How to set up a community website: are these the right conversations starters?

I’m currently working for an enlightened public sector client in London who wants to help local people use social technology to help maintain and extend improvements to their neighbourhood made in recent years. That could involve building on existing networks, promoting local activities and organisations, supporting collaborations … even pushing for more localised services.

Not surprisingly one of the ideas is for a community web site, supported by social/community reporters. It’s just the sort of thing that Will Perrin is promoting through Talk About Local – to be based in Birmingham – and Gary Copitch through People Voice’s Media, currently in the North West.

As a first step I said I would provide a list of key points for officers to discuss with potential community website developers and reporters. I wanted something that would cover the ground, but not be too off-putting. We could add in more detail once we saw where the main issues would be. This isn’t a “how to” guide for community activists … or (I hope) an over-cautious approach for a local council. It’s a set of conversation-starters.
One of the main points I’ll be emphasising once we get started, is that in the online world people are prepared to share their experience. So – what do you think? Is this a good enough start?

1  Find a mentor who can introduce you to the online world.

Ideally you need someone who is an all-rounder, not just a techie. Once you get started, you can get lots of help online through different blogs and forums – but it helps to have someone show the possibilities and provide encouragement.

2  Join in by listening to online discussion, bookmarking and commenting.

A community website is not just a publishing channel … it is a place for conversations, and a way of connecting with many other conversations online. It may turn out to be as much about hosting a party as producing a newsletter. A lot of the skills and tools are social .. finding other people, bookmarking good sites, responding by email, text, Twitter, using photo and video sites … and just talking to people. The only way to learn is by joining in.

3 Look for examples of community sites.
Connect with the people who run these and other nonprofit sites. For example:

There’s lots of opportunities to meet social tech people in London, at events like Net Tuesday. RSA is planning a community web site event in July.

4 Choose the most relevant free system, set up a dummy site and experiment.
For example wordpress.com for a blog-based site, or Ning.com for an online community. You can afford to play around and then just delete the site. With WordPress, it is easy to move content to another.

5 Reflect on who the site is for, and who will help you develop it.
How will you involve them?
Are you aiming to serve particular groups, or the whole community including businesses and organisations?  Do you hope that a small group or a wide range of people will contribute? Usually only a small percentage of people will connect actively with you online at the start … it’s best to meet people face to face to build relationships.

6 Find one or more techies to provide you with support.
Although the basics of running a blog, for example, are not difficult, there will be technical problems and new things you’ll want to do.

7 Develop a plan to bring together people, content, technology.
Are you going to grow the site slowly … or could you have an event when anyone interested can come together and write, video, photograph and get to know each other? It could be a bit of both … some experimenting, leading to up to an event.
As well as the content, and the technology, you’ll need to think about the different parts people will play, and how you will sustain the action.
Be clear from the start about where control lies. Who “owns” the site … who could shut it down if something goes wrong?

8. Recruit and train some reporters.
The rule of thumb is that among 100 people perhaps one will contribute content, and 10 may comment. Unless you have a core group, your site will be dead. However, welcome and support all comers or you will not be part of the local community.

9. Set out what it is acceptable to do on the site, and the procedures to follow through on those rules.
If you set out acceptable use policy from the start, it will help avoid arguments later.

10. Make it fun: somewhere to meet new people and learn new things.

Of course, the real experts are people like Will Perrin, Nicky Getgood, Hugh Flouch, James Hatts who run the sites I’ve mentioned. I hope my client will make their acquaintance … and as community websites begin to spread that any significant training or consultsancy opportunities go their way (if they want them …).

I’ll check in with them and await judgement on the 10 points in some trepidation. What do think of them? Good enough for starters? Anything really wrong … anything obviously missing?

Update: the 4IP blog provides details of their investment in Talk About Local:

… over the next two years Talk About Local will instigate the creation of volunteer run community websites across England. Kicking off in the West Midlands and working in partnership with the UK Online Centres the ambition is to empower 3,000 people directly in 150 places across nine English regions with a focus on the most disadvantaged areas. Alongside that Talk About Local will create enduring community of local publishers and free online training materials to catalyse a growing network of local web publishers.

6 Comments

  • June 16, 2009 - 4:55 pm | Permalink

    My eleventh point would be “just do it”.

    There’s no reason not to; a basic community web presence can be done for next to no cost.

    You’ll probably find that if what you’re doing is really worthwhile it will soon draw a loyal and enthusiastic pool of supporters (and would-be contributors).

    Start small and experiment. Maybe by curating and aggregating existing local web content, identifying the gaps and then creating original content to meed those needs.

  • June 16, 2009 - 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks James – that chimes in with advice a few years back from the late Steve Snow, who pioneered local community networking in the US. Some things don’t change.

  • June 16, 2009 - 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Great list David.

    I guess another couple of issues worth thinking through are:

    - people should be realistic about the time commitment they can/are prepared to make and think through how they will handle that.

    - don’t assume that you’ll “build it and they will come”. How will you market the site. A great site with few members probably isn’t what folks are after. Leafleting won’t work; folks should think through a varied, most probably lo-cost/no-cost and sustained approach.

  • June 17, 2009 - 10:55 am | Permalink

    Wow, I looked at my Google Analytics this morning to find my visitor figures had gone through the roof! So thanks for the mention.

    I would seriously agree with James in that “Just Do It”. It’s what I did – I muust admit to not following to the letter these (incredibly sensible) points but Digbeth is Good has become something all the same.

    I would definately agree with the mentor – I never would have gotten far without the invaluable help and tech support from Pete Ashton and the amazingly helpful Bham blogging community.

    Which brings me to my next point – just talk to people, on and offline, who you think may be able to help in some way. No-one I’ve spoken to has been backward in coming forward with support and advice, it’s been fantastic.

    Listening carefully and joining in in relevant online discussion is very important, there’s a real little online community around DiG now through my linking, commenting, Twitter connections, etc. It means the site gets a lot more comments these days and some posts have lovely little discussions around them.

    I’d also say also possibly make a job of shining a light on the totally offline activity – covering the great events of the Irish Heritage Group has been one of the highlights of DiG for me, because I know I’m bringing interesting local content to a whole new audience who were probably not aware of their existence before.

    And lastly – don’t be afraid to be personal, be fun and be yourself! Don’t just impart information – let your personality, your preferences, your passions shine through. When I started doing that is when DiG got really interesting for me. People like and respond well to other people, not stark data.

    I’d love to talk to your client, I love talking to people who are interested in setting up these kinds of sites – it’s one of the reasons I enjoy volunteering at Nick Booth’s social media surgeries and the like. Please put them in touch! :-)

    Many thanks, Nicky.

  • June 26, 2009 - 5:57 pm | Permalink

    David, many thanks for publishing your article and making other resources known. This particular article was the informational genesis point for the community project I am undertaking for my community, here in the USA.
    Ridley Park Views. http://www.ridleyparkviews.com

    Our community digital initiative is the first hyperlocal site of its kind anywhere around us, and reaching out to other UK communities, who have had a similar initiative under way for a while, has been greatly beneficial.
    We are just beginning to build content and we have not gone public to our community yet. Depending our our author force and summer vacation schedules, we plan to assemble a bevy of articles in the next 4 to 6 weeks and go live, with local advertising by Sept.
    Thank you for illuminating the path we should follow. Howard

  • June 26, 2009 - 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Hi Howard – thanks so much for letting me know the value of the piece. This sort of feedback makes blogging worthwhile! Do keep in touch, and give us some tips back :-)

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