Instagram: Measuring for success isn’t just about numbers

instagrab

How do you measure success when you work in social media? There’s no one-size fits all answer here but it’s a question social media managers get asked all the time, under increasing pressure to prove the worth of their activity (Michaelidou et al, 2011).

When I started a pilot on The Open University’s Instagram account last October, I didn’t set any expectations down on paper in terms of numbers for followers, likes or comments. The success wasn’t about the account, so much as the pilot and what I learned from it – which turns out to be enough to write a 24,000 word eBook on it.

But in my head, I thought it would be easy to push up follower numbers from a tame 8,500 in comparison to the university’s 150,000 students and many more alumni. One of my managers jokingly (I think) suggested 100,000 followers by Christmas. The truth is the account has grown by 1,900 followers in six months. And you know what, that’s not bad. But what’s better is that likes per post has shot up from an average of 10 per post to around 100 per post – that’s an increase of 90%. We’re sustaining this level of engagement per post – and continuing to post daily – and have a genuine and engaged community that we know quite a lot about. Knowing our community, talking to them and sharing their photos holds more value than numbers because it allows us to post the right content, follow up on student stories and use Instagram content on other channels.

What I could have done differently is whip out some cash and pay to push those follower numbers up, but could I have claimed those numbers in the same way I know those 2,500 extra followers are entirely mine? Tools like Instagress, a paid-for bot which tracks chosen hashtags and likes, comments and follows relevant people and posts 24/7, can drive up engagement and artificially inflate follower count. The number of resulting followers might look great, but engagement compared to followers will be lower because your followers are not genuine. And what’s better, to have hundreds of thousands of followers or a high engagement rate on individual posts from real members of your community. For me, it’s the latter. Interestingly, at the time of writing this Instagress has been shut down “at the request of” Instagram, a brand which fosters the value of genuine community spirit.

What could success look like?

Increasing your professional profile could be a measure of success (although this anti-Instagramming academic disagrees) and I think there’s immeasureable value in putting your research ‘out there’ for others to engage with. And social media is a great way of doing that, Instagram in particular if you can show your research visually. Better still if your research is about Instagram and I’ve tried to breakdown the key elements of my eBook using Instagram to do it. I’ve had feedback on Twitter from people following my #InstaMA research saying it’s been useful to them and it’s certainly helped my own professional profile to be able to talk about this project, increasing my own social media following and helping me to get a speaker’s slot at the forthcoming ContentEd Conference in June.

Just as we (used to) measure traditional print media press coverage by column inches in PR campaigns, which is hard to put a value on, it’s equally hard to put a value on social media metrics – what these numbers mean is all relative to what you’re trying to achieve and raising brand awareness will always be tricky to pin down. For me, above and beyond numbers, the most valuable part of the pilot was the amount I learned about Instagram and our community.

Much of what I’ve learned about Instagram stats has been holistic because I entered this project alone and spent the best part of six months fully immersed in the channel. So I got a real sense of the amount of engagement and increase in likes per post, and the use of the hashtag #openuniversity just by being on the site every day. This knowledge will thin out once the work is divided by fellow members of the social media team post-pilot.

There’s a chapter in my eBook on measurement, including using Instagram Insights, but it also focusses on other kinds of measurement.

Measurement doesn’t need to be about numbers

Success criteria or targets don’t have to be numbers based. Pre-pilot we didn’t monitor comments, like anyone’s photos or comment on anything. We posted and then ran. Broadcast, broadcast, broadcast. For me, the fact that I’ve been able to monitor and actively engage with our Instagram community on a pretty much daily basis is a personal and professional success, and a highly beneficial one. The bank of knowledge I’ve built up just from immersing myself in Instagram is invaluable. So daily  posting, monitoring and responding to comments could be a success criteria.

Measurement doesn’t have to relate to channel stats either, like the number of posts on Instagram; it could be linked to work-based objectives. Measurement could relate to types of content, for example, you want to profile 12 academics in 12 months to help boost their public profiles and raise awareness of academic excellence and research. Or one post per week that relates to careers and employability, two shares per week and a campaign per quarter. Or it could be related to your own personal professional objectives like becoming a channel expert, developing professional photography skills or even educating the wider team: running workshops on mobile content, embedding best-practice and planning tools into the team’s daily way of working. Find a measurement that means something to you.

Based on my own experience of running a pilot, the successes for me run way beyond numbers and Instagram expertise. I’ve made new personal and professional contacts, I’m a step closer to completing my Masters degree, I have a more rounded view of creating compelling content for multiple channels and I have a clearer picture about what the future of social media looks like for the OU and how different channels appeal to difference audiences in different ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Recipes for success: Instagram and cross-posting

I do like a little bit of creative problem-solving. And here’s an example… (and it’s no coincidence that I’m posting this on a Wednesday!)

Instagram’s visual nature makes it different to fellow platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But this doesn’t mean cross-posting (posting the same content on more than one platform) won’t work. Personally, I’m not a fan of simply posting identical content on multiple platforms. It’s lazy, for starters,  and the same key messages can – and should – be optimised for different channels. But there is an overlap.

For example, at work (The Open University) we’d been posting regular #WednesdayWisdom posts (every Wednesday in fact, go figure) on both Instagram and Twitter, developing a very simple quote-on-a-block-colour-background-with-logo-in-the-corner style for both: square for Instagram, rectangular for Twitter. And we were getting good engagement on both platforms.

So how could we do this more efficiently – posting the same content in two different places but optimised for both? In comes IFTTT, a series of ‘recipes’ you can set so if you do something to A, something will also happen to B.

Rather than posting twice on two channels, I wanted to see if we could use an IFTTT recipe to auto-post an image from Instagram directly onto Twitter using a single hashtag, saving time and helping to drive traffic from Twitter to Instagram. You can do this via Instagram directly but it posts the image as a link, meaning you have to click the link to see it, rather than embedding the image for all to see.

In principle this was a simple idea. In reality, it caused three problems:

  • Firstly, finding a style that would complement both Instagram’s square layout and Twitter’s wide layout.
  • Secondly, finding a way to optimise that style to work for mobile Twitter (quotes on a regular 1024 x 512 pixel Twitter card will be chopped off when viewing on a mobile. 700 x 400 pixel works well on mobile if you want to avoid any chopping.
  • And thirdly, how to write a caption in our current Instagram style with up to 30 hashtags which would also fit Twitter’s 140 character limit.

ww2

The first and second issues were tackled by creating multiple layouts and testing them on Instagram and Twitter mobile, over and over again, until we found one that worked for both.

The same post on Twitter showing the Instagram layout works for Twitter mobile.

The third issue was solved by posting a short caption with two hashtags: #WednesdayWisdom (the whole reason for doing these posts as it’s a popular hashtag) and #OU, the hashtag set up via IFTTT that enables the auto posting to Twitter. Any image we now post on Instagram with the hashtag #OU will automatically post to Twitter. I then posted the remaining hashtags, to aid search, in a comment below the original Instagram post. Job done.

These #WednesdayWisdom posts are now created in batches of 10 and loaded onto scheduling tool Buffer. The get good engagement on both Twitter and Instagram, and posting in this way helps us to promote our Instagram account – which we’re actively trying to grow – weekly on Twitter.

This method could also be used for other department’s social media too, posting an image of the OU in Scotland’s Edinburgh office, for example, but setting up an IFTTT recipe for it to autopost to the OU in Scotland’s Twitter account, helping to drive traffic to the corporate Instagram account from different Twitter accounts, and therefore different audiences.

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On writing an eBook

insthegram-logoSo, I’ve written a book.

I always thought the first book I ever published would be more fictional, but it turns out I know quite a lot about using Instagram in Higher Education, and so InstHEgram, a ‘Uni’-versal guide to Instagram in Higher Education was born.

This eBook, which published on Thursday 2nd March (World Book Day) is my final submission for the MA in Online Journalism, and based on a pilot project I ran on The Open University’s corporate Instagram account as part of my day job on the university’s social media and engagement team. Based on the real experience of using Instagram daily to promote brand awareness, the book is a warts and all story of my learning journey and includes hacks (useful tips or cheats), actions (mini exercises to help you grow your Instagram account) and some free planning tools to help plan content. While the focus of this book is Higher Education – because that has been my experience – it should be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about Instagram as a channel and how to use it for business.

GET YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK HERE.

Why an eBook?

So why did I decide to publish an eBook? Well, it’s probably been influenced by the fact I wanted to be an author when I was in primary school and the majority of my writing these days is short-form (social media) or blog posts. And I wanted to test if I had it in me to conjure up 15,000 to 20,000 words on the same subject. Turns out I had 24,000 in me. Throughout the MA, I’ve covered community engagement, audio, mobile journalism, social media and websites. Pretty much every project I’ve worked on has resulted in some kind of website. So from a professional development point of view, self publishing and long-form writing are pretty new to me, as was the technology and process for bringing an eBook to life.

How did I do it?

Having read eBooks by fellow MA students before me, Dave Allen and Franzi Bahrle, and inspired by my tutor Paul Bradshaw, an accomplished online journalist and many-times published author, I chose Leanpub as my self-publishing platform. I suppose I could have chosen to do this in a blog format, which would have worked just as well, but I blog all the time. I don’t publish eBooks all the time. Publishing is also something I’m interested in personally – when the MA finishes and I get my life back I’d like to work on something more fictional and self publishing appeals more than the time, effort and repeated knockbacks of the traditional publishing world.

What I’ve struggled with

Promoting a book seems very self indulgent. I’m confident in my work and capabilities but not massively one for the spotlight, especially when I’m putting myself under it. For me, this book is about The Open University, Instagram and my MA, less about me – it just happens to have my name attached to it. So coming up with a promotion plan ahead of publication date felt a little uncomfortable. Neither is this project about making money – people have to pay for the book, although it’s a miniscule amount, but this endeavour is not a money-maker for me, and I don’t expect it will generate much anyway. It’s been about professional development – future aspirations (I’d like to be a lecturer one day and publish more often), learning new skills, and a way to help showcase the work we do at the OU.

I’ve also struggled with ‘when to publish’ and luckily World Book Day cropped up and forced me to stick to a deadline which at times has been uncomfortable. The book could be better, I could have worked harder at the format, included more images, added more links and academic references and worked harder on the style and tone. I feel like it could have been more clever. I wanted to write in the style of this blog, but more so my personal blog at robynbateman.co.uk – informal with a hint of humour. But that’s hard when writing about facts. With more time, the book could have been sharper, wittier, pithier, included more live examples. But I have a deadline and part of this MA is about the learning journey and recognising room for improvement. And if I’d kept at this until it was perfect, it may never have seen the light of day. Which is something I need to remember when publishing my work in future, when not bound by an MA deadline.

Overcoming challenges

There have been several challenges, the biggest actually writing it. I do this MA on top of an almost full-time job and two small children. Study is confined to evenings and some weekends and it’s pretty exhausting. The end of the day is not my best and as all writers will know, it’s a task that needs full attention, limited distractions and time to plough on through those tricky bits, rather than procrastination. For these reasons I bagged myself a place on the Urban  Writers’ Retreat, a series of retreats for anyone who wants to simply focus on writing, whatever that writing might be.

window

A toilet window moment of procrastination on my writers’ retreat. Tinkered with using the ColorSplash app and prime Instagram fodder.

Three full days of writing, all meals provided, a gorgeous room with a comfy bed, roll top bath and view of the Devonshire countryside. Perfect! Aside from meals and some chatter with the other writers in the evening – or a countryside stroll in the middle of nowhere when fresh air is needed – I spent a full three days writing. I bagged my space at the end of a large dining table, looking out through a huge sash window and a flock of sheep. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Armed with my book outline and the knowledge I was hoping was in my head, I poured out more than 20,000 words in those three days and managed a quick first edit too. This gave me a fabulous head start and left proof-reading and a few rounds of edits – enabled by my army of proof readers – a series of manageable evening tasks. In fact, motivated by the amount of work I had to do and backed up by the perfect location and writing set-up the only procrastination I did was to take a photo of the pretty toilet window, which I posted to Instagram. So it’s on topic!

Pros and cons of Leanpub

I enjoyed the Leanpub process, my self publishing weapon of choice. I’ve learned a lot about publishing formats, Markdown (which I’d never heard of before), the magic of writing in Dropbox and transforming those words into something that looks like a book. And I’ve worked with my web design whizz (and husband) Richard of Westfourstreet on the branding. I was a little nervous of Leanpub to start with, worried that it would be over-complicated and take just as long to publish the book as it would to write it. But it was pretty painless – the preview feature is great and Leanpub reply to emails very quickly. I had a couple of issues, mainly around formatting images, aligning them and resizing them. Initially they appeared large and floating in the middle of the page and, as a former sub-editor (copy and page layout), how something looks when it’s being read is important to me. The Leanpub manual is scarily large and I confess to having skim-read all of it before getting started. But most of it is fairly intuitive.

Pros include the fact you can preview your book an endless amount of times before publishing which is great during the editing and proof-reading rounds, to see it’s formatted and looking like a book. You can write and publish as you go, indicating via a percentage how close to complete your book is. Initially I thought I’d go down this route, writing and publishing as I went but just wasn’t brave enough. Formatting via Markdown is basic – both in terms of using it (it’s easy) and in terms of what you can do. To start with I thought this would be a problem and the book wouldn’t look as clean as I’d like, but actually – and as the Leanpub team themselves state – this process isn’t about spending hours and hours formatting, it’s more about publishing your writing. Enhanced formatting would have slowed me down, no doubt, so I’m grateful for its simplicity.

Leanpub now charges you a fee to start using it – it didn’t when it first launched in 2010. That fee is $99 per book (so I am yet to break even with book sales) and you can no longer publish a book and ‘sell’ it for free. Their lowest fee, so they continue to make money on sales albeit just 10%, is less than $1 and I’ve set my book’s price (you can choose a sliding scale) between between $1 and $4.99. So far 90% of my sales have been for the full price but as Leanpub tells the buyer what percentage of the sale will go to the author, I think it’s a clever way of guilting people into paying more. I certainly paid top whack for the books I’ve bought on Leanpub for that reason. Being able to publish and not take money for my eBook would make me feel much more comfortable about promoting it. It would have also opened up more avenues for promoting it – no one minds people posting on Facebook groups etc when you’re offering a free resource but if you’re asking for money, no matter how little it is, it comes across as a bit sales-ey and self-promotional. I am genuinely interested in sharing my knowledge, not making money, and would prefer the OU got the publicity, not me. This has also reduced the promotional opportunities available to me in-house. I will post on the OU intranet about the eBook but it will be linking to a free PDF copy via our social media toolkit (open to the public) rather than to my Leanpub page where people will have to pay for it. This makes it harder to know how many people have viewed/read/downloaded the eBook from anywhere other than Leanpub.

book-coverIt’s not just my mum buying it!

So, at the time of writing this blog post my book sales are in double figures. Just! This might sound low but hey, it wasn’t just my mum who bought it!

And I’m supplying PDF copies to friends and relatives who promote the book via social media for me. The next step will be to get it on Amazon and see if that makes a difference.

Shares and feedback most welcome!

Scheduling your Instagram content

insthegram-logoThis is one of the chapters, taken from eBook InstHEgram, a ‘Uni’-versal guide to Instagram in Higher Education which is published on Thursday 2nd March (World Book Day) . This is a sneak peak to give you a flavour of the content, which includes free planning tools, hacks and exercises to try. The other chapters cover basics, toolkit, content and community, hashtags, Instagram Stories, testing and learning (conducting a pilot), measurement and a bonus chapter on extensive mobile phone use. The book was written following a three-month pilot on The Open University’s Instagram account.

Scheduling

In this chapter you’ll find out about scheduling content for Instagram, the pros, the cons, and how to keep on top of it so you’re not scrabbling around for compelling content at the weekend.*

For most of us in higher education organisations, scheduling and monitoring tools like Hootsuite and Tweetdeck are commonplace to schedule content for Facebook and Twitter and which also have their own native scheduling features. Let’s face it, while the world of social media never stops, it’s nice to be able to clock off at the weekend knowing you have your content all sewn up. At The Open University we use Social Sign In which is used by multiple departments and faculties under the guidance of the corporate social media team.

But Instagram is ‘special’ and it doesn’t allow third-parties to post content directly to Instagram. And this makes scheduling a tad tricky. It stays very true to its mobile app origins and while Facebook and Twitter allow you to do everything on desktop that you can on the app, Instagram is the other way around – app for everything, desktop for some of it. This means you’ll spend a lot of time on your mobile phone (and there’s some info at the end of this eBook to help combat the side effects of that).

The logistics of scheduling

What a lot of scheduling tools will allow you to do is draft and schedule something for Instagram but rather than posting it for you, it will push a reminder to your mobile phone telling you it’s time to post, and then you’ll have to manually copy the post over to Instagram. It’s clunky but, for the time being at least, the only way.

So, which tools? Halfway through the pilot I got really fed up of doing everything in real time in the mobile app, especially at weekends. It was getting a bit time consuming. Now, I use Buffer. For several reasons: it’s free (you can pay for more, as is the norm, but the free version is good), it syncs across all devices and there’s a desktop version so it does give you some time off the mobile phone. The Buffer team are great at responding to questions and queries via Twitter and they put out some great social media support content, for multiple channels. And they’re generally on top of latest changes to tools, tech and algorithms as well as forecasting the next big thing. Hootsuite seems to be a popular scheduling tool too – try some and see what works for you.

I won’t give you all the info on Buffer, you can hop over to their site and see it for yourself, but it basically allows me to create my post, add in my image, write a caption and hashtags and then set a time and date for posting. If you post at regular times, say 10am, 1pm and 6pm each day you can set these times and auto schedule to the next available slot. If you’re just posting daily you could choose the optimal time to post, most likely the evening, and post every day at this time. I don’t do this, I set specific times based around when the content is most relevant, the time of day that gets best engagement and, possibly most importantly, at a time I know I’ll have my phone on me in order to receive the notification and action it. It’s no good getting that notification for 10am on Saturday when you’re taking the kids to their swimming lesson or you’re flying on holiday to Portugal. You can pick up the notifications later, just as you do with any notification on your phone, and you can jump onto Buffer, find your drafts and publish from there at any time, even a day late, or you can go in and reset to a different time. I do this if something last minute pops up that’s topical and I shunt something that isn’t time-specific later into the week.

So, when you do get that notification, Buffer opens up Instagram for you and prompts you to check that you’re in the right account. You can turn this notification off, but it’s always handy. The app will default post to whichever account you’re logged into at the time and the pitfalls of having multiple accounts on your phone is that you will post to the wrong account at some stage or another. We are only human. You can still tinker with the post in the Instagram app, add in new hashtags, add filters to the image etc, and then post.

Should you schedule everything?

Well, the control freak in me says this is great in principle. The journalist in me says you can’t plan for everything and things change all the time. Allow for flexibility.

I mix scheduling up a bit. Sometimes I’m planned and organised and schedule content for the week ahead. I always do some scheduling on a Friday and plan and post ahead for the weekend so I’m not left scratching my head on a Saturday, and certainly over holidays and the Christmas period where I continued to post daily. Scheduling content for the entire Christmas period worked brilliantly and meant working over this time was minimal. Buffer lets you schedule a maximum of 10 posts at a time but this is probably enough to see you through any kind of sticky patch. If I was organised enough, scheduling everything for the week ahead would be my preference and you can squeeze topical stuff in as and when it happens. Regular content slots like Wednesday Wisdom and ThrowBack Thursday posts are usually scheduled in advance, and in blocks. If you’re supported by colleagues you can take a well-earned break when you take annual leave and hand Instagram over to them, including a copy of your content calendar to guide them.

How often should you post?

At least daily. The world won’t end if you don’t post one day, or if you post twice in a day. Although not in quick succession because the latter photo might knock the former off its spot a bit. I get less engagement if posting two images close together, usually the average engagement rate is split in half (so if one post usually gets 100 likes, two close together will get 50 likes each). If you’re not posting at weekends because you don’t work at weekends then you’re missing a trick. Get around this by creating a rota between your colleagues or getting an hour back in the week to make up for it. No one wants to work weekends but this is likely to be a time when your community will be active on Instagram and it would be a shame to miss it. And as long as you’ve scheduling ahead, it should only take five minutes.

Mobile phones and notifications

I use my own Buffer account, and just have the OU Instagram account loaded in rather than my own. I am nowhere near organised enough to schedule my personal Instagram content! The free version allows you to add one account per channel which means notifications get pushed to my mobile phone so I’m the only one who can physically post them. Thanks to my control freakish tendencies and, of course, my MA, this isn’t an issue for me. But it might be an issue if you want to spread the workload amongst a team. Possibly all accessing the same Buffer account and pushing notifications to a work smartphone (which staff use on a rota basis) would be the solution here. Test what works for you and your colleagues and try some scheduling apps and tools.

Scheduling in Instagram

There’s no formal way to schedule natively in Instagram but there is a workaround. Instagram now gives you the option to save drafts, so start off as if you’re scheduling the post – add in the image, tags, hashtags etc. Rather than posting it via the ‘share’ button, press the back arrow and keep going until it asks if you want to discard the post or save it as a draft. Save it as a draft.

When you decide you do want to post it, open up Instagram as normal and in your photo library there will be a section at the top called drafts, showing all your draft Instagram posts. Select the image you want and as you go through the various steps to get to the share button, it will have retained your caption and hashtags.

This is a very informal way of scheduling but it does allow you to add in multiple images and captions via the mobile app ahead of time and then post when you want to. The downside to this is that it means you’ll have to do it all in the mobile app, rather than on a desktop, and you’ll have to keep the schedule in your head, or possibly set yourself reminders when to post in case you forget. Maybe set yourself an Insta Alarm on your phone?

book-coverACTION

Pick three scheduling tools, research them, play with them, note the pros and cons. Go back to the team with your recommendations.

HACK

Can’t decide how to order your posts? Use Planoly, a mobile and desktop app which lets you load in your posts and reorder them before scheduling. And you might want to do something clever here like order them in a more aesthetically pleasing way, I.e white backgrounds in a row, campus based images in a row, darker images on the left, lighter on the right etc. Have a play with it.

GET THE FULL BOOK.

 

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Mobile phones aren’t bad for your health, you are

Concerned by the lack of health and safety information in place regarding the use of mobile devices for work (an essential part of a mobile journalist’s role) and the impact working in this way can have on our posture and nervous system, I caught up with physiotherapist Alastair Greetham. The good news is, mobile devices are not to blame for any so-called related health issues – we are.

Alastair sees a variety of people with postural issues, many exacerbated by the tools and technology the modern world makes it impossible for us to ignore. But he’s not seeing more people than he used to. Postural issues, he says, are not new. And it’s the impact our posture has on our nervous system that we need to worry about – and potentially addictive behaviours, like reaching for a smartphone to scroll through Facebook out of habit rather than interest or need.

Alastair frequently deals with office-based issues and encourages people to set up their desks in a way that’s going to work for their bodies, comfort and longer term health. He’s not saying anyone should give up work. And it’s the same for mobile phone users – we don’t need to give them up, just change the way we use them.

I’m looking at this from the perspective of mobile journalism but, of course, this applies to anyone using a smartphone regularly, particularly those using them for work.

What’s a mobile journalist again?

Westlund (2013) describes them as “journalists who use mobile devices extensively in their news reporting”. Blankenship (2015) in his research into mobile journalism in TV networks, says mobile journalism is “whereby a single reporter must write, shoot and edit their own news stories.” Christian Payne, in a chat with him last year, described it as the ability to report out in the field. And Richardson (2012), referenced by Wikipedia, describes it as “an emerging form of new media storytelling where reporters use portable electronic devices with network connectivity to gather, edit and distribute news from his or her community”.

Take all those definitions, the fact I work on a content and social media team with storytelling at its heart, and add in my latest MA module on Instagram – a mobile app which unlike its fellow social media platforms Twitter and Facebook remains true to its app origins and many features, including analytics, have to be accessed directly via the mobile app. Not accounting for the fact I obviously use my mobile phone for social purposes too, this adds up a lot of hours connected to a device which essentially fits in the palm of my hand.

Blurring the boundaries between home and work

Add on top of that how easy it is to blur the boundaries between work and home life (known as a digital brain switch thanks to Roby et al) when the mobile phone travels with you in both. How many of us quickly check our email on our phones or tablets from the sofa at home, just because we can, not because we need to even want to. While the French recently won the right not to check email out of hours, for many of us this adds to workplace efficiency – news doesn’t always break between 9am and 5pm and, as my Instagram project reminds me, evening is often the best time to post because it’s when most people are firing up their social media apps.

Health and safety info, in the main, relates to desktop working, PCs and laptops, with little consideration for portable devices like tablets and smartphones. In fact, most reference to mobile phone use at work is linked to distraction, i.e your workplace should have a mobile phone policy in order to keep your staff off them so they can do their work.

Mobile Office Ltd specialises in supporting people who are ‘mobile’ when they work, from using laptops on trains, agile work patterns and hot desking, to daily use of smartphones and tablets. Their report ‘Ergonomic Risks in Mobile Working‘ states:

Mobile devices give us huge benefits in terms of work flexibility, but they also present us with musculoskeletal risks that previous generations never experienced. We need to focus on managing and reducing the physical strain and discomfort which mobile devices can place on us, so that we can benefit from them without risking long-term pain and injury.

With the increase more generally in flexible working patterns due to the nature of modern workflow, the 24/7 news agenda and access to work email and tools from wherever you are, the report also stresses the importance of organisations training employees to take mobile working seriously, when research shows many ignore postural advice. And hands up, I confess, I am one of them.

Man hunched over looking at a mobile phone

Photo by Derick Anies via Unsplash

Training our body into discomfort

Much of the health and safety I can find ‘out there’ pertains to helping staff  not use their smartphones at work; to leave their mobile phones alone and help them avoid nomophobia (smartphone addiction and the need to constantly check for messages and notifications, or anxiety when without it).  Nomophobics beware, there are even mobile apps to stop you using mobile apps, like Forest, to stop you using your phone for periods of time.

But what about health and safety information for those who do use smartphones and all the productivity tools they offer, as part of their daily work? When I pick my phone up during working hours, for the majority of the time it’s to take a photo, shoot some video footage, edit a video, design graphics, create gifs or use filters, transfer images to Dropbox etc. My working ‘to do’ list is created on a mobile app (Wunderlist) synced to all devices so I can add actions to it whilst in meetings to avoid an endless stream of post-it notes littering my desk.

Mobile Office Ltd specialises in supporting people who are ‘mobile’ when they work, from using laptops on trains, agile work patterns and hot desking, to daily use of smartphones and tablets. Their report ‘Ergonomic Risks in Mobile Working‘ states:

Mobile devices give us huge benefits in terms of work flexibility, but they also present us with musculoskeletal risks that previous generations never experienced. We need to focus on managing and reducing the physical strain and discomfort which mobile devices can place on us, so that we can benefit from them without risking long-term pain and injury.

With the increase more generally in flexible working patterns due to the nature of modern workflow, the 24/7 news agenda and access to work email and tools from wherever you are, the report also stresses the importance of organisations training employees to take mobile working seriously, when research shows many ignore postural advice. And hands up, I confess, I am one of them. I’m also a flexible worker, placing ever more importance on using my iPhone for work. And my work phone does not have a SIM card, it’s not used for phone calls but for its array of apps, photography and videography functions.

This may or may not be an issue for all mobile journalists (or, indeed, anyone who uses a smartphone regularly) because other factors influence health here – posture when using a mobile phone and habits we get into which ‘train’ our body into discomfort. For me, my terrible posture is exacerbated when I use a phone – I hunch over in a really ugly position – and I seem to tense up a little when I do this. Alastair says I’ve trained my nervous system to accept this as normal behaviour so it’s repeated, I now find it difficult to relax completely, even when watching the TV, my body’s in a state of permanent tension and I often wake up in the morning feeling like I’ve slept scrunched up in a ball. For me, repeated trips to the osteopath to stretch me out, clear the problem up. Until the next time.

The tall girl with terrible posture

I was the tallest girl in school for a long while, and being painfully shy in my younger years, my height only served to make me stand out more, and I was quite happy to go unnoticed so subconsciously resorted to slouching. And so began the first of many years of bad posture.

After suffering with numbness in my hand some six or seven years ago, caused by my terrible posture but exacerbated by mobile phone use, I went to see Alastair. He believes that exercises and treatment to ease symptoms can have the effect of allowing people to persist in the patterns that created the problem in the first place.

I could prescribe hundreds of different exercises but if you have to keep coming back to see me then I’m not doing my job. If I’m doing my job properly and you truly want to get better, you’ll come and see me for a series of sessions and not necessarily have to see me again.

The occupational health team at work told me I’d have to stop using my mobile phone or, at least, drastically reduce the amount of time I spent on it. They advised me to get one without access to email and apps so I could just use the phone function. I remember thinking to myself ‘that will never happen’, and more so now, because my iPhone is integral to my job and my passions – mobile journalism, visual storytelling and social media.

But Alastair reminds me that my iPhone is not to blame, I am. My phone isn’t causing me pain and discomfort, I am. And I don’t need to stop using it to get better, I need to change the way I use it. And only I can do that. In the meantime, Alastair can educate me on the how and why. (PS A video demonstrating smartphone-related postural issues and how to undo them, will follow soon). Ironically, I’m returning to this area of research because of my MA, not my postural issues, and clearly if I tackled them head-on I may not have been on what Alistair describes as a ‘downward spiral’ for so long. Note to self: I really need to listen to Alistair.

Training our bodies into a state of stress

Alastair explains that there’s a link between our vision and our nervous system and physiology. “When we take in our peripheral vision, we’re aware of our entire environment. When we put our head down to look in closer detail at something it activates our sympathetic nervous system which is our stress system, so one of the problems with phones is it puts us in a state of stress as we focus in on detail.

“When you ask someone to think about something, you’ll see them shift their balance onto one leg, push their shoulder forward, hand on the face, looking down. We’re in internal processing mode. Multitasking has been proven time and time again to be a complete illusion, we don’t multitask, we sequentially task, so when we have to think hard about something or focus on detail we shut down our physiology, we’re in a much less active posture.

“We’re in an age where people check social media constantly, checking new info, focusing in on the minutiae of what’s happening in people’s lives, losing the perspective of the bigger picture. If we have a more open perspective, lengthen our spine, open up the shoulders, your head comes up, the muscles relax and you’re now in a very different state of space. If we spend a lot of time on phones what happens is that our nervous system becomes predicated on that and it becomes our default system.

“What we need to do is remember to come out in and out of the closed posture to avoid training your body to function in a particular way. It’s actually  quick to train your body, it learns very quickly, but it’s an individual’s responsibility to do this.”

Alastair says the media would like to have us believe the all this technology will be the end of us all, but the devices aren’t the issue, it’s how we physically use them.

Salsa dancing could be the answer

So how do we strike up a healthy relationship with our mobile phones when we need them for work? Alastair said salsa – or social – dancing is a great activity. Dancing opens your posture completely, there’s music, people, a good atmosphere – it’s impossible to focus in on yourself and is an excellent physical distraction from the way you’d hold yourself when editing a video on a mobile phone, for example.

If salsa dancing’s not for you, there are other ways to strike a balance. Alastair says we don’t have to hunch over and look at our phones for hours, we can open up our posture and hold our phones up and position ourselves in a more relaxed and open way. And we can alternate activities so as not to train our bodies into bad habits. For me, for example, I can spend time editing a video on my iPhone, then walk across campus to interview an academic, then spend some time monitoring and posting content on Instagram, then sit in on a meeting. Just as I organise my diary so I don’t have back-to-back meetings at opposite ends of campus, I can also organise my workflow so I’m not spending too much time on closed-posture activities. And being aware of how I use mobile devices – thinking about open posture, trying not to tense up, I can train my body to retain these good habits and reduce the amount of stress I put it under.

Take a break, boost productivity

Alistair says taking breaks have been proven time and again – across a variety of professions – to enhance productivity. Going for a walk at lunch time, he says, will increase your output during the afternoon, compared to working through your lunch break.

In fact, taking breaks boosts productivity, no matter what your profession. This 2015 article for The Telegraph states:

Recent data from productivity app DeskTime, which tracked people’s office habits, found that the employees with the highest productivity took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work – and they did not spend that break time checking social media or replying to emails.

And Florida State University Professor K. Anders Ericsson, in his research into elite performers across a variety of disciplines from musicians to athletes says breaks every 90 minutes made a positive impact on performance.

My smartphone is here to stay

I’m not sure salsa dancing in the office will catch on, and as much as I like a ‘cracking’ good session with the osteopath it’s reassuring to know that making positive, permanent changes, means I can enjoy a happy, healthy and long relationship with my mobile phone. The advice I received seven or so years ago – to ditch the mobile phone – was neither practical nor necessary. But I do need to listen to Alistair, take his advice seriously and attempt to ditch my mobile-induced health symptoms (diagnosed as work-related upper limb disorder).

My conversation with Alastair, unfortunately, failed to record (see, smartphones aren’t always awesome!) so I did a quick audio round up in the car on the way home to remind myself of his key points. You can listen to it (unpolished, warts and all) here or directly on Soundcloud.

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