Rod McGuinness: Using social intelligence to shape services.

By Roger Christie, Managing Director

Propel’s Expert Series continues with Rod McGuinness — social lead at ABC Radio — who, in over six-and-a-half years managing social for the national broadcaster, has seen the best and worst social has to offer. And despite his media remit, Rod is very clear the value of social lies not in its broadcast capabilities but its capacity to access community insights via social intelligence and shape products and services in a responsive manner, shown through the success of programs like War on Waste.

Roger Christie (RC): Thanks for taking the time to meet, Rod. You’ve been with the ABC for nearly seven years now — how has social changed in that time from both an internal organisation perspective and customer or community maturity perspective?

Rod McGuinness (RM): The biggest change internally has been the evolution of the role social has played at the ABC. When I started, social was all about distribution and getting messages out there. And in a much more unofficial or unregulated way, as was the case with most organisations six or seven years ago. We even had a Twitter account at the time — @ABCPolitics — that was setup by one journalist during ‘early Twitter’ and represented the views of the whole organisation. It wouldn’t happen today.

But now social’s role is much more purposeful. It’s a key part of reporting the news, storytelling more generally, curation and ideas generation, and then distribution as well. It works in tandem with existing news processes rather than separately in parallel.

Externally, so much has changed. Platforms have changed, platforms have come and gone. And user behaviour has changed dramatically. There are considerably fewer examples of ‘lifecasting’ and status updating than in previous years, as both users and industry have matured in their use of social media channels.

RC: Do you believe consumers are driving these changes or are the platforms themselves dictating what consumers do?

RM: I think it’s both push and pull. On one hand, the platforms are trying to sell ads, increase market share and they have to make a dollar, so their driving motivation is to get people to see ads and they structure their platforms to do that. Facebook spends an awful lot of time understanding the psychology of user behaviours to inform and release new products to achieve that goal. But then consumers absolutely influence the extent to which the platforms evolve. If you look at Twitter’s recent round of releases focused on usability, much of the negative feedback centred on the ongoing issues with online harassment. It’s a balancing act for platforms to manage their own interests and those of their audiences to maintain relevance.

RC: What about the ABC — how do you balance your own agenda and goals with meeting the needs of the community and any platform limitations?

RM: For us, what’s driving greatest change is the need to reach audiences. Traditional methods are no longer effective in capturing the same attention we used to. So, in a way, we’re dependent on the channels our audience uses to be relevant in their eyes. Our Facebook Messenger news app is a great example of that. We have more than 160,000 people using that service now [having launched in November 2016], and the response has been great. But if Facebook was to start charging a dollar per user, or charged a licensing fee, or wanted to serve ads on our platform in lieu of payment, we’d need to closely consider what we do with that service. Do we say goodbye to that audience?

The referrals we get from social media channels are huge, and we do rely on them. But that’s the risk when working in this industry and using these tools and channels.

RC: How does the ABC mitigate against that risk? How do you make the case to trial any kind of new technology or initiative given that environment, particularly with senior leaders who may be less comfortable or familiar with the way things work?

RM: The ABC Charter guides the decisions we make and actions we take, and gives us confidence to trial new approaches [e.g. “provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services”].

But we also set very clear, consistent expectations around business case, structure and rigour of our strategies, and benchmarks to track performance. Social measurement’s not just about the channels — it’s about capturing how people engage with us, how often and what percentage. If we can show how social contributes to those overarching measures of success, it justifies investment and offsets risk concerns.

We’re also looking at an ABC Digital ID of sorts so we can more clearly track how people engage with our different digital assets, what their behaviours and preferences are, and whether we can begin to shape a more personalised experience as a result. But that’s hard.

Importantly with senior leaders, I think it’s about demonstrating ongoing value. You can look at a post on Facebook that reached one million people and think: ‘Great.’ But what’s the ongoing value of investing in those channels?

For us, value is tapping into an idea that creates ongoing content. If you’ve tapped into something via social that people are responding to, that shows relevance and provides ongoing value. Then you can have a conversation about cost reduction, because you’ve found one relevant idea that enables more content and more entertainment from the one source, rather than having to create new ideas on an ongoing basis. That’s the ongoing value of social for us.

RC: What does that look like in practice? Can you give us an example where your approach to social has provided tangible value based on the ABC’s goals?

RM: The big one for us at the moment is our War on Waste program. Now, the objectives for that program were unique: reach was a key metric, but we were particularly interested in reaching non-traditional ABC audiences because the issue is apolitical, not regional or urban-centric, and connects as well with rural audiences as it does people in the city. It was also a TV show, so there was heaps of great content, like the bananas, plastic bag ball or coffee cup tram. These examples were shared via social before the series even launched and helped us reach that non-traditional, unexpected audience we were after.

But while the interest generated from the early content was great, the real value of social came once the series had launched. We realised pretty soon we’d tapped into something that was important to a lot of people. Social media became the forum for us to gather people’s feedback and experiences, to share ideas as a community. And we were able to identify examples worth sharing with a broader audience through our other broadcast channels, and reach out to those people directly. Now we’re essentially cherry-picking stories from our social media communities to retell through local radio broadcasts.

A great example of that was a primary school on the Northern Beaches in Sydney. They’d been watching the series and one of the teacher’s shared all these great ideas they’d implemented in the school as a result. That teacher saw Costa [Georgiadis — host of Gardening Australia] had created a worm farm and reached out on social media to see if they could use the farm back at the school to help continue their waste efforts. So we got them in on Breakfast with Robbie [Buck] and did a live segment talking about their efforts, the farm and the school. That’s just one example of how an idea led to multiple new content ideas, and how social has played a key role extending our value on content, across a range of channels.

RC: What other initiatives are you leading with social to help improve the way the ABC meets both its Charter goals and community needs?

RM: Separate to the content side of things, I think we’ve found a real role for social in recruitment and awareness raising. Recruitment both in terms of ideas and partners to help spread those ideas via their own social networks. We’re fortunate in that we have some great content, so often it’s just a matter of getting that content in the hands of the right partner whose audience would be interested in what we have to say. And if we can deliver relevant information to these new communities via social, that’s a great way for the ABC to reach non-traditional audiences.

As a team, we also have the responsibility of enabling and helping all other programs and presenters across the ABC understand the value of social. While we of course jump in and help programs for specific campaigns or to get things up and running, our aim is to equip them to use social for research, sourcing program ideas, sharing ideas and building communities around programs so they see the value and can support their own activities.

A key part of this enablement is our Social Media Self-Defence Training Course. Whilst the benefits of being active on social media are great, there are also serious implications on many platforms where ABC staff receive threatening messages, cyberhate and violent or explicit content in the form of images and/or texts. We have a duty of care to support our staff that experience this in the workplace and it is from that starting point that we developed a Social Media Self-Defence Training Course.

It identifies types of abusive and threatening behaviour, legal implications and the ongoing management and self-care of all staff working online. It has been going for more than three years now, it is evolving as the platforms and users do, and it’s something I’m very proud of as part of my role at the ABC.

RC: You’re doing some fantastic work, Rod. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

This was the second interview in Propel’s Expert Series featuring Rod McGuinness — Social Media Manager at ABC Radio. Rod can be contacted via Twitter if you would like to follow up any topics raised in his interview. The Expert Series will continue soon, and aims to showcase the breadth of business opportunities and value available to organisations by focusing on social capabilities, not social media channels. If you have an interviewee recommendation, please contact our Managing Director, Roger.

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