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Moving beyond social media

David Rees

Local Government News

13 June 2013


The use of social media is increasing at a phenomenal rate.  Every hour, 1.5 billion pieces of content are created and out of the seven billion people on the planet, 4.8 billion have access to social media. During 2013, the proportion of the UK population registered with Facebook exceeded the 50 per cent mark for the first time, proportionally more than in the USA.

In the private sector, businesses are trawling Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and thousands of blogs to spot subtle changes in consumer behaviour that can open up lucrative business opportunities.  Councils too have reacted to the growth in social media usage – 73 per cent have a Facebook presence, with 84 per cent also on Twitter. 

However unlike their private sector counterparts, our experience suggests that most councils’ social media presence is primarily used just to push out messages for a few specific service areas. While there is some value in this approach, it can miss the point of social media. It does not engage users meaningfully and does not make the most of the rich and accessible ‘social intelligence’ that comes from people expressing their perceptions, priorities and behaviours online.

Multinational companies have been able to boost their profits by hundreds of millions of pounds a year by identifying micro-trends from social networking sites.  These trends often provide good signals that can predict a future event and provide organisations with the advantage of time to act and prepare, and that could be highly valuable to local authorities that want to manage demand-led services.

For example, a multinational hotel group based in the US used social intelligence to predict the occupancy rates of hotels in major cities three months in advance by monitoring comments about the city on social media.  Using that understanding of what drove demands for both its services and that of its competitors, it was able to amend pricing and improve the deals it offered, so increasing demand for its hotels.  The technique, which allowed the group to predict occupancy rates to an accuracy of 2 per cent, has added an estimated $200 million to the group’s turnover.

This is just one example of how companies can analyse intelligence gathered from social media to find new uses for old products, cut product development time and accurately predict and influence consumer demand. 

The question is whether this kind of social intelligence can help local authorities identify new options for cutting expenditure as they exhaust traditional approaches of efficiency saving or service reductions? 

There are some immediate ways social intelligence could help. These start with an improved understanding of citizen and customer requirements for current services. For example, one London borough recently used social intelligence to supplement its approach to engaging with its community beyond traditional approaches.

In the last six months, the council found that 79,935 conversations on social media related to the borough, equating to a daily average of 438 conversations, including on average 420 conversations per month that specifically mentioned the council itself.  Using social intelligence, the council was able to glean valuable intelligence on highways, council tax and payment services from members of the community that would have been unlikely to participate in traditional exercises.

Additionally, social intelligence could be used to increase tourism and inward investment as it provides an ability to predict demand and then find a way to respond. 

While the debate is still to be had, social intelligence could also be used to predict both mental health issues, based on interpreting sentiments used, and the patterns of demand for social care.

For these opportunities to be maximised, authorities need to understand that gathering social intelligence should not just be left to the social media marketing or communications team. It needs to be integrated into the council’s core activity. In this way the authority can not only understand what is being said about them but also use social intelligence proactively in service planning.

This means taking a wider view of public discussions about the council, rather than just focusing on comments about customer service. It is vital to recognise that listening to social media provides information, but securing value from it requires interpretation.

In practice, the best way for authorities to approach social intelligence is to involve specialist suppliers, rather than develop a local solution.  The cost of subscribing to social media data sources and the need to attract specialist linguistic skills to interpret them are unlikely to justify a local solution.

Effective use of social intelligence also requires consideration of ethical and legal issues.  Current technology can help with predicting behaviour and personal wellbeing by interpreting the sentiment in messages, but whether it is ethical and legal to do so are key factors.  What appears to be public, such as a blog post, may in reality be seen as private by the author and residents may be uncomfortable with their information being used to build a picture of their individual lives. So it is vital that councils understand these concerns and that their use of social intelligence is seen as legitimate, rather than some form of illegal or covert investigation. 

All this underlines that social intelligence is not a silver bullet that can solve all the councils’ problems but can be part of an expanding armoury of tools – including ‘traditional’ digital media such as email and SMS – to inform a council’s approach to demand management.

Strategically planned and meaningful engagement through social media need not be difficult and the benefits of improving customer service and reducing cost are increasingly appealing. However, to access these benefits, councils must plan and engage proactively with social media and move away from just reacting to what happens online.


David Rees is a local government expert at PA Consulting Group



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