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Let’s do a little experiment… what’s the worst that can happen?

You may well have seen that during November we ran a 4 week pilot, trialling the use of WhatsApp as a potential communications channel. It certainly got a lot more exposure than I could have expected – who knew it would be so popular in the Digital Community? In fact, if I am being honest, we got more from talking about our ‘let’s just give it a go’ approach than we did out of the experiment in relation to customer take up. That’s okay though; in fact it is brilliant, because it means that we are doing something a bit different, and perhaps even a little bit right? I will leave you to make your mind up about that.

To give you a brief summary, this idea came about because I really wanted to try something new at Shropshire Council before venturing into the crazy world of motherhood (still waiting for bump to be born, but anytime now!) There was no big elaborate plan behind it and neither did I want there to be – can you imagine how long it may have taken to get permission for this had I not just bitten the bullet?

I wanted to make the pilot as simple and low risk as possible so I contacted a few Elected Members who had been on my social media training before and asked if they would be interested – luckily for me they were! I then spoke to the Head of Customer Involvement, and my manager, Nigel Bishop, (@aShropLad) about the plan and we agreed to extend the pilot to include a council general enquiries channel which, to keep it simple I would monitor for the duration of the pilot.

The beauty of using WhatsApp was that our Elected Members already had work mobiles and their numbers were advertised publicly, so with the exception of general enquiries we didn’t have to introduce any new numbers, and (currently of vital importance to councils everywhere!) we didn’t have to outlay any money on new equipment. It really was as straightforward as downloading the app and waiting to see if anyone contacted us. The only thing we had to do was get our Information Governance Team to add Whatsapp to our accepted apps list and the job was a good’un!

Throughout the trial, we received one letter from a member of the public who wanted to express their thoughts on the importance of retaining more traditional communications channels such as face to face and post. We had eight messages to Keith Barrow (@keithbarrow21) the Council Leader, which included a voice clip, and seven to the general enquiries number, making a grand total of fifteen!

The volume of requests was low and it was a real shame that people didn’t use it to contact their Elected Member, which has left me wondering why this was? Is it because we don’t always understand their roles? Is it because we only contact them when we really need to as opposed to just having a chat and saying hello? Perhaps if we had chosen to run the trial during a period of controversy, something like a major planning application, the results would have been very different?

We promoted the channel throughout the pilot via our existing channels (Twitter, Facebook, and website) as well as on our newsroom, which got picked up by the local media and promoted. I also went onto BBC Radio Shropshire to talk about the pilot and to encourage our residents to get involved.

So, you may be wondering, why did I do this? Well why not? If you read my guest blog post on comms2point0 you will see that I was just really keen to give something new a try and to see whether the people of Shropshire were interested in engaging with us in this way. In terms of whether we adopt WhatsApp, I have left this decision with the Members concerned and my manager so watch this space I guess!

EDIT: Despite our initial trial not producing an encouraging result, we have since had requests from a few service areas who feel that their target audiences (families and/or young people) would be happy to use WhatsApp, so watch this space.

My top tips

  • Run a trial – Give yourself the opportunity to test the demand before you commit to it longer term and make sure you define what success would look like. How many contacts would be enough to make you want to adopt this channel full time? Also consider how, if successful you would operate the customer service general enquiries account? Will you just pass a works mobile around your call centre each day on a rota basis? How will you stop people calling you?
  • Keep it simple – Do not involve too many people and do not over complicate things with unnecessary rules and governance.
  • Don’t be afraid to try new things – Yes, of course think about potential risks to the organisation and the people it serves, but don’t be put off by the fear of embarrassment if your idea does not pay off. You should be praised for your braveness and your innovative approach, not reprimanded. The nature of Digital Media is ever changing and therefore we need to move with the times and give things a go.
  • Don’t introduce new channels, go where the people are – What is the point in spending money that we just haven’t got on introducing new forms of communication which require costly behind-the-scenes integration and training when there are channels readily available that can already fit the gap if you are prepared to be flexible? Yes, granted, it may not do everything you want it to do, but let’s face it, how many times have we been sold the ‘perfect’ product by a supplier only to find we are really disappointed when those ‘key’ features are not what they appeared to be when it is actually put to use?
  • Don’t be afraid to kiss goodbye and switch off channels – Ask yourself, do you still use Myspace or Bebo? I don’t and that is because other channels came along like Facebook and Twitter so I switched and moved on, admittedly like a sheep! Why would I want to stay on a channel and talk to myself – I can be sad but not that sad! The same should apply when you operate social media accounts on behalf of an organisation – as soon as numbers start dwindling, followers go down and contacts reduce, why would you keep that channel open and resource it? Move with the people, we do it in our personal lives and it is no different here – we just need to be brave!
  • It is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission (a.k.a. Have faith in your own judgement and expertise) – I have worked hard during my 8 years at Shropshire Council to build the trust of staff at all levels. I feel completely safe and supported when it comes to trying new things. I do not fear people’s reaction, I am always prepared to apologise if something goes wrong and I genuinely think people value this approach. It is surprising how many times people jump through hoops, writing massive business cases to do something that could be so simple, and why? Do senior managers actually read these and understand? We are employed for a reason, because we are the experts – by all means, tell them what you are doing but please don’t keep going to your boss every time you want to enhance your organisations engagement. It is a bit like going to your hairdressers and being asked to cut it yourself, not only must it be incredibly frustrating but it defeats the object surely? There are exceptions to this rule, oh yes the old micro managers, but they do it because they can… don’t let them!!

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