Sunday, 26 October 2008

Social Media part 6

I hope that, if you have read my blog posts so far, you are convinced that Social media is important. So how could we use it in our organisations? The ideas below (and in forthcoming posts) are not an exhaustive list, but hopefully they'll provide fuel for thought, give you an idea of the range of tools available, and show some practical things that we could do.

In part 4 of the above blog series I listed the factors identified by the authors of Groundswell:
  • Listening - to better understand your communities;
  • Talking - to spread messages;
  • Energising - to engage your most enthusiastic people and allow them to spread the message even more;
  • Supporting - providing tools for people to support each other: self-help;
  • Embracing - integrating people into the way you work, e.g. getting them to help design and change your services.
These are not mutually exclusive, but they do form a kind of progression in that if one is completely new to Social Networking it probably isn't a good idea to start out by trying to support or embrace one's customers before having tried to listen and talk. So the examples that follow are not things we should try to do all at once!


In the same blog entry mentioned above (part 4, 23rd October) I noted that the traditional ways of "listening" to customers were through surveys and focus groups (there is also, of course, customer feedback via complaints and at the point of service). These are very crude mechanisms because:
  • Surveys - only capture information about the questions we ask so there is a wealth of potential information we miss;
  • Focus groups - are better at getting wide ranging information, but the number of people who contribute is small and the time available is short so again the range and depth of information capture is not great;
  • Complaints - provide very rich information about the things that we get wrong (or that annoy customers), but they are reactions to specific issues and thus are limited in scope;
  • Feedback - is similar to complaints (or compliments, if we get them), i.e. it tends to be very specific, also we tend not to be very consistent at recording this when it occurs.
What we really need is a kind of extended focus group with both more participants and longer time span. Also such a tool could be more wide ranging in its topics. So how can Social Media help? The following tools could be used:

Discussion forum
A typical discussion forum is divided up into broad topic areas, and within each topic you can create discussion threads on specific subjects. Each thread can be added to by the participants of the forum. For a council, for example, it would be very easy to set up public discussion forums for citizens and businesses. There are various models we could use, for example we could have one big forum for everyone and divide this up into broad categories such as geographic areas, service functions and personal/business interests. Or we could create several forums for each of these main topic areas and subdivide those: e.g. area forums could be subdivided into service functions.

Discussion forum issues:
  • How to recruit forum participants: Several media can be used for this - adverts on the council web site and in the council newsletters, press releases, posters, etc. Once people start to participate, the population will grow if they see it as a good thing (but it will quickly fail if they don't).
  • Limiting participants to the right groups: Forums can be completely open access or can be restricted via a registration process. For example, the registration process could require address details and if the address is outside of a given area, registration could be refused.
  • What to do about malicious posts: The forum can be moderated, so that when a new message or reply is posted it has to be reviewed before being published - this is optional. Or regular and frequent monitoring of published posts can take place, with malicious ones identified and removed. We would need to have resources to do this.
  • Making sure the forum is living and sustainable: The first issue above noted that forums can grow via word of mouth, or die from the same medium. We would need to invest resource to make sure that questions are swiftly and honestly answered so that participants feel we really are listening and really are taking note of what is said. If we use the forum to broadcast corporate messages, or don't reply quickly and honestly to posts, or are seen to dissemble, the forum will not succeed.
Many councils and similar organisations already publish blogs - though often as a way of talking to the audience and not truly as a listening/engaging exercise (old method thinking prevails). Blogs are slightly less free-form than discussion forums because the blog owner has control over new article posts. Once a new article has been posted, blog readers can post replies / comments and the blog owner can do so as well. So a similar thread can be built up. The other main difference is that a discussion forum is less personal: participants are talking to "the council". Blogs are usually badged personally (e.g. the Leader's blog, the CEO's blog) so people feel they are talking to that person specifically. Thus a blog can be a very rich and rewarding mechanism for a specific person to engage with a wide audience. Again this is something that we can set up very quickly and easily.

Blog issues:
  • The same issues as for discussion forums, plus...
  • The personal touch: Because blogs are badged personally they need to be regulated in this manner. If we have a CEO's blog, for example, then the CEO should be the person who reads and responds to article responses. This is potentially a big drain so we need to be careful about using this mechanism and managing participants' expectations. People would far rather know that the CEO (in this example) will himself reply in 2-3 weeks (say), than think that a swift reply is actually generated by a delegated person.
The structure of wikis is usually that they have a main article page, and behind this a page editing history and page discussion area. For example if you look at Wikipedia each page has tabs across the top for article, discussion, history and "edit this page". Essentially a wiki can be used in a similar way to a forum, but in a more structured manner. Each "article" could be a specific topic with factual information provided up front by the council (e.g. Recycling) and the underlying discussion area can be used to generate the discussion about this item. The discussion can have threads, like in forums. Another advantage is that the wiki form can allow resources within the council to target themselves more precisely. For example if there is a recycling article only staff who are involved in that area need regularly monitor that page and they can ignore the other pages.

Wiki issues:
  • The same as for discussion forums, plus...
  • Article editing: A typical wiki would allow anyone to create and edit the main article pages (as well as discuss them). A council wiki may want to limit this to staff only.
Any of the above can be used to create an environment where potentially we can listen to our citizens and local businesses much more effectively than we do right now. The wealth of information we can gather potentially is vastly greater than by any of the traditional means. The cost of setting up any of the above is relatively small, but the resources required to monitor (listen, respond and sometimes police) should not be under estimated. As already stated, if people suspect they are being preached to, manipulated or ignored, the initiative will quickly fail and could backfire by damaging our reputation.
In future blog posts I'll be dealing with the other engagement factors listed, so up next will be "Talking".

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