Giles Gibson explains how Folk Labs’ recent upgrade to the Herne Hill Forum’s community website has benefitted the Forum’s work and the whole area a great deal.

The upgrade of the Herne Hill Neighbourhood Forum website back in May 2015 has had enormous benefits for both our Neighbourhood Forum itself as well as the whole of the ward.

It allowed us to share the management of the platform and to make it easier to deliver on our aim of being a crowd-sourced content web site. The ability to link to other key social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter has also proven very useful.

Important benefits of running a community website

We are now the go-to site for information in our area with both news articles and details for local services and traders. We have well over 200 services listed in our database; all self-maintained by the owners. Our Google ranking has remained constantly high (second or third). That delivers great benefit to any traders or organisations who promote themselves on the site. Small traders have boosted their own sites’ Google rankings, allowing them to become more easily discovered.

We use our site as the place to feature important local content, aiming to draw our readers back to our own site wherever possible. Allied to the site is our opt-in mailing list – now over 6,500 strong to whom we send a regular newsletter (‘regular’ as in whenever we get round to it) where we raise issues, promote local traders and events and pull traffic back to the main site.

We use Mailchimp to deliver and manage newsletters so we can monitor responses, click-throughs and number of opens. By monitoring individual topic responses we can get a good idea of what people want to know about.

Our Twitter accounts (totalling about 10,000 followers) are also used to drive interest back to our own site. We use them to prompt interest, a quick mention or raise an issue. The web site has about 83,000 unique users and gets some 700,000 page views a year.

Integrating online with offline

We have found that offline activity prompts further activity online and vice-versa: online activity can subsequently prompt offline activity. The two types of activities can be linked for greater effect. Recently we had a local issue of some local traders rents being increased by some 70% and the resulting closing of some shops. We used the site to publicise the problem with a news article about the general situation. Twitter was then used to promote the article along with mentions in the Newsletter. The Twitter side got retweeted to such an extent that our reach was well over a million people, from the one initial tweet, all within a week. Our article got picked up by many other blogs and related articles were written by others on their blogs and websites (Brixton Blog, Londonist, Evening Standard online, Dulwich Wanderer and many others).

The online media then got picked up by the print press (South London Press, Evening Standard, Time Out, Southwark News, Brixton Bugle) and other media. We harnessed this to trigger a demonstration that attracted over 600 people. It made the lead news item on the Saturday evening 6.00 ITV News. It’s an excellent example of having a strong social media presence that can be based around an OpenLocal web site, that triggers extensive off-line activity and community action that in turn generates more on-line coverage.

Online should not and never will replace off-line but, by leveraging the benefits of having a strong site, we’re now able to reach a far greater range and diversity of people who are connected to an even greater range of others in their local communities. It amplifies what people are doing very effectively and has been a game-changer for our effectiveness.