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Social media: a natural connection for social housing?

Social media has become a huge part of our daily lives in recent years but what impact has this shift in the way that we communicate had on housing providers and their relationship with clients? By Michelle Gordon

 

BILLIONS of people worldwide log onto platforms such as Twitter and Facebook every month. From sharing holiday snaps and catching up on the news, to reviewing services, making complaints and researching and buying goods social media has had a huge impact on our everyday lives.

But as the way in which we choose to communicate changes how can housing providers ensure that they stay on top when it comes to tenant engagement? Isos Housing Group, Salix Homes and Your Homes Newcastle (YHN) all make use of social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook to engage with tenants and external stakeholders.

“Social media has enriched how we communicate with our tenants and other stakeholders, providing an effective, efficient and engaging way to get messages out quickly,” said James Allan, marketing and communications manager at Salix Homes, which has been developing its social media offering since 2012.

Salix Home is ranked fourth in the Top 100 Connected Housing Index, which monitors the digital footprint of more than 230 housing providers from across the UK, and one of the organisation’s objectives is to achieve a 50% channel shift in the focus of its customer service away from traditional routes to “digital and self service options” by 2020.

It uses platforms including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube to develop awareness about the range of services that it provides; to encourage feedback about its services; to promote open communication with customers, to drive traffic to the organisation’s website and keep stakeholders informed of the work that it does.

Facebook is Salix Homes’ primary social media channel for customer engagement with tenants accounting for around 95% of its audience. It is used to highlight news, events and meetings; keep stakeholders informed about the work it does; develop further awareness about the range of services it provides; encourage feedback about its services, promote open communication with customers, drive traffic to the Salix Homes website and promote online transactions. In 2014 it introduced a Facebook app to channel rent payments and other queries and it is currently formalising this by integrating social media queries into its CRM system.

“I firmly believe in using spaces where our customers are choosing to communicate. Our customers use social media so we need to go there,” said Allan. Isos Housing Group has two main Facebook accounts ‘talktoIsos’ and ‘cestriahousing,’ which work alongside accounts for its Extra Care schemes and are primarily used for communicating with tenants.

They feature news which affects tenants; details of new properties that are available to rent or buy; information about events being coordinated by the community investment teams; advice from the benefits and money team and regular promotion of the online services provided by Isos, such as paying rent, reporting anti-social behaviour and logging repairs.

Isos also shares regional and national news which it believes will affect residents such as changes to the benefit system and new housing legislation, as well as promoting the work of its partners and organisations that it has invested in through its community strategy.

“Social media enables our customers to contact us at a time to suit them rather than having to call us during office hours,” said its assistant director, people, Jennifer Flint. “It can also be a very effective means to get important messages to our customer base, alongside our websites rather than relying on costly leaflets and printed newsletters.”

YHN has a “main corporate” Facebook page as well as a page for each of its five local housing offices, which it uses to communicate with tenants. As well as allowing tenants to be able to contact the organisation directly with queries the main page is used to promote positive news, share information and changes in Government policy, to share e-newsletters, to inform tenants about jobs and other opportunities to get involved with YHN and to post content on behalf of the city council, other partner organisations and community organisations. The local housing office pages post content that is relevant to that particular geographical area, as well as featuring the corporate posts. Its tenants use Facebook for a wide variety of enquiries from routine questions about services, to logging repairs and maintenance enquiries.

“Social media allows us to talk to tenants in an arena where they are comfortable and in a way that is easy for them. It also provides us with new ways to work with tenants,” said Daniel McGuinness, lead communications officer at YHN.

“We run a number of closed Facebook groups, some with very tight privacy settings, some open profile pages and of course the ability to private message, all of which means hopefully there is an option to suit everyone and every type of enquiry.

“It also makes it easier for tenants to provide information to illustrate queries faster and around their lifestyles – they can do it all with the phone.”

Social media is “just as vital” as traditional routes such as email, telephone and face-to-face meetings in engaging and interacting with tenants but merely having a presence is not enough explained Allan.

Consumer expectations are shifting, he said, and social media doesn’t operate on a 9 – 5 basis. “We recognise that and ensure our sites are monitored and responded to constantly. We need to be continually active on these sites – putting up posts each day – to drive engagement and informing our customers of what is available to them and what is happening within their communities.

“With more and more people using social media, on their laptops and smart devices, it is vital that housing associations like ourselves are not only keeping up with consumer trends, but finding innovative ways to tap into that space. Those high levels of engagement can pay dividends when you need to get important messages out quickly.”

When the River Irwell burst its banks on Boxing Day 2015 flooding more than 300 Salix Homes’ properties social media proved to be a vital tool for communicating with residents. “It provided a lifeline for people wanting, and needing, to find out crucial information,” said Allan. “In a vacuum where trusted information is limited, we found a huge spike in our tweet impressions and Facebook reach, multiplying many times over.

“This clearly shows that the public were using social media to keep updated with information and vindicated our approach to using social media as a key channel in crisis management.”

All three housing providers tend to take more of a corporate focus with Twitter and use it to engage with businesses and partner organisations, although it still plays a role in communicating with tenants and responding to queries. Salix Homes has more than 5,000 followers on Twitter.

“We treat Twitter fairly similar to Facebook, but it is a social media site that offers more interactions/engagement with businesses, partner agencies and organisations,” said Allan. “It can be a site that highlights our work on a much wider geographical scale and you can tweet a lot, compared to Facebook.”

Social media has helped to widen participation among Salix Homes, tenants, and to connect better with people who may find it more difficult to communicate in traditional ways such as newsletters, phone calls and tenant meetings.

“We know many of our tenants use social media daily and our posts can give us another avenue of informing our customers of news, events and meetings close to where they live. But these sites also give us the chance to deal with queries and shows the customer and the general public as to how quickly and efficiently these queries can be dealt with, ” said Allan.

McGuinness added: “The insight it gives you into who actually opens and reads your communications is invaluable and is helping us to tailor our communications better” Facebook and Twitter has also changed the way in which complaints about service are lodged bringing people’s comments about dissatisfaction firmly into the public domain. Discussions that once took place behind closed doors are now conducted in front of an audience and a swift and efficient response is key.

“Social media is all pervasive now, so no serious customer-facing business can afford to ignore it,” said Flint. “Our customers discuss Isos, for good or for ill, on social media, so we want to have a strong presence there to enable us to be part of those conversations and also to communicate with our stakeholders.”

Salix Homes has “embraced” the fact that complaints have been brought into the public realm by social media said Allan. “Where 10 years ago a complaint or negative feedback would be shared solely between the complainant and the person handling the complaint, the potential for a negative comment to be seen by your entire social media audience, and many times more if it is shared, is now a very real possibility,” he explained.

“Whilst this may seem a daunting prospect, if handled appropriately, that is also a lot of people who can see a complaint handled and resolved swiftly by an organisation who is transparent, proactive and responsive. Invariably the customer will also acknowledge their thanks for the outcome.”

Flint added: “When we first started using Facebook, there were concerns within the organisation that we might be opening up a channel which could expose Isos to more criticism, but in fact – while we do have to deal with some dissatisfied customers – we actually benefit from our followers being able to understand more about Isos, our values, and how we run the organisation.”

Social media is not just a platform for engaging with tenants, it can be used reach a wider audience and to promote organisations and the wider sector to the general public. It forms an integral part of Salix Homes’ marketing and campaign strategies and it has used social media to drive public votes for its community awards, as well as running overnight Tweetathons to highlight the work of the sector, while the organisation’s new “Love Your Neighbourhood” campaign is anchored in social media.

“Social media can enable us to tell our story to a large geographical audience. We can showcase our service to fellow housing providers, partner agencies, businesses, professionals and the wider public, helping to raise our profile and position ourselves as an organisation. In the past, targeted Facebook advertising and celebrity endorsements have also helped extend our reach,” said Allan.

It has “definitely” helped Isos to reach a wider audience giving it another channel to communicate the work that it does said Flint. “From a stakeholder perspective, we now have over 1,500 followers on Twitter for the main Isos Housing account, and our messages get out to a much wider audience, and an influential audience, through liking and sharing.”

While social media is changing the way in which housing providers are communicating it hasn’t entirely replaced more traditional ways of interacting. While YHN is now doing a lot more online, via its website, e-newsletters and social media platforms it has also retained the use of printed material for communicating with tenants as it recognises that a large portion of its residents are digitally excluded and there are those who simply prefer more traditional methods of communication.

“For this reason, social media very much supports our other forms of communication, so as to not exclude these people,” said McGuinness. “Social media complements our other communications, rather than replacing them”.

And as more people embrace online services there is a growing expectation on organisations to provide a more efficient and comprehensive social media offering.

“In today’s digital era it’s more important than ever that we make it as simple as possible for our tenants to connect with us online,” said Allan. “It remains a key priority for us to continue to develop our digital services and make it easier than ever for our customers to communicate with us online. We will be looking in the near future as to how we can further develop and improve our digital channels, with social media a key part of that process.”

 

This article first appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 print edition of Housing magazine

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