Interview with Freelancing Matters - Making Social, Work

Liz was recently interviewed for the popular website, Freelancing Matters, the "inspiration for independent professionals". She talks about the Social Media for Women conference she was organising, social media for business (and especially freelancers), her business and the important role equality has in the work she does.
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“Businesses ignore social media at their peril. Having an online presence is no longer simply an alternative business choice, but is essential to the growth and sustainability of businesses of all sizes.”
That’s the opening gambit from Liz Hardwick when I ask her why she’s currently in the middle of organising Lancashire’s first ‘women-led social media conference’ writes FM Editor Louis Clark.

Liz is a Partner at Lancashire business DigiEnable and one of the women behind the ‘Social Media for Women 2013’ conference takes place on November 26 in Preston. The conference is designed to empower female businesses across the North West and will see attendees choose from nine workshops with titles such as ‘Get LinkedIn or get left out’, ‘Managing your social media in ten mins’ and ‘You’re up to date – what’s the next big thing?’.

So why the focus on women? I’m not an expert in social media by any means but there doesn’t seem to be all that much difference between a man using Twitter and a woman doing the same thing – at least when it comes to business. According to Hardwick, the conference is less about doing things differently, and more about giving women a chance to spread their wings a little in an industry dominated by men:
“With more women than ever starting their own businesses, many are turning to social media as a quicker and cheaper marketing alternative. However many forget the social part of social media and find themselves wasting time and energy talking into an unresponsive abyss.
“The one thing I would say specifically for women, is be careful if you have strong views on topics that could raise debate. Unfortunately with only 140 characters a tweet, you can write something that is misunderstood, and recently it has become too easy for nasty people to make specific every-day people a target for hate crimes, just because of a misunderstanding, or simply not agreeing with your views.
“For example the recent campaign to introduce a female figure onto the £5 note caused much online controversy. It’s important these campaigns take place, and social media is a great tool to do that, however be prepared for the potential negativity that may follow.
“The ‘Social Media for Women 2013’ conference is all about giving women the social media skills they need to use in their everyday business life. This is a golden opportunity to showcase some fantastic female speakers talking about a subject – social media – that is overwhelmingly dominated by men.”

Not that this male domination meant they had any difficulty finding females with enough know-how to speak at the event. Ten social media experts will be sharing their knowledge on the 26th and from the itinerary I’ve been given, the workshops look like they have been designed to accommodate a pretty diverse range of abilities.
There is information for those who have yet to start social media accounts, through to a few hours set aside for the more savvy users who want to find out what the next big platform will be.
And before I can come over all indignant about the sexism of not allowing male delegates in, I’m assured that the conference is open to both women and men. Liz Hardwick and the rest of the organisers are however open about their target of encouraging more women to attend.
“For various reasons the tech world is still male dominated and if we are going to make progress in changing that, we have to present positive female role models.”
“This conference is about that and also to show women that the world of social media is not actually a scary place. Hopefully this will also show other conference organisers that there are lots of women with the knowledge and skills to deliver sessions and keynotes”.
The conference is part of a growing number of events that call for greater recognition of women in the workplace, and especially in freelancing – a sector which seems to suit in terms of skillset and work/life balance. For Liz Hardwick though, the technology sector isn’t necessarily at the forefront of this positive change.
“I talk at conferences and events around the UK on women and tech, and digital technologies, and often find there is a very low percentage of female speakers scheduled. In the technology sector, the percentage of female professionals, is not often reflected in the presenters at events, with the norm being an all-male panel perhaps with a ‘token’ female if we’re lucky! Having asked several friends who also run a variety of sized conferences, we found the reasons why this was happening differed.
“There has been lots of publicity around representation of diversity over the past 12 months and I highlighted these in my ‘Geeks not Gender’ talk at a local event. Facilitating a discussion with participants made it clear, something had to be done to highlight females in the technology sector and support more females to become attendees too. I’m not one of these people who can complain and do nothing, so DigiEnable wanted to showcase women, who weren’t just good at their job, but were great at presenting too. I wanted to make sure we were inclusive so men could attend as delegates, but that all the workshop leaders and speakers would be the best women we know.
“And we’ve done that, and I’m really looking forward to the event, seeing the high percentage of female attendees, and hopefully inspire some of them to become speakers at the next event they go to.”

Though the event isn’t aimed exclusively at freelancers, Liz and the other organisers are expecting a high percentage of delegates to work in this way. So what does she think a freelancer specifically should know about social media?
“The key to being a good freelancer is being there for your clients when they need you. Social media is now fast becoming as important as having email and a phone number they can get you on and they should be able to get hold of you within whatever you class as your office hours. You could choose to be available 24/7, and it’s possible to do that with modern communication methods.
“Social media has ‘social’ in it for a reason. That’s exactly what, as a freelancer, you should be with your clients, and anyone else on social media platforms. It’s a great way for clients to get to know you a little more, build that relationship and those conversations to have a better working environment for everyone, and something to talk about over a brew. As a freelancers, the most important thing to remember is you are your work and your brand, make sure anything online, compliments that. You should appear interesting, good at your job and professional in the way you conduct yourself, it works because I’ve got work directly off people seeing what I do on Twitter.”
Clearly Liz thinks that social media is extremely important for freelancers, so I ask her what part of the conference would be best for freelancers to attend.
“The most exciting bit of the conference to highlight for freelancers will be our Social Media in 10 minute chunks workshop. Being run by Becki Cross, who runs her own events management company, Events Northern, she’ll be sharing her best practices with fitting social media into your working day, and how to get the most out of it for you and your future clients.
“The rest of the day, where not specifically focused for freelancers, will cover topics such as social media policy, how to produce engaging content and making it more interesting with audio and video, which are all very relevant to freelancers.”

The second differentiator when compared to most of the other conferences on social media apart from women, is the fact that this one is taking place in the North West. For Liz Hardwick, this is an area that has been unduly starved of attention, and even more so when Manchester is taken out of the equation.
“In the North West there is a regular complaint that everything always happens in Manchester. Being a Northerner, and more specifically a Lancashire lass, it was important to me that we hosted it in Preston. Still as easy to get to as Manchester, but hopefully highlighting another city (yes, it’s a city) that is building a fantastic technology and business community.
“There are plans afoot to bring more technology conferences to the North that will rival those of London. There are lots of amazing, and passionate people in the North West, and unfortunately the spotlight doesn’t normally reach this far. We hope that ‘SM4W13’ goes someway to putting Lancashire on the map for innovative events, fantastic speakers and a place to host more businesses in future.”
No conversation on the geographical spread of business in this country would be complete without a nod towards the proposed HS2 train line. Liz’s response when I ask her about the potential benefits it will bring North is surprising.
“I don’t think at the moment we see it as something that will impact on us. It’s just over 2 hours between Manchester and London, the proposed HS2, just means that it’s then easier to get to Birmingham. What I think the North would really benefit from instead, is a high speed connection between Manchester and Leeds. Most freelancers I know drive, because public transport isn’t an option locally, so I think unless you work in London, it won’t really impact you in the North.”

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Liz for her top tips for anyone starting a business who wants to use social media to market themselves? I’m not surprised by how quickly she reels off five.
“Get a good profile photo, of you, that looks like you – I want to be able to connect with you online and be able to spot you at an event offline.
“Write for your audience – who are you aiming your content at? Make sure you are interesting them first and foremost.
“Be helpful, honest and interesting, not sales-y – only 20% of your tweets should be hard sell about your services
“Post regular content and make conversations – don’t just broadcast what you know, ask people questions, start interactions – hopefully they lead to good working relationships in future
“Mix it up with media – you are 120-180% more likely to get responses from media posts than text, make it engaging, we all like a good picture”

And last of all, but perhaps most important for those precarious one-person businesses for whom a simple mistake could have catastrophic effects, what are the biggest dangers when it comes to social media and business?
“You should always have a social media policy within your business, even if you’re a freelancer. It can keep you on track of what you are using the platforms for. As a business woman on social media I would suggest being just a tad more careful in how and when you share your opinions, especially if you have quite extreme views on a subject, as you unfortunately run the risk of becoming a target of hate.
“Also, one warning for everyone, but specifically for women, be careful what personal media you share online, and with who. Do you trust the people you’re sharing your personal holiday photos with on Facebook right now?”