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Community spirit

How can Big Local areas make the most of social media?

By Sonia Bussu, research and learning co-ordinator, Local Trust


‘We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us’ — M. McLuhan


We’re all using social media more and more to build professional networks, keep in touch with old friends and meet new ones, to share ideas and learn new things. Big Local areas have been quick to understand the potential of social networks to reach out to their communities and most of them already have a social media presence or are setting up their website and/ or Facebook and Twitter accounts. Here at Local Trust we felt it was important to understand how social networks are being used as part of Big Local community engagement work.

In our new report, we asked three main questions:

  • How do Big Local areas use social media? What do they tweet and post about?
  • What topics generate more interest?
  • Do Big Local areas that are very active on social networks do things differently?

So, what did we find out?

Talk to people, not at people

Big Local areas mainly use Twitter and Facebook to broadcast information about events and activities. They generally post about:

  • community activities
  • events
  • volunteering opportunities

It’s less common to see Big Local areas having conversations with followers, but doing this can help mobilise people and build an online community. When conversations happen they generate a lot of interest (i.e. more likes and comments!).

Our research found that people like debating about community issues and welcome posts about local business. These conversations go beyond just Big Local activities and they’re often more generally about community life. This type of online dialogue could prove effective as part of long-term community building efforts, which happen both online and face to face.

Don’t post more, post smarter

It’s not about doing more than we already do. We know that Big Local areas rely on volunteers and resources are already stretched. It’s more about doing things a bit differently to make the most of what social media platforms can offer.

Following the rule of thirds can help show that you are really connected to the broader issues that affect the community, rather than just pushing your own information.

Be personal and relevant

Mentioning people by name – known as tagging (using the @ symbol) – is a good way to draw people into a conversation. You can also:

  • ask a question, rather than just post a statement
  • make your language personal and relevant to the people you want to engage with
  • join a conversation.

Twitter hashtags are very useful to help you find relevant conversations and join in and can help you broaden your network. Facebook groups can be useful to help you connect with other residents online.

Connect to other Big Local areas

There are 150 Big Local areas and many are on social media. Online networking might prove a good long-term strategy to share ideas and learn from each other’s experience, or just to inspire and encourage each other. As Big Local areas are often facing similar challenges, although context might be very different, social media can offer opportunities to start creating constituencies on specific issues across different areas and regions.

Local Trust has started two Facebook groups that many Big Local areas have already joined: one for those interested in community research and a more general ‘Working on Big Local’ group.

Start where you are

All in all, social media platforms are just one of many different engagement approaches. Online channels can be an attractive low-cost option, but not everyone is online and an understanding of who is and who is not can help you to decide how many resources is worth investing in online communications and, most importantly, to ensure that no one is being left behind.

Let us know what you think of the report and share your experience of using social media for Big Local: connect with us on Facebook, follow @LocalTrust on Twitter or use hashtag #BigLocal.