using whats app as a comms channel

We use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube well. But after that it tails off. WhatsApp has 500 million users. But few people are using it as a comms channel. Not Shropshire Council who have launched a trial.

by Lorna Perry

Well, what a year it has been, and with six weeks to go before I leave Shropshire Council (to have a baby) I have been itching to try out one last thing – WhatsApp as a communications / customer service channel.

After seeing the huge success we have had on Twitter this year, really working hard on our engagement and gaining a massive 10.7k followers, I starting thinking about how people contact Elected Members and the Council in general.

We don’t have an SMS service for many reasons, the main one being cost, so why couldn’t we try something like WhatsApp which not only enables people to message us, but also send us photos, videos and audio messages?

I had some interesting chats with colleagues to try to find out if any other local authority had tried this and at the time nobody could name any. If you have tried using WhatsApp or are currently using it please get in touch.

Our approach to this pilot is simple, the Leader of Shropshire Council, four Elected Members and a council general enquiries service will be available on WhatsApp for a four week period, starting on Monday 10th November. The aim, to see if people will naturally choose to use it to get in touch - what could possibly go wrong?

Personally I’m not too worried; if the pilot isn’t successful we’ll dust ourselves down, learn from it and move on. We’re not afraid to try something new, and implement it if successful, although our customer service team may kill me if I try to hand over yet another channel for them to manage!

The Members involved in this pilot are really excited and have even started a competition amongst themselves. Firstly, a prize for the first person to receive a WhatsApp message from a customer and secondly, a prize for the first person to receive a picture of dog poo (terms and conditions apply!). One Councillor is so keen that he has already started exploring other ways of communicating with his constituents, with Skype being on his list of things to try.

My feelings on customer service / communications channels are simple, we should not be creating new ones, we should simply go where the people already are!  I am fed up of hearing people suggesting new and costly approaches which would require public adoption. If we are not afraid to try new ways of communicating, potentially we open up to a whole new dialogue with people in a way that they are comfortable, and which suits them. It may be a drastic ambition but I want people to see the council as a friend, only ever being as far away as a friend on Facebook, a fellow Tweeter or even a friend in your mobile contact list.

We really hope the WhatsApp pilot is hugely successful as it could be a fantastic way for us to talk to our customers. We will of course be back with another guest blog post towards the end of the pilot to let you know how we are getting on!

Lorna Perry is communications and social media architect at Shropshire Council.