The majority of people still get their local news from the local paper. But papers are much less influential than they used to be, and the number of people who read them is falling every year.Over the past twenty years, local newspapers have changed beyond all recognition – they have fewer staff covering a bigger area. So they have a hard time getting to know people and issues, and have to knock out articles quickly. That’s why they love the press release – it takes the work out of it for them.But we’ve all seen how it turns out: the journalist will often take your press release, find one person who can offer a contrary option, and present that as the debate. In reality, there are usually more than to sides to every story, and sometimes there really is just one.At the same time, more and more of us are getting our information online, through a local newspaper site, Facebook, online forums, blogs, and so on.So engaging online helps you to reach out to the community, and to give you a means by which you can put your side of the story directly to people. It also provides a way by which you can reach out to people who can’t come along to meetings.
When thinking about getting started, the first thing to do is work out where the people in your community are talking online. By choosing the media and online spaces where people are, you can quickly connect with your community.Some examples are: blogs, community noticeboards, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.If you’re thinking about diving in, you’d really benefit from spending a couple of hours finding out where your community is talking first. Ask friends and constituents what websites and channels they use to find out about the local area.Some local political parties even make this part of their VoterID process.
Blogs have been around for about 10 years. The word stands for ’web log’ and they’re effectively online diaries. Anyone can set one up, that’s the easy part. Thinking of something interesting to say each time you blog is the tricky bit.The quickest and easiest way to get started is to use one of sites that offers free blogging. A couple of the more popular are Wordpress, and Blogger. Both of these will offer you a free blog site with its own address.Before we get to the mechanics, you need to think about why you want a blog in the first place and how often you’re going to be able to put an entry up.No one will expect you to put something up every day, but if you’re going to blog you need to commit to doing it regularly – say, weekly.It’s often a good idea to practice first, by setting your posts to private while you get a feel for whether this is something you have the commitment to do.
80% of people who are online in the UK use Facebook. Worldwide, it’s an internet in its own right. If you have a any kind of public profile, it’s really difficult to avoid being on Facebook, because that’s where people are and where the conversation is.Facebook is a little different from the other platforms, as it’s not so much a channel as a network. So here we need to go into more detail.Every member of Facebook has their own profile page. But there’s much more to Facebook than simply adding people as ‘friends’.Not everyone will want to be friends with their ward councillor on Facebook. This is in part because ‘friending’ is a reciprocal sharing relationship in which you give access to your information, photos, wall, and so on.Facebook is rapidly coming the most popular platform for community discussions, since the company added the Pages functionality in early 2010. You can now set up pages for a place or a cause. ‘Liking’ one of these pages is a relationship with a different power dynamic; by liking a page you don’t give the page access to any of your information besides your name.There are already a host of these set up by people across the borough, from Hatch End Scouts to this very popular ‘place page’ for Harrow, which has over 7,600 fans. By participating in these spaces you can connect with people in the community directly and respond to their questions.If you’re on Facebook already, spend a bit of time looking at what Pages already exist for your area.
Twitter gets a lot of publicity.For some, it’s an echo chamber of self-obsessed people telling others what they ate for breakfast. For others, it’s the latest innovation to break down the barriers between producers and consumers in media and enable people to broadcast news across the world.The truth is, it is both of these things, and neither. You can use Twitter to tell people what you’re doing. This has some value, as it lets constituents who follow you know what you’re doing.But for me the real value of Twitter is as a means of listening. By following people in your area, you can quickly get a feel for the issues people in the area are talking about.Twitter is also a great way of keeping up with the news. By following feeds like the Guardian, Sky News and your local paper, you can briefly scan the headlines and click through to stories that interest you. To get the most out of Twitter you ideally need a smartphone, as its real value is being able to fit communicating in between other things – on the bus, waiting for a meeting – as it’s always in your pocket.If you’re on Twitter, there are a host of other linked services you can add to it. Examples include:TwitPic and other services which allow you to upload a photo and share it via TwitterFourSquare, which enables you to say where you are. You could, for example, use this to show how often you get out and about meeting the community.Vimeo and AudioBoo are two services which allow you to quickly record audio and video on your smartphone and share it on your social networks
Forums can sometimes feel a little dated, but if you have an active one in your area then you could do no worse than to get involved.This forum here is for Stroud Green, between Finsbury Park and Crouch End. It’s really popular in the area, and a couple of the local ward councillors regularly participate in discussions.To give a recent example, someone on StroudGreen.org posted something on the message board about some racist graffiti. The local councillor spotted this, reported it to the council, and posted a message on the board to say he’s done that.This meant not only did the graffiti get cleaned up quickly, but it by the time the printed local paper came out several days later, it was a positive news story for both the council and the individual councillor.These are great for advertising events and surgeries, finding out about issues of local interest, and feeding back on the work that you do.
YouTube is the second most popular search engine on the internet after Google. People are actively looking for video material, and often it’s the simplest way of illustrating a problem.In this example, an Oldham councillor is effectively demonstrating the concerns he has about the placement of a school bus stop next to a busy road. It’s only a minute long, but in it he makes the point very clearly and eloquently as traffic whizzes dangerously by.If you have a smartphone, uploading a video to YouTube (or other sites like Vimeo) is quick, simple, and pretty much free.YouTube has a lot of advantages. It’s free. It’s really easy to re-use. Other websites can embed the video on their sites really simply, so your video gets seen by more people. Pictures and video content are increasingly popular with journalists in traditional media, to use on their own websites.
YouTube has one significant disadvantage: the comments on the videos are amongst the most inane and frequently offensive content on the web. This was the first result that came up when I searched for Harrow, but it’s by no means untypical. My advice would be that if you’re uploading your own videos, you consider switching commenting off if starts to attract comments like this.If that’s not possible – if you’re on someone else’s YouTube channel – I’d suggest you simply don’t engage with offensive and stupid commenters. It’s a waste of your time and rarely does anyone cover themselves in glory in an encounter like this.
MySpace was big for a while, but experts agree it’s on the way out. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely dead. Younger people in particular are still more likely to use MySpace than read the local newspaper, according to research by Mintel.What you read in the papers about social media focuses almost entirely on Facebook and Twitter, because these are the platforms middle-class journalists themselves use. The actual picture of usage patterns can vary enormously.That’s why it’s important to find out where people in your own community are talking. Depending on the social profile of your ward, they may be talking in forums completely different to the ones you read about in the Guardian – particularly if you have a large minority ethnic community. In Lambeth, for example, they found a sizable proportion of the community using Orkut, the Brazilian social networking platform which is hardly known in the UK.
Different channels suit different people, and you’ll need to find the ones which work for you and for your community.If you’re looking at how you can engage with your own community online, some things to bear in mind are:What time do you have? How comfortable are you writing? What technology do you have? (PC, smartphone, iPad) What are the people you want to talk to using?Never get someone else to write your blog or social media contributions for you. People expect to hear your voice. They don’t expect it to be perfectly written, but they do expect it to be you.
Google is everyone’s homepage.Think about how you use the internet yourself, or how people you know do. Increasingly, we just visit a search engine and expect to be taken to exactly what we need without having to visit an organisation’s home page.Search engines also frame how we see the world - often our first view of a place, person or issue is what we see when we Google it.What do you find when you Google your ward? Town Centre? Yourself?Often, it isn’t good. But the good news is that usually you can do something about this; blogs are very search engine friendly, and the more you participate in online spaces and link to others, the better your Google ranking will be.
The order in which results appear in search engines is determined by an algorithm which looks at the content of the page, where they are on the page, what pages are linked to, and what other sites it’s linked from.A few years back, marketing people cottoned on to the realisation they can strongly influence search engine rankings by changing their content of their pages.You can do this too. It’s surprising how easy it is to change the results which appear when you Google someone. The more you produce yourself, and the more you link to this from elsewhere, the more likely it will appear towards the top of results. When you visit a local resident’s blog, leave a comment and link back to your own site or Twitter feed, you’re contributing to an improved social search profile.This diagram here is what Search Enging Optimisation experts call the ‘wheel and spoke model’, using simple social media tools like Twitter and Facebook – where you simply leave comments – in order to promote your ‘official’ presence and site.
In most communities there’s a small number of people who make a lot of noise. The same is true online.Spend some time researching who the important people in your online space are. Identify and – where appropriate – befriend your key local influencers. Follow them on Twitter, link to their blogs, leave comments and link back to your own site to encourage them to do the same.Link to them – people like link-love and will often return the favour.Be sure to visit their blogs and sites regularly to get a feel for what’s being said.
Social media is, by nature, two-way.Don’t use it to talk at people, but with them. Make sure people know you are listening to what they are saying as well as speaking. Used well, social media is a quick, cheap and easy way to understand what’s bothering people in your area, and to reach out beyond those who come along to meetings.
Cultivating your online community How to make your voice heard