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Community building on Facebook: The Worthing Page

By March 28, 2012 One Comment

I wrote a post last year about The Worthing Page, a Facebook fan page with a difference.

Serving the seaside town not far from Brighton, it was a departure from the average fan page for a place: it was focused – with interesting discussions about Worthing, its businesses and people – and it clearly aimed to make money.

Two weeks ago, I spoke to the its founder Ed Crouch, who has been running The Worthing Page for more than three years. In that time it has grown impressively – with more than now 10,000 people liking the page. This post is a summary of our chat – concentrating on the bits that I thought were most interesting…

The Worthing Page picture

How it started

Ed explained to me that he had first conceived of it as a way of connecting people in his home town. “It’s very much humble beginnings,” he told me. “I started it in my car. I actually set the page up on my iPhone..”

Ed had briefly tried to set up a forum, away from Facebook, but that didn’t work. “[There was] nothing on it and it sort of died. I think I invited about 100 people [to the Facebook page] that I knew in Worthing and it grew organically. There was no advertising and I was surprised by how it took off because it was going up by between 50 and 100 people a day for the first week or so. It was crazy.” Since then he says it has grown by around 3,500 people a year.

How it makes money

As I mentioned in my previous post, The Worthing Page has some business-savvy behind it and I was keen to find out about how he Ed intends to make money. Facebook is a proprietary social network – and you can’t sell advertising space there without breaking its usage terms.

Ed explained that he keeps within the rules by by inviting businesses to become sponsors of the Worthing Page. In turn, these sponsors get their links re-posted to the page as part of the services he offers, via Sunflower Social Media , the marketing agency he’s set up to run the page. It’s a model he said he thinks could work elsewhere.

“The possibilities – and it is a bit cheesy – really are endless… It’s a case of getting teams of people who have good business links and community links in other areas to role out a similar idea.”

Ed says that sponsorship feels a more ‘palatable’ form of relationship with local businesses – and it would seem that it’s a fruitful one, too. Ed is offering other social media services, including audits and advice. He said the page is now a viable business and – thanks to a partnership with a local radio station – has promotional muscle to add to its word-of-mouth success.

Worthing Page Splash FM

The trouble with Facebook

Choosing to use Facebook to build a community online has its ups and its downs, though. As well as the care needed not to break Facebook rules, those regulations make it hard for him to appoint additional admins without risking losing control of pages. Furthermore, Facebook is a distant presence – despite several attempts at contact with the firm, Ed said he’s only received one email, in which Facebook thanked him for his correspondence and told him, politely, that they would be unable to respond.

The great things about Facebook

Nonetheless, for Ed the positives outweigh the negatives. He said: “Every second person that you bump into is on [Facebook] and my experience with The Worthing Page, which was first on an old-fashioned bulletin board website, proved that if you want something to grow and if you want to have that reach it’s got to be in a place that people don’t have to remember to go on.

“There have been a number of other websites which I have seen that have been probably better. They have probably been better looking than The Worthing Page – and maybe had more money invested to make them to look pretty, but you have got to remember to go on ‘www.separate-website.com’. People are not going to see it as part of that drip feed that Facebook gives you.”

Connections, not content

News comes to the Worthing Page

Ed said Facebook is more ‘two way’ than other platforms he could use. In other words: the social network allows conversations, something Ed holds dear. When I asked him whether he considered what he was doing to be journalism (a preoccupation of mine having worked in the trade) his response was clear cut. On the two occasions when he “dabbled in journalism” the results “met with noisy disapproval”. He said: “I wouldn’t say it’s journalistic. It’s about connecting people. The way to do that is slightly more relevant: It’s about encouraging people to make their own news.”

The council

The success of The Worthing Page has not gone unnoticed by the local councils, Worthing Borough and Adur District. Ed said he believed there was a possibility the page’s success had helped encourage the council to use social media more actively – and he can see how the page might benefit the authorities. “Half the time people’s dissatisfaction is borne out of misinformation, especially in things like parking, which comes up a lot. A lot of [the criticism] gets directed at the [district council]… [Then] you have the opportunity to say ‘actually, it’s dealt with by the county council and it’s not something the [district council] can help you with’ – I like putting the story straight, which I think is something The Worthing Page has the power to do.”

A few things to take away…

Before coming to Public-i, I completed an MA in Online Journalism and as part of my research, interviewed several people running hyperlocal websites. In some ways, their aims weren’t that different to Ed’s but I thought it worth ruminating on a few things that – perhaps as a result of my background in journalism – really stand out about The Worthing Page.

  • Connections and conversations, not content: Ed’s assertion that what he’s doing isn’t journalism emphasises the value of connections over content. It reverses the popular refrain that content is king. For Ed conversations are king and content is just a starting point.
  • Good community management is good for councils: If Ed has a good relationship with the council, his work can benefit local understanding of the council and other organisations, because he’s uniquely placed to inform debate correctly.
  • You can’t ignore Facebook: Ed pointed out to me that Facebook is just too big to ignore. With 30 million accounts in the UK, you have to be there to be seen.
  • But Facebook is its own territory: As Ed’s experience shows, Facebook has its own priorities and if you want to benefit from the audience it has, you have to be creative to stay within the rules. That might seem like more trouble than its worth, but I refer you to the ‘30 million’ figure above!
  • Engagement is about talking, not about being flash: What I really like about The Worthing Page is that it understands that what really counts is getting a community of people interested in the same things, rather than worrying about how it looks or even why it works!

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