An evening with Cambridge social media enthusiasts


Learning from a less-familiar gathering of social media enthusiasts in Cambridge, with #SookioSocial.

Puffles at #SookioSocial - Photo Laura Brown of @KISSTalk Comms
Puffles at #SookioSocial listening to @MissSueFlay – Photo Laura Brown of @KISSTalk Comms

I’m writing this having just returned from a buzzing event hosted by Sookio Ltd – a local social media marketing firm who got together over 50 people at the Cambridge Brewhouse for a talk about ‘how to talk on social media‘.

Getting that many people for a local Meetup event is impressive – getting that many that signed up to actually turn up, even more so. Sue Keogh, the CEO had got together an impressive cast list of speakers from a range of backgrounds. The panel included:

Getting the ‘expert panel’ format to work

In principle, I’m not a fan of this format. I don’t like long periods of audience silence where there’s only one person asking the questions. That said, Sue made it work by asking a series of short sharp and informed questions and the panel giving short sharp answers. As a result, we got through what felt like a significant amount of content that would have informed even the most widely-informed social media user. In my book, all things digital is a world that is evolving at such a fast rate that we are all learners. Hence the ‘top-down’ speaker-to-passive-audience model in this field at least, is unsuitable. But that’s not so easy to explain to people who might be used to and comfortable with this format.

“What did you learn?”

The insights I got from each of them were fascinating.

Cambridge University

Cambridge University’s administration clearly have come a long way on all things digital, but still have a long way to go. There are lots of opportunities that the institution is missing out on because of the mindset of its senior management that doesn’t understand the cultures building up around digital. On the other hand, Fred and Barney in the Comms team really impressed me with what they have achieved in very constrained circumstances – and I pay tribute to them.

Age UK

My jaw hit the floor (figuratively, not literally!) when Athar said that half of their Facebook followers were over 55 years old. What really impressed me with him was the level of audience analysis and segmentation he and his team had done. They know what sort of demographic is using which platform in what manner. That means they are very good at knowing what sort of content is going to work with which platform and with which audience. This is the standard that every policy team in every local authority and government department needs to be aiming for.

Grazia magazine

I had to pull myself up when Jess Vince (who I had a fascinating conversation with after the Q&A session) started off her remarks talking about a Pinterest post about Kate Middleton’s shoes. There was a bit of me that was thinking:

“Yeah – this is precisely the sort of content that distracts people from engaging in politics and serious stuff!…moan…grumble….whinge!”

The other bit of me – the bigger bit of me was thinking:

“Oi! Dragon dude! Listen up! It’s Jess’s readers that are the ones you are trying to get to engage in all things politics and local democracy – and she knows them far better than you ever will. So shut up and listen to her!”

I chose the latter.

Miss Sue Flay

What struck me about Miss Sue Flay was how similar our experiences were. We both use Twitter as our main day-to-day platform and both started out as a bit of fun more than anything else. We didn’t have a plan, we just…tweeted. At the same time, the pressures of what we both do have meant that things that we should or would like to have done have fallen by the wayside. In her case, she said that she wanted to organise some events again around what she does. The same is true with me, for example with the pub lunches.

Hardly anyone had heard of Puffles!

Before I put my question to the panel – and to the audience, I asked for a show of hands of who had not seen or heard about Puffles. The clear majority of people in the room had no idea what Puffles was. (It was nice to meet small business mentor Ann Hawkins for the first time!) Looking around the room, this didn’t surprise me – I hardly knew anyone there. I saw this as a positive thing from the perspective of the digital democracy challenge (see here – I encourage anyone who lives, works and studies in Cambridge to take it on!). It was then that I mentioned Puffles standing for election on a ‘don’t vote for us’ digital democracy platform and told them about the digital democracy challenge. I then put the question to them about how we as an audience interested and/or enthusiastic about social media could persuade councillors and candidates to use social media.

“What was the response?”

Jess Vince said keep going – it’s a long haul. A couple of people in the audience said that the problem was more that people did not believe politicians interested in listening to the people. Steve O’Connor said that some senior politicians didn’t like the direct link to the voters – with Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner Sir Graham Bright came in for particular criticism – his Twitter account showing little engagement at all. (He doesn’t have a Facebook page – not one that I’ve found anyway).

This got me thinking:

How can you persuade an audience full of people who are really good at social media beyond the ‘personal’ context to use it in a manner that influences local democracy? This matters to me because I’m experimenting with a number of things – including a ‘living manifesto’ (see here) for which people can suggest improvements to over time.

Learning from the celeb magazines

I made a bee-line for Jess at the end of the event and threw a torrent of friendly questions about her experience inside one of the country’s biggest selling magazines. While I have issues with the celebrity and ‘beauty’ industries, it doesn’t mean we have to be rude to the people who happen to work in those industries, who like the most of the rest of us are part of the 99% and have bills to pay on limited incomes.

“What did you learn from Jess?”

That modern digitally-enabled publications that have a significant social media content now have direct lines to their editors. Not only that, but turnaround times are incredibly tight. You’ve got to react to things in a matter of minutes – because that is the industry they are in. It’s a very visual and emotive one for those that are in it and follow it. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why politics turns people off. Scripted lines-to-take lack emotion and credibility. Policy papers are exactly that – papers written in a manner with lots of words and complex concepts poorly explained that are not easy to visualise or grasp.

This got me thinking about the sorts of papers written by political and policy institutions. Think about the publications that come out. You have the substantive papers and the summary papers – perhaps with a few annexes at the back. And all are written for the same audience: A politics and policy audience. You don’t get publications on the same issues by the same departments written for different audiences.

“Actually, this matters – keep running with this thread/line of thought…”

Think about Parliament’s website. They’ve already differentiated between two audiences:

1) The ‘mainstream’ audience – their home page

2) Schools and colleges – their education pages

But in the grand scheme of things, there are far more audiences they have. At present they are probably in the early stages of understanding who those audiences are and what their wants/needs are. Think for example:

  • The constituent that wants to check if their MP asked a question in Parliament
  • The policy expert that wants to examine a research paper published by Parliament
  • The ‘amateur expert’ (amateur in that they are not paid professionally for it) that wants to scrutinise ministers and go through petitions, written statements and written questions to see what things were or were not followed up
  • The student that wants to find out the historical background to a major piece of recent political history
  • The artist that wants to find nice pictures of the glorious interiors of the Palace of Westminster

All of these are different audiences. Some overlap more than others, but how you approach them are all very different. How, as an institution do you manage this?

Barriers to women in local democracy

The two points I took away from Jess’s comments were that both institutional sexism and the format of political meetings are things that put women off. The format of council meetings has hardly changed for the past 150 years. The chamber in Cambridge Guildhall for example has the councillors facing the mayor’s throne. It should be the mayor and councillors facing the people. Instead, the public seats mean that they cannot see most of the councillors that are speaking. That’s wrong.

Also, the aggression and the personalising of attacks are very off-putting. And not just for women. I mentioned to Jess that anecdotally the women I engage with on Twitter have a very different view of what they see as ‘the news’ in a political and policy world compared with the mainstream media. The mainstream media reports (all too often without critical analysis) press releases and spats between testosterone-fuelled men. The women that I follow through Puffles are much more interested in the issues, getting into the things underneath the problems and exploring ideas on what decent solutions might be. But then as I tweet every so often, you cannot have evidence-based policies with prejudice-based politics. We have too much of the latter. No wonder people are turned off.

“So…anything new for the campaign?”

Yeah – a new call for Cambridge University to properly resource a social media communications function within its corporate communications team and to ensure it is properly linked up with the organisations and institutions that make up the university – in particular the feedback loops.

Food for thought?


4 thoughts on “An evening with Cambridge social media enthusiasts

  1. It was great to meet Puffles last night and to hear more about the Digital Democracy Pledge. I wish you lots of luck in your “don’t vote for us” campaign.
    A small correction if I may: while I have been a blogger since 2005 and believe it is a great tool for small businesses (the earliest form of social media) I am not a blogging coach. Similarly, while I produce The Social Media Show, I am not in the social media business. These things form part of the bank of knowledge I use to advise small businesses on their plans for growth.
    The event last night is a reflection of how important these tools are and also of the often confused and misleading advice that is around. It was good to hear experiences of people with nothing to sell and free from the usual social media hype. Looking forward to the next one!

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