Planning use of social media? Just jump in

One of the most rewarding projects I’ve done this year has also been one of the simplest: helping create a blog and video for Silver Surfers with Emma Solomon and the team at Digital Unite. It’s provided me with new insights into how best to help people and organisations adopt social media. As Emma now says, just jump in.

Digital Unite used to be called Hairnet, and for the past 12 year they have specialised in helping older people use computers and the Net, by working with organisations and individuals. Their annual Silver Surfers Day will involve about 700 organisations next May.

A couple of months back I started talking with Emma and her team about how these days many older people were pretty capable online, and rather than being part of the digital excluded could be seen as enthusiastic champions. That offers scope for good stories, celebrations, and maybe new partnerships with industry sponsors and others. We met through ace social innovation networker Steve Moore, who I worked for on 2gether08.

We started talking about a major event to evolve Silver Surfing Second Wave (I just invented that) or something that would both continue work on digital inclusion and also celebrate what older people are doing with social media. We decided to focus on the Award Day this October, when a Silver Surfer of the Year is announced. Why not do a blog, and some video on the day?

With only a few weeks to go, Sophie Theunissen picked up the challenge for Digital Unite. I put her in touch with my friends at Ruralnet and they soon had a WordPress blog ready to go … created by Sophie and the DU team, not me.

Then on the day I turned up with some cameras, and shot the main speakers. However, things really took off when I offered my Flip Mino to Gill Adams (video above), who handles communications at Digital Unite. Gill reports:

David Wilcox, social reporter, thrust a miniature video-recorder in my hand just before the Awards started last Thursday. ‘I’m much more comfortable with the written word,’ I nearly said but by then he’d shown me the red on/off button and just said, ‘video someone and then pass it on to them to video someone else.’ All I can say is I want a dinky little camera like this for Christmas! This clip here shows just how easy it is.


Even though I was alarmed to find, on playback, that I sounded like a chat show hostess on speed, using it was a riot. And, you know what, no one was shy! Everyone wanted to be video’d or to video and that includes MPs, Director of McCarthy & Stone (that’s Gary Day, somewhere on this page, there’s quite a lot of his tie!), as well as Silver Surfer winner and runners-up. In fact, it was one of the runners-up, Simbo, who interviewed Gary Day.

So, have a click on the video-clips dotted around on this page and be warned – mobile video is no longer the preserve of drunken youth mobile-phoning subversive clips to each other late at night – it’s everywhere! Even in Portcullis House for a sober (yes, really, tea only) respectable Awards event such as ours.

We could have spent ages working out a strategy for Digital Unite to use social media, recruit some enthusiasts, test different systems, plan out a site … but what worked was to do something around an event. I’m finding (pretty obvious really) that events are a great way for organisations to explore the possibilities of social media. There’s a deadline, an assured audience, plenty of content, an immediate pay-off as you show the results.

Although the Digital Unite team were – by virtue of their work – pretty skilled with technology, they hadn’t done any blogging and video. Now, with a relatively low investment, they have a blog that can be developed for other purposes, and enough skills to experiment at other events. It also means we have a common language and framework to talk about other social media possibilities.

This may sound fairly simple stuff to experienced bloggers and videobloggers, but after quite a few frustrating experiences I no longer under-estimate the difficulties of helping organisations engage with social media. Events are one route in.

As I say, it was fairly easy for me … but about the experience for Digital Unite? I asked Emma, and here’s her response. I wasn’t looking for a testimonial, just some honest reflections.

There are so many things to say about all this, where to start?!

As David says, the roots of this great blog experience are soaked in endless cups of tea and conversations that took a long time and wandered all over the place.  Those conversations were born of my almost daily dilemma: how to ratchet the whole silver surfer agenda up a few notches and make it first more mainstream and secondly, more dynamic.

Why? Traditionally most of our work at DU has been very much focused on older people at risk of being comprehensively digitally disenfranchised (lack of access, understanding and skills). For these people, significant – but as John Fisher from Citizens Online observed, very simple – interventions are needed not just to show them the benefits of digital literacy but also give them tangible skills to reap them themselves.

But, of course, not all older people are in this category. Many have some digital literacy skills, some are very high end users; most existing older digital media users do also want to keep learning, and will do so informally – which means they ask friends or family, they look online, or they tinker with things and try and figure it out. (We did some survey work with YouGov a year or so ago and found this out very comprehensively, if you want to know more about that, just ask).

Another significant characteristic of older digital media users is that they often have clear social, as well as personal, motives for adopting and exploring digital media.  And, their digital crusading tends to deliver, or enhance, significant real-world manifestations or effects. All our Silver Surfer of the Year winners demonstrated this: Bernard, Judith, Simbo, Les and Stuart have all used their digital emancipation to actively engage with and develop local – and virtual – communities.

Once they have got the hang of their digital tools, silver surfers are also good at sharing and supporting others, especially their peer group.  Once they feel confident, and especially if they have overcome obstacles in gaining that confidence, their sense of empowerment often dissolves any inhibition, and they are keen to inspire others through their own example. Again, the Silver Surfers of the Year 2008 show this in spades, as did the 2007 Silver Queen, Joan. Watch and listen to them on the blog.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that we knew that we had to find a new way of engaging with what David calls the ‘silver surfer second wave’ – older people who aren’t technically digitally disenfranchised, but who still want to learn, and moreover, who have lots to share and contribute.

Our blog is a first step to achieving that, and it has been a really fascinating, educational, inspiring and frustrating process! I am so very glad we have done it.  The next step is to create a whole new set of digital-life-skills content which will be delivered on and offline through the Silver Surfers’ Day 2009 campaign.  Our aim there is that organisations and participants involved in SSD09 will be able to feed back into the campaign with their learning and experiences. The ‘silver surfer second wave’ has an exciting and important role to play in creating a virtuous circle of digital life-skills expertise, examples and exponents.

I totally agree with David when he says organisations can spend an inordinate amount of time talking about, and testing, digital engagement strategies and theories. You really are far better off, emotionally and financially, jumping in. If you have an inkling of what you think is possible, you need to really just jump in.

Find good, thoughtful people who can support you. Bring in people who will challenge your assumptions and push you. Overestimate the time it will take to get started, then treble it. Be prepared to learn, listen and be shown. And then see where it all takes you. You may get results you’d never have anticipated, and that’s all part of the reward.

As you can see above the Silver Servers were not shy about interviewing each other on the Awards Day.

What next? I’m due for another chat with Emma and the team, and I’m sure they will be fizzing with ideas. One obvious one is to help groups and centres taking part in next May’s Silver Surfers Day to create their own videos, explaining how they are using the Net. That’s the strategy and marketing issues cracked: just let the people formerly-known-as-users do it for you.

Update: Experienced ICT champion and video blogger Paul Webster was a great enthusiast and help on the day – thanks Paul, should have mentioned – and has now jumped in (see comment) with ideas for next year.


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  • November 6, 2008 - 11:53 am | Permalink

    It was really a great day.
    What took me by surprise (although it shouldn’t I know) were the number of people quite happy with technology. Friends and families using their own video phones to record the event.
    As for next year … we’ve a network of ICT Champions, one in each region, sure we can record, blog, Flickr, local SSD09 events from around the country for the day!

  • November 6, 2008 - 5:22 pm | Permalink

    So difficult to keep up with all these various social media/social innovation initiatives. Thankfully I can rely on David to report on all the key stuff in his role as Social Reporter!

  • November 6, 2008 - 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Steve – every social reporter needs an (interactive) audience! I know I can rely on you for the CoP stuff and much more. Social reporters will be much in evidence at Chain Reaction November 17-18. Hope you will come and join in.

  • November 9, 2008 - 2:12 am | Permalink

    This is good stuff. I came across Hairnet a few years ago – it seems to have developed a lot since then! I’ve subscribed to the Digital United site now and hope to make a stronger connection soon.

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