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.


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.

10 thoughts on “Three questions on the back of the Connected Housing Index 2013

  1. Great blog Rob, really enjoyed reading it.

    Online communities is a toughy. Getting users to sign up and stay engaged is going to be very very difficult, there’s no two ways about it and therefore the possibility of failure is pretty high. If someone can get it right though and keep people involved I believe it’ll become an invaluable tool and opportunity. We’ll see what the future brings!

    There’s no certainty to the future apart from that technological and social advancement isn’t going to be slowing down. Therefore we can make plans and predictions but the most important thing is that we adapt, move quickly and stay open to the possibility of change and eating our words if the market demands it.

    Hopefully you’ll blog more frequently in future.

    Nice one!

    • Great points Rob, and Thom’s comments are spot on too.

      For anyone reading this debating how much focus to put on digital, consider this:

      The complicated, convoluted mechanics of how the internet works and how an organisation’s online presence, influence and authority are measured mean that an online / digital presence takes substantial time to build – we’re talking months / years, not days and weeks!

      Consequently, if you get left behind there is no quick way to catch up….and by the time you’ve caught up it’s moved on even more!!

      Thanks for taking the time to blog Rob, am looking fwd. to reading more!

      • Hi Dan, thanks for hopping on over here. You’re right, it’s certainly not a quick fix this digital malarkey. Key I guess is how to try and stay focused on the important stuff and filter the rest.

  2. Hi Rob, this is a really thoughtful post with some great insights in it.

    It’s maybe worth mentioning we developed the report the way we did to help illustrate the benefits of networked collaboration and to help HA’s get a sense of what that can generate as value, both for them and stakeholders alike to increase quality of engagement – a case of ‘being the change’.

    Thom talks about establishing communities as being tough. There’s no straight line to success, that’s true. That said, after nearly six years’ of experience developing sustainable online cultures and digital communities with clients, it’s very easy for conventional management to not see the value of online communities which connect front end engagement to back office account management simply because of a lack of familiarity with them. It’s a bit like trying to explain what a Rubik cube is to someone who hasn’t seen one. And because HA’s aren’t used to working this way they therefore lack the skills to do it. This is the kind of Catch 22 situation that I want to change.

    It’s been interesting to see how the Connected Housing study project has this year been able to open up a conversation about this because, I think, of the way we structured the approach. Your perspective and insights as a result are terrific and it’s been great to work with you.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Anne. On your second paragraph – I think sometimes the disconnect is a misunderstanding of how complicated it can be to set up something of that scale. I suppose you’ve got to start somewhere which is where social media helps, no massive outlay in terms of tech or development – just staff time, effective planning/training and not being afraid to make the odd mistake on there. A more integrated community is an exciting place to strive towards though so hopefully 2014 will bring more of that into the fore.

  3. Hello Rob. Great blog post! It was great being part of the Visceral Report team as well.

    It will be interesting to see if Instagram, G+ and Snapchat take off in #ukhousing for 2014. I’m sure we’ll debate as the year go’s on!

    • Thanks Brett. I’ve just been playing with the Google Authorship settings as a result of wanting to use G+ more this year. Didn’t realise but it’s not turned on by default so any blog post you make doesn’t have the possibility of showing up with your face and G+ link (which apparently encourages more people to click the link). Anyway, it’s in Settings->Sharing and under Google+ Profile, underneath the Publicize bit in case you were interested.

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