Digital Surrey, GiffGaff and a model for a community powered business

Earlier this evening I went to my first DigitalSurrey event. This was a presentation about “the wikipedia of mobile networks”: Giff Gaff by Heather Taylor – their Social Media and PR manager.

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Image courtesy of @eddiejaoude.

It was a brilliant experience – partly being in a room with that many admirable brains, and partly listening to such an inspiring speaker. As I said on Twitter soon after: the sign of a great speaker? I was too engrossed to tweet!

So, quick background, then my take home lessons!

Giff Gaff was set up by an O2 exec who wanted to know “what would the wikipedia of mobile networks look like?”. Basically it is a community driven business. The community suggests products, developments, helps with promotions, and provides customer service (average response time less than three minutes!) in return for kudos and rewards (cash, minutes or donations to charity).

The key thing to remember is that it is a business. The team of 16 staff receive around 50 new ideas a week to consider, but the final say so on whether it is implemented is down to the paid employees. That said, if a customer (or group of customers) is seriously suggesting something, you’d be mad not to seriously consider implementing it. Likewise, if something doesn’t make business sense, they won’t try it. The important thing is that GiffGaff explain their decisions. It looks as if they have found the volume of ideas a little overwhelming – but what a position to be in!

One of the most interesting examples Heather gave was about a period of downtime they had in November last year. The network (which runs on O2 masts) went down for calls and texts (not for data). During the entire downtime the giffgaff team were constantly tweeting, facebooking and using their own community boards to keep their customers up to date on what was happening. They also updated their blog immediately after the event and then again the next day to make a promise to explain the outage (once they’d got to the bottom of it) and to donate some money to charity (another community suggestion). How many other companies would do that I wonder?

My take home thoughts:

The ethos behind GiffGaff reminded me of what I wanted to do when I was developing Step Up – the Walk to Secondary School campaign: a community driven campaign owned (in a non-financial sense) and run by the people we were targeting. The problem was I had no idea where to start building that community! In some ways there is a bit of that community driven idea in the way the campaign is engaging young people in making films and campaigns, but the big “movement” never really came together.

I can see a lot of parallels with “big society” (and I hate that term) with the key difference that GiffGaff actually rewards people for taking part (though I get the feeling kudos and opensource spirit is also very important to GiffGaff volunteers).

The practical lesson for me was that, although you can set up spaces for people to take part in your community (the GiffGaff forums for instance), you still need to heavily monitor* and interact with your community where they are (Facebook, Twitter and wherever else that may be).

*the term “monitor” seems a bit big brotherish and not really the right term, but its late and I can’t think of a better term!

The take home for handling a crisis is “communicate like crazy as soon as you can – even if you have nothing to say yet”. That way your audience know you are aware of the problem and are trying to deal with it. Who knows – they may even have some expertise or ideas to help you resolve the crisis.

GiffGaff actually seemed to gather extra followers (twitter) and likes (facebook) as a result of the downtime and how they handled it. Thoug hof course you want to have built the channels ready, before the crisis hits.

This really ties into some stuff I am working on for Surrey Police at the moment – but that is for another day!

The session was hugely inspiring and I can’t wait for the next DigitalSurrey. In the meantime (thanks to @heatherataylor for permission) you can view/listen to the LiveScribe recording I made of the event (turn the volume up to 11 – I wasn’t sat in the best position for a sound recording!):

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