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Opinion: Paying rent through Facebook

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Opinion: Paying rent through Facebook

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Communities, Finance

Facebook urged to act on panic button Facebook urged to act on panic button

By Sian Grant, director of customer and neighbourhood services, Salix Homes

Like any housing provider, we are increasingly dependent on our tenants having access to the internet, yet the stark reality is there are 8.7 million adults in the UK that have never been online – and worryingly almost half are social housing tenants.

But as we grapple with the challenges of digital inclusion magnified by the government’s welfare reforms, we believe that social media could provide that missing link. Many tenants will tell you they’ve never turned on a PC before, but they have been on Facebook.

Nationally, 31 million people have a Facebook account and 22 million log on every day. On our own Facebook site we’ve seen a massive 90% increase in interactions in the past year alone, with the majority of users accessing social media via their phones.

The advent and accessibility of mobile internet and smartphones means that many people are constantly online without even realising it.

At Salix Homes we saw this as a massive opportunity – an opportunity to tap into the realities of our tenants’ lives and align our mode of engagement with theirs.

We undertook a tenant survey around internet usage and discovered that 40% were regular Facebook users, which further prompted us to develop into this area in the hope that social media could hold the key to achieving digital inclusion.

We’ve now become one of the first housing providers in the country to enable tenants to pay their rent via Facebook, through the development of our innovative Facebook App, revolutionising the way tenants pay their rent and access services.

The new App, which is available on our own Facebook page, also enables tenants to report repairs and issues; ask questions about their tenancy and provides advice on money management and budgeting.

To use the service, tenants must have their own Facebook account and visit our Facebook page, where they can navigate through the simple system.

Crucially, for tenants who own a smartphone, they can access these services on-the-move – capturing the large number of tenants who our survey revealed may not have access to a computer or laptop.

While tenants may not be that active on the web in general, we know that they are extremely active on Facebook. For a tenant, it is important to be able to report a repair in real time or to pay their rent on the go, at a time to suit them, and this pioneering service enables them to do just that.

What’s interesting is that this approach fulfils a number of objectives.  From a digital inclusion perspective it encourages people to go online – and once they’ve done it and found it a positive experience, it’s a motivation to do it again.

Welfare reform, and in particular Universal Credit, is increasing the pressure on us to open new lines of communication with our tenants and it’s crucial we make it as easy as possible for them to contact us, pay their rent, access information and report any issues.

It’s still early days, but within the first two week of its launch, we had more than 100 visits to the App, which for us speaks volumes about the potential power of social media as a means of communication.

It’s an innovative step we have taken along the rocky road of digital inclusion, but we know there is still a long way to go and our Facebook development is just one of a number of approaches we are taking.

Earlier this year, we launched our Connecting Customers project, teaching basic IT and money management skills to unemployed tenants and helping them to buy a discounted laptop and set up a bank account with the Salford Credit Union. The scheme has been an overwhelming success, even scooping an NFA Award earlier this year.

Salix Homes is very proud to be leading the way in digital innovation. Embracing mobile technology and harnessing the power of social media is central to our digital inclusion strategy and, for now at least, it seems that Facebook is the future. And while this is an innovative development, the principle is simple - go where the people are.

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