CW500: The business case for social media

BT, the Met Office and the Department of Work and Pensions reveal how they are using social media to interact with staff and customers

The rapper, record producer and Dr Who cameo performer, Mike Skinner, has another unlikely claim to fame.

Just over three years ago Skinner sent a short message to 20,000 followers on Twitter, complaining about BT’s newly launched BTVision internet television service.

When he read the comment, Warren Buckley, managing director for customer services, realised BT could no longer afford to ignore social media like twitter.

“We stared at the tweet, thought about it and wondered what we could do,” he said. “We thought about phoning him, but we decided to set up a Twitter account and ask if we can help.”

Three days later, BT had resolved the problem and Skinner tweeted his followers again. “Fantastic, love the product, thanks for sorting it out.”


David Cotterill, head of innovation, Department for Work & Pensions, on the department's "Ideas Street" project;

Warren Buckley, managing director, customer service and service operations, BT Retail, on the company's Twitter strategy with @btcare;

 Dave Britton, chief press officer, Met Office, on the Met’s social media strategy.

Today BT’s customer service team runs a sophisticated social media operation, spanning platforms from Twitter to Facebook and YouTube.

The strategy is helping BT improve its reputation for customer service. And it is producing a clear return on investment for the business, Buckley told CIOs and IT leaders at a meeting of Computer Weekly’s 500 Club.

Buckley was speaking with Dave Britton, chief press officer of the Met Office and David Cotterill, head of innovation at the Department for Work & Pensions, on their experiences managing socialmedia.

Trawling Twitter

BT has created its own software, dubbed "debatescape" to trawl social media services for references to the company.

Warren Buckley

The software uses 80,000 different search strings and is capable of recognising the difference between comments about the telecommunications company, and, for example, the musician Brian Transeau, who also uses the initials BT.

The results go to a BTCare team in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, who aim to respond to complaints and queries within 30 minutes to an hour.

The service is paying for itself by helping BT hold on to customers who could otherwise defect to a rival telecommunications provider, Buckley revealed.

For some customers, turning to Twitter is a desperate last resort after they have failed to solve a problem through other routes, he said.

It's important to respect the channel the customer chooses, Buckley told the meeting.

If they use social media, reply on Twitter, or if they phone, it's better to respond by phone.

“Sometimes people just want to moan. If we say we can help, and they don’t respond to us, we leave them alone,” he said. “We respect that.”

Managing emergencies

The technology comes into its own when BT uses it to keep customers up-to-date during emergencies.

"Sometimes people just want to moan. If we say we can help, and they don’t respond to us, we leave them alone"

Warren Buckley, BT Retail

Last year,  phone and internet connections to over 1 million BT customers were hit when BT had a fire and a flood simultaneously at its exchange in Paddington.

“We contacted the fire brigade and they took a photograph of the exchange for us, and we tweeted out the photo,” he said.

“We also tweeted that we were working on restoring the service and aimed to have it working by the end of the day.”

The strategy turned a negative story into a positive one. People who had seen the extent of the damage in  photo were impressed by BT’s response, Buckley revealed.

“They were tweeting out, I can’t believe you are going to restore the service by the end of the day,” he said.

London riots

Similarly, during the London riots, BT turn to social media, to help ease the strain on the 999 system.

So many people were dialing the emergency services, that callers were having to wait much longer than they should for calls to be answered.

“We tweeted, ‘Only call 999 in an emergency,' and within 15 minutes we were back to answering calls within 3 seconds, and the number of emergency calls dropped off,” he said.

BT is expanding its social media strategy to other platforms.

YouTube is one of the fastest growing, attracting 20,000 hits a day. IT features short videos, covering everything from broadband and Wi-Fi to BT-sponsored events.

And consumers can use Facebook to contact customer services when they have a problem, but the service is also proving popular as an information source about BT.

“People are really into the fact that we are the oldest telephone company in the world, so we have started creating information about our history, for example the first mobile phone in the UK,” he said.

Buckley acknowledged there is still some way to go, when one delegate raised a difficult experience with BT’s business callcentre, which has yet to adopt social media.

“We are not perfect but I have spent four years trying to make us perfect, and I will continue to do so,” he said.

Social media and PR

Dave BrittonFor the Met Office, which provides the UK’s weather forecasts, social media plays an important role in shaping the public’s views on the organisation, the meeting heard.

It's no coincidence that the Met’s press office is also responsible for the Met’s social media strategy, said Dave Britton, chief press officer.

“We provide positive stories to change people’s thoughts and shut down negative conversations,” he said.

The Met’s reach on social media has grown to 140,000 from a standing start three years ago.

Talking about the weather

“Our strategy is all about being at the centre of conversations about weather,” said Britton. “We all love talking about the weather, so why not get out there and get involved in those conversations.”

The Met’s PR team spent four to five months listening into conversations on social media, learning how it works and how people use it, before embarking on its own social media programme.

The first toe in the water was using social media to issue urgent weather warnings. “It was a quick win,” said Britton, and it drew a large following for the Met on twitter.

Icelandic volcano

"We provide positive stories to change people’s thoughts and shut down negative conversations"

Dave Britton,chief press officer, Met Office.

The eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Grimsvötn, in April last year, demonstrated the power of the technology for mass communication.

The Met provided updates on its website and through Twitter as the public began worrying about the impact of volcanic ash.

And it produced explanatory videos on YouTube, which were picked up by television broadcasters.

“We thought we were going to see another prolonged disruption of air travel and aerospace,” he said.

The programme was part of a combined communications strategy bringing together traditional print and broadcasting with social media.

“One of the most important things was joining up with our partners and the airlines. It means that they can re-tweet what we say and we can re-tweet what they say.”

The campaign led to a huge increase in the number of people engaging with the Met online.

Hurricanes in Scotland

Another example was Hurricane Katia in September last year, which glanced parts of Scotland.

“People can get very excited about hurricanes,” he said. “We had to spend a lot of time managing expectations, containing the story and managing it.”

The problem was not helped when US weather forecasters began talking about the hurricane pummeling the Scottish coast.

The truth was less interesting - by the time Katia reached Scotland, it would more of a storm than a hurricane.

“We found social media really powerful to contain stories, correct information and to correct stories that were not quite right,” he said.

The team produced YouTube videos and forecasts and provided linked news updates on Twitter.

And it asked the public to feedback details of the progress of the storm in their area.

“We asked people to share their experience of what the storm was like, rattling windows, etc. To get that information from the ground is really important. We can take that back into our forecasting processes,” he said.

In four days, the Met increased its engagement with the public by 20%, and increased the number of people it was connected to by a similar proportion.

David Cotterill, head of innovation at the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP), is using social media within the organisation to help drive new ideas, rather than to communicate externally.

Cotterill heads a department of seven people, whose job it is to drive innovation across the whole DWP – quite a task for such a small department.

Ideas street

The group came up with a modern take on the suggestion box schemes, to harness and develop the ideas of employees across the DWP.

“We wanted to avoid some of the problems with traditional suggestion box schemes, where someone would fill out a piece of paper or send an e-mail. And there would be a long silence, before someone would receive a pile of suggestions, wonder what to do with them and eventually write back,” he said.

The answer was “Ideas Street” – effectively on online stock exchange for ideas.

Virtual currency

The exchange uses a virtual currency units, imaginatively called "DWPs" – the Department of Justice used "MoJos" in a later scheme – to reward staff when they submitted an idea or give feedback on someone else’s idea.

"We wanted to avoid some of the problems with traditional suggestion box schemes"
David Cotterill , head of innovation, DWP

DWP recognised few ideas are workable when they are first submitted. Most need hard work and refining, and input from other people to be successful. Ideas Street is designed to encourage just that.

DWP employees decide themselves which ideas are worth backing. Ideas that get enough votes, can go onto the next stage – building a team to take the ideas forward.

People started off by recruiting people they knew, said Cotterill. Eventually, they realised it was better to bring in experts from different parts of DWP, to create teams with a balanced skill set.

Once the people are in place, teams can launch their ideas on DWP’s internal stock market.

Buying shares in ideas

Employees can buy and sell virtual shares in ideas they think are likely to make it, separating the good from the bad effectively, said Cotterill.

The DWP has implemented over 100 ideas since the programme was introduced. “We stopped counting after we reached £20 million in savings,” he said.

DWP has refined and improved Ideas Street, as it has gone along, learning through experience.

"If it doesn’t feel right in e-mail, talking down the pub or on the phone, it's not going to be right on social media"

Dave Britton,chief press officer, Met Office.

The team rolled the system out gradually, initially trying to flush out the innovators in the DWP, and then the people who would drive projects through to completion.

“The things we thought we would need to focus on in advance, turned out to be pretty useless,” Cotterill revealed.

Learning from mistakes

For example, officials thought it essential to appoint someone to moderate the comments posted to Ideas Street.

“In the first 1,000 posts, we intervened once. In the second 1,000 posts, we intervened once. In the next 5,000 posts, we intervened zero times,” he said. 

“In the end we just outsourced it, and said if you see anything untoward, let us know.”

Encouraging people to take part needs a combination of energy and diplomacy, especially if you have to tell people you are not using their ideas, said Cotterill.

“Energy is really important. Everyone has been in workshops where there is high energy and you fix the problem," he said. “But we have all been in dull meetings where you think it would be better to do this by e-mail. But you can’t be high energy all the time.”

The answer is to mix and match the more routine work, with high energy drives, such as giving people 24 hours to get their ideas in on a particular topic.


The CW 500 Club

The CW500 Club is a private members' club for senior IT professionals and leading industry figures. Membership is by invitation only and allows access to the 500 Club online portal, coupled with a monthly networking event held at the BCS (Chartered Institute for IT), London.

Making social media work does require effort and dedicated resources. It also requires organisations to trust their employees, the meeting heard.

“As social media grows you have to dedicate a certain amount of resource. You have to empower people to undertake social media on behalf of the organisation,” said Dave Britton, chief press officer, Met Office.

“That comes with benefits and a certain amount of risk, in having a consistent message. It's about providing strong social media policies, providing training,” he said.

Ultimately, social media is no different from any other way of engaging with the public, he says.

“If it doesn’t feel right in e-mail, talking down the pub or on the phone, it's not going to be right on social media.”

For some organisations, trusting their staff will not waste time using social media when they should be working, requires a leap of faith.

Social media junkies

The point was brought home by the former head of innovation at a well-known credit card company.

We have a lot of people doing weekend and evening work on things they were passionate about

Dave Cotterill, head of innovation, DWP

“We found there were a lot of junkies talking about their wild ideas and forgetting their proper jobs,” he told the meeting. “When we wanted to get rid of people, we went through the list of wacko ideas sent to the innovation board and that was our hit list.”

Yet, those companies that have embraced social media have found that most employees tend not to abuse it.

They are more likely to spend ten minutes at lunch time tweeting than letting it interrupt their working day, the meeting heard.

The DWP found staff spending extra time after hours and at weekends, developing ideas to improve DWP through Ideas Street.

“Our most extreme case was the person who submitted ideas on Boxing Day. We have a lot of people doing weekend and evening work on things they were passionate about, so there is a flipside,” said Cotterill.

“The guys who waste their time on social media would be wasting their time anyway,” he said.

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