It’s our job to give customers a story to tell, not tell it for them…


“Guinness is lovely but it will always be the same, a (delicious) black and white drink – simple and unchanging. Subway do nice sandwiches.

Lego make little bricks.

The work of housing associations, councils, the NHS and other government departments is about our lives: it’s dramatic, it makes a difference to the way we live every day and the stories are changing and fascinating.

Being important doesn’t mean being tedious. Having serious intentions doesn’t stop you from being entertaining.”Helen Reynolds

I used to dread people asking me what I do for a living.

If you work for a Housing Association you’ll know the feeling. Most people will simply look blank and confused at your explanation.  They search around for a bit, visibly straining as they try to understand. There’s almost always an awkward silence before they suggest:

“Is it a a bit like council housing?”

“Well, yes. It’s a bit like council housing.”

The conversation quickly moves on to talk about anything – anything – other than housing associations.

I gave up describing myself as working in housing about three years ago. I started to say I worked for a charity.

Charity is a great word.

It says you must be a decent sort of person.  And it travels well.

Charity works as well in Asia or Africa as it does down your local pub. It says you are interested in people. That’s always a good thing.

A couple of years ago I did a brief social experiment about how the housing sector talked about people online. The results were telling:

 Less than 8% of the stories we told were directly about the people living in our homes and communities.

On November 12th it was #HousingDay – which aims to celebrate those very people and their achievements. The first event in 2013 reached thousands and trended on Twitter.

Ade Capon , the founder of the campaign says for 2014 he’d like to inspire and engage customers to create and send their own stories – capturing their aspirations and ambitions.

Ade is a very modest guy who has used the power of social media to create something that a whole sector was previously incapable of.

Cynics have accused #HousingDay , and similar campaigns that it has inspired,  of being mere window dressing. A bit of digital fluff that gets sector people talking to each other but fails to make wider social impact.

I disagree. Anything that tries to shift the narrative away from sloganeering and messaging towards conversation and story telling has to be applauded.

As I posted recently– there are nearly 4 million people living in social housing but we hear little from them. That’s why the narrative for social housing gets so little traction. It’s largely a campaign run by social housing professionals for social housing professionals.

However things are changing – the past 12 months has seen a range of customers starting blogs , campaigns and websites. Their voice is beginning to take centre stage.

The organised customer involvement movement which consists of formalised committees and bodies has failed to adapt to the digital age. I predicted three years ago that they would be replaced by a self organised movement of individuals who use social technology to seek wider change.

This is scary to many but we should find it tremendously exciting. Our organisations are not important in themselves and we should welcome the digital freedoms being explored by customers.

People will listen to any story if it is engaging enough.

My own blog started out talking to a housing audience. Today over 80% of subscribers are not from a housing background.  I’ve learned that if you talk about the difference you make rather than what you do – people will engage.

And if you listen to them too  – and build a conversation rather than a broadcast – people will share ideas with you.

Housing , much like health , care and support has a journey to go on.

  • We have to engage hearts and minds not through obsessively pushing a “message” – but by developing a lifelong relationship with people. Relationships built upon hectoring or shouting are not sustainable.
  • We need to identify shared passions and interests and continue having social conversations – on and offline.
  • We have to stop the seemingly endless rounds of awards ceremonies too. Apple , Google and Microsoft are some of the most valuable brands in the world but I never hear them going on about the awards they have won. Assuming they even enter awards in the first place. They let the people who have bought into their story do the talking.

It’s interesting that Helen Reynolds used Lego as a comparison.

Lego make interlocking plastic bricks.

  • What they are known for is their innovation and the creativity they inspire in people.
  • They have kept themselves endlessly relevant to different generations by keeping the story alive through video games , clothing, even theme parks.
  • They have founded a lifelong relationship with people through exceptional design and a focus on , guess what , the customer.

I work for an organisation that exists to do more that put bricks together. It tries to unlock potential in people.

Let’s put that centre stage.


16 thoughts on “It’s our job to give customers a story to tell, not tell it for them…

  1. A bravura post. It’s great to read logical and heartfelt writing Paul. And it makes the case for why to connect to people in housing.

    1. Thanks Anne – must admit I lifted the lifelong relationship from our conversation yesterday and should have credited you. But , hey , conversations spread and grow organically these days so didn’t think you’d mind!

  2. Morning Paul and happy #housingday. I notice you’ve been getting a bit of flack about your comments on digital resident involvement but I actually agree with you. That said, I think your comments need a little qualification in that digital should just be one weapon in a very vast armoury of tenant involvement tools. But I certainly agree with your vision of a future where the main form of engagement is digital.

    Where I take issue, though, is with your description of HAs as ‘charities’. I agree firmly that we need a quick easy shorthand term to describe what we do. I’ve written before about my frustration at dinner parties – when I was a journalist, people’s eyes would light up and they’d ask me to recount stories of my ‘glamorous’ job. Now I’m in housing, people aren’t at all interested. And that hurts me a little as the work I do now is far more interesting and exciting than being a journalist ever was.

    But ‘charity’ to me suggests people who need help. The image it conjures in my mind is philanthropic – helping those worse off than ourselves. There’s no doubt that it conjures positive images of being warm and fluffy too, so I take your point that it is internationally recognised and respected.

    But while I’ll concede that some of our tenants do need help and support on a very detailed and complex level, I can’t tar everyone with that brush.

    I work for a housing provider. We provide housing. We do repairs support communities. We provide a service. Many of our tenants are working.

    So I’m very uncomfortable with the term charity in this context

    1. Thanks Pamela – a meaty response as always!

      On the resident involvement point I do think the sector has let itself down. I’ve not seen any major innovations in the way people are engaged since the demise of the Tenant Services Authority. It’s largely a circuit of scrutiny panels , training days and conferences that engage a tiny minority of people. I know that’s not going to be a popular opinion and I feel slightly guilty expressing it on #housingday of all days 😉

      On digital I think I need to clarify my use of it. Essentially any interaction with a resident is digital these days. A repairs engineer visiting a home will make an electronic note of the visit that should , in theory , appear on a tenants record instantly with the customer having access to it. I’m aware that my slightly lazy language is leading people to think I mean online only when I’m thinking of a fully immersive digital relationship (on and offline). Thanks for raising this as you’ve inspired me to do another post!!

      On the use of charity you’ve hit nail on head. I would only use it on a macro level as you’re right it conjures an image of the needy. The words we are playing around with at Bromford are that we are a social enterprise who unlock potential in people. I couldn’t agree more that we need to completely annihilate the image of a tenure of need and desperation rather than of skill and opportunity.

  3. Hi Paul

    i hope a comment more than criticism, but reading the Bromford ‘who we are’, three paragraphs in I was still struggling to understand what the company actually does!

    I* do wonder if, by not simply describing the function of a housing association but rather wrapping it up in generalist ‘social enterprise’ verbiage, rather than improving the understanding of people not from a housing background, you’re in danger of making it even more opaque?

    *(One of the ‘over 80% of subscribers not from a housing background’ – mine’s advertising – who’s interested in how you’re applying social marketing practice in a distinctly ‘foreign’ field)

    1. Thanks Roy – that’s not taken as a criticism at all – in fact it’s very valuable as it was one of concerns. Appreciate you taking time

  4. One of the things that really frustrates me is how companies that exist purely to sell products and make profits (e.g. Apple, Virgin, Google, John Lewis, Sainsbury’s) can succeed in persuading the public to buy into their visions and share them enthusiastically with the world, while organisations with a social purpose often struggle with a low profile, or negative images.

    I always say to housing associations and other social purpose organisations that they are staffed by passionate people who desire to change the world for better. That passion can be a powerful and compelling factor, but it rarely gets communicated to the outside world. We have to change this. The world loves passionate people. We need to spread the message about people who are passionate about people.

    1. Totally agree John – I’m not going to waste any more words as I think the comment from Anne has hit the nail on the head!

  5. Great point John Popham, I totally agree.

    Consumer brands are persuasive because they consider how they are positioning themselves for cause and effect, strategically.

    And one of the key things they consider at length in that is brand personality. David Ogilvy talked about this in his book ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ when he said ‘the consumer isn’t a moron, she’s your wife’. The idea of communications making relationships with people in certain ways is all about how marketing develops personality.

    Housing sees itself as a functional, practical environment, one in which personality doesn’t matter, but in a networked world it is increasingly a factor.

    When I think about #HousingDay, I ask myself ‘what is the desired response Housing wants from it?’, in the same way as when I was in the thick of preparing briefs for consumer brands. What would people posting want readers and viewers to think as a result, or say as a result, or do? Without considering this, every tactic is still essentially a broadcast, in which passion cannot be communicated.

    Thinking about the type of relationship Housing wants to have with its audience groups, and how Housing organisations relate to them, is one way of putting personality (and therefore passion) into communication in a way that makes a message believable.

    I hope that in 2015 there will be a lot of conversation about the kinds of relationships Housing organisations want to have with people… relationships in which the commitment and passion of people can thrive and the benefits of that can be seen.

    1. Anne if I could +1 this comment I would do it.

      I don’t think many social organisations think about the type of relationship they want to have. In fact. on occasion my own organisation have been publicly criticised for suggesting that there even IS a relationship.

      Whatever happened or didn’t happen in the past there is a very different future ahead for public services. That needs redesigned relationships that mobilise the energy and contribution of people. We won’t achieve that through just shouting our ‘message’.

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