Monday, 27 October 2008

Social Media part 7

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.
In my last post I wrote about listening. Today we move on to talking.


In many ways this is like listening in that the communication mechanisms can be exactly the same – it's the direction of flow that differs. Notice that I started with listening and rank talking second. This is critical and is a factor that many large organisations get wrong – they are too keen to talk and not keen enough to listen. So this means there is a danger when setting up listening Social Media tools because the temptation can be to use them for talking rather than listening.

How do we currently "talk" to our customers? For many organisations, it's basically in the old fashioned way – through deciding upon a message and then distributing it in a number of media, e.g. print (local press, posters, newsletters), verbal (MP surgeries, Area Committee meetings) and electronically (web sites). And of course we talk through the medium of the services we deliver. That last sentence is a critical one. Imagine: You enter a shop and go to the counter. The two shop assistants are busy chatting to each other. They ignore you. You wait a few moments and then politely ask for service. With obvious reluctance and annoyance one of the assistants gives you their attention. You never get a smile or a polite word from them, though they are not openly hostile and the service they give is brisk and efficient. But loud and clear you have received the unstated message: you are an irritation to them. This is the shop talking to you and it's saying "we don't care about you, we don't like you".

Is a public sector organisation like a council any different? Are library assistants uniformly welcoming? When the bin men collect rubbish do they leave the bins placed on the pavements so that they offer least obstruction, and do they try their best to make sure there is no spillage of rubbish in the street? When you phone up to ask about a service do you get a welcoming, helpful attitude?

When we start to use Social Media, we must take care not to replicate past mistakes. We must ensure that the service offered is welcoming, friendly and accessible. Otherwise our customers will get the same feeling as the shop scenario described above. And you know what? They won't come back!

So we can set up the same tools as for listening – discussion forums, blogs, wikis – but we must make sure that these are used and seen primarily as a means for us to listen, so that when we talk it's part of a conversation. If we ask questions, people can reply to us knowing we will listen. And when we respond it's honest and timely.

So in practical terms what can we do using Social Media. Here are some examples.

Viral videos

This isn't the same as computer viruses. A viral video is where you post a video to a site like YouTube and its popularity grows through word-of-mouth and links from other sites. The Blendtec videos I wrote about back on the October 20th are an example of this. Through videos we can talk about ourselves – a specific service, etc. And through sites like YouTube we can get feedback.

Online communities

These are like an extended discussion forum – in fact they basically use the discussion forum idea as the basis for the way the community communicates. You can use existing communities – MySpace, for example – or create your own.
Communities like MySpace are easy and cheap to join, but your part of that community is a tiny drop in a very large ocean. You may need to persevere for quite a while before a genuine community grows-up in your space.

Private communities can be much more rewarding, as the overall space is smaller so the sense of identity within that space can be easier to generate. At one extreme there is the bespoke online community which you own and control.

In the book Groundswell there's the example of Proctor & Gamble who basically wanted to advertise their feminine care products to teenage girls. So they came up with the idea of a teenage girl online community (Being Girl) and made this about the wider interests of the demographic (i.e. not just the products they wanted to market). So in their community they write about a wide range of issues that are of interest to them. And their "Ask Iris" section allows them to ask questions and get sensitive, serious, authoritative responses (from Proctor & Gamble's psychologist, Dr Iris Prager). And the girls love it because it caters for what they are interested in – in fact they dictate the content. But interwoven with this is a subtle brand and marketing message. But it only works because the main purpose of the site is to serve the girls' needs and wants.

This is very expensive, and probably beyond the budget of public sector organisations like councils (though possibly not if they clubbed together). So a compromise is a specialist online community halfway between a totally public one like MySpace and a totally bespoke one like Being Girl. The IDeA's Communities of Practice is an example of this for UK local government. Currently these are used (by UK councils) mainly as collaboration spaces with other councils – a good thing in its own right – but there's no reason why this can't be extended to the public.


I wrote about these on the 26th of October. The idea of a CEO blog is very compelling and can be a great mechanism for talking. But make sure it is the CEO who does the talking, and make sure the conversation is honest and genuinely in response to what people want to talk about.

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