Social media changes customer conversations for Anglian Water

Just over a year ago, Anglian Water, which provides water for 2.6 million properties in the east of England, took the decision to put more effort into having proper conversations with its customers using social media.

‘We wanted to really talk to our customers,’ explains social media manager Nik Shelton. ‘We are concentrating on Facebook, where we focus on key messages, such as videos showing them what not to flush down pipes, but we can also do targeted messages, take a post code area and send them sponsored feeds apologising for disruptions in their area, and directing them to the website for updated information.

‘It is a sponsored post, but it is relevant to them. These posts get lots of shares and comments.’ Such communication is also a break with tradition for a water companies. In the past, Anglia Water would have shied away from showing any worker fixing stuff, because it implied the question: why is it broken? ‘We can share videos of our people up to their necks in mud working hard to fix a burst water main or sewage pipe. It changes our customers’ perspectives,’ says Shelton. ‘It changes the way they respond to us. They say I appreciate you are doing your best.

He adds: ‘We become a local company with hard working local guys trying their best for the neighbourhood. It changes attitudes and perspectives. It is about showing the effort that goes into resolving these issues. They can identify with us in ways that they couldn’t identify with a PR person; it is not about apologising and then not saying anything else.’

When the company had a complex mains burst in the Lincolnshire Wolds in March, leaving 4,000 people without water for several days, Shelton and his team took camera equipment to the scene and made a video of the work being done. ‘We ran a targeted Facebook promotion in the area. It was liked 125 times, and got positive comments from customers – a completely different response to a major incident than the one we would have had in the past without that kind of supporting content,’ he says.

Shelton and his team ‘want to produce this stuff on a daily basis, so we got cameras, software and some professional training and we make time to get out of the office’.

Bringing staff on the journey

Bringing stories to life has also required educating the workforce on the need to share. ‘Customers can identify with our people having a hard time in the pouring rain; pictures like that get a great response. Or when a team were working all week on a collapsed sewer in Spalding in Lincolnshire, and the foreman’s wife came in on the Sunday and cooked them all a fry up in their shelter,’ explains Shelton. ‘We are getting our staff to take pictures and send us them. Animals are bankable [such as the wildlife and biodiversity around water treatment centres]. When someone sent a picture of a corn snake in a sewer in Haverhill, it was posted 136,000 times, reached 22,000 customers and was shared 66 times.’

But an image of a snake in a sewer also allowed Anglian Water to repeat its key message: the only items that should be flushed down a toilet are pee, poo and paper, or as the company dubs them ‘The three Ps’. ‘The snake could only have got there if it had escaped down a drain or been flushed down the toilet,’ explains Shelton.

An image of a sewage pump, close to the harbour in Lowestoft, covered in a congealed mess of wet wipes, sanitary products and nappies, posted in April, was one of Anglian Water’s most successful. ‘It was a very visual example of what not to flush,’ says Shelton. ‘This post reached more than 250,000 people so far, thanks to almost 1,700 shares. We only spent £30 on promoting this post, and it is staff generated content so this really shows that with engaged staff, the right words and images, we can reach a lot of people with a key message for our business.’

The post also generated almost 200 comments, many focusing on the fact that wet wipes often market themselves as ‘flushable’, allowing Anglian Water to show how the industry is working together, demanding that Trading Standards tackles the issue of misleading packaging.

‘Most people don’t know what we do. We can use social media to show them where their bill monies get spent. We can show them how difficult and challenging it is to run water and sewage works, thousands of treatment centres and pumping stations. We can go up to the top of a water tower to get spectacular views,’ he says. ‘Our Live Facebook and Twitter broadcasts allow us to talk directly to our customers about what we doing.’ On World Water Day, for example, he went behind the scenes at the company’s labs to talk to scientists about their work.

Engaging the next generation of engineers

Anglian Water is also using social media to tackle a major problem for the sector. ‘We want to inspire a new generation. One third of our workforce will retire in ten years. We want to inspire young people to go into engineering by showing big projects where they can see exciting things,’ says Shelton. On Women in Engineering Day, on 23 June, he is trying to get female engineers to get together and discuss their work, which will be filmed and posted.

He recently visited Anglian Water’s 3D mapping room in Peterborough, where the company created a 3D version of a new treatment centre and mapped its layout onto virtual reality, allowing engineers to ‘walk through’ and test its viability. ‘We made a story about 3D digital technology, which we pushed out on Snapchat, using pictures, videos and emojis.’

Snapchat is a powerful way to connect with a younger audience. Students often gather around Alton Water, a reservoir near Ipswich, after finishing exams or on hot days. Anglian Water wants to stress the need to act responsibly around water. ‘We created a geo filter on Snapchat, with an overlay of images of the reservoir and picnic area around it,’ he explains. ‘We went to where the young people were with a key message about safety.’

Shelton adds: ‘Our basic plan is to use video for educational purposes, such as looking at sewage under a microscope and viewing the microcosms. We post pictures on Friday, such as a sunset over water.’ Twitter, where the company has more than 22,000 followers, is used to promote videos, blogs and pictures, offer customer information and to demonstrate Anglian Water’s involvement with other causes. On International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, it carried an image of the chief executive raising the rainbow flag outside the company’s headquarters.

‘Being part of the conversation is key. When Lincoln City were in the FA Cup quarter finals, we lit up our Lincoln water tower in the club colours and the response on social media was huge,’ says Shelton. His advice to other companies: ‘Brands bombard people with stuff that isn’t relevant to them. They are just trying to sell them stuff. If you make sure it is relevant, people are fine.’