Social media is reshaping our world. Every hour, 1.5bn pieces of content are created, and worldwide 4.8bn people have access to social media.
In the private sector, businesses are trawling Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and thousands of blogs to help open up lucrative business opportunities by detecting subtle changes in consumer behaviour.
Local government too has reacted to the growth in social media usage, with 73% of councils having a presence on Facebook and 84% operating a Twitter account.
However, unlike their private sector counterparts, most councils use social media merely to push out messages. This means they are not engaging users and making the most of the rich and accessible ‘social intelligence’ it provides.
Multi-national companies have been able to boost their profits significantly by using social media to identify “micro-trends” that help them pre-empt and prepare for new markets. For example, a multi-national hotel group based in the US used comments on social media to predict the occupancy rates of hotels in major cities three months in advance. This allowed the group to predict occupancy rates to within 2%, and added an estimated $200m to the group’s turnover.
For local authorities, being able to predict behaviour could be highly valuable in demand management. So how can this kind of social intelligence help local authorities identify new options for cost effective service provision?
The London Borough of Hounslow is home to one of the city’s largest and most ethnically diverse populations, with more than 250,000 residents speaking over 120 languages. Hounslow LBC wanted to engage more effectively with the community in order to improve the quality of its services – and social intelligence was recognised as a valuable tool to achieve this.
Taking a ‘snapshot’, the council identified 79,935 conversations on social media that were related to the borough – including on average 420 conversations per month that specifically mentioned the council. The impact of this insight was huge: the council was able to glean valuable intelligence on highways (in particular ‘hotspots’ in the area where traffic calming and repairs were causing issues), council tax (in relation to arrears and billing), and customer services (opening hours at specific locations, letter response times and performance of call centre services) from people whose views would not otherwise have been captured.
In time, the council will start to use social intelligence on a more regular basis, allowing it to be better connected with its customers and, crucially, be able to take part in the conversation rather than simply being talked about. The council will get an instant snapshot of customer opinion, respond quickly to feedback and complaints, and use the opinions gleaned to inform future service development.
Anthony Kemp, the council’s director of corporate resources, concluded,“The full use of social media in local government will allow us to be fully connected to our residents but even more importantly we will be part of the conversation and not just being talked about. In time this will allow us to consult rapidly, take instant feedback and use this to inform service development.”
Social intelligence can also be used by councils to increase tourism and inward investment by predicting and stimulating demand. For these opportunities to be maximised, authorities need to understand that gathering social intelligence needs to be integrated into the council’s core activity and be used proactively in service planning.
It is also vital to recognise that listening to social media provides information, but securing value from it requires interpretation. This is not an easy task, due both to the sheer volume of material that is available and the need to understand the context of comments, which can have very different meanings depending on how they are said and by whom.
Effective use of social intelligence also raises ethical and legal issues. Current technology can predict behaviour and personal wellbeing by interpreting the sentiment in messages and so identify demand for social care, but councils would have to decide if it was ethical and legal to do this. Even if it appears in a public forum, residents may be uncomfortable with their information being used to build a picture of their individual lives. So it is vital that councils ensure their use of social intelligence is seen as legitimate, rather than some form of illegal or covert investigation.
However, it is clear that councils that plan and engage proactively with social media and move away from just reacting to what happens online can improve customer service and reduce costs.
David Rees is a local government expert at PA Consulting Group