Digital-Words

Social Media makes a local impact

Portland’s Mark Flanagan explores the new hyperlocal media

It may seem counter-intuitive to begin a piece about localism with a reference to Africa and the Middle East – but bear with me.

We’ve all been following the anti-Government protests in Tunisia and now Egypt.  Whilst events might not quite add up to the “Twitter Revolution” being proclaimed by the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, the unrest is undoubtedly being fanned rapidly by social media, in spite of strict web censorship laws.  Of course, the underlying source of discontent is endemic corruption, inequality, censorship and joblessness but what we are seeing is protest movements taking advantage of digital tools to communicate, inform and organise.

The ubiquitous nature of the web and social media means that whether you are trying to dislodge a President or stop the closure of a local library, the means to achieve your goal are now readily available.   20 years ago, anyone seeking to mobilise a community for change would have had to deploy traditional methods of engagement, such as leafleting, mail-shots and paper-based surveys.  The rise in social media has provided low-cost, transparent means to gauge public opinion, distribute information and gather support for campaigns.

I am emphatically not claiming that the medium is the message.  The way a campaign engages empathisers, influencers and activists is really more a matter of strategy: issue identification, context, methodology, desired action, and outcome.  To my mind, there are several golden rules in designing a campaign for social media:

  • Be user-centric. At the planning stage of your campaign, research which sites your target audience frequents. Design a campaign around your audience’s preferences and needs;
  • Communicate with users in their tone instead of a PR tone. Try to engage people in a conversation rather than feed them corporate speak;
  • Make your campaign interactive. Allow users to engage with you and with each other. If you can, reward people with small incentives – it will give them something to talk about with their friends, and they will become your ambassadors;
  • Social media campaigns need to be fluid. You will have to change them frequently and make adjustments as you go;
  • Build your campaigns to scale. Be prepared for an explosive growth in hits, and plan ahead.

Not just local but hyperlocal

Everyone should meet Will Perrin.  Will is a former civil servant and all round good egg, He left the Cabinet Office to run ‘Talk about Local’ which support’s the UK’s growing network of hyperlocal websites. He is also one of the founders of a community site, www.kingscrossenvironment.com.

One day, the multi-billion dollar Mexican multinational, CEMEX, moved in to take over an old Readymix concrete plant in Kings Cross. After a while the plant became a byword for noise and disruption, driving residents to distraction. So Will and his mates posted simple videos showing the problems on YouTube as well as their own website and began an intensive public campaign against CEMEX.  They forwarded links to the CEO of CEMEX Europe and lobbied the local authority to deal with the noise.  As a result of their efforts, CEMEX overhauled the plant and fixed the problems.

It’s not just campaigns but also local news reporting which is being profoundly affected by new technology.  Citizen journalists are now routinely seeing their content featured on mainstream media channels.  Hyperlocal websites (like Will Perrin’s) are springing up to become an integral voice in their own communities. In my own area, ChiswickW4.com has become essential reading with over 30,000 signed up. The Sheffield Forum site has over 110,000 registered users and carries about 4.4 million posts.

Just a few weeks ago, the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt set out his proposals for establishing American-style local news in the UK, with up to 80 towns and cities – including populations as small as Coventry and Sunderland – receiving their own television news as early as 2013. But local TV already exists – on the internet.  One of the most successful is Witney TV, funded by private individuals and staffed by volunteers in David Cameron’s constituency. Launched by local resident, Jeremy Clarkson, The Independent reported that Witney TV had 10,000 views in the first week from a population of 25,000.

The democratic and societal impact of all this should not be under-estimated. The Norfolk blogger Rick Waghorn writes eloquently about how low-cost tools can “empower and enable a new army of village and postcode ‘TV reporters for £50,000; not £50 million’. Tis the price of one starter pack. It’s cheap because I already own a mobile phone; makes me a producer of video content. Likewise I own a lap-top. Makes me a digital broadcaster“.

People Power

It doesn’t stop there.  Local people are now getting power over local spending.  Dozens of Councils are running ‘crowd sourcing’ exercises such as http://youchoose.yougov.com/redbridge in which citizens decide where budget cuts should be made, where additional income can be generated, and where efficiencies can be made.

With a funding squeeze underway for Local Authorities, charities and voluntary groups, I think we will see even greater use of digital and social media being used to mobilise citizens and deliver the Coalition Government’s Big Society.

The marketing guru Seth Godin famously wrote that “Small is the new Big”. His thesis was that that the age of mass media had passed and the future lay in empowering individuals by giving them the tools to co-create, share and form communities.  I’m not sure if he had the removal of Presidents in mind, but one thing is certain – there’s no going back.

Mark Flanagan is Portland’s Digital Partner having recently joined Portland from the Cabinet Office where he was Head of Strategic Communications.