Social media: why it’s good to talk

Driving dialogue and debate on key waste issues through the use of twitter or facebook is both valuable and cost-effective. So get connected, urges Gareth Morton

The internet is where things are happening, from product launches to new relationships. At a recent conference in Washington DC where we presented our thoughts on community engagement and waste infrastructure delivery, a significant amount of time was dedicated to communications and engagement issues, in particular the role of social media.

Social media is about people – one in five couples today meet online and the same number of divorces are blamed on Facebook. More than 66% of adults are connected to one or more social media platforms and use them daily to ‘keep in touch’. YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world, and if Facebook were a country it would be the world’s third largest after China and India in terms of population.

In the UK there were 38.3 million Internet users in 2010 – that’s 77% of the population. Over 60% access the internet every day, 45% of them accessing it via mobile phones, laptops and other Wi-Fi enabled devices. Half of mobile internet traffic in the UK is related to Facebook, making it an ideal platform to reach target audiences for public and private sector organisations alike.

Recent data suggests that 90% of consumers trust peer recommendations whilst only 14% trust advertisements. Ninety-three per cent of marketers use social media for their routine business, and 80% of companies use social media for recruitment, with 95% using LinkedIn. Is your business actively engaged in the social media revolution?

Social media isn’t some passing fad, it’s a fundamental shift in the way that we communicate, as revolutionary as the invention of the printing press. It isn’t a question any longer of whether our industry adopts social media, it is about how much resource should we dedicate to it, what messages should we target and how can we improve our reach?

In Canada, the Regional Municipality of Halton embraced the social media zeitgeist and its approach is enlightened and full of momentum. It has a comprehensive social media strategy spanning newsfeeds, Twitter, Facebook, blogging and YouTube across eight different municipal services. Their approach is enshrined in their corporate and waste management strategies – it’s a core activity, not an add-on.

The waste management team of 10 each works a half-day social media ‘shift’ once every week to fit in with their day jobs. The team uses the following social media platforms: blogging with regular entries including descriptions of events, service videos, and coverage of topical issues; and twitter tweeting on average 10 times per day across a wide range of subjects, providing ‘live information’ when needed.

They blog and tweet about everything, sometimes with tenuous but topical links to recycling or waste stories as they follow what’s trending online and around the world. The tone is deliberately kept personal and non-corporate. Importantly, the staff have the freedom, within the guidelines, to use their initiative and can be spontaneous. Their blogs and twitter account are widely promoted on all their other communications material, thus driving new followers to these constantly updated feeds.

And the results? Well it’s still early days in terms of tonnage impacts, but since January 2012 HaltonRecycles made 925,524 new impressions from 1,572 Twitter mentions, whilst twitter followers have increased by 111%. Their recycling rate is nearly 60% and rising. Halton isn’t stopping here either, it’s now looking at how to use YouTube more effectively.

By comparison, in the UK the social media revolution associated with the waste and recycling industry feels heavier and more cumbersome – restricted by corporate nervousness about the technology and the openness of the messaging. However, there are some great examples of innovative use of social media and mobile apps by the UK waste sector.

Essex County Council has Gritter Twitter which provides updates on roads that have been gritted and cleared supported by interactive maps. The service also provides information on collection day delays due to poor weather. Many local authorities have dedicated recycling campaign pages with innovations like searchable maps for services and facilities (mainly banks).

In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough the ‘Wear it, Love it, Share it’ campaign has its own facebook page with all sorts of news and information about textile reuse and recycling. Angus Council in Scotland has a facebook page which ran two posts on the recent launch of its trail food waste collection scheme. And Viridor uses social media as part of its communications suite for proposed infrastructure, including a proposed energy recovery facility in south London. A twitter feed provides updates on progress and answers any questions posed.

So what are the benefits of using social media for an organisation? Does it make a difference? Well yes – according to a SocITM survey, the web is quicker and cheaper for a local authority to convey information (avoided contact) than using the phone or face to face: web transaction = 27p; phone transaction = £3.22; face -to-face transactions = £6.56.

Social media can also help you to connect with traditionally hard to reach groups, in particular young people, from teenagers to professionals. The platforms can also be localised so that messages and campaigns can be tailored for the whole UK or a single block of flats as required.

It can also increase engagement and ownership, by developing dialogue and debate rather than just information giving. It encourages partnership development and can link organisations or parts of the community that were not previously in touch. With increasing organizational engagement in social media, best practice continues to be showcased and new businesses and local authorities turn their hand to the internet to help get the most from their dwindling marketing budgets.

If your organisation is considering social media, then think carefully about what platform would best suit your needs, how much time you can dedicate to it and how it fits in with your current communications plan.

Gareth Morton is principal consultant at AEA Technology

Morton’s colleagues Sarahjane Widdowson and Adam Read also contributed to the article

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