Does Social Housing Need To Find A Richard Branson?

A defining career moment - Support act (No.19!) to Sir Richard Branson...
A defining career moment – Support act (No.19 on the bill!) to Sir Richard Branson…

Screen Shot 2013-02-11 at 11.20.44 It’s May 2008 , and Helena Moore and I have just left the stage at the European Customer Management World Conference. We had just presented to an audience that included John Lewis , Microsoft and some young startup outfit called Facebook. People who we would now recognise as experts in marketing their product and selling their vision.

For most attending it was their first experience of Social Housing.  Our slot was about creating a service culture in a sector not known for sexiness or imagination. We used images of Shameless and Jeremy Kyle. We knew what our audience were thinking and we wanted to debunk the myths and talk about things we were proud of – the extraordinary achievements of our customers and colleagues. These are some of the comments we received:

  • “Loved it! We expected this to be the most boring slot of the day!”
  • “I really thought it would all be about people on benefits and anti-social behaviour – instead it was inspirational”
  • “I thought of council housing and the public sector as old fashioned –  not very commercial “
  • “We were dreading your slot. But I get what you are trying to do – it’s all about helping people be better – right?”

And , for your amusement , two priceless (100% genuine) comments about Helena and I :

  • “It’s good that you two didn’t wear suits – you stood out by being a bit scruffy…”
  • “We love that you guys at Bromford don’t seem to plan anything and are a bit , you know , rough”

Two years to the day after this presentation the Coalition was formed, Gordon Brown packed his bags, and the Labour Party left Government. I don’t believe the incidents were related –  my point is this – we need to forget the talk about a Government demonising social housing. We had an image problem under the last Government and we have an image problem under this one.

We have never been popular. Never been sexy. And in a world where we are all marketeers – it’s time we stopped blaming other people and started dealing with it.

whats_your_story The stories behind Bedroom Tax and Welfare Reform have tipped in the last few weeks. They have gone mainstream. Primetime TV and Tabloid coverage. Clearly we are doing something right.

About 9 months ago I did an experiment about the stories we produce within the sector. It revealed that only 8% of online content was about the people living in our homes and our communities. The rest was about us. And – as I’m sure you know – it’s not about us. 

My latest check has revealed a huge improvement. 25% of social housing output now concerns the lives of residents.  We have embraced social tools to share compelling video with a strong social narrative. We’ve done well at highlighting an issue that matters and pushing it into the public consciousness. But there is still room for improvement.

In the last two weeks a huge 40% of stories generated were about how landlords themselves are going to struggle as a result of reforms. Actual customers were briefly mentioned in passing.

The remaining 35% of output was largely introspective examinations about ( the lack of ) housing finance and development opportunity. If looked at from outside the sector could this be viewed as navel-gazing? A sector that is incapable of innovation and is now feeling sorry for itself?

Back in 2008 Sir Richard Branson headlined the conference. Quiet, unassuming and a little bit nervous – he opened his slot with four minutes of video showing every success and every failure he had been involved in. And then he talked about how he had fought off Government interference and bureaucracy , breaking into new markets by proving the unique value of what his brand could offer customers. The way he told the story of Virgin adding value to the world was electrifying.

You left the room thinking that without them the planet would be a very grey place indeed.

I wonder how Virgin, John Lewis , Facebook and Microsoft would cope with being unpopular , undervalued and underfunded?

I wonder how they would tell their story?

Maybe we should ask them.

NB: ( Statistics used come from 2 weeks monitoring of Google alerts using the search terms – Housing Association , Social Housing , Welfare Reform , Bedroom Tax)

Top Tips for Meetings: No.1 – Don’t Have Them….

The meeting you probably had yesterday. And you will have next week.
The meeting you probably had yesterday. And you will have next week.

About 18 months ago I visited a multinational company specialising in networking equipment. There I sat , marvelling at some of the most state of the art communications systems on the planet:

  • HD Video seamlessly linking multiple sites , one in a different country.
  • Phones with tablets attached to them enabling employees to collaborate and problem solve in a shared digital space via touchscreen.
  • A huge video conferencing centre that tracked to whoever was talking (like the ones in movies when they have to speak to the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.)

But despite the availability of all this amazing technology – the CEO told us that employees still insisted on going to physical meetings.

Why? Perhaps , like zombies drawn to an abandoned shopping centre, they obeyed some kind of instinct, a memory of what they used to do. They felt compelled to travel for miles to sit around a table and go through a 20 item agenda and talk about stuff. And then complain they didn’t have enough time to do their jobs.

Feeling the need to shock them out of their habit – he had a brilliant idea. He wouldn’t ban meetings. He just stopped paying for travel expenses. They could still travel. They could have as many meetings as they liked. But they didn’t get paid.

Meetings stopped overnight. And everyone started using the technology.

One of the most popular posts from the last few weeks has been 9 Unusual Rules For Effective Meetings by Brad Feld

I’m a big fan of No.4:

If you’re not getting anything out of the meeting, leave

But my favourite is this:

Do we really need to meet?

Sound advice
Sound advice

Today we have technologies available to us to exchange views and collaborate in different and more effective ways.

Last week I did a presentation via webinar to two organisations  – one in Brisbane, one in Melbourne. At midnight. In my pyjamas ( I’m not posting a picture by the way – there is no Instagram filter yet invented to make THAT look good.)

It was just as effective as a meeting – probably more so.

On the same evening I also did the following:

  • Arranged a guest blog with Tim Smith – a thought leader on Generation Y and Generation Z ( read his post here)
  • Had a twitter conversation with Shirley Ayres – a thought leader in Digital and Social Care
  • Crossed (friendly) swords with Kate Hughes  – a thought leader in Communications and Marketing – who had done a neat dissection of one of my posts on her blog (read it here)

The interesting thing is this:

I’ve never met any of them.

That’s understandable with Tim – as he’s based in Texas. But Shirley and Kate both live in the UK. In fact, Kate and I have worked in offices that are barely 4 miles apart for the past 2 years. But our paths have never crossed.

Online and social technology means they can influence me and shape what I do – without having to meet in real life. I’m sure we will meet , and I believe online relationships can be enhanced by physical connections.

But we need to lose the snobbishness that suggests online is less “real”.  That looking into someones eyes over Skype is less authentic than looking into someone eyes over a PowerPoint presentation.

Next week you will be invited to a lot of meetings and will probably accept them without thinking – it’s our habit.

Or we can stop. Read those rules. Try a Google+ hangout. Or try any of the online collaborative tools that are available.

And do something more interesting with the time we saved.

10 Myths From The Year We Went Social

2012 was the year in which the Housing Association sector went social. It’s very positive that so many of us have recognised the clear customer service and business benefits that social and digital engagement can bring.

This was year we went social. And these are 10 things we have learned not to be true:

1: Social Media Is Simple

It’s easy to set up an account, but it’s not easy to make it work. Having worked in customer engagement for over 10 years I feel it is harder to effectively engage online than it is offline. In real life you can look into a customers eyes and read their reaction. In the social stream – you can’t. And our customers are becoming increasingly fragmented and harder to find. To engage with customers we used to knock doors.  In the virtual world they could be anywhere, anytime. It’s hard work.

2: Our Customers Are Not Online

I knew this to be false when a Customer Board Member emailed me to say they didn’t have internet access. People are online,  but they often choose not to tell their landlord. And sometimes they don’t even realise they are online. A customer recently told me they didn’t need broadband as they only ever used Facebook. Although I don’t deny that exclusion exists – the emerging issue is digital literacy and confidence rather than lack of access.

3: Social Media is Free

It is at first. And then you realise you need content. And content takes time to find, and longer to create. Too many organisations are making the mistake of thinking social media equals no printing and no advertising  – so it will be cheaper. But you are going to have to invest in new skills and new technology. It’s an investment in a completely different customer relationship.

4: Policy Can Protect Your Brand.

Whether you have a one page social media policy or hundreds of pages , your success or failure will be defined by just two things: leadership and common sense. In my experience the shorter the policy and the more visible the leadership , the greater the common sense.

5: We Are Ready For Generation Z.

Generally we are not. My challenge? Offer up your web and online services up to any 15 year old used to managing an account with Xbox Live or Playstation Network. Then ask them what they think. Most of our organisations are in the dark ages when it comes to intuitive online user experiences. It should be a concern that many of the people we involve in implementing new services have never heard of , let alone used , Xbox Live or Playstation Network.

6: Digital Will Lead To Better Customer Service.

You can make your service worse if you are just present without having presence. When people used to leave the phone ringing the only person who knew about it was the customer on the other end of the line. I just looked at an account by a large organisation. Last tweet 12th October. Last Facebook post 15th November. Website last updated in July. It’s there for the whole world to see.

7: Digital Is Slowing Down.

Marc Prensky has said slowdown in the digital age is a “myth,” as innovation will only press forward “faster… And faster and faster.” I love his quote: “We are not going through a transition to another phase of stability. People will always be behind now and that will be a stress they have to cope with.” Our companies , our people , our websites – always behind. Get used to it.

8: People Will Follow You And Like Your Page

Only if you are Justin Bieber or One Direction. Otherwise you are going to have to make it worth peoples time. You must post interesting content that is relevant to your audience and engage them in conversations around it. If you are looking at the slides you will see I referenced Bagpuss. It’s a reminder to Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers that we have a different medium but the rules are essentially the same. Every episode of Bagpuss was about the telling of a story and the engagement and contribution of the community to the telling of it. Nobody remembers how the ship got in that bottle. But everyone remembers how the story was told.

9: We Are Moving Our Customers To The Website

You can’t. We don’t have any way of commanding our customers attention anymore. Customers ARE your new website. One of the most significant shifts this year is the amount of time people are spending within social networks. I know people who have arranged their holidays, had their homes re-decorated , bought a car – purely through Facebook. I no longer read Inside Housing (our trade publication) – as its’ content is curated for me by people like Lara Oyedele , Philip Lyons and Jules Birch. I trust them and they are my network. Why would anyone come to the website of a Housing Association when they can get what they want from their network?  The only question is  – do you know who is curating and sharing your content?

10: Social Media Is Great For Broadcasting News

People engage with people not press releases. If there is one thing we all have to embrace next year it is putting the social into social media. The most popular post I have written this year was about the way housing has a tendency to talk about itself rather than create a compelling narrative around the difference it makes to peoples lives. I think we have improved. But we could do so much more in 2013.

These are my myths. I’d love to hear yours.

(The content of this post was originally presented at the Chartered Institute of Housing Social Media and Digital Engagement Conference)

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