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Is Facebook a Community Engagement Tool

Is Facebook a Community Engagement Tool?

I spent most of yesterday pondering the use various social networking sites as tools to support a community engagement process and thought a few of the findings might be of interest to the broader world. I’ll limit this post to thoughts on Facebook and more specifically Facebook in Australia.

First up, Facebook is HUGE in Australia. Right now there are over 6 million accounts with Australia tagged as the home country of the account holder. That’s around 28% of the population! Now, I don’t believe for a second that 6 million Australia’s have a Facebook account. It is not uncommon, despite Facebook’s best efforts, for one person to have several accounts. Even taking that into account, it is clear that there are nevertheless a LOT of people with accounts. It follows that, like any other media platform, it might be a pretty good place to head if you want to let people know about the opportunity to get people involved in a community engagement process.

One of the key recommendations of the “Leveraging Web 2.0 in Government” report I posted here some time ago was to “meet citizens where they are online.” On the face of it, Facebook would seem like a pretty good place to meet those citizens. But is it?

I can think of four ways to potentially use Facebook as an engagement platform

Establish a Project or Organisation “Page” – A “Page” in this context is just the same as a personal profile. It is a useful way to build a Facebook community around your project or organisation and to keep your community informed about the latest developments. Facebook users can choose to become “Fans” (as opposed to “Friends”). We have a Facebook page here. We paste all of our blog posts onto it as another way to keep folks up to speed about what we are up to. It seems to work, we have more Fans on Facebook than Followers on the Blog! This model would be easy to replicate for project updates or organisational news stories published using a blogging platform.

Establish a Project or Organisation “Group” – A “Group” is, as the name suggests, a place for people with similar interests to gather. Groups can be open for general access, or by invitation only. They can relate to very short lived and banal issues (e.g. the granny nap group) with very little or no affiliation between the members other than the desire to join another silly group, all the way up to professional associations – e.g. I am a member of the Facebook IAP2 group. When the groups have a serious intent, they are generally used by members of the community as a rallying point around an issue of some importance – whether ephemeral or longer lasting.

At first glance, Groups might seem like a pretty good idea for a forum about an issue you want to engage the community about. I’m not at all sure that they are. Facebook was built as a play area for Friends to keep in touch. It was not built as a Community Engagement platform. It therefore has severe limitations when it comes to meeting the administrative and organisational needs of a public sector organisation. The information is “lost” in Facebook. There is no capacity to capture, manipulate, interpret and report on the data. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend using Facebook as a discussion platform for public policy, and I wouldn’t recommend using Facebook Groups.

Post links to Existing Groups – There are lots and lots of groups on Facebook. Some of those groups may well relate to your project, whether geographically, by issue, or, if you are really lucky, both. If you are running a project in your area, it worth doing a keyword search on Facebook for your suburb or town. If you are in a metropolitan area chances are pretty high that at least one group will pop up, and maybe a whole list. Scour the list, pick out the most likely looking groups, and direct email the administrator with a request to post a link to your website. DO NOT post a link to the group yourself. This is considered to be SPAMMING in the world of Facebook, and can really get up people’s noses.

Paid Advertising – Facebook makes money from all of the ads on the right hand side of the page. We have been experimenting with using these ads recently to let the Facebook community know about a couple of consultations by our clients. We are running an online consultation right now for Moreland City Council in Melbourne for a major urban renewal project, The Coburg Initiative. This is the ad…

To get to the crux of this post, I was exploring how useful Facebook Ads would be for the type of consultations our clients are typically undertaking; i.e. generally very geographically restricted, often in rural and regional areas or metropolitan suburbs.

The answer is that it very much depends on how mature the local Facebook community is. The table below contains some sample stats for Australia of Facebook community size by place. Note that the “Approximate Population” column is my best guess at a useful comparator using the ABS Census data for statistical regions of various scales – it therefore varies a little from place to place.

I’ve done searches using the “city” search function, the “key word” search function and a boolean search using a combination of the two. Keywords are based on information users list in their Facebook profiles, such as Activities, Favourite Books, TV Programmes, Films etc.

It seems pretty clear from the (unfortunately fuzzy) table above that Facebook users are concentrated in the cities. It’s also clear that the Brisbane community are way ahead of the game, while Darwin and Hobart are lagging behind.

There are a few major problems with the data that are worth mentioning. First up, Facebook users fill in the “Information” section of the site at their discretion. The folks at Facebook use both IP address and a user’s profile information to determine a user’s location. This is pretty rough and ready and throws up some strange results. For example, a person living anywhere near Sydney might choose to name Sydney as their “city” or, if they live on the margins of the city they might be more specific and name the town. – If I search for Bowral in the NSW southern highlands I get 10,460 people, whereas if I search for Moss Vale, which is just down the road and much the same size, I don’t get a single hit! It’s difficult to know the exact impact of Facebook’s method, but I suspect it stacks the numbers in the major capital cities and under-records numbers in the regions.

It is also notable that a lot of places simply don’t register on the Facebook map as either “City” locations or key words. You might be lucky enough to find a Facebook group about your suburb or place, but this is relatively rare. I was fortunate to find “Coburg” as a keyword because there are a number of Coburg groups, but couldn’t locate nearby suburbs Brunswick, Carlton or Fitzroy as keywords. So while we have been able to target ads to people we know with a high degree of confidence are interested in Coburg, we wouldn’t be able to run similar ads for a project in the next suburb. This pattern is repeated in each of the capital cities. I was surprised to find that Chatswood in Sydney doesn’t get a mention; and Parramatta is only mentioned in the context of the Eels football club.

So what does all this mean. It means, that just like any other form of media advertising, you need to do your research before thinking about using Facebook (or any other social networking site) to promote your consultation opportunity. If not, you may be lucky and hit the spot, or you may waste your time, money and energy!

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for this article, it clarifies for me some of the things I have been discussing internally in my company.

    In the late 90's we built a free-to-use community platform called This was sold at the height of the dot com bubble to FreeServe a UK ISP. (In the same year Yahoo purchased with 13 million users to create Yahoo Groups).

    Following the handover of the service with over 2 million users we decided to look again at how online groups could provide a more purposeful platform and focussed on the public sector stakeholder engagement market.

    8 years on, we have learnt a lot by working closely with our clients. The first design change was to move away from the mass market one-size-fits-all type application. What we came up with was an environment that easy to purpose by end-users for a variety of applications (see web site) to support both consultations and collaborative working. The other change is that to promote trust and ownership the software had to be branded to fit seamlessley with a client web site. In some areas, such as legal aid consultations, this had to be run under SSL as users were concerned who might access their responses.

    Most of our client project will use a mix of engagement techniques to inform, consult and collaborate with their stakeholders. This ladder of participation has now been formally adopted as part of UK Local Authority regulation under a 'duty to involve'.

    With the hype around Web 2.0 our clients are now looking at how to use facebook etc to promote their consultations and in particular access the youth sector.

    As you identified in your article, the real issue is that there is no point in creating a channel for seeking large amounts of feedback if you have no way of processing and reporting on the comments you receive. In this age of instant communications you will need to report back quickly on how stakeholder views have been used to change policies and services.

    In support of this we had to introduce 'back-office' qualitative and quantitative data analysis tools to our Inclusionware platform to help clients process and report on comments, discussions and survey responses.

    We, like you, see the importance of facebook in a communications strategy and will continue to investigate ways to embrace and leverage it. But as you identified, its primary purpose is social networking.

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