Everyone is talking but is anyone listening? Using social media to promote info services

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There's no doubt that, in some quarters at least, social media are replacing more traditional methods of communication. Earlier this week it was widely reported that French IT services giant Atos which employs 80,000 people is planning to ban the use of internal emails in favour of communication via other channels such as social networks, instant messaging and microblogging. 

A panel in the European Librarians Theatre at this year's Online Information show, organised under the auspices of SLA, debated how to use social media tools to promote library services. The international panel featured Jo Alcock from Birmingham City University, Dennie Heye from Shell Information Technology International in the Netherlands, and Katrin Weller from Heinrich-Heine University in Germany.  

Jo had carried out an informal survey to find out how librarians in the UK were putting social media to work, and found a trend towards consolidating accounts and tools in order to streamline the wide variety of tools and services on offer.

The panellists agreed that were a number of obstacles that could impede the implementation of social media tools. Jo noted that senior management could be cautious, particularly given the experimental nature of some social media initiatives. Implementation can be time consuming, and this problem is exacerbated when staff don't see the importance of the project. And in some settings, access to social media is banned altogether.

Katrin echoed the focus on experimentation and trial and error - a willingness to try things out and learn as you go is key to success in social media. There isn't a manual!

From Dennie's point of view, making the business case to senior management was all important. At Shell, they have introduced enterprise social network Yammer to enable communication between people working in different teams and offices. By focusing on its use as an IT support tool,  they were able to make a strong business case by showing that using Yammer freed up time for IT support staff.

Jo pointed out that librarians will need to exercise professional judgement in choosing the right tool for the job - for example public libraries will want to communicate with their patrons in specific ways which will be very different to the approach taken by a corporate information service; and there will be a difference between internal and external communications.

The panellists agreed that flexibility and personality were both key to the successful implementation of a social media strategy. Jo pointed out that you need to be able to adapt to changing expectations. Dennie recommended being yourself - an authentic, 'human' voice is much more effective than a personality-free corporate voice. For those wanting to take the plunge, Katrin suggested that you start by asking yourself 'what will success look like' so that further down the line you have something to measure against. This will also provide a touchstone to use when faced with choosing between the enormous range of social media tools out there.