Thursday, 22 November 2012

Guest Post: Bron Afon use social media to talk to customers about welfare reform

One of my bugbears is when organisations use social media for the sake of it. Social media only really becomes powerful when it is used to help solve problems and empower communities. Here, Ben Black of Bron Afon Community Housing, kindly explains how his organisation did just that in using facebook to help inform customers about welfare reform and listen to their concerns.

"Bron Afon Community Housing hosted a 'live' Facebook session to encourage tenants to ask questions about the government's changes to how benefits are paid. 

When I say 'live' I mean we told tenants that one of our money advisors would be logged in to our page from 12pm to 1pm to answer any questions. 

Shortly before 12pm we decided it might be better if Claire (our money advisor) stayed logged in at her desk about 50 yards away in case there was specific information that she may need to get quick access to for any questions. I stayed logged in to Facebook and sent over any questions by email to Claire. 

The topic was benefits but it quickly became a thread around 'under occupancy'- the 'spare bedroom tax'.

I thought it would be useful to share how we ran the event and the outcomes. We learned a few lessons but the main one was we should organise another one! 

Our Facebook page had around 520 'likes' before we ran the session. We ended up getting comments, questions and messages from around 60 different people which I think is a pretty good response. 

1. The time
Our money advisor was busy so we thought we would go for an hour around midday between her meeting and talking to tenants. We know social media isn't free as staff time costs money so an hour seemed a good 'try it and see'. As you can't close down Facebook the messages and comments just kept coming and coming beyond 1pm. Claire, our money advisor, was responding as quickly as possible but had to meet someone at 1.30pm. We had no intention of closing down the session or thread of course but had to tell people we would answer their questions later that afternoon. In fact we had to update people by saying it would be the next day for some questions. 

2. Talking on Facebook
We said tenants could send us a private message as we thought most people would prefer to talk in private. But that wasn't the case. By the end of the day we had around ten private messages. That would've been an easier way to manage the responses- with replies going to a single named person. But if people were happy to  ask questions in public we were happy to answer them. It was a challenge keeping track of a long open thread of comments from around 50 people. We reminded people that if they didn't think their question was answered they should let us know. 

3. Useful links
We had a few key website links ready but didn't use them as much as we could have. I think it is about being human and trying to give a proper response instead of just saying 'go to this website.' But we could have added in a few good links for people to read and share.

4. Attract questions
We did a few updates leading up to the day along the lines of 'One of our money advisors will be logged in from 12pm to 1pm. Ask her any questions.' At 12.10pm no one had replied so we posted 'Are you worried about how you will cope if you are affected by the 'bedroom tax'? Send us a message and we will talk through the options.' That led to a few questions and within 15 minutes we knew we were not going to be neatly rounded up by 1pm. The tone of the status definitely attracted the comments more than a simple 'get money advice'.

5. 150 comments and 30 new likes
We know likes aren't the best measure but it was interesting that in a few hours around 35 new people joined our page. That's 35 people who were interested by what they saw. Now the comments are a different story and much more useful. A good open Facebook discussion shows exactly why people are worried  and  what they need information about. Bron Afon is running a campaign around the changes and will be knocking on doors and sending out a newsletter in the next two weeks. There were several  comments around mutual exchange and downsizing so this info has been given to some colleagues to look at how we communicate these options. We will be sharing the conversations on Facebook and seeing how we can adapt our other communications from what we have learned. 

6. What is a 'spare' bedroom?
The most popular question was 'Will I be affected? If people didn't include their personal situation we asked them. We used our infographic on Flickr to show how the government will allocate bedrooms. There is still a lot of confusion on this among tenants. Some people also thought tenants who are renting from a private landlord would be affected.

7. Unusual questions
We learned that the most carefully crafted Q&As look useless when you start a Facebook chat. We had two questions around being pregnant but currently living in a two bedroom flat- 'will I be affected until the baby arrives?' (The answer was 'yes').  Several questions were also asked around shared childcare arrangements and fostering that also took a bit longer to answer. 

8. Keeping track of the chat
People were commenting in response to our status asking for questions. That means it is not like a linear, organised email inbox. Questions and comments came in from different people at the same time we were replying to specific people. It does become a bit chaotic and I found that a good old pen and paper came in handy to tick off as answers went back to the questions. 

9. Criticism 
Our messages were clear. We need to share impartial info with tenants on the changes to how benefits are paid so they are prepared and know about the options. But the debate did attract comments along the lines of 'I wish I had free rent' and 'you are too lazy to work'. We don't allow bad language on our Facebook so we deleted any comments with swearing and sent a message to the person who wrote the comment. As with any open debate you get good discussions on both sides. 

10. The link to the comments

At the time of posting, the thread actually had 166 comments - pretty amazing engagement by 
anyone's standards. Well done to Bron Afon for having the vision to tackle the problem of awareness 
of welfare reform in such an open and accessible way.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kate,this is a really useful case example. It shows how simple it is to use facebook interactively, as long as you make the staff resource available and are genuine about wanting to engage in a real conversation. FB is about more than just broadcasting!

    One learning point was about keeping up with questions (and answers) in the thread, as the FB discussion moves on before responses. The danger is missing a question, and actually following the conversation. There are other commercial platforms which can be linked to FB, and allow a more user friendly experience in discussion forums and live Q&A's.

    Check out a platform called EngagementHQ by Bang the Table ( I recently worked with a large HA to set up an EHQ site to engage on financial inclusion work, so the scope to develop engagement using 'online', not just 'social media', is huge. And the cost, compared to staff time only, is not huge. Happy to provide more information at if needed.


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