CIO interview: Keep Britain Tidy head of IT Rich Kavanagh on social media strategy

Keep Britain Tidy's head of ICT, Rich Kavanagh, tells Computer Weekly how the charity is successfully using social networking tools to interact with citizens and supporters.

"Keep Britain Tidy" is a slogan that is ingrained in the psyche of most people in the UK. The environmental charity of the same name is now making extensive use of social media to further push its campaigning around the issue of litter and anti-social behaviour.

Unusually for an IT chief, Rich Kavanagh, the head of ICT at the charity, is a strong proponent of social media tools - he has nearly 10,000 followers on Twitter - and led Keep Britain Tidy's (KBT's) journey into the world of social networking in June 2009.

"I've long been a personal fan and avid user of the major platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, JoinDiaspora, LinkedIn and YouTube, and I was starting to see ways in which these platforms could be leveraged to benefit our organisation," Kavanagh told Computer Weekly.

The initial strategy

The charity's very first step in social media was around spending time setting up accounts on the major platforms and customising the layout as much as possible to fall in line with KBT's brand.

"This is quite an important step, you need to be consistent with your branding across whichever platforms you use. With this in mind, we created specific background images to use on our Twitter account, we edited our logos for Facebook by adding some shading to the background to match the Facebook layout at the time and so on," said Kavanagh.

The IT chief was also keen to be "as engaging as possible" right from the start of the organisation's activities in social media.

"I've seen so many organisations jump on the social media bandwagon without actually understanding it and it always ends in disaster - many organisations fail by simply setting up one-way types of communication," said Kavanagh. "They send out messages all day long without listening to a single message being sent back to them, on any platform. They even fail to listen to what people are saying about their brand."

The very first tweet KBT sent was a call to action, as the charity wanted to find a "celebrity ambassador" who was passionate about the environment and willing to put their name to the charity's cause. This same tweet attracted a great deal of media coverage, with national newspapers such as The Guardian reporting on the message, said Kavanagh.

"We were very lucky, as shortly after the tweet went out, Kirstie Allsopp [presenter of the Location, Location, Location home buying TV show] rang personally and asked if she could be our ambassador. It was at this point that I started to understand the true value and potential that social media presented to us as an organisation," he said.

Since then, the charity has been using the major social networking platforms to engage with the public as much as possible, so supporters can help spread the word about campaigns.

"People don't often listen to organisations, but they do listen to other people," said Kavanagh.

Measuring results

Two years after KBT's first foray into Twitter, Kavanagh said the results of using of social media platforms have been "staggering". The charity had often been considered as a "dated" brand and the IT chief feels social media has helped transform public perceptions.

"Social networking allows us to reach a huge audience, one that we would normally be unable to get to via our traditional methods of campaigning," Kavanagh said. "Our level of engagement with the public has gone through the roof. Not a week goes by when someone doesn't say how pleasantly surprised they are to see Keep Britain Tidy on Twitter and Facebook."

Keep Britain Tidy uses a range of tools and applications such as Crowdbooster and TweetReach to measure the effectiveness of its communications through social media channels. These resources help monitor not just what people are saying to the charity, but also what they are saying about it.

"Our Twitter account has just over 8,000 followers, but with the help of those followers a single tweet can reach well over 10 times that number of people," said Kavanagh.

As an example, the IT chief mentions that one of KBT's tweets earlier this year was retweeted (forwarded, in Twitter terms) by many of the charity's followers, in a process that was replicated several times across their networks - resulting in one particular message eventually reaching over 340,000 people in under 24 hours.

KBT also uses its own URL shortener as a key social media measurement tool. When a message is posted by the charity on Twitter, Facebook or any other networks in which it is active, a link from accompanies the content, so detailed statistics on the reach of each link can also be obtained.

The charity also places a different short URL on each platform. For example, it may tweet a news article with a short URL to the article itself, but on Facebook the same message and destination would be posted with a different short URL - this allows KBT to see which platform yields the best results.

"Traffic to our web site has increased dramatically and links to our site from social media platforms now account for 20% of our web traffic," said Kavanagh.

KBT's performance in the social media realm is also being recognised by the wider industry. When it launched its strategy in 2009, the charity received prizes such as the GoldenTwits award.

"We are also often invited to speak at social media events and conferences throughout the country and we often provide tailored advice to other charity organisations looking to take advantage of social networking," he said.

Key considerations

Kavanagh says the main consideration when starting to use social media platforms is ensuring full understanding about such tools by everyone within the organisation who is to be involved in the project.

"More importantly, however, is that they understand the people who use those platforms, which is critical in order not to drive people away from your brand on social media," he added. "People who use social media can be fickle: if you lose a Facebook fan or Twitter follower, it can be near impossible to win them back again."

Understanding the online behaviour of its audience was also the main challenge for KBT's IT team when driving the social media initiatives and the differences in their actions across different platforms.

"We could never post a message on Twitter and post the exact same message on Facebook as, at best, it would simply get ignored, but at worst we'd lose Twitter followers or Facebook 'likes'. You have to tailor each message for each specific platform, with that audience in mind," said Kavanagh.

Not only are the audiences different on each platform, but the culture of each platform also changes.

"A year in social media is a very long time. For example, the cultural use of Twitter seems to shift almost every nine months. With this in mind, we constantly review our social media strategy to fall in line with each platform. We plan ahead where possible, but our strategy needs constant review, two or three times a year," he said.

"Consistency of message is also an important factor. We have an excellent in-house media team, who are able to provide our view or response to certain queries," Kavanagh added.

"Understanding" has been Kavanagh's motto when it comes to KBT's social media plans. It is also his key piece of advice to fellow CIOs who may be a bit confused as to how to make it all work.

"You need to understand just how a platform such as Facebook or Twitter works, but also understand the culture behind each one and adjust your message accordingly," he said. "It is also vital to understand your audience, as they are your stakeholders in the world of social media. With their help, your brand and message can be spread far and wide, but if you upset or alienate them, your social network will very quickly collapse."

Due to the high risk of getting social media strategies and execution wrong, Kavanagh also suggests bringing in a social media manager to help, rather than promoting from within, since existing employees may not have the right skills.

The IT boss also advises companies to register their name on every social media platform they can find.

"Much like registering alternative top-level domain names, even if you never use the platform you should protect your brand as much as possible and prevent others from using your name and brand in the wrong way."

Changing a society with social media

Kavanagh is a firm believer in the fact that social networking tools can be a crucial agent in prompting changes in society, particularly in the environmental and behavioural area, which is KBT's key area of focus.

An example is TwitPick, an online campaign which KBT run late last year, whereby its Twitter follower base - then made up of 2,600 people - was invited to pick up just one piece of litter on a specific date and then tweet what they collected.

"We did this out of the blue with minimal run-up promotion to the event and it managed to pull 270 uses of the #TwitPick hashtag," said Kavanagh.

"We are going to run a more coordinated #TwitPick effort in the spring which will definitely yield better results," he said.

"If every person took some pride in where they live and work and picked up just one piece of litter a day, the country would be a very different place."

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