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Why are housing associations and social media still not walking hand in hand?

Shelley Ross posted this on

It’s been just over a year since we in Harrogate put together our e-guide on Social Media for Housing Associations and talked about how housing associations need to embrace social media and marketing.

But 12 months on it seems that there are still not enough housing associations using social networking sites to engage with their tenants.

Quite surprising really, considering that 48% of adults in the UK used social media in 2012 and two-thirds of those were adults aged between 35 and 55.

So with nearly half of all adults using social media in one form or another, I thought it was time to see whether this had impacted on the way housing associations were engaging with their tenants.

Until last year, I was a member of the management committee of Leeds Jewish Housing Association. The association has 1000 tenants living in 485 properties.

When I was there, the only social media being used was a Facebook page that had been set up by the tenants for the tenants.

From our office in Harrogate, I chatted to LJHA chief executive Stephen Lewis to see if things had moved on.  The association has always tried to involve its tenants – there are a number of tenants on the various committees, including management, but Stephen is keen to increase this involvement.

I know from my time there, LJHA has always striven for two-way communication but the reality is that only 20% of its tenants are currently engaging with the association on a regular basis so there is a very real need to find a way of engaging with the remaining 80% – the silent majority – effectively.

Is social media and marketing the answer for LJHA? Possibly, but at this stage Stephen isn’t sure and they are currently talking to other housing associations to see what works for them.

So what are the issues?

1.       Are housing associations reluctant to sign up to effective engagement with their tenants?

From what I can gather, not all housing associations are recognising the importance of using social media. Let’s face it, social media is here to stay, there is no way of avoiding it. Like it or not, it has become such a vital tool in business; this also applies to housing associations and charities.

Independent housing consultant Colin Wiles believes housing associations are failing to embrace change. Research he carried out in Cambridge, showed that 11 councils and housing associations managed to engage with only four tenants in April 2013, something he says is representative throughout the country.

He also reckons that:

  • Only a hundred tenants engage with their landlords using social media
  • Just one in a hundred housing staff use social media as a way of interacting with their tenants.
  • Only 10% of housing chief executives use social media

2.       Are enough tenants online?

I don’t think it’s just the housing associations that are struggling with social media. Research has found that some tenants want to continue communicating using more traditional methods such as the telephone, letters and face-to-face meetings.

For social media to work, the question to ask of course is how many social housing tenants have access to the internet? And for those who don’t, what will they miss out on? The G15 Housing Association recently carried out a customer insight report and found that despite only 49% of their properties having internet access, more than 80% of their tenants were able to access the internet at some point during the day.

However, research in general shows that social housing tenants have less access to the internet than the general population so it is possible that some tenants would not be able to embrace communicating via social media even if they wanted to.

3.       Do tenants want to use social media to engage with their housing association?

This is a very important question. For housing associations like LJHA, the tenants range from families to the elderly to the disabled and those with learning difficulties and I imagine for some it would be  a struggle. 

During a recent discussion on The Guardian’s Housing Network page about how housing associations should use Facebook and other social media, the majority of contributions were from forward-thinking social housing organisations that have clearly embraced the importance of Twitter and Facebook.

But there were a few comments from tenants who felt that housing associations just didn’t understand what social media was about.

One contributor wrote: “the biggest issue with some housing associations on social media is that they just don’t get it and are too scared to adapt.  They think that posting dull messages (on Facebook) once a fortnight, written in corporate jargon, is the way to do it, it’s not. “

Another added: “…they should loosen up a LOT but they are too scared to do so because of the way it might be received. Trying to engage tenants with boring information will never work for precisely that reason.”

Whilst another stated: “This does rather assume that tenants are (a) online, many are not, and (b) if they are, they actually want to engage with Facebook, which this tenant most certainly does not.”

4.       So what is the answer?

Like in any industry, there are some leading lights and in this case, Bromford Group and The Halton  Housing Trust have both embraced social media.

Their success has to be down to the fact they have worked hard to build up their own individual online communities by finding the right content and tone their tenants can relate to. 

Tenants are encouraged to listen and respond – both key elements in ensuring a good social media strategy. 

But for those organisations and tenants who are finding it harder to move forward, is social media the best way for them to engage with each other? What steps can housing associations take to get their tenants on board in the first place?

For help with your PR, social media and marketing, please contact our Harrogate office on 01423 562400.

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