land grab” a username on each of the major social networks but focus on the ones your customers are using first, whilst being open to trying out new social networks as they come on the scene. Thom Bartley recognises that #ukhousing needs to check out Instagram whilst Brett Sadler thinks this is the year Google+ will be big for us. I agree with both of these sentiments and I’m going to throw Snapchat into the ring as well as an exciting possibility for #ukhousing to embrace in 2014.

3. What’s the best way to become more customer & outcome driven and to develop deeper engagement with residents?

A toughy to answer but at times I don’t think as a sector we help ourselves with this one – through lack of resource, lack of skills or even fear. For example, a significant number of housing associations I looked at didn’t allow customers to post content to their company facebook walls so it’s unsurprising engagement and adoption is so low online. Worst case scenario, customers will set up their own online pressure groups in response. I’ve seen a few of these over the course of my research.

Yes, there are resource implications to successfully manage social networks but it’s a case of a channel shift rather than reinventing the wheel. Why can’t a telephone advisor perform the same role on facebook? It’s an easy mistake(?) to let the Comms team handle it on their own as it soon becomes unmanageable (we did it ourselves).Of course, it’s important to maintain a grip on reputation management but the capacity lies with the knowledgeable ones in the customer service team. Through positive customer service experiences online we’ve noticed and increase in engagement with other things online too. There are other problems to consider of course such as the integration of social media contacts with “woeful” housing management systems, to quote Liz Haworth at Helena.

Speaking of engagement…in the report I think there’s too much emphasis on number of likes or followers being an indication of engagement – these are completely different things in my opinion. More needs to be done in next year’s report around this. What do we actually class as engagement online? How do we actually measure this? How do we become more open about this? What do you think?

Jayne Hilditch has proposed we obtain more data around the use of online tenancy accounts through HAs being more transparent about their online service provision, this is a great idea and I think there’s a lot to learn about what works and what doesn’t. There’s also a piece of work to be done around times of access by customers. This has been mentioned in brief in the past and I know Paul Taylor at Bromford has talked about the possibility of scrapping this idea of operating just 9-5 online.

All in all, I don’t think there’s a magic-bullet answer to this question but the report’s suggestion about HR departments encouraging digital skills training, staff becoming more confident online and Jayne’s proposal for a “‘futureologist’ who gets digital” at board level are all going to help with this.

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So there we have it. It’s been my first blog post in a long while so I look forward to hearing your responses to this. Thanks to Anne and the team at Visceral Business for the opportunity to contribute to a valued national study.