If there’s one thing I can tell you it’s that Facebook groups and pages in a local area are huge. Not just a bit huge. A lot huge.
For the last 12-months I’ve vanished into a worm-hole of research looking at the digital footprint of the platform in an area.
Braintree in Essex is the area I’ve been looking at. It has a population of 53,000.
Why that town in particular? A chance conversation. I was talking to someone about the quiet spread of local Facebook groups and pages and how I’d love to carry out research on how big an impact they had, what they were talking about and how much of it was actually accurate.
Look at Braintree, they said. It’s a good mix. It’s partly urban and partly rural.
So, I did.
Researching a community
In September last year I set about counting the Facebook groups and pages in Braintree. But not just the town. Also the villages. Coggeshall, Black Notley, Bocking, Witham and Great Bardfield too.
As a former journalist, it was fascinating. All human life was there. A row about a footpath ploughed up by the farmer. A debate about parking. The latest in the campaign against an incinerator. Stones painted by children left in the churchyard. A Facebook group set-up by two people banned from a pub.
Facebook is not just a global platform. It is the world’s Parish pump, too.
A Facebook community in numbers
And I counted the numbers.
Back in 2017, there were 301 groups and 279 pages in and around Braintree. All pages are open but around 60 per cent of groups are closed.
Braintree is a town of bargain hunters. There are more than 50 buy and sell groups in Braintree alone. No wonder that the small ads of newspapers have been gutted. What would have been once for sale in the back end of the local paper is now on Facebook.
There’s a village called Coggeshall. It had more than 50 groups and pages. Not bad for a community of less than 5,000.
The pub, the hairdressers, the tattoo parlour, the football team, the community, the year five and six parents all had their corner of Face book.
So, I counted the likes and memberships, too.
There were 498,447. In other words, every man, woman and child in Braintree likes nine local groups or pages.
Events are what people talk about
I tried to classify what they were talking about, too.
The most popular topic – 30 per cent – was events. A fundraising sale. A birthday party. An exhibition. Then at 17 per cent was ‘for sale’. Then at less than five per cent everything else. So, crime, health, the environment, parks and countryside were all niche topics.
But is Braintree a hotbed for fake news?
I’d persuaded Essex County Council and Braintree District Council to work with me on this research. They agreed to fact check every reference to local government over a seven day period just to see what was correct and incorrect.
The former local government comms person in me expected swathes of debate about potholes, parking, litter and libraries. The truth was more simple. Overall, 15 per cent of content was local government-related.
Just 16 per cent of council-related conversations held mistruths. So, blaming the district council for gritting the roads in cold weather when it’s actually the county was low level. But a false rumour about a mosque in a park was more serious.
Armed with this research, I’ve been training teams to look more locally when they are communicating. But its not without problems.
How you can plug into groups
If you want to communicate through a group you need to join using your own profile. Lock it down if you like, but it needs to be you. Not a specially set-up work one. That’s against Facebook’s terms and conditions. Some people aren’t happy doing that and that’s fine. A slightly less exposed way is to approach the admin by private message to see if they’d share some content for you. Content posted to the corporate page can work well.
But in training, not everyone wants to do this. That’s fine. The alternative is to spend money through Facebook advertising. But in a time of vanishing budgets that can be a tall order.
Braintree 12-months on
So 12-months on, I went back to Braintree to carry out some research to see what had changed.
The numbers have gone through the roof.
Where in September 2017 there was 579 groups and pages 12-months on this has soared to 1,037. Groups have risen in number by 14 per cent while pages have risen by a staggering 147 per cent.
Likes and memberships of Facebook groups have soared by 57 per cent to just short of 800,000. That’s membership of 14 groups and pages for everyone who lives in Braintree. That’s staggering.
And the village of Coggeshall? There were more than 60 groups and pages last year. In 2018, this was 95.
Public sector and groups
The public sector is starting to get smarter with groups and pages, too.
Across the country, Police are asking admin to post missing person appeals in local groups. Fire services are using groups where there are more women as a recruitment drive for more women. They’re also using groups to reach communities where there is a fire that needs a warning message.
How you can get to grips with groups
Run a search in Facebook for the area you live in. Go and join it. Chip in. You’ll learn something.
Drop me a line firstname.lastname@example.org.